Brain Fog: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

It’s normal to feel forgetful sometimes. Age doesn’t matter; 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.

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 an 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, inaptitude to learn new things, and ultimately feeling as if your brain is failing you.

Cognitive decline has become so common that we have come to normalize cognitive decline as a very 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 it. 

What Causes Brain Fog?

Conventional medicine thinks so lightly of brain fog that it’s not even regarded as a serious condition. That seems odd for a term that’s been around since the 1850’s. It may arise from neurological causes, neurotransmitter dysfunction, neuron anomalies, imbalanced blood sugar, poor thyroid function, neurotoxins, sleep disturbances or impairment of memory and learning.  Brain fog can result from elevated ammonia, a waste product that accumulates from faulty protein breakdown or from diseases of metabolism. But stress, some medical conditions like diabetes or hypothyroidism, hormonal changes, diet, chemotherapy, toxic exposure from toxins and mold, systemic inflammation and even caffeine withdrawal might cause cloudy cognition.   

Stress & 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 fine 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.

Diet 

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, adulterated fats are brain killers. But its not just fats, foggy thinking can be precipitated by fast foods, sugar, processed foods, refined breads and pasta, and food additives.

Inflammation

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. When the body is inflamed, there is a strong probability that the brain is also inflamed.  

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 host 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 thought.  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 cognitions—the mental processes of knowing, which is an exercise that includes awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment. Investigators at the 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 such 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 - and of course, Covid Brain

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 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 beneficial versus 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 if the neurological symptoms people are experiencing with Covid-19 might instead be a result of overstimulation of the immune system.

How to Get Rid of Brain Fog

There are thousands of websites and hundreds of supplements that promise resolution to brain fog. Unfortunately, brain fog is poorly understood. The good news is, we can do a lot to combat brain inflammation by improving our nutrition and avoiding brain sabotaging substances. 

Get Adequate Rest

Here are five sleep hygiene tips from Matthew Walker, PhD, professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley and expert on sleep:

  1. Regularity/Routine: Going to bed at the same time, waking up at the same time. 
  2. Light: Ensuring your room is dark at night because we are a dark-deprived society and  making sure you get natural daylight during the day. 
  3. Temperature: Cooler temperatures make for better quality sleep. 
  4. Walk it out: Don’t just lie in bed awake. This can train your brain to be triggered by your bed can 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. 
  5. No Alcohol/caffeine: Avoid alcohol and caffeine for hours before bedtime. 

Eat a nutrient dense diet with bioactive lipids

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 brain health. Processed, heated, damaged, adulterated fats are brain killers. 

Foods to avoid - 11 foods that break your brain

Avoid these foods and food like substances at all costs to protect your brain. 

  1. Damaged fats - heated PUFA’s & adulterated PUFA’s 
  2. Peanuts & corn - these foods contain very long chain fats and are neurotoxic  
  3. Histamine and oxalate containing foods 
  4. High carbohydrates diets  (more than 45 percent of calories from carbohydrates) 
  5. Artificial sweeteners 
  6. Man made food products that contain trans fats 
  7. Gluten 
  8. Farmed fish 
  9. Conventional dairy 
  10. Excitotoxic foods - food dyes and food additives 

Anti-Inflammatory SPM’s in Caviar for Brain Health

We cannot talk about brain health without talking about caviar. Caviar is the best source of anti-inflammatory, pro-resolving lipid mediators and these powerful compounds serve as important regulators of inflammation. Specialized pro-resolving mediators (SPMs) are biosynthesized from omega-3 essential fatty acids to resolvins, protectins, and maresins and from omega-6 fatty acids to lipoxins. Through cell-specific actions mediated through select receptors, these SPMs are potent regulators of neutrophil infiltration, cytokine and chemokine production, and clearance of apoptotic neutrophils by macrophages, promoting a return to tissue homeostasis. This process appears to be defective in several common diseases like the ones listed above - which are characterized by chronic unrestrained inflammation and significant associated morbidity. The potent phospholipids found in caviar participate in several key functions in the brain - neuroplasticity, neuron differentiation, neurogenesis, and membrane integrity. When any of these functions breaks down, it can lead to impairment in brain function. Ingesting these fatty acids in their organic, raw, and unadulterated form is much more effective than taking a EPA/DHA supplement

Supplements That Help with Brain Fog

Butyrate 

Butyrate has been seen to hold sway over brain function and behavior by virtue of its influence on microbial metabolites. Besides showing promise in treating diabetes, IBD/IBS, obesity and several other maladies, butyrate is a regulator of organelle cross-talk, encouraging gene expression and brain-derived neurotropic factor, a substance that directs the proper folding of proteins and influences growth and differentiation of neurons and synapses. To say it improves memory and clears the fog is understatement. Even in a brain that is compromised by ischemia, butyrate stimulates neurogenesis. 

Vitamin B6

The effective functioning of the CNS relays 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. Vitamin B6 has a direct impact on cognitive functioning through the one- carbon cycle, which is essential to many transmethylation reactions in the CNS. The one- carbon cycle starts with Folate. Folate gets converted to 5-MTHF, (5-methyltetrahydrofolate) 5-MTHFR is then combined with homocysteine, catalyzed by vitamin B12 - dependent methionine syntheses, to produce L-methionine, a precursor to SAMe, (S-adenosylmethionine)  which is a methyl donor to a variety of reactions in the CNS. Seems like a pretty complex process, but the takeaway is not the complexity of one one-one-carbon cycle, but rather that critical nutrients like B6 are vital for healthy brain functioning.

Folate 

Homocysteine can be changed back to methionine 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. 

Vitamin B12

B12 is another important nutrient to discuss when talking about brain health. B12 is one of eight B vitamin’s, and helps to maintain healthy nerve cells, and red blood cells. This important nutrient has been shown to help support healthy brain function by supporting blood flow, supporting DNA synthesis and repair, energy production, is 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, and is often deficient in vegetarian diets.

Phosphatidylcholine 

BodyBio 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 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 moiety to the good of the organism. 

Prudence says to address the causes of foggy thinking first, then to resolve the matter with the judicious application of proven remedies in the process, assessing oneself for nutrition adequacy. 

References

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Roberts RO, Geda YE, Knopman DS, Boeve BF, Christianson TJ, Pankratz VS, Kullo IJ, Tangalos EG, Ivnik RJ, Petersen RC. Association of C-reactive protein with mild cognitive impairment. Alzheimers Dement. 2009 Sep;5(5):398-405.

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