Many of us have been there, felt that: A fuzzy brain feeling in which you struggle to recall seemingly familiar facts or names, can’t focus, or simply feel “off.” You likely can’t pin down exactly how or why it started, but the brain fog symptoms are majorly disorienting—so you want to clear them up fast.
Read on to discover the possible brain fog causes that might be making your world feel cloudy, plus what might help you feel sharp again.
What Is Brain Fog?
Much like a growling stomach might be a sign that your body is hungry, brain fog is actually a symptom of something else rather than a medical condition itself. Brain fog, cognitive fog or “cog fog” refers to a shift in mental functioning that occurs over a set time. Scientists believe brain fog may be related to high levels of inflammation inside the brain, as well as perhaps due to shifts in hormone levels that impact mood, focus and energy levels.
This temporary fuzzy brain feeling is different from cognitive decline associated with older age (and possibly dementia or Alzheimer’s disease) because it can happen to humans at any age and often clears up within hours or days.
So how do you know if you might be caught amidst a thick cloud of brain fog? Brain fog symptoms include challenges with:
- Focus and concentration
- Mental clarity
- Word selection
Less often, but still occasionally, a fuzzy brain also comes packaged with additional symptoms such as headaches, anxiety, lack of energy, emotional distance, and trouble sleeping.
As you might guess, brain fog can most definitely interfere with daily life.
RELATED: How to Stay Focused and Present
7 of the Most Common Brain Fog Causes
Brain fog causes can vary as much as those aforementioned brain fog symptoms. That said, we’re diving into the most common causes of brain fog below.
“Adequate intake of calories, healthy fats, iron, and vitamin B-12 are especially important to prevent brain fog.”
Think of how your energy levels feel after you miss a meal, or even when a meeting runs long and you’re forced to eat an hour or two later than usual. You’re dragging, right? Same holds true for your brain; its cells need enough nourishment to stay sharp. Adequate intake of calories, healthy fats, iron, and vitamin B-12 are especially important to prevent brain fog. Food allergies and sensitivities to ingredients such as dairy, peanuts, and certain artificial sweeteners can also lead to a fuzzy brain.
The brain is connected to all of the other organs in your body. So when your activity levels dip, your brain activity can follow suit. In this case, a quick yoga flow or walk around the block might be the only Rx required.
Persistent stress is exhausting for the brain to sort through. (Have you ever tried to focus during a phone call when you are ruminating about a challenge at home? It’s almost impossible to feel clear.) Over time, high levels of stress can lead to anxiety or depression, sleep issues, a weaker immune system and more.
When you don’t get enough sleep, you may feel a little bewildered and have trouble concentrating. Poor sleep can also make the brain tired, which can make thinking clearly difficult. Sleep protects your brain. Studies suggest that sleep flushes out toxins that build up in your brain throughout the day, and that process can benefit executive functions such as reasoning and memory over the long-term. As an added bonus, getting enough sleep gives you the energy to engage in other healthy activities proven to protect your brain, such as exercising and making healthy food choices.
Any woman who has gone through a pregnancy or menopause can vouch for the fact that these massive hormonal waves can do a number on mood, memory and more. Estrogen and progesterone are both related to the ability to think clearly, so anything (a change in lifestyle or a new medication, for example) that impacts hormones may also trigger brain fog.
Pay attention to how your body responds after starting any new medication. Adjusting the dosage or switching to a different drug may be all the brain fog treatment required to clear things up.*
Other Medical Conditions
Any condition that’s related to inflammation, affects energy levels or even blood sugar can trigger brain fog. Some common medical conditions that might be related to foggy brain feelings include:
- Autoimmune diseases (arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, or Sjögren syndrome)
How Brain Fog Is Diagnosed
While there’s not a specific medical test that can diagnose brain fog, your doctor can help pinpoint the potential brain fog cause—since that’s the actual medical condition that the fuzzy brain feeling is a symptom of—and suggest a treatment plan that can help you get back on track. If you notice that your brain fog symptoms last for several weeks at a time or drastically impact quality of life, contact your medical provider.
Your physician will likely complete a physical exam and ask about your exercise and eating habits, sleep routine, mental health, supplement intake (if any) and any medications you’re taking. Be honest with your responses, and be sure to bring up all potentially-related symptoms, including weight gain or loss, skin, nail or hair changes, and energy levels.
Your answers might spark your doctor to run additional tests, such as a sleep study or allergy test. They may suggest keeping a food journal to help determine any intolerances, a stress rating journal to keep tabs on how brain fog relates to the amount of stress you experience each day, or a hormonal journal to see if your brain fog tends to pop up around the same time each month.
How to Treat Brain Fog
As we mentioned, the treatment plan for brain fog depends on the brain fog cause. Many times, lifestyle habit changes can make a huge difference. These home remedies for brain fog certainly can’t hurt if you’re trying to clear up your fuzzy brain quickly. If you see your medical provider, your doctor might also recommend that you:
- Adjust your diet. Aim to consume more brain-healthy foods and water (and less processed foods and drinks).
- Move more. Exercise 30 minutes per day, ideally outside, if possible. A November 2021 study in Preventative Medicine found that those who spend more time outside—and more time exercising—experience lower levels of anxiety and depression)
- Limit screen time. Invest less time on your computer or phone if you can, take breaks often and put down all technology at least 90 minutes before bed.
- Prioritize sleep. Shoot for 7 to 8 hours per day. Set a “sleep reminder” alarm 30 minutes before bed if you could use a prompt to begin to wind down. Here’s how to calculate your best bedtime.
- Calm down your afternoons. Avoid coffee and alcohol after 6 p.m., or earlier if you notice they impact your sleep. Steer clear of excessive intake of either throughout the day, too, of course.
- Practice puzzles. Train your brain with board games, number challenges (like sudoku), or word puzzles (like a crossword) to stay engaged.
Sometimes, the most effective brain fog treatment might involve adjusting your prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, or supplements.
* Always speak with your doctor before making any changes to any of the above.