What Is Brain Fog? An Osteopathic Physician Explains
As I sit here typing this, it's Friday morning, and the effects of my large double-shot coffee have already worn off. As the week has declined, so too has my mental capacity. I'm dubbing this state "Friday fog," which, as it turns out, isn't too far off. We toss around the phrase "brain fog" with the same nonchalance as "absent mindedness," but what seems like a passing 4 p.m. state is actually a real medical condition.
"Brain fog is an extremely common term used to describe changes that have occurred in brain function over a period of time," says Christopher L. Calapai, DO. "A decrease in focus, concentration, memory, alertness, and word retrieval are all part of the description of 'brain fog.' In my experience, over 30% of the patients that I see have some significant problems with focus concentration and memory."
Symptoms include headaches, forgetfulness, anxiety, confusion, trouble sleeping and low energy. What's interesting, though, is that this doesn't apply solely to older patients—in fact, brain fog can occur as early as your late teens. To learn more, keep scrolling.
Worst-case scenario, the condition could be the result of a larger issue. "In the younger population, brain fog could be caused by infection, including virus and bacteria," Calapai explains. However, something as simple as your diet could be causing cloudiness. Food allergies (gluten intolerance is a big trigger) and inhalant allergies also contribute to the symptoms.
Sugar, alcohol, refined carbs and even a caffeine overdose can mess with our brains, too. Calapai adds, "As we age, increased exposure to heavy metals in water, household products and chemicals in food can affect brain function."
There's also a direct connection between our hormones and our minds. Think about it—when our cycles kick, we often experience mood swings, and when women are pregnant, it's common to feel the effects of "pregnancy brain." But on any given day, fluctuating hormones can mess with your mental clarity.
"In our 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond, hormone decline can play a major role," says Calapai. "Decrease in the production of thyroid hormones, adrenal hormones, testosterone and female hormones can alter focus and concentration." And if we have high levels of cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone, thinking clearly and making informed decisions becomes a struggle.
Lastly, inflammation (which is the basis for many mental disorders like Alzheimer's and depression) is a leading cause of brain fog. This is due to overactivity of the immune system, but thankfully, eating an anti-inflammatory diet will help combat this.
Calapai credits vitamin deficiency as a common cause of change in brain function, so taking supplements like B vitamins could help, but he recommends testing for all of the above underlying causes and contributors.
A fix could be as simple as shifting from a diet high in processed foods, carbs, and sugars to whole, earth-made foods like salmon and spinach, or drinking less alcohol and caffeine. Foods rich in antioxidants also help with brain function, like blueberries, dark chocolate, and artichoke. However, if the cause is something more serious, like an infection or hormonal imbalance, your doctor may then treat accordingly with medication.
It's also important to get plenty of sleep if your concentration levels are down and irritability is up. Snoozing for at least seven to eight hours each night helps boost brain performance. And lastly, to keep cortisol levels down, take part in stress-reducing activities like yoga and meditation. Just 15-minutes of breathing exercises each day will help reduce anxiety and boost relaxation and centeredness.