It’s normal to feel forgetful sometimes. And forgetfulness is not just a consequence of age; it happens across the board. Do you find yourself stumbling to retrieve words? Do you feel your ability to focus and/or concentrate is compromised? Maybe you don’t feel as sharp as you once did, or you feel like your brain is “cloudy.” These are all common characteristics of brain fog.
In this article, we’ll discuss and answer many of your questions around brain fog, including:
- What is brain fog?
- What causes brain fog?
- How to get rid of brain fog
- Vitamins and supplements that may help with brain fog.
What is Brain Fog?
Brain fog is often difficult to describe–-people express symptoms of brain fog in a variety of ways. Some describe it as a lack of ability to focus or concentrate, a difficulty in retrieving words, or that communicating and following conversations is difficult for them. These common descriptions of brain fog are usually combined with an inability to remember things, powerlessness around recalling information, inability to learn new concepts, and ultimately feeling as if your brain is failing you .
In aging and elderly populations, we may see brain fog turn into cognitive decline. Cognitive decline has become so common that we have come to expect it as a normal part of aging. The brain does slow down with age, but we have the power to keep a sharp, highly functioning brain well into our old age if we can protect and nourish our bodies and minds.
Brain Fog Symptoms
- Difficulty with focus and attention
- Inability to concentrate
- Difficulty retrieving words
- Lack of understanding in conversations
- Feeling of helplessness around thinking and recalling information
- Inability to learn new things or retain information
- Inability to plan ahead
- Feeling as though your brain is failing you
What Causes Brain Fog?
In general, conventional medicine does not regard brain fog as a serious condition, which is odd for a term that’s been around since the 1850’s. There are many potential causes for brain fog, including brain injury, neurotransmitter dysfunction, neuron anomalies, imbalanced blood sugar, poor thyroid function, neurotoxins, sleep disturbances or other impairment of memory and learning [2, 3].
Brain fog can also result from elevated ammonia, a waste product that accumulates from faulty protein breakdown or from metabolic diseases . But stress, some medical conditions like diabetes or hypothyroidism, hormonal changes, poor diet, chemotherapy, exposure to toxins, air pollution, and mold, systemic inflammation and even caffeine withdrawal might also cause cloudy cognition [5, 6, 7, 8, 9].
Stress and Cortisol Imbalance
We all know how bad stress can be for our health. Cortisol is the hormone released when you’re stressed, and it’s normal in small amounts. But chronically high cortisol levels have been shown to kill brain cells, cause premature aging in the brain, and decrease the rate at which new brain cells are made . Too much of the stress hormone can lead to a surplus of free radicals—unattached oxygen molecules—that damage brain cell membranes. (And you know we are the biggest proponent of healthy cell membranes!)
Lack of Sleep
According to a 2017 study, researchers found that sleep deprivation can cause a decrease in cognition because it disrupts our brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other, leading to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception . Lack of sleep can interfere with attention, concentration, and reaction time.
Eating a nutrient dense diet that is rich in bioactive lipids is critical for good brain health . A diet that is low in fat, or a diet that consists of inflammatory fats, can significantly compromise your cognition. Processed, heated, damaged, and adulterated fats are brain killers. But it's not just fats–-foggy thinking can be precipitated by fast foods, sugar, processed foods, refined breads and pasta, and food additives.
Inflammation and Immunity
Brain inflammation is a main underlying cause of brain fog. There are a number of chronic illnesses that are associated with brain fog, leading to cognitive decline. Cancer, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, mast cell activation syndrome, mastocytosis, autoimmune disease, autism, Alzheimer's disease, low blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and neuropsychiatric disorders–-the one thing that all these diseases have in common is inflammation.
The brain is not only immunologically active on its own behalf, but also plays a role in protecting the rest of the body. The brain directs cell-to-cell communications, but those messages do not always carry good news. Sometimes they carry the black cloud of inflammation, which is supposed to be a protective response to an insult, injury, or destruction of tissue, but it also may lead to loss of some kinds of function, including cognition. The chemicals that coordinate the inflammatory process are called cytokines, and they amplify immunological activity.
Given the role of cytokines in the neuroimmune process, it has been suggested that these molecules influence cognition—the mental processes that include awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment.
Investigators at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis studied the relationship between inflammation and cognition and found that, “There is abundant evidence that inflammatory mechanisms within the central nervous system contribute to cognitive impairment via cytokine-mediated interactions between neurons and glial cells,” adding that there is a growing awareness of the role of cytokines in “…the inflammatory processes in neurodegenerative diseases” . A considerable volume of this inflammatory activity results from stress and its effect on immunity.
When markers of inflammation are elevated they offer an explanation for the subsequent brain fog. Of the several markers, C-reactive protein (CRP) is one of the most commonly measured. Its elevation denotes the presence of inflammation somewhere in the body. High CRP may account for, and even predict, memory impairment .
The diseases that are attributed to old age, such as arthritis, and the recruitment of the immune system, such as during a viral or bacterial attack, will increase circulating interleukins as well as CRP, both of which affect memory, attention, abstract thinking, the initiation and inhibition of appropriate actions, and planning .
Viral, Fungal and Bacterial Brain Fog
There is a close link between our nervous system and our immune system. It makes a lot of sense that your brain would get muddled while your immune system is working hard to fight off an infection. You could be walking around with a viral, fungal, or bacterial infection with little to no other symptoms other than brain fog.
One of the most common lingering infections is an overgrowth of Candida yeast that occurs naturally in your body. Candida can overgrow from stress, from a high-sugar diet, or from antibiotic use that leads to an imbalance of harmful bacteria in the gut. Your gut communicates directly with your brain, so miscommunication can alter your brain function.
Viral infections can also lead to brain fog. A virus may damage brain cells, and inflammation in the brain or body may also cause neurologic complications. There is clear evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect neurons, and scientists are now exploring whether the neurological symptoms people are experiencing with COVID-19 might instead be a result of overstimulation of the immune system. [16, 17]
How to Get Rid of Brain Fog
There are hundreds of websites and supplements that promise a resolution to brain fog, despite brain fog still being poorly understood in the medical community. The good news is that we can do a lot to combat brain inflammation by improving our nutrition, prioritizing rest, and avoiding brain sabotaging substances.
Get Adequate Rest
A good night’s sleep is foundational for a healthy brain. Here are five sleep hygiene tips from Matthew Walker, PhD, professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley and expert on sleep :
- Establish regularity/routine: Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time.
- Block light: Ensure your room is dark at night, and make sure you get natural daylight during the day.
- Control temperature: Cooler temperatures make for better quality sleep.
- Walk it out: If you can’t fall asleep, don’t just lie in bed awake. This can train your brain to create a learned association to reject sleep. TIP: If you’ve been awake for 20 minutes, then get up, go and do something else, and only come back to bed when you’re sleepy.
- No alcohol/caffeine: Avoid alcohol and caffeine for several hours before bedtime.
Eat a Nutrient Dense Diet with Bioactive Lipids
Eating a nutrient dense diet with enough protein, carbs, and healthy fats is essential for brain health and function. Here are a few foods you can prioritize in your diet to support brain health.
- Berries, especially blueberries
- Wild caught salmon, trout, and other fatty fish
- Caviar 
- Eggs (yolks and whites!)
- Dark chocolate
- Coconut/MCT oil
- Olive oil (EVOO)
- Leafy greens
- Tea (black and green)
Avoid these foods and food-like substances to protect your brain:
- Damaged fats–-heated PUFAs and adulterated PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids)
- Peanuts and corn–-These foods contain very long chain fats and are neurotoxic
- Histamine and oxalate-containing foods
- Artificial sweeteners
- Man-made food products that contain trans fats
- Farmed fish
- Conventional dairy
- Excitotoxic foods–-food dyes and food additives.
Low-impact (and low stress) exercise can improve cognition and even increase brain volume . There is also evidence that exercise increases the brain’s capacity to change and heal itself, called neuroplasticity . Examples of low-impact exercise include walking, swimming, cycling, and yoga. Any gentle movement that will elevate your heart rate slightly and get your blood moving will do.
What helps you relieve stress? Getting outside in nature? Spending time with your family? Laughing with old friends? Cooking a delicious meal? Five minutes of deep breathing? Whatever they are, make time for these activities–-research shows that it really does improve your health, including your brain and cognitive function [22, 23, 24].
Vitamins and Supplements That May Help Support Brain Fog
Beyond diet, rest, and stress relieving practices, there are vitamins and supplements that can help support feelings of brain sluggishness and supply missing nutrients that even the healthiest diet may still be lacking.
Butyrate has been seen to hold sway over brain function and behavior by virtue of its influence on microbial metabolites, including neurotransmitters.* Besides showing promise in supporting patients with diabetes, IBD/IBS, obesity and several other conditions, butyrate is a regulator of organelle communication, encouraging gene expression and brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a substance that directs the proper folding of proteins and influences growth and differentiation of neurons and synapses .
To say that butyrate supports memory is an understatement. Even in a brain that is compromised by ischemia (inadequate blood supply), butyrate enhances neurogenesis.*
The effective functioning of the central nervous system (including the brain) relies on an adequate and constant nutrient supply. There are a number of studies that validate how important vitamin B6 is to maintain effective functioning of the brain [26, 27]. It is a cofactor for many chemical processes in the body and also serves as a powerful antioxidant, combating free radical damage . Suboptimal vitamin B6 has been associated with impaired cognitive function and decline in the elderly population .
Folate (Vitamin B9)
Homocysteine (a potentially harmful amino acid in high amounts) can be changed back to methionine (an essential amino acid) under the right conditions, namely in the presence of a methylation molecule, such as folic acid (called folate in food). Folate insufficiency, or outright inadequacy, can initiate mental lapses that could balloon into more serious conditions if the deficit is prolonged  .
B12 is another important nutrient to discuss when talking about brain health . B12 is one of eight B vitamins, and helps to maintain healthy nerve cells, and red blood cells. This key nutrient has been shown to help support healthy brain function by supporting blood flow, DNA synthesis and repair, and energy production.
It is also needed for the synthesis of neurochemicals, signalling molecules, homocysteine metabolism, and methylation–-all essential processes for optimizing physiological and neurological functioning. B12 is rich in meat, fish, and poultry, so it is often deficient in vegetarian diets.
PC is a well-respected tool in cell membrane maintenance and repair. By improving permeability and fluidity of the cell membrane, PC will readily overcome memory impairment and a foggy brain by allowing the free flow of nutrients into the cell and detritus out of it.* And, in cases where acetylcholine stores need replenishment because of dietary choline shortage, PC will sacrifice its choline supply to the good of the organism .
Clear Your Mind of Brain Fog
Brain fog has many potential causes, but the solution often comes back to prioritizing the basics: nutrition, sleep, activity, and mental health. Beyond that foundation, you can add vitamins and supplements that support brain health and cognitive function. Work with a healthcare professional to come up with a brain fog treatment plan and take back your full brain power.