We’ve all felt it: That moment when you’re spaced out and can’t seem to focus — when you feel like you’re thinking in slow motion, unable to keep up with the outside world. You might be forgetting the simplest of details, feeling confused, or having trouble concentrating. It’s like your thought process suddenly becomes hazy and unclear.
Enter brain fog. But what exactly is brain fog and how can you avoid it? Let’s dive into what this term means, the potential causes behind fuzzy thinking, and how to get rid of brain fog with scientifically supported research to back it up.
What Does the Term Brain Fog Really Mean?
Brain fog is not a scientific or medical term, but one used colloquially to describe a specific set of symptoms. Subjectively speaking, brain fog is a “mild cognitive impairment.” It’s characterized by “slow thinking, difficulty focusing, confusion, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, or a haziness in thought processes” (1).
Other symptoms of brain fog might include a lack of energy and irritability. The severity of each symptom can range from very mild to quite severe, impacting your ability to work or do activities, and hampering your quality of life.
While brain fog is a combination of symptoms rather than an explicit medical condition, it’s associated with various health issues and lifestyle factors, including menopause, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic stress, and poor diet, among others.
Common Causes of Brain Fog
Before we delve into how to get rid of brain fog, it’s important to know about some of the more common factors that can contribute to brain fog. Here are several medical conditions and lifestyle factors that can impact your mental clarity.
During menopause, women experience significant hormonal changes. The fluctuation of estrogen can affect your whole body, including your central nervous system and lymphatic system.
A study on cognition in perimenopause showed that women who were going through the beginning stages of menopause experienced several cognitive changes, including problems with working memory tasks, motor function, attention, and verbal learning (2).
The study revealed that these problems are often more pronounced during the first year of menopause than at the late menopausal phase.
Ever heard of “pregnancy brain”? It’s a common term used to refer to the mental fog that many pregnant women experience, including memory problems, forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating.
There’s a real reason behind this, and it lies in the hormonal imbalances women experience throughout pregnancy. Researchers found an association between hormonal changes during late pregnancy and early postpartum and cognitive function, particularly around verbal recall and processing speed (3).
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Brain fog is a hallmark symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome, which medical communities define as “greater than six months of persistent fatigue that is experienced physically and cognitively” (1).
The exact mechanisms behind brain fog in CFS are unclear, but scientists speculate the cognitive impairment can stem from a variety of factors, including physiological, cognitive, and perceptual ones (1).
Cognitive impairment is a symptom of brain fog, but it could also indicate the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease. According to a study examining brain fog, inflammation, and obesity, “mild cognitive impairment is an early clinical presentation of Alzheimer’s disease” (5).
Consult your doctor to rule this out and other serious medical issues, such as multiple sclerosis, which is often associated with cognitive impairment (4).
Whether it’s a demanding job, relationship issues, health concerns, or money worries, the daily responsibilities of life can sometimes seem overwhelming. If you feel like you’re constantly on high alert, you may be experiencing chronic stress. Chronic stress is when your body continually releases stress hormones — namely, cortisol and adrenaline — for a prolonged period of time.
Often referred to as “burnout” by people, this sensation of mental fatigue and emotional exhaustion has real consequences for mental health. Studies have shown that chronic stress contributes to cognitive dysfunction (5) and can lead to depression and anxiety disorders (6).
Lack of Sleep
Trouble sleeping is not uncommon — approximately 1 in 3 Americans suffer from chronic sleep deprivation (7). A study on sleep and cognition showed that sleep deprivation could decrease cognitive function by reducing energy levels and making it difficult for neurotransmitters to function at their optimal levels.
It can also impair memory since sleep is essential for memory storage and function. If your brain doesn’t have time to process your memories and store them each night, you run a high risk of forgetting them. It’s also more challenging to learn when you’re not getting enough sleep because your attention span drops, and your short-term memory capacity declines (8).
A diet high in processed sugar and refined carbohydrates — e.g., sugary snacks, white bread, pasta, rice — will cause a significant spike in blood sugar. Brain fog has direct ties to your blood sugar levels, and it can worsen or improve as your blood sugar levels fluctuate from one extreme to the next.
Researchers have found that people with chronic blood sugar control issues are more likely to experience prolonged periods of confusion, forgetfulness, or mood swings (9). They also found that periods of brain fog declined as the participants learned to control their blood sugar levels.
How to Get Rid of Brain Fog
Now that you know about some of the potential causes of brain fog, you can focus on the solutions. While mental fogginess can significantly impact your quality of life, the good news is that lifestyle changes can often alleviate symptoms. Here are some brain fog treatments and techniques that can help.
Get Physical to Manage Stress
We know that chronic stress can both contribute to the onset of brain fog and exacerbate existing mental fogginess. (Not to mention the other ill effects stress has on your health.) Keep brain fog at bay by keeping your stress levels low with some physical activity.
That doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym every day, lift weights, or jog for miles. The key is to get your body moving regularly to relieve stress. Maybe that means meditation, yoga, dance lessons, or a cardio class. Going out for a walk and spending time in nature can also be incredibly therapeutic and reduce stress levels (10).
Get a Good Night’s Sleep (But Not Too Much)
If you’re having trouble sleeping, try simple sleep hacks like avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed and making your bedroom as dark as possible. Light can reduce your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleep. Keeping your room dark helps to signal your body that it’s time for sleep. (Sleep masks also work great, if necessary).
Focus on a High-Quality Diet
A poor diet can make you feel confused, forgetful, and moody. Eating nourishing foods has a positive effect on your body, and can alleviate brain fog. Researchers found that “low glycemic index foods seem to improve attention, memory, and functional capacity, while those rich in simple sugars are associated with difficulty in concentration and attention” (13).
To promote mental clarity, reduce your intake of saturated fats and refined sugars while boosting your consumption of fruits and veggies. Consult your healthcare provider or nutritionist to create a diet plan that’s right for you. It’s also worth noting that food allergies might also be a culprit of brain fog, so talking to your physician to do some testing and determine a course of action will help.
When it comes to keeping a clear mind, staying hydrated is just as important as following a healthy, nutrient-rich diet. After all, 75% of your brain is water. When you’re hydrated, you can process information faster and stay concentrated on tasks easier. Water also helps rid your brain of harmful toxins and deliver helpful nutrients. When it can do this effectively, you feel more alert (14).
According to researchers, certain vitamins can improve intellectual performance and fight against oxidative stress, including vitamins B1, B6, B12, B9, and D, as well as choline, iron, selenium, zinc, lutein, zeaxanthin, and iodine (13). When it comes to vitamin B-12 specifically, it’s clear that inadequate amounts can lead to brain fog — and approximately 1 in 10 people are deficient in it (15).
Vitamin B-12 comes from animal products like organ meats, beef, and tuna, so if you're vegetarian or vegan, consider taking a high-quality supplement to avoid deficiency. The state of your gut can also impact your mental health and clarity. Recent research shows a connection between probiotic supplementation and improved cognitive function as well as reduced anxiety-like behaviors (16).
What’s more, since prebiotics stimulate probiotic growth and the beneficial effects of probiotics, researchers contend that pairing both probiotics and prebiotics is a “possible treatment for cognitive impairment” (17). Just remember that not all supplements are created equal. Talk to your doctor and look for a high-quality prebiotic and probiotic supplement.
Brain Fog Treatment: Getting Started
Brain fog makes it difficult to think, focus, concentrate, and remember. It can make you feel like you’re stuck in a haze — hence the name brain fog. Many medical conditions and lifestyle factors can contribute to brain fog, including menopause, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic stress, lack of sleep (or too much sleep), and a diet high in refined carbs and processed sugars.
The good news is that brain fog treatment often requires no more than a few lifestyle changes that are attainable. Managing stress, getting the right amount of sleep, eating well, staying hydrated, and getting enough vitamin B-12 can help alleviate your mental fuzziness.
When you’re struggling with how to get rid of brain fog, work with your physician to create a plan that works best for you. For more ways to boost your overall health and well-being, be sure to sign up for our email list to receive exclusive health tips.