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What causes brain fog?

What causes brain fog?

Team ErbologyErbology

Do you have trouble keeping your mind on a task, or not feeling quite as sharp as usual? People who experience issues like this often say they’re suffering from ‘brain fog’, but what exactly does the term mean? We look at what causes brain fog and how you can return to feeling your best.

April 27, 2022 12:29 pm

What is ‘brain fog’?

Brain fog is not technically a medical diagnosis. Rather, it’s a phrase that is popularly used to describe feeling a little bit ‘out of it’, having trouble concentrating, or struggling with tasks you normally find easy. 

It’s a nebulous term without any fixed symptoms, making it tricky to pin down. Similarly, it is associated with lots of other health problems. For instance, many people who have experienced ‘long covid’ report brain fog as one of their symptoms. (We’ll talk more about this below.)

People may also experience it slightly differently, as brain fog is both subjective and personal. For instance, you may find a task – say, managing a spreadsheet – easy when you’re in full health yet struggle if you are experiencing brain fog. Yet your friend or colleague might never find working with spreadsheets easy! This means measuring brain fog objectively can be quite tricky. 

So, how do you know if you’re experiencing brain fog?

Symptoms of brain fog

Most of us have experienced brain fog at some point in our lives. Imagine how it feels when you get up early and haven’t had your morning coffee yet; you’d struggle to do a cryptic crossword, even though you may race through one at 4pm!

Alternatively, perhaps there’s been an occasion when you’ve had a lot on your mind. Perhaps you’ve been at work while one of your kids was mildly ill. Even though you may not be actively worrying about them, you suddenly find that it’s 3pm and you’ve forgotten a meeting at 2pm.

Many people also commonly report brain fog after a bout of illness. Much as feeling unwell leaves us feeling physically tired for a while afterwards, we can also experience mental fatigue. You might normally love to curl up with a book at the end of a long day, but find yourself unable to keep your mind from wandering. 

 

person behind fog glass

How brain fog manifests itself varies from person to person, but we all know how we perform mentally on a normal, healthy day. So, if you’re feeling as though you’re struggling to keep up with your own cognitive standards, you’re probably experiencing brain fog. 

What causes brain fog?

As we’ve hinted above, brain fog can arise for lots of different reasons. Some are physical while others are psychological. 

Physical reasons for brain fog include the effects of medications or other substances. This is down to the fact that they contain chemicals which have a direct impact on the way our brains work. 

For instance, alcoholic drinks are notorious for lowing our ability to process information and make decisions.

However, medical treatments such as chemotherapy can also result in brain fog. This is known colloquially as ‘chemo brain’. This may pass fairly quickly, or become a longer-term issue. 

Pregnancy and menopause are also key times when women often experience brain fog. It’s thought that this is because of the change in hormones brought about during these periods. It’s common for new mums to joke about experiencing ‘baby brain’!

Psychological reasons for brain fog include stress, anxiety or a lack of sleep.

 

man wearing black crew-neck top

Recently, a new pattern has emerged wherein people who have become ill with COVID-19 and subsequently recovered experience unpleasant long-term symptoms. This has become known as ‘long covid’, and brain fog is a commonly-cited symptom. 

Long COVID

Because COVID-19 is such a new illness, there is still much we don’t know about how it affects our bodies. Similarly, little is known about ‘long covid’, when a patient experiences feelings of tiredness, mental fatigue or other symptoms for a long time after the original illness has vanished. 

However, from the information available, some scientists have begun to look into the link between brain fog and COVID-19. 

How COVID causes brain fog

Some have suggested that this might be down to increased microthrombi (very small blood clots) in the brain, or micro-structural changes to areas such as the hippocampus.(1)

Changes such as these appear to be linked with mild cognitive impairment.

Meanwhile, others have postulated that it may be down to a particular part of our immune response when trying to fight off COVID. This is called a cytokine storm.

Cytokines are ‘messenger’ proteins which play a part in the normal functioning of your immune system. However, in a severe immune response, too many can be released into your bloodstream. This can have harmful effects on your organs, including your brain.(2)

Having COVID in itself, or the treatments used to help you beat it, may influence parts of your brain which play a role in cognitive function. Further, the stress and upset of having the illness may also play a role.(2)

It also appears that COVID-19 related brain fog may be more common in women than men, and more likely in patients who were admitted to intensive care.(2)

As you can see, there are lots of factors at play here and there is much we still don’t know. 

Related reading

“Brain fog can impact the way you feel about yourself. Individuals often do not feel like themselves as the loss of mental sharpness feels foreign to them.“

Hormonal brain fog

If you’re pregnant, a new mum, or going through menopause, you may be going through one of those joyous periods in a woman’s life when our hormones are, quite frankly, all over the place.

While some might suggest that you’re just distracted with the arrival of a new baby, scientific studies have proven that ‘baby brain’ is a real phenomenon. A recent meta-study found that cognitive function, executive function and memory were all worse in pregnant women than control groups, particularly during the third trimester.(3) 

Similarly, scientists have observed that the hormone oestrogen may have a neuroprotective effect. This may be why so many women going through menopause report decreases in their cognitive function, in line with lower levels of oestrogen circulating in their bodies.(4)

How can you tackle brain fog?

Your best options for clearing any fuzziness from your brain will depend on what’s behind your brain fog.

For example, if you sense that the reason might be psychological, you can take steps to address the root causes.

This might require shifting your routine around a bit to make sure you’re getting plenty of good quality sleep. Ensure you are giving your body a healthy and varied diet and are providing all the nutrients your body and brain need to work properly. 

When it comes to diet, we always recommend trying to include more healthy whole foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Meanwhile, cutting down on processed foods, meat products and alcohol will help towards better overall health. 

If you suspect that your brain fog might be the side effect of a particular medication, speak to your doctor. While it’s sometimes hard to describe, brain fog can really affect your quality of life. Make sure you chat with your doctor to see if you can switch to a different medication with fewer side effects. 

 

How to help with post-COVID brain fog

The NHS states that most people recover from brain fog after COVID. You don’t need to worry that your brain is structurally damaged or that you are experiencing dementia.(5) 

To help support your body and brain while you recover, the NHS recommends following a healthy diet, getting enough exercise, staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest.

In addition to this, you could try pacing your day to conserve your energy, removing distractions when you work or read, and using reminders and memory tools to help you remember important events. 

However, you shouldn’t rely on your phone to remind you of everything! Keep exercising your brain and your memory to help get your cognitive function back to full speed.

If you’re still having trouble and brain fog is getting in the way of your normal activities, have a chat to your doctor. 

How to cope with hormonal brain fog

Similarly to the advice given for long COVID above, adopting a healthy lifestyle overall can help if you are suffering with brain fog caused by hormones. 

While getting plenty of sleep may be wishful thinking if you’ve just had a baby, eating healthily and getting a bit of exercise – such as a brisk walk – every day may help. 

 

Let friends and family know how they can help; instead of bringing you flowers or presents for the baby, ask them to bring you a home-cooked meal! 

If you’re struggling to remember things, simple memory tricks can help. Mnemonics, rhymes, songs, tying a piece of string around your finger or wearing your watch upside down are all great memory cues. 

Rest assured, the brain fog you experience during and after pregnancy and menopause is usually temporary!

Do I need to worry about brain fog?

In most cases, brain fog is nothing to worry about. It is a temporary experience that should pass once the root cause – whether it is illness, hormones or stress – has been dealt with. 

If you are finding that brain fog is getting in the way of you living a normal life, or it seems to be getting worse, speak to your doctor. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. 

Alternatively, if your brain fog is a relatively minor annoyance that keeps making you lose the thread of a book or forget your new colleagues’ names, the best thing to do may be to treat yourself kindly and hunker down until it passes.

Adopting a healthy routine which includes nutritious foods and a bit of exercise will go a long way, as will getting plenty of sleep. 

Aside from that, try to be compassionate towards yourself. While it’s frustrating not to be on top form, it may be a sign that your body is healing or going through an important transition. Be patient and try to give your brain the conditions it needs to recover. You’ll be feeling tip-top again in no time. 

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