Have you ever struggled with mental performance at work?
Have you ever felt like your brain is stuck in slow motion—like a fog is settling inside your head? You don’t feel quite right at your desk, but you can’t put your finger on the reason why.
Brain fog is a clinical symptom, which is characterized by an inability to focus or think clearly, memory loss (short-term and long-term), difficulty learning new tasks, and a possible feeling of being more discouraged than normal.
If you can’t think clearly, have memory trouble or difficulty learning, you’ve got brain fog.
The tricky aspect of brain fog is that it’s a common symptom, which can arise from many different root causes.
What Causes Brain Fog
The following is a list of the most common causes. Uncovering which items may apply to you can help clear your mind and reboot your focus and concentration. Here are the major causes of brain fog.
Too Much Connectivity
Technology is incredible. It allows us to communicate at a record pace and push the limits of productivity in all domains. However, too much technology can be a big problem. Today, the average person checks Facebook at least 14 times a day, and over 50% of the human race uses more than two social-media apps daily. (1)
It’s information overload for your brain. As a result, your workday is likely to be too fragmented; the average person spends 2-3 minutes on each task, bouncing around from one task to another all day long.
The Fix: Research shows that concentrating your work into blocks of at least 10-12 minutes can dramatically increase the brain’s efficiency and reduce stress-induced fatigue. (2) Or, try a total digital detox!
Your Blood Sugars Are Out of Balance
If you eat a high-carb diet, crave sugar, or are overweight, your body’s ability to produce regular blood sugars may be compromised. The worse your blood-sugar control is, the greater the likelihood for big swings (highs and lows) throughout the day.
High or low blood sugar levels are linked to depression and brain fog.
Blood-sugar lows leave your brain sluggish and stuck in the mud. Research shows that high blood-sugar levels multiply your risk of depression by 2.5, and your cognitive decline by 7. (3,4) In fact, the reverse is also true. If you struggle with depression, it significantly increases your risk of blood-sugar dysfunction; each one makes the other worse! (5) (Experts aren’t sure if it’s the ‘chicken or the egg.’)
The Fix: Reduce your intake of starchy carbohydrates; breads, pastas, potatoes, rices. A Paleo diet is the ideal plan for a low-carb, high protein and fat diet to restore blood sugar balance. Also be sure to eliminate all added simple sugars.
You’re Going Gluten Crazy
A Paleo diet is free of all grains. Specifically, it is void of public enemy #1: gluten. Gluten is a group of proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley, which can exert detrimental effects on your gut and brain. If you regularly consume too much gluten, it damages the lining of your intestinal tract, creating hyper-permeability or a leaky gut. (6)
While most doctors would agree that this damage occurs in celiac patients (i.e., people with 100% gluten intolerance), the new research shows damage actually occurs in all of us. Some can tolerate more gluten than others, but damage still occurs.
Of course, if you have a leaky gut, we now know that you are likely to also have a “leaky brain”—which negatively impacts cognitive function. If you struggle with brain fog and also have digestive problems (e.g., gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort, and constipation), fix your leaky gut to fix your brain fog.
The Fix: Eliminate all gluten from your diet for 4 weeks so you can see for yourself the impacts gluten has on your brain and cognitive function. Dairy products can also cause a similar reaction, called cross-reactivity, to gluten so you’re best to eliminate all dairy for one month as well. This will help reduce the damage to your gut wall and allow you digestive system time to heal.
Oxygen is what gives you life, and the hemoglobin protein found in your red blood cells is responsible for carrying it around your body. Hemoglobin needs iron to bind oxygen and fuel all the cells in your body (and your brain!). If you struggle with low iron, you’ll likely also struggle with brain fog.
The Fix: Great ways to start correcting low levels include following a Paleo-based diet and eating iron-rich animal proteins like red meat, wild game, and seafood. The research shows a strong association between good iron status and cognitive function, so boost your iron intake to boost your brain function. (7)
Your Body Is On Fire
The immune system’s hallmark response to an infection or injury is inflammation. Inflammation is caused by the release of cytokines and histamines (i.e., powerful pro-inflammatory weapons that your immune system uses) to kick up inflammation and try to heal your body.
If you suffer from an undiagnosed chronic infection (or you’re overweight or out of shape), your levels of systemic inflammation will be elevated. The histamine and cytokines released in this state result in brain inflammation, which may slow cognitive function and memory. (8) This “brain on fire” scenario can leave your mental function chronically stuck in neutral—and you searching for answers.
The Fix: Inflammation can arise from many root causes, but a great place to start is to correct blood sugar imbalances (i.e. adopt a low-carb Paleo diet) and any digestive problems like gas, bloating, IBS, etc. Removing dietary triggers like gluten and dairy is a great place to start.
Not Enough Quality Sleep
During deep sleep, your brain and body recover. You rebuild and restore optimal function from head to toe, so you can start fresh again the next day. The problem is that most people don’t get enough sleep. Americans average about 6.5 hours of sleep per night—a far cry from our grandparent’s generation, who usually tucked in for 8 hours per night.
Too much technology, caffeine and alcohol all contribute to a poor night’s sleep.
However, it’s not just total sleep time that impacts recovery; it’s also sleep quality. Your capacity to get into a deep, restorative sleep is impaired by things like caffeine and alcohol. They also impair growth-hormone release, which means you won’t be able to efficiently recharge your brain or body. (9)
The Fix: To improve sleep quality, make sure to disconnect from all your mobile devices at least one hour before bed and aim to get to sleep before midnight for the next four week. Remember, to boost recovery and clear brain fog, you must also skip your afternoon coffee or glass of wine in the evening for the next months to restore mental clarity and performance.
Too Much Training
Exercise is phenomenal for boosting brain function and health, but you can get too much of a good thing. If you’re a CrossFit, running, or boot-camp class addict (and you’re not periodizing or planning your training regime throughout the month), you could be overtraining. Classic symptoms of overtraining include low mood, increased muscular pain, increased likelihood to catch colds and flus, and decreased cognitive capacity. (10)
The excessive inflammatory response (discussed above) has a significant impact on both your body and brain.
The Fix: If you’ve been pushing your limits on the training front, make sure to taper off the last week of every month by reducing your training volume (i.e., how much you train) and training intensity (i.e., how hard you train) to allow your nervous system (and your brain) the chance to recover.
Menopause is officially diagnosed when you’ve gone for 12 consecutive months without menses. The most common age range of menopause in American women is 48-54, yet for some, it can start at a much earlier age. A hallmark symptom of menopause is brain fog, but for years, doctors dismissed this claim. However, new research is uncovering a strong association between menopausal transition and memory complaints. (11)
The Fix: Researchers aren’t sure why this type of brain fog occurs. (Is it genetics, lifestyle factors, or hormonal shifts?). Nevertheless, your best bet is to mitigate factors that commonly aggravate the shift into menopause like a high caffeine, sugar, alcohol intake. During menopause, your liver and digestive system clear excess estrogens, therefore limiting the burden on these organs typically helps reduce menopausal symptoms in clinical practice.
Side Effects of Drugs
People often forget to include drugs they’ve been taking for years on medical intake forms because they’ve become so second-nature to them. However, when another drug or supplement is added into the mix, interactions can take place that lead to a whole host of negative side effects, including brain fog.
The Fix: If you’re currently experiencing brain fog and have recently added any new medications or supplements, talk to your doctor about potential interactions that can impact cognitive function.
If you’ve been struggling with low energy, irritability, headaches, trouble concentrating, or poor memory, then brain fog may likely be the culprit. The root cause of brain fog is multi-factorial. However, by addressing the fundamentals of diet, exercise, and lifestyle factors (e.g., sleep quality and “screen” time), you can help clear the clouds between your ears. It will get you back to feeling focused, sharp, and creative—at work and play.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS