We find out more about the causes of this frustrating problem and suggest ideas for how to cope when it happens.
What is brain fog?
Brain fog may cause confusion and disorientation, affecting memory, information processing, and spatial awareness.
Brain fog can make a person feel as if the processes of thinking, understanding, and remembering are not working as they should.
Different brain functions can be affected by brain fog, including:
- memory, which allows information to be stored and recalled
- the ability to use and understand language
- information processing, which aids understanding and focus
- visual and spatial skills used in drawing, recognizing shapes, and navigating space
- calculation abilities
- executive functioning abilities used for organization, problem-solving, and planning
If one or more of these functions is impaired, someone may have difficulty understanding, find it hard to focus or concentrate, forget things, and experience mental fatigue.
Brain fog and MS
Multiple sclerosis or MS is a lifelong condition that affects the brain and spinal cord, causing problems with movement, balance, vision, and sensation.
MS can cause areas of inflammation and damage or lesions on the brain. These lesions can affect how the brain functions.
The functions most often affected by MS are information processing, memory, and executive functioning abilities. Many people living with MS will experience some changes in their ability to make decisions and to process and remember information.
In most cases, these changes will be mild to moderate and will not affect a person's ability to live independently. They may, however, cause some frustration or difficulty completing daily tasks, such as finding house keys or shopping for groceries.
There are a number of strategies that can help someone living with MS maintain their memory and information processing skills, including:
- Avoiding distractions, finding a quiet space to concentrate on tasks, and taking regular breaks to help with focus.
- Asking family and friends to speak more slowly, and allowing extra time to process information.
- Using organization techniques, such as keeping a diary or making lists.
- Finding somewhere memorable in the home to keep important items, such as keys, that can be easily lost.
These strategies should reduce the stress and frustration of brain fog when it occurs.
Other medical causes
Depression may lead to brain fog symptoms, such as loss of concentration and fatigue.
Besides MS, several other medical conditions can cause brain fog.
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.
A person with depression may also have problems sleeping and lack energy, which can make concentrating and completing tasks hard.
Iron deficiency anemia is a condition that affects the red blood cells in the body. If the red blood cells fail to deliver enough oxygen to organs and tissues, a person may experience mental and physical tiredness, alongside other symptoms, such as shortness of breath.
Thyroid dysfunctions, such as hypothyroidism and Hashimoto's disease can also cause brain fog. Older people with thyroid conditions are particularly susceptible to experiencing problems with memory.
Changing hormone levels can also affect brain functioning, especially during pregnancy or menopause. A small study found that the hormone 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.
Some medication can also affect mental functioning. Chemotherapy drugs have many side effects, including on a person's memory and concentration. Sleeping pills may have an impact on short-term memory, and some antidepressants can cause mental confusion.
A person should speak to a doctor about any adverse side effects they are experiencing from a medication. If the medication cannot be changed, a doctor can help develop coping strategies for brain fog.
Brain fog can often be the result of lifestyle factors that affect how well the brain functions. Modern life and a busy calendar can mean that the brain may not get enough rest to function at its best.
Causes of brain fog that relate to someone's lifestyle include:
- lack of sleep
- low energy from physical inactivity
If constant stress and difficulty sleeping are affecting someone's memory and concentration, making some lifestyle changes can help overcome these problems.
Changes to diet and exercise can also increase a person's energy levels and improve mental focus.
Treatment may involve medication, therapy, or self-care.
Treatment for brain fog will depend on the cause. If someone has MS, a doctor can work with them to develop a care plan that includes medication, physical therapy, and self-care through diet and exercise.
Other medical conditions, such as anemia, should be treated by a doctor. Brain fog will usually ease when the underlying condition has improved.
If a person is experiencing brain fog as a symptom of depression, a doctor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, exercise, or even a change in medication.
Making some simple lifestyle changes can help reduce or get rid of brain fog if it is not caused by a medical condition.
Reducing stress is not always easy, but a person can begin by pinpointing the cause, such as money or relationship worries.
If someone is feeling stressed because they have taken too much on, it can be helpful to hand some tasks to someone else or improve time management skills.
Getting enough sleep is crucial to maintaining good brain function, as fatigue will affect concentration and focus. A person should aim to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, relax before getting into bed, and try to make the bedroom a quiet, restful place.
Regular exercise can reduce stress and increase energy levels, both of which may improve mental focus.
Adding exercise to a daily routine can be as simple as taking a walk during lunch, or cycling to work instead of driving.
Engaging in hobbies and spending time with family and friends can be a good way to feel more relaxed. Mindfulness is another method that can help to reduce stress and increase relaxation so that a person's thinking becomes clearer.
Diet can have an impact on energy levels, and many people will recognize the feeling of losing concentration if they have not eaten for some time. Eating nutritious meals and snacks regularly throughout the day can help reduce brain fog.
Caffeine and alcohol can cause difficulty sleeping and energy crashes, so a person may wish to reduce their consumption if they struggle sleeping or have difficulty focusing.
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
A person should see a doctor if they are experiencing other symptoms in addition to brain fog, as they may have an underlying medical condition.
Improving diet, getting enough sleep, and reducing stress should improve a person's symptoms if lifestyle factors are causing brain fog.
If making lifestyle changes does not improve brain function and a person's symptoms persist or get worse, they should speak to a doctor. A doctor will usually ask for information about their mental health, diet, and other symptoms before they consider doing further diagnostic tests.
Brain fog associated with stress, poor diet, or lack of sleep should go away once these issues are addressed.
If problems with brain function are a symptom of a medical condition, they should improve once that is diagnosed and given proper attention and treatment.
In some cases, brain fog can be a long-term issue associated with an ongoing illness, such as MS.
Finally, many strategies can help reduce the impact of memory lapses or difficulty concentrating, including making lists, sticking to routines, and explaining to friends and family how they can help.