Brain fog encapsulates a cluster of symptoms that impact thinking, feeling, and behavior for millions of people worldwide. Brain fog can result from different health ailments, both physical and mental, including autism, chronic inflammation, depression, allergies, anxiety, fibromyalgia, substance use, and celiac disease.1,2,4,5
What Is Brain Fog?
Brain fog, also known as mental fog, isn’t a formal condition, but rather an umbrella term for a series of symptoms. Thus, it’s defined by symptom presentation, including decreased cognitive ability, impaired concentration, inability to multitask, and long and short-term memory loss.
Evidence suggests that stress, obesity, and exposure to mold may cause brain inflammation and lead to brain fog.1,2,3,4
Additional causes include dehydration, hormonal imbalances, vitamin deficiencies, lack of sleep, and certain medications. In regard to mental health, brain fog is often reported in clients struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and neurodivergent disorders like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.
Depending on the cause, brain fog can last anywhere from a few hours to months. Typically, if it’s the result of a chronic condition or medical issue, it will last longer. If the sole cause is a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression, it may be more treatable and shorter in duration.
14 Symptoms of Brain Fog
Brain fog is an umbrella term to encompass a group of symptoms, including decreased concentration, confusion, and physical and mental fatigue. The frequency, intensity, and duration are dependent on the cause, prognosis of the cause, and the ability to engage in successful intervention.
Fourteen symptoms of brain fog include:
- Decreased concentration/easily distracted
- Trouble focusing
- Decreased thought organization
- Sluggish cognitive tempo
- Trouble with word recollection
- Memory impairment (both short and long-term)
- Decreased ability to multitask
- Trouble with decision-making
- Difficulty learning new skills
- Slowed response time
- Decrease in mental clarity and alertness
What Causes Brain Fog?
There are many potential causes of brain fog. For example, it’s been linked with depression, anxiety, autism, ADHD, celiac disease, vitamin deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, chemotherapy, substance use, diet, inflammation, chronic disease, sleep apnea, exposure to mold, lack of sleep, dehydration, and more. 1,2,3,4,5
Here are eight potential causes of brain fog:
Stress is a common denominator when examining the causes of brain fog across domains. Chronic stress, which can lead to oxidative stress (imbalance of oxidant generation and antioxidant response), causes inflammation of both the body and brain. It can also perpetuate mental health issues and facilitate chronic medical conditions.1,6
It’s typical to experience brain fog during periods of high stress because anxiety takes up mental capacity and resources. The extra energy allocated to deal with the stress results in less mental energy for the brain to utilize in its processing. Several studies that examine anxiety and cognition surmise that anxiety affects areas of function in the brain.
A 2012 study described emotion and cognition as a “competition for resources.”7,8,9
The study’s findings suggested that increased anxiety, with or without threat of physical harm, leads to decreased cognitive performance and working memory impairment.2,8
Depression causes brain fog by impacting different neurological regions including the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and basal ganglia. Disruptions to these areas result in a decreased interaction between the white matter and the gray matter of the brain.4
Additionally, depression impacts specific neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and glutamate, all of which are associated with healthy cognitive function.
4. Lack of Sleep
Brain fog also occurs due to a lack of sleep. When our brains don’t receive 7-8 hours of sleep, there are adverse results on thinking, attention, concentration, and reaction times. In fact, sleep deprivation for a period of 48 hours has the same impact on cognitive ability as a blood alcohol content of .1 (almost twice the legal limit in the U.S).12,13
Brain fog and impaired cognitive function are related to diet in two main ways: nutritional deficiencies and obesity. Evidence suggests that obesity causes inflammation in the brain, which leads to brain fog.1 Diet also affects brain function through energy consumption and production processes (i.e., individuals who are low on energy may experience brain fog.)14
Additional evidence dictates that specific nutritional deficiencies are linked to cognitive impairment.
Adequate gut health is essential to cognitive wellness as the digestive process provides essential enzymes and nutrients to neurological health.14 Prioritizing gut health and a balanced diet to facilitate optimal nutrient absorption is essential to fend off brain fog and preserve cognitive health.
6. Hormonal Conditions
Hormones are significant regulators within the endocrine system. They play a critical role in almost all essential functions including physical, emotional, and cognitive health.15 While mental ailments such as anxiety and depression appear to affect different areas of the brain, hormones interact with the entire neuronal network. Stress hormones, for example, play a key role in the cognitive processing during stressful experiences.
Hormones related to thyroid function can also lead to brain fog.5 For women, fluctuations in sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone produce cognitive changes.15 Hormonal changes can result from stress, diet, pesticides, toxins, substance abuse, medications, and medical conditions.16
Brain fog is a side effect of many medications and medical treatments. They cause brain fog by interfering with hormone and neurotransmitter function.17 Modifications to medication will often result in a decrease in brain fog symptoms.2,4,5,17
Medications that cause brain fog include:
- Sleep medications
- Pain medications
- Antidepressants, specifically SSRI medications
8. Medical Conditions
Unfortunately, brain fog may be an indicator of a more serious medical issue like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.2,4,5,10,18
More recently, many individuals are reporting brain fog after battling COVID-19. It’s important to speak with providers about differential diagnosis (clinical and anamnestic features) to determine the cause.10
Brain fog is a symptom of many medical conditions, including:1,4,5,10,18
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Certain cancers and cancer treatments
- Sleep apnea
- Thyroid Conditions
- Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
- Celiac disease
10 Ways to Get Rid of Brain Fog
Depending on the root cause of the brain fog, lifestyle or medication changes can help get rid of it. For instance, you might make dietary changes or increase the frequency and duration of your exercises.
Here are ten ways to get rid of brain fog:
- Practice self-care2,5,11
- Locate a therapist
- Increase exercise frequency and duration
- Make dietary changes14
- Increase sleep to at least 7-8 hours nightly (this can include taking naps)12,13
- Avoid substances including alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine
- Increase socialization
- Limit exposure pesticides and toxins
- Regulate hormones15,16
- Change medication2,4,5,17
When to Get Brain Fog Treatment
It is important to consider all factors of brain fog before seeking professional treatment. First and foremost, examine the exposure to severe stress in daily life and aim to eliminate or decrease causal factors. If the brain fog persists despite implementing lifestyle changes, this may be an indicator of a more serious issue.
Ultimately, treatment protocol varies depending on the cause. If brain fog is due to a medical issue, the medical practitioner may prescribe/change medications and/or perform assessments. If caused by a mental health issue, the provider may suggest additional sleep, self-care, or therapeutic intervention.1,2,3,4
Final Thoughts on Brain Fog
Brain fog is difficult to deal with; the good news is that it’s most commonly related to short periods of increased stress and can be remedied with self-care, diet, and lifestyle changes. Brain fog is typically a signal from our body that we need to slow down, get more sleep, and make lifestyle changes.