What is brain fog?

Are you familiar with the forgetfulness, confusion, low energy, difficulty concentrating and lack of focus and mental clarity that are often collectively termed brain fog?

Although brain fog is a common range of symptoms affecting many people, there is no single cause for it, making it difficult to diagnose and treat.

This journal post is a discussion of factors that contribute to brain fog and holistic ways to support healthy brain function and boost memory, cognition and mental clarity.

What causes brain fog?

Poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation due to chronic stress, excessive exposure to blue light and irregular sleep-wake cycles causes low energy and brain fog. Studies have identified that  sleep deprivation slows down the firing of neurons in the brain and disrupts their ability to communicate with one another, which can impact memory and cognition.

Inflammation is one of the root causes of brain fog. Inflammation impacts neural networks involved in mental alertness and cognition. Inflammatory molecules (e.g. cytokines) stimulate the activation of microglia in the brain, which are immune cells that further exacerbate inflammation and damage brain cells.

Poor diet & nutrient deficienciesA diet high in processed foods, refined sugar, alcohol and vegetable seed oils (e.g. canola, sunflower) is inflammatory and nutrient deplete. Since the production of  neurotransmitters/hormones responsible for mental focus, including serotonin and dopamine, is dependent on nutrients in our diet including folate, vitamin B6 and protein, a processed diet lacking in these cofactors is associated with brain fog.

Chronic stress, often brought on by job dissatisfaction, financial stress, poor relationships and chronic illness, causes a rise in cortisol levels which can reduce dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain, impacting mood, cognition, memory and mental clarity.

Holistic support for brain fog

Eat enough protein – Having a palm-sized portion of protein (e.g. 2 eggs, chicken leg, stek) with each main meal and protein-rich snacks throughout the day supplies the amino acids needed to produce brain chemicals (serotonin, dopamine etc.) that play a role in focus and mental clarity.

Eat healthy fats – including fatty fish (sardines, salmon), egg yolk, pasture-raised butter and ghee, coconut, avocados, walnuts and flaxseed. Omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA found in fatty fish are particularly important as they are anti-inflammatory and increase cell membrane fluidity of neurons in the brain, improving memory, concentration and cognitive function.

Avoid inflammatory foods – limit your intake of processed foods, refined sugar, refined grains, vegetable seed oils and alcohol. Sugar and refined grains also cause unstable blood sugar levels, which produce energy lows that affect brain function.

Opt for an anti-inflammatory diet – Increase your intake of fresh vegetables and fruit, nuts, seeds and fatty fish. Include complex carbohydrates like kumara, pumpkin, carrots and quinoa in your diet for stable release of blood sugars and to keep brain serotonin levels stable.

Adopt Sleep hygiene practices – avoiding screens before bedtime, regular sleep/wake times, making your room dark at night with blackout curtains or an eye mask and creating a relaxing bedtime routine (e.g. self-massage, diffusing lavender).

Practice stress management techniques – like meditation, yoga, time in nature, deep breathing, prayer and journaling. If you suffer from anxiety or find it difficult to cope with life’s stressors, talking to a counsellor may be helpful.

Written by Shaz Andrew, Naturopath and Holistic Nutritionist