Brain fog: Causes and tips
Brain fog can be frustrating and confusing, but there are ways to cope when it happens.
Learn more in this article about what brain fog is and what causes brain fog, and get some tips on how to manage it.
What is brain fog?
Brain fog involves feelings of confusion and disorientation.
Brain fog can make a person feel as if the processes of thinking, understanding, and remembering are not working as they should.
It can affect their:
- memory, including the ability to store and recall information
- use and understanding of language
- ability to process and understand information
- visual and spatial skills for drawing, recognizing shapes, and navigating spaces
- ability to calculate and work things out
- executive functioning abilities for organizing, solving problems, and planning
If one or more of these functions does not work effectively, it can be difficult to understand, focus, and remember things. It can lead to stress and mental fatigue.
MS and other causes
Various conditions can lead to brain fog.
People who live with MS may experience some changes in their ability to make decisions and to process and remember information.
These changes are usually mild to moderate and do not affect a person's ability to live independently. However, they can lead to frustration and difficulty completing daily tasks, such as finding house keys or shopping for groceries.
Learn more here about MS.
Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome
Depression and stress
Depression can lead to a loss of concentration.
Depression is a serious mood disorder that affects how someone thinks and feels. Problems with memory, focus, and decision-making can contribute to the feeling of brain fog.
There may also be problems with sleeping and a lack of energy, which can make concentrating and completing tasks harder.
Stress and anxiety can also make it difficult to think clearly.
Iron deficiency anemia
If red blood cells cannot deliver enough oxygen to the body's organs and tissues, a person may experience mental and physical tiredness and other symptoms, such as shortness of breath and brain fog.
Changes to a person's hormone levels can affect their brain functioning, especially during pregnancy or menopause.
One small study from 2013 found that hormonal changes during the menopausal transition made it harder for women to take in and remember new information and to focus their attention on challenging tasks.
What is hypothyroidism? Learn more here.
Postural tachycardia syndrome
A study appearing in 2013 reported that adolescents with POTS said they often had symptoms of brain fog, such as confusion, forgetfulness, "cloudy" thinking, and difficulty focusing, thinking, and communicating.
Find out more here about POTS.
Alzheimer's and other types of dementia can involve symptoms of brain fog.
Alzheimer's happens when plaques of protein build up in a person's brain. This buildup affects brain functioning, with various cognitive and other symptoms.
Learn more here about Alzheimer's disease.
During sleep, the muscles in the back of the throat relax. Sometimes, this can lead to people having trouble breathing at night.
If a person has pauses in breathing at night that interfere with their sleep quality, they may have sleep apnea.
Treating sleep apnea may improve the brain fog that can result.
Some medications can affect an individual's mental functioning.
- chemotherapy drugs
- sleeping pills
- drugs for anxiety
- some pain relief medications
People may wish to speak to a doctor about any adverse side effects they are experiencing from the medication they are taking. If the medication cannot be changed, a doctor can help the individual develop coping strategies for brain fog.
Brain fog can result from lifestyle factors such as:
- being too busy to rest and relax
- lack of sleep
- dietary factors
- a sedentary lifestyle
Lifestyle changes can sometimes help a person overcome these problems.
Dietary changes can increase a person's energy levels and improve mental focus.
A diet that focuses heavily on processed foods that are high in unhealthful fats and sugars may contribute to brain fog.
Replacing these foods with fresh fruits, vegetables, and other fresh, plant-based foods may contribute to clearer thinking.
People should also drink enough fluid to prevent dehydration but limit the intake of caffeine and alcohol, as these can affect sleep and energy levels.
Exercise can help a person feel better and think more clearly.
A review appearing in 2018 concluded that physical exercise can benefit the brain both physically and psychologically. The authors recommend it for improving both thinking ability and mood.
Current guidelines advise adults to engage in either 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes a week of high-intensity activity, as well as exercises to improve strength and flexibility.
Sleep and stress
- practising good "sleep hygiene," including regular bedtimes and leaving mobile devices in another room
- engaging in hobbies and spending time with family and friends to reduce stress
- practising mindfulness, as this can improve relaxation and self-awareness
Tips for managing daily tasks
A number of strategies can help manage when it becomes difficult to think clearly.
Avoiding distractions: When possible, find a quiet space to concentrate on tasks, and take regular breaks to help with focus.
Getting support: Explain how you feel to family and friends and ask them to speak more slowly. This will allow extra time to process information.
Organization techniques: It may help to keep a diary or make lists. Smartphone reminders may help remind you to complete tasks, such as taking your medication or going to doctor's appointments.
Storing items in the same place each time: Find somewhere memorable in the home to keep items that are easy to lose, such as keys.
Strategies to help with memory and concentration can make the situation more manageable in cases where brain fog is part of a long-term condition.
When to see a doctor
If making lifestyle choices does not help, a doctor may recommend medication.
A person should see a doctor if they:
- have other symptoms that may indicate an underlying medical condition
- notice that brain fog has started or worsened suddenly or significantly
- see no improvement despite making lifestyle changes
A doctor will usually ask for information about their mental health, diet, and other symptoms before carrying out tests.
There are many possible causes of brain fog, and treatment will depend on the cause.
A doctor may work with the individual to develop a care plan that includes medication, physical therapy, and self-care through diet and exercise.
Sometimes, a doctor may prescribe specific medications to help with aspects of thinking, such as:
- mood changes
Brain fog can happen for various reasons, including a medical condition, stress, poor diet, a lack of sleep, or the use of some medications. If symptoms result from a medical condition, they may improve with treatment.
Tips for reducing the impact of problems with memory and concentration include making lists, sticking to routines, and explaining to friends and family how they can help.