By Randi Mann WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP
Brain fog is one of the more common symptoms we see in practice, as well as being one of the most elusive and hard to pin down. A sudden onset of poor concentration, mental fatigue, inability to focus, confusion, and memory issues make even the simplest tasks seem overwhelming and can negatively affect all aspects of life. Let’s take a look at the various causes of brain fog, and what you can do to clear things up.
What Causes Brain Fog?
It may surprise you to read that brain fog is a well-documented symptom of a number of chronic conditions. It is particularly prevalent in diseases involving inflammation, fatigue, and blood sugar imbalance such as diabetes, depression, and autoimmune diseases, as well as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME), and Fibromyalgia.
Research into the factors that contribute to brain fog identify the following triggers:
Brain fog is perhaps most commonly reported by women going through hormonal changes, such as in pregnancy and perimenopause. Why is that? The brain is sensitive to the fluctuations of estrogen and progesterone that occur during both of these life events, contributing to ‘mommy brain’ and the memory issues that are often attributed to menopause.
Menopause-Related Cognitive Impairment
Perimenopausal women report that brain fog significantly impacts their quality of life, overall health, and productivity. The Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) has observed over 3,300 women throughout the menopausal transition, measuring cognitive abilities before, during, and after menopause.
The good news is that while the results showed that cognitive performance was impaired during the transition to menopause (aka perimenopause), it did go back up to pre-perimenopause levels once menopause had been reached.
Stress and Anxiety
When faced with chronic stress and anxiety, our fight or flight response gets stuck in overdrive. This means our adrenal glands, designed to pump out stress hormones in short bursts, end up releasing continued high levels of cortisol and adrenaline which can contribute to cloudy thinking.
During the stress response, the part of your brain that thinks deeply and stores memories is put on the back burner while the part that allows you to respond immediately to protect you from danger is prioritized. This works well in a real emergency, but not so well when you need to dig into that work report or solve a complex problem.
Candida albicans is a yeast naturally present in our bodies, which when unbalanced is the biggest cause of human fungal infections in the world. Under the right conditions, candida populations can quickly overgrow, displacing good microbes and colonizing the gut, urinary tract, genitals, mouth, and skin.
Brain fog is a classic sign of Candida overgrowth. A ground-breaking 2019 study showed that Candida can actually enter the brain and cause neuroinflammation, contributing to brain fog. When the Candida infection was cleared out, memory improved.
If you can’t think clearly after eating certain foods, you may have a food sensitivity. Brain fog is a hallmark symptom. Food sensitivities are very individual, but common offenders include dairy, wheat, nuts, and food additives like red food coloring, MSG, and aspartame.
Celiac Disease sufferers commonly report attention difficulties and unclear thinking. In a 2014 study, 11 Celiac Disease patients were given a gluten-free diet for a year. As their intestinal lining healed, their cognitive measurements improved.
Research has linked low levels of iron, vitamin D and folate (vitamin B9) with brain fog. B12 is the best-known deficiency associated with foggy thinking and memory issues. Studies have demonstrated that B12 supplementation can improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s and as well as minor cognitive impairments.
One study involving over 2,500 participants demonstrated that supplementation with vitamin B12 improved cognitive performance, especially when combined with vitamins B6 and B9 (folate).
Chronic infections such as Hepatitis C, Epstein Barr Virus and HPV have all been connected to the symptom of brain fog. If your immune system isn’t functioning optimally, these infections can infiltrate your cells. Chronic Hepatitis C sufferers report that frequent problems with focus and memory recall significantly interfere with their ability to perform daily activities. And these symptoms often stick around long after the initial infection is gone.
Many patients receiving chemotherapy for breast or prostate cancer experience a degree of cognitive dysfunction affecting their working memory, concentration, information processing speed, reaction time, visuospatial ability, and executive function. Often Labelled as “chemo brain”, these symptoms typically persist for approximately 6 months after the end of treatment.
How to Banish Brain Fog
1 – Drink Plenty of Water
Even mild dehydration can make it hard to concentrate. Space out the recommended 8 glasses per day and sip slowly. This will allow your body to properly absorb and use the water.
2 – Keep a Food Journal to Identify Food Sensitivities
Try keeping a food journal for a month, noting what you eat and when you feel cloudy thinking coming on. Chances are that you will find a pattern that points to the culprit foods. The ultimate test? Eliminate those foods entirely for 2 weeks and see if your thinking comes into focus.
3 – Eat Good Protein, Fat and Sugar
Your brain needs high-quality protein, fat and sugar to function at its best.
Eat less sugar and processed foods to avoid feeding Candida. Did you hear that Ireland recently declared that Subway bread could not legally be called ‘bread’ because of its high sugar content? Sugar lurks where you least suspect it – read food labels or ask for ingredient lists.
Fresh fruit is your best sugar source. Include antioxidant-rich fruits like blueberries, strawberries, goji berries, and raspberries and your brain will thank you!
Get both with fat and protein with cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and herring. Healthy fat sources include virgin olive oil, walnuts, avocado, and coconut oil.
4 – Improve Sleep Quality and Quantity
Weekend sleep catch up doesn’t work. Implement a predictable nighttime routine so your body knows when to get into sleep mode. Make sure your bedroom is completely dark, which ramps up melatonin (the ‘sleep hormone’) production to bring on sleepiness.
5 – Reduce Stress by Focussing on the Now
Anxiety and stress often involve constant worry. Listen to your thoughts – what are you worrying about? Are you caught in a thought loop about a past conversation or a worry about the future?
As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says: “The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.” Next time you catch yourself ruminating, do something physical that will bring your focus back to the present moment. Go for a walk, take a bath – anything that connects you with the here and now.
With so many potential causes of brain fog, where do you start? Let’s get to the root of what’s really going on. We can do testing for food sensitivities, Candida, and nutritional deficiencies. We can check your hormone status. Let’s work together on a solid treatment plan involving brain-nourishing nutrients, foods, and lifestyle changes. Isn’t it time to clear the fog and get back to a life lived with clarity, vision, and joy?
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Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, NCMP, APNP, is a woman’s hormone expert and the owner of Wise Woman Wellness LLC, an innovative wellness and hormone care center at 1480 Swan Road, De Pere. Mann is the author of the eBook: A Guide to Gluten and Going Gluten Free. She is a board certified Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner and NAMS Certified Menopause Practitioner, one of a handful in Wisconsin and less than 1600 worldwide to achieve this distinction. She combines the best of conventional, functional and integrative medicine to help women with female, thyroid and adrenal hormone issues to live healthier, more abundant, joy-filled lives using a blend of compassion, cutting edge science, practical guidance and humor. Contact her at 920-339-5252 or via the Internet at www.wisewomanwellness.com. Join the introductory virtual seminar, “End Hormone Havoc – Crazy Hormones Cause Fatigue, Weight Gain and Brain Fog and How to Fix Them!”, offered monthly, to learn about specialized thyroid, adrenal and female hormone testing and customized, bioidentical hormone treatments to achieve lifelong optimal hormone balance, increased vitality and longevity.