What is brain fog, exactly?
Delia Lewis, a marketing strategist from Manalapan Township, NJ started feeling a little foggier than usual. She’d sit down at her desk in her new home office and begin doom-scrolling instead of answering emails. Tasks she used to rip through in 10 minutes started taking an hour.
When Delia started feeling a little less sharp and a lot more distracted than usual, she chalked it up to Zoom meeting fatigue, not being able to blow off steam at the gym, and the sudden lack of socializing with friends. She figured some extra sleep, and a little time would help her adjust to our collective new normal. But when her symptoms persisted, she saw her doctor, who told her she was likely dealing with brain fog—not a technical diagnosis exactly, but a term many people use when they feel absentminded or not as sharp as they used to be or have difficulty focusing. Other symptoms include being more forgetful than usual or sluggish when you’re trying to remember things.
There are a number of reasons your mind may feel foggy. When Delia’s brain fog settled in and nothing she tried—extra sleep, meditation, even a week off from work—seemed to help, she got a little nervous: “I started wondering if I was really sick.”
The most likely causes of brain fog, it turns out, are things that many of us are dealing with right now (or will at some point), including:
The human body is amazing at adapting in the face of tension. When we perceive that we’re in danger, the brain releases a cascade of neurochemicals and hormones to help us mobilize (hello, fight-or-flight mode!). But this cocktail is only meant to pump through our bodies for a limited time, and these substances exhaust our brains when they stick around longer than they should. That’s why there’s a feedback loop built into the system, where your brain eventually gets a message that says, Let’s shut this stress hormone release down—there’s no acute threat anymore.
✔️ Not enough sleep
This is one of the biggest culprits behind brain fog simply because it makes you feel less alert. Not getting enough zzz’s also means you miss out on important brain cleansing that happens when you’re snoozing soundly.
Yes, mood swings and night sweats often show up during perimenopause, but Dr. Gayatri Devi, M.D., a clinical professor of neurology says brain fog is a major symptom that’s too often overlooked. “I’ve actually had patients misdiagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease when really it was menopause-related brain fog,” she says.
✔️ Medication side effects
A number of medications can cause brain fog, from migraine and antiseizure prescriptions to over-the-counter drugs for sleep or allergies. Add alcohol to any of these drugs—even a moderate single glass of wine per night—and you might feel even less clear.
✔️ Medical conditions
There are times when brain fog might be the result of a health issue such as a head injury, thyroid problems, or the early stages of multiple sclerosis. These cases are much more rare, but it’s important to pay attention to signs that your muddled mind might be due to something more critical.
How to treat and prevent brain fog
Take control of your stress reaction
“It’s easy to get into a mindset in which everything is negative, and it feels like there’s nothing you can do about stress,” says Jessica Caldwell, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist. “But if you really look at what’s making you feel the most anxious, you may see things you can take off your plate or different ways to cope.” Even simply acknowledging what’s stressing you out can help you refine the way you cope with the tough stuff life will inevitably throw at you. Even better, it’ll help your brain turn off that cascade of stress hormones that tires out your hippocampus.
Nail your sleep routine
“Too many of us think of our brain like a motor that can be switched on and off, but the brain is more like a plant that’s growing and changing all the time,” says Dr. Devi. “And nothing is more elegant than or as powerful as sleep to feed that plant and keep it healthy.” While a night or two of poor zzz’s won’t have a huge impact, consistent sleep trouble is worth fixing. “There are many proven ways to treat insomnia these days,” says Dr. Devi. “You can train yourself back into a good sleep routine.”
Move your body
What’s good for your heart (read: exercise!) is good for your brain. That’s because upward of 40% of blood from your heart ends up circulating to your noggin, says Dr. Devi. “It’s proof of how much energy your brain requires, and how much it relies on your heart to get that energy.” If your heart isn’t pumping blood properly, your brain won’t get the oxygen-rich blood it needs to support memory function and alertness. Plus, exercise improves your mood and reduces stress. “If you can do one thing to get multiple benefits when it comes to preventing or treating brain fog, exercise is a great choice,” says Caldwell.
Check in with your brain
Try an exercise Chapman prescribes to all her patients, which she calls “five by five”: Set an alarm to go off at five intervals throughout the day and spend five minutes stopping all brain activity (don’t even meditate!) and just being in the moment. You might close your eyes and take a rest or sit outside and look at trees. Go for a walk (without listening to a podcast!) and zone out. “Just five minutes with no major input is the best way to reset your brain,” says Chapman.
It may make you feel super productive, but multitasking actually irritates your brain, ultimately slowing it down, says Chapman. Instead of trying to juggle multiple things at once, focus on one goal at a time—and make it doable in a 30-minute chunk of time.
Overthink one thing every day
“Thinking deeply is like push-ups for your brain,” Chapman says. When you read an interesting article online, spend 15 minutes thinking about it and how you might apply it to your life. If you and your partner watch a movie, talk about its message and how it connects with your life rather than just rehashing the plot. Chapman’s research has found that when people engage in deeper levels of thinking, they increase the speed of connectivity across the brain’s central executive network, which is where decision-making, planning, goal-setting, and clear thinking happen, by 30%. “That’s like regaining almost two decades of neural function,” says Chapman.
Excite your brain
Your brain actually hates the same old thinking and ways of doing things. That means the best way to give your gray matter a shot of excitement is to innovate, says Chapman: “This prompts the brain to produce norepinephrine, a brain chemical that makes us excited to learn.” Even simple things can help. At work, try a different approach to a task you’ve done a thousand times. In your downtime, take a new route to the grocery store or listen to different music as you walk around your neighborhood.
Delia Lewis joined the quarantined masses in starting to bake banana bread when her brain fog got really bad, and she says spending time in the kitchen gave her a surprising shot of joy—and a chance to turn her brain away from the worry and stress.
“Baking has become a chance to give my brain a break,” she says. “Plus, it has the added bonus of helping me feel like I’ve accomplished something on days I don’t get enough done on the work front.” And that has helped her feel sharper all around.
Article By Meghan Rabbitt for Prevention.com
Source: What Is Brain Fog? – Brain Fog Causes, Symptoms, and Cures (prevention.com)