What Is Brain Fog?
Brain fog is a collection of symptoms such as forgetfulness, lack of mental clarity, confusion, and inability to focus. It’s not a clinical term and is also referred to as ‘mental fog,’ ‘clouding of consciousness,’ or ‘cognitive dysfunction.’
It is generally caused by inflammation in the brain, stemming from some underlying cause.
- Fatigue and low energy (including chronic fatigue syndrome)
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor working memory and executive function
- Poor ability to memorize things
- Impaired ability to process new information and delayed processing
- Low motivation
- Mental confusion
- Wandering thoughts; inability to sustain a train of thought
How Long Does Brain Fog Last?
Depending on the causes, brain fog can last anywhere from a few minutes to decades if untreated.
In most cases, brain fog is reversible.
My Brain Fog Cure Story:
I’ve suffered from brain fog as long as I can remember. Brain fog is what got me interested in health at an early age. At 12, I endeavored to stop eating any food with sugar and ate only whole grains.
I’ve always tried to eat as healthy as possible, yet I still had brain fog. I would always read about health when I got the chance, but nothing helped that much.
After many years of experimentation and research, I finally figured out what caused my brain fog and how to heal it. After having over 1,000 clients with brain fog (as of March 2018), I’ve identified the most common causes of brain fog and have helped others heal their condition as well.
Brain Fog Causes
An Imbalanced Limbic System
Brain fog is essentially caused by an issue in the area of the brain responsible for executive function, general cognitive function, and emotional balance. This area is called the limbic system. Within the limbic system, the hypothalamus – also known as the ‘control center’ – is most affected.
The limbic system is responsible for:
- Wakefulness (increases)
- Appetite (increases)
- Motivation (increases)
- Body warmth (increases)
- Gut flow by way of the vagus nerve (increases)
- Metabolism (increases)
- Blood pressure (increases)
- Emotional regulation
- Executive function
- Memory – short and long-term
Brain fog can be caused by the limbic system disbalance, usually as a result of an injury or highly stressful event. A big bout of inflammation, free radicals, or emotional stress are the mechanisms by which these brain changes occur.
- Thermal regulation
- Circadian rhythms (regulates sleep-wake cycle)
- Hunger, satiety
- Blood pressure, heart rate
- Gut function
- Sex drive and hormones
- Glucose regulation
Symptoms of Limbic System Problems
The limbic system is responsible for many things, so if you’re having brain fog, it will often go together with other symptoms, such as:
- Circadian rhythm issues – tired in the day, awake at night
- Lower motivation
- Suppressed appetite and often weight loss
- Memory problems
- Cold hands and feet, problems with temperature regulation
- Gut problems, including constipation
- Lower thyroid and sex hormones
- Overstimulated HPA axis
- Lower blood pressure
- Frequent urination
- Procrastination – Overambitious, but not enough motivation to implement the ambition
- OCD/problems letting go of thoughts
- Attention problems
- Hormonal issues
- Lower libido and sex drive
- Visual problems
Inflammation and Free Radicals
Inflammation and oxidative stress affect the limbic system and can cause it to be imbalanced.
The main SOD2 variant rs4880 GG is more common in my brain fog clientele, and there’s a lot of scientific research on it.
A study found that the expression of another antioxidative enzyme gene that breaks down H2O2 (MPO/Myeloperoxidase) was also strongly tied to cognitive performance. Having a mutation in these genes could result in cognitive impairment .
Conditions Associated with Brain Fog
Being heavily associated with oxidative stress and inflammation, brain fog is much more likely to occur in conjunction with other conditions.
Inflammation hits the brain stem as well in CFS .
It’s no wonder that brain fog is commonly cited in people with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia – the same processes are driving all three.
In fact, science is discovering now that many antidepressants work by combating oxidative stress .
I’ve noticed a strong correlation with these disorders – especially OCD, anxiety, and depression- and brain fog in my clients. I had all three when I used to have brain fog.
In multiple sclerosis, Sjogren’s, and lupus, brain fog is a common feature. In all of these disorders, inflammation and oxidative stress are increased.
Female hormones such as estrogen and estradiol tend to display antioxidant activities and lower oxidative stress, which is why women with menopause sometimes develop brain fog.
The Most Common Brain Fog Triggers
I’ve had clients with brain fog from all of the following causes. I’ve ordered them from most common to least common. These can cause brain fog either by causing inflammation or by causing long-term changes in the brain.
- Lectins and inflammatory agents in plants
- Anxiety or chronic stress
- PTSD or a very stressful event
- Drug-induced (usually THC, LSD, MDMA, alcohol)
- Sleep problems (bad quality or not enough)
- Night shift work/circadian disruptions
- Not enough light or sun
- Imbalanced hormones
- Obesity or a terrible diet
- Lack of exercise
There are many other possible sources for brain fog. However, I’ve only listed the most common ones that wouldn’t be diagnosed by your doctor.
If you get brain fog after eating, then you must look more carefully at your diet.
Brain Fog After Eating
The most common causes of brain fog are lectin and food sensitivities. When people consume food that causes inflammation, it will often cause brain fog.
People with lectin sensitivity will most often experience inflammation in their gut, joints, thyroid, and brain (hypothalamus). Sometimes they’ll go on to develop an autoimmune condition eventually.
In some cases, people only have to stay away from specific proteins or foods and they’re fine.
However, lectins are not the only problem in food.
Some common triggers of inflammation are:
- Lectins (every food has lectins, but we can be sensitive to different lectins)
- Gluten (wheat, spelt, rye, barley, and oats)
- Casein (all dairy products)
- FODMAPs (short-chain carbohydrates that are often poorly absorbed by the small intestine)
- Trypsin inhibitors
- Yeast (in gluten-free bread)
- Food additives like carrageenan (in rice milk, almond milk, etc.)
You can be allergic to any other food as well. Egg and fish allergies are quite common, so pay attention to them.
You should try out the strict version of the Lectin Avoidance Diet, which has helped a lot of clients with brain fog.
In some cases, brain fog can simply come from a horrible diet. High glucose levels can cause a threefold increase in free radicals, which can damage human cells .
If you’re living on a Standard American Diet, then that is likely a significant contributing factor to your brain fog.
Not sleeping well is another common cause of brain fog.
Hypoxia drives psychiatric conditions by causing neurons to get overexcited (glutamate excitotoxicity). This excitation causes increased levels of free radicals and mitochondrial breakdown.
Even if you don’t have sleep apnea, bad sleep is still a significant cause of brain fog but may not be the whole story.
People with morning brain fog should particularly watch out for this. Adequate sleep in my book means getting the amount of sleep you’d get if you didn’t have an alarm clock.
- I suggest doing a sleep study and checking how much slow-wave and REM sleep you’re getting.
- See my post on how to improve your sleep.
Science is increasingly becoming aware of the link between autoimmune conditions and infections – usually earlier in life.
When someone was healthy their whole life and suddenly comes down with brain fog after infection, they should identify and get rid of the infection. In the case of viral infections, you should take steps to control it.
Infections can cause chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, leading to brain fog.
Sometimes, infections such as viruses can be latent and then be reactivated by some stressor (lack of sleep, poor diet, etc.)
The Epstein-Barr Virus is a common viral infection that causes harm. Even if it’s another virus, controlling viral infections have common themes.
People with severe immunodeficiency struggle with controlling viral infections.
Since you can’t rid yourself of a virus, you want to instead make sure your immune system always keeps it at bay.
- If you’re Th2-dominant, then you want to rebalance your immune system.
I’ve seen cases where brain fog was caused by a bacterial infection.
If you can identify a bacterial infection, then targeted drugs such as antibiotics would be a better option than herbs.
Only gram-negative bacteria have inflammatory lipopolysaccharides (LPS).
I’ve seen other cases where candida or fungal infections were the sources of the brain fog.
Candida comes from an immune deficiency. Environmental triggers include refined carbs, stress, low stomach acidity (could be from antacids), and antibiotics.
Anybody with brain fog after antibiotic treatment and/or a particularly stressful period should look into candida as being the cause.
Candida and bacterial infections can usually be cured through conventional and alternative means.
d-e) Parasites and Protozoa
Although less common in the developed world, parasitic infections can also be problematic.
Blastocystis hominis, tapeworm, roundworm antibodies, tissue worm, and Toxoplasma are common parasitic infections.
4) Heavy Metals, Toxins, Mold
Any kind of toxins can stimulate the immune system and cause inflammation and oxidative stress.
Heavy metals and toxins increase oxidative stress in the body. Since heavy metals accumulate in the body, they may cause increased levels of oxidative stress in the body.
Even essential minerals can accumulate in the body and cause oxidative stress in the long term.
Toxins such as phthalates and BPA pesticides and others also cause oxidative stress. However, these are usually contributory in a minor way.
People exposed to mold or other biotoxins can suffer from Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS) and develop a certain kind of brain fog.
These inflammatory markers will often be elevated if exposed to toxins:
I discuss mold-induced illness and what to do about it in this post.
5) Low Acetylcholine
Symptoms of chronic inflammation and brain fog (often from chronic infections) sometimes match the symptoms from drugs that inhibit acetylcholine.
People with toxin issues will often fit into this boat, too.
6) Insulin Resistance and Hypoglycemia
People with brain fog often get hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) because the limbic system helps control blood glucose. Hypoglycemia can, in turn, contribute to brain fog.
7) Hormonal Imbalance
Hence, their deficiency can contribute to brain fog. All of these listed hormones are anti-inflammatory as well.
Genes that resulted in lower melatonin, for example, are associated with cognitive dysfunction .
Brain injuries from car accidents, being in the military, being a competitive athlete, fighting (professionally or not), or any kind of hit to the brain can lead to low hormones. If you’ve received head blows from any source, you should check your hormones.
- I believe the fundamental causes of low hormones are chronic inflammation, circadian imbalances, sleep problems, or chronic stress.
Brain Fog and the Thyroid
People with brain fog often have low levels of thyroid hormones. However, low thyroid hormones area result of inflammation, not the cause of it. In fact, having a high level of thyroid hormones increases inflammation. [42, 43, 44].
8) Leaky Gut and Dysbiosis
Intestinal permeability or “leaky gut” and an imbalance of your gut microbiota (“gut dysbiosis”) can increase inflammation, thereby contributing to brain fog.
Lectins are the most common reason for having a leaky gut, in my opinion.
To prevent microbial imbalance or dysbiosis, the gut needs the right ingredients, such as prebiotics, to work well.
Probiotics can also be great at silencing inflammation.
9) Allergies and Histamine
People with asthma and allergies commonly report brain fog, which is in part from the production of histamine.
Allergies and asthma can be a result of Th2 dominance.
People can also consume foods with histamine – mainly fermented and cured foods and beverages.
If you don’t have enough of an enzyme to break histamine down, this can be the cause of your brain fog. I’ve found this to be the case for some people.
Oxidative stress may be the mechanism by which histamine causes brain fog .
Also, when mast cells activate, they release superoxide, which supports my central theory of brain fog (that superoxide is responsible) .
10) Anxiety, Chronic Stress, and Depression
In almost all cases of brain fog, people experience anxiety and often depression/bad moods.
This is mainly because inflammation increases our stress response and causes anxiety, which also leads to depression. This certainly happened to me.
Indeed, that’s why cognitive dysfunction, depression, and anxiety often go together (also because they’re all influenced by the limbic system) .
Inflammation (TNF, IL-1) and oxidative stress activate the stress pathway and cause us to be more anxious and depressed. Cytokines also degrade the hippocampus and other areas of the brain, which causes depression [48, 49, 50].
In turn, chronic stress can elevate inflammation in the long run (by causing glucocorticoid resistance) .
There are many drugs that can cause or contribute to brain fog.
If you’re an alcoholic, that will most likely be the cause of your brain fog.
I’ve also seen brain fog induced by antibiotics, which can produce free radicals and damage your mitochondria and the gut microbiome .
The following antibiotics induce free radical production: ciprofloxacin (a fluoroquinolone), ampicillin (a β-lactam), and kanamycin (an aminoglycoside).
There are a whole bunch of genes that don’t interact with our current environment well.
The CNR1 variation can cause a lot of problems with the limbic system and your gut.
Having the MTHFR mutation can hamper your ability to ‘detox’ and result in inflammation and oxidative stress.
The SOD2 mutation causes a 33% decrease of the enzyme (MnSOD) that breaks down superoxide in the mitochondria. Superoxide production can cause brain fog.
Obviously, your genes are only a part of the story. It’s usually the case that you need to have these mutations and other factors that increase oxidative stress.
The good news is that you can overcome genes with lifestyle and supplement choices, with the help of SelfDecode.
The following are biological factors that contribute to brain fog or make it worse:
The Limbic system/hypothalamus directs the adrenal glands. Adrenal fatigue is a misconception and the root cause of fatigue has to do with the hypothalamus, not your adrenal glands.
EDS, G6PD, Thalassemia, Anemia, and Gilbert’s Syndrome
Some conditions like Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency and Thalassemia increase the risk of brain fog for somewhat different reasons.
G6PD deficiency results in higher levels of oxidative stress because of low glutathione.
Thalassemia results in lower red blood cells and hemoglobin, which means less transport of oxygen. This increases the risk of hypoxia in various tissues.
Anemia will also increase the risk of brain fog for the same reason: increased risk of hypoxia in various tissues.
Gilbert’s Syndrome is associated with brain fog possibly because it’s often caused by low glucuronidation, which limits the ability to detox.
Euler’s Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is associated with brain fog because of its effects on collagen formation, which affects many systems in the body.
Brain Fog Treatments, Fixes, and Cures
1) Get Sunlight and Fresh Air
Sun is great for decreasing inflammation. Although uncommon, I’ve had a few cases of brain fog that were relieved simply by being outside and getting more sun.
Additionally, UVB increases our body’s internal antioxidant defenses .
People think that taking a vitamin D supplement will make up for not getting sun. This is false. In my opinion, most benefits of the sun don’t involve vitamin D.
The most beneficial “ingredient” of the sun is probably not vitamin D, but the infrared that it provides.
I recommend an hour of sun on most of your body (don’t exceed an hour for any spot).
2) Take Care of Your Sleep and Circadian Rhythm
The circadian rhythm is deeply connected with inflammation and both can cause the other to get out of balance.
I explore this subject in my post about why we get tired even with enough sleep.
The circadian rhythm is also tied to oxidative stress .
Disrupting your circadian rhythm will result in brain fog, as happens during jet lag. Some people are more sensitive to circadian disruptions. It can come about for a variety of reasons, but the most common are:
- Lack of light during the day
- Too much light at night
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Chronic inflammation
Disrupting circadian rhythms can also lead to heart diseases, neurodegenerative conditions, and cancer .
People with brain fog are often wired but tired at night, fatigued in the day, and lack a cortisol spike in the AM. They can be hot at night and wake up to pee multiple times.
These are all symptoms of circadian disruption I used to have.
Now I get tired at night and am awake in the day. I feel warmer in the day and cooler at night and don’t get hypoglycemic at night. My vasopressin release has normalized so I don’t wake up to pee. I wake up refreshed and ready to hit the day when my circadian rhythm is working properly.
Read my post on how to take care of your circadian rhythm.
Too much or too little exercise can contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress.
I’ve never had a client whose brain fog was solely related to exercise, but it can be a contributory factor.
Moderate exercise brings down inflammation and oxidative stress. Interval exercise is particularly good.
Don’t confuse endurance exercise with moderate aerobic exercise. Although not as good as interval exercise or yoga, aerobic exercise can decrease inflammation as well .
Recommendations: Push-ups, yoga, pull-ups, walking, and sprints. Short sprints running as quickly as possible for 30 seconds make me feel really good, yet not worn out after 3 sets.
4) Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
One common theme with people who have brain fog and chronic fatigue is lower vagal tone or vagus nerve activation.
Vagus nerve activation relaxes you by decreasing norepinephrine and inflammation while increasing GABA and acetylcholine.
See my post on the vagus nerve and ways to stimulate it.
Supplements and Vitamins
These supplements get rid of inflammation and oxidative stress and help the limbic system.
- CBD oil
- Olive leaf extract
- Nicotinamide riboside
- Vitamin B6 (P5P)
Find Out Why You Have Brain Fog
Want More Targeted Ways to Enhance Brain Function?
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Brain fog or ‘mental fog’ refers to cognitive impairment caused by brain inflammation. You may have brain fog if you feel forgetful, scattered, confused, unmotivated, irritable, and tired. Inflammation and oxidative stress cause brain fog by damaging the limbic system, a connected set of brain regions that affect cognition, emotions, and energy levels. Brain fog is common in people with food sensitivities who eat lectins and other pro-inflammatory nutrients. Poor sleep, infections, environmental toxins, drugs, and genetics are also major contributors. People with gut issues, mood disorders, autoimmune diseases, and hormonal imbalances are more prone to brain fog. To overcome brain fog and improve your cognition, get more sunlight, moderate exercise, and quality sleep. Vagus nerve stimulation can also be especially helpful. Magnesium, butyrate, zinc, DHA, CBD oil, and curcumin are also beneficial.