Distracted. Moody. Tired. Unmotivated. You can’t find the word to finish your sentence, or you forget why you went into the garage the moment the door closes behind you. You know your body woke up, but your mind feels like it’s still in bed–or slogging through mud, or stuck inside a fishbowl, or processing through beer goggles and cotton-plugged ears. Somehow, you’re just “off.”

Brain Fog. However you describe it or uniquely experience it, it is not a whole lot of fun.

Fortunately, brain “fog” is not a terminal diagnosis. It is usually possible to regain your mental clarity! As in most long-term health endeavors, the solution comes in addressing the root cause(s).

What causes Brain “Fog”?

There are three major brain hormones at work here: Cortisol, which keeps you awake and alert; serotonin, which keeps you calm and happy; and dopamine, which keeps you motivated.

1. Sleep Issues

First and foremost, if your brain feels tired, maybe it is tired. Getting enough sleep is vital for brain health. If you have trouble getting your Zzz’s despite allowing seven to nine hours for them and sleeping in a cool, dark room, you may have an underlying nervous system or endocrine imbalance. These can usually be addressed fairly easily with herbs, nutrition and minor lifestyle changes.

2. Diet and (In)Digestion

The brain requires a pretty constant flow of nourishment. A diet consisting of an abundance of fresh vegetables combined with complete proteins and healthy fats provides the brain with steady sources of amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and glucose. Diets that are too high or too low in carbohydrates can result in blood glucose fluctuations that affect the brain’s energy stores as well as affect cortisol, serotonin and dopamine, the three major brain hormone players.

A clean and balanced diet isn’t the whole nutrition picture: even a good diet can result in nutrient insufficiencies and contribute to inflammation if it is poorly digested. A healthy meal should leave you feeling light and energized, without gas, bloating, pain, reflux or heaviness. If your experience is otherwise, your digestive tract may benefit from a tune up!

Finally, overuse of sugar, alcohol and caffeine directly impact cortisol, dopamine and serotonin and can be causes of brain “fog” all on their own.

3. Hydration

A regular visitor to Sunrise Natural Medicine once remarked about drinking water, “I can think again! It’s like my brain was all dried up, and I didn’t even know it!” Remember, the magic formula for water intake is half your body weight (lbs) in ounces of water. (For example, 75 oz of water daily for a 150 lb individual.) Water is always a better choice than a sugared or caffeinated beverage, but well-prescribed herbal teas can promote mental clarity directly or help to balance underlying hormone dysfunction.

4. Hormones

Hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue are two of the biggest players when it comes to brain fog. Systemic inflammation, chronic stress, immune system dysfunction and digestive and diet insufficiencies are common causes of brain-affecting hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue.

Estrogen and progesterone can also directly trigger brain fog, as seen in pregnancy, early postpartum, and menopause. Simple blood and urine tests can indicate if hormone dysfunction is part of your foggy-headed picture.

5. Stress

Stress suppresses the rationalization, learning and memory areas of the brain while increasing overall brain activity. This leads to distractibility and impaired reasoning, which can be felt as “brain fog.” (Here is a great rundown of the ways stress affects brain function.)

Furthermore, stress increases cortisol. Although cortisol is important for helping the brain feel awake and alert, too much cortisol, or cortisol spiking at the wrong times, contributes to feeling “wired but tired,” with an overstimulated brain unable to get the rest and calm it needs.

The cycle of stress in our brain is easily activated and self-perpetuating. Therefore, it’s necessary to take conscious steps to reduce the effects of stress on the body and stop the stress cycle. Two favorite, well-proven stress management techniques are deep breathing and meditation–but it can also be relieved by regularly engaging in things you love to do. What do you love to do? Can you make a list of five things–at least two of which can be done in 5 minutes or less–and put it on your desk at work?

6. Medications

If brain fog is a new symptom for you and you are taking a prescription medication, talk to your naturopathic doctor; cognitive difficulties may be a known side effect of the medication. Sometimes this side effect is caused by a drug-induced nutrient depletion; sometimes the cause is unknown. Whatever the case, your ND can work with the rest of your health care team to help mitigate any negative effects of the medication while helping you address the root causes behind needing the medication in the first place.

7. Medical Conditions

Hypothyroidism and adrenal dysfunction were already mentioned as medical conditions that can cause brain fog. Others include anemia, Lupus, Sjogren’s, arthritis and other autoimmune conditions, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, lyme disease, diabetes and depression. Many individuals with these conditions find they can significantly improve their mental clarity by taking steps to reduce systemic inflammation and improve nutrient status.

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