The Definitive Guide to Brain Fog: Causes, Signs, & Symptoms
By Ali Kuoppala | Last reviewed Tue 25 September 2018
Medical Review by Dr. Stefano Pizzo, MD
What exactly is brain fog? "clouding of consciousness" - as it's medically called - is a condition where a person feels a mental decline or inability to think properly, as explained by a "foggy" feeling inside the head.
Some people feel that they have brain fog all the time, and others report it to only occur occasionally, but fact is that only a very small fraction of people have never felt foggy in the head at some point of their lives.
It may seem normal, but it's not. Brain fog is a sign that something is not running optimally in your brain chemistry, and having that feeling all the time can be a serious sign of real mental decline.
But what causes brain fog? And how do you fix it?
Signs and Symptoms of Brain Fog
Before we get into the list of brain fog causes, let's take a look at some of the common symptoms.
Predominantly, the most common symptom is simply "feeling foggy", but there are other signs and symptoms too...
- Lack of focus and confusion
- Headaches and fatigue
- Lack of motivation
- Depression and anxiety
- Memory loss and "blank moments"
- Insomnia and trouble sleeping
What Actually Causes Brain Fog
There are many known causes of brain fog, some being easily fixable.
The research about the subject isn't that conclusive, and "brain fog" is often just mentioned on the side in studies that look at different topics (most often studies examining cognitive decline and dementia).
...Still, there's some good evidence as of what actually causes brain fog;
- Lack of cholesterol in the diet - statin medication is known for its side effect of causing brain fog, this is because cholesterol is a vital part of healthy cognitive functions (25% of the body's cholesterol actually resides in the brain) and the statin drugs reduce the levels of this waxy substance that helps with neuronal signaling, synaptic plasticity, and memory.
- Low-fat diets - another common cause of brain fog and mental decline, is lack of fat in the diet. Not that you need to get insane amounts of it either, but it has been shown that really low-fat diets tend to result in impaired cognitive functions (not that big of a surprise considering that up to 60% of the dry weight of the brain is comprised of fatty-acids).
- High intake of PUFA - Polyunsaturated fatty-acids (PUFAs) are sometimes viewed as the "good fats", although studies clearly show that their carbon-carbon bonds are unstable and they easily convert to free fatty-acids in the body, resulting in increased amounts of oxidative damage (which when occurring in the brain, results in classic symptoms of brain fog).
- Foods high in gluten and lectins - surprisingly large amounts of people have slight adverse reactions to gluten and lectins commonly found in grains. Some of these reactions are worsening of cognitive disorders, such as autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia. It has also been noted that high intake of processed wheat may contribute to brain fog. One of the theorized reasons is the fact that some gluten breakdown products bind to morphine and opiate receptors.
- Dehydration - up to 75% of Americans are though to be "chronically dehydrated" simply due to not drinking enough fluids thorough the day. Since a large portion of the brain is actually water, even slight dehydration can negatively contribute to short-term brain plasticity, and thus cause acute mental decline and brain fog symptoms.
- Micronutrient deficiencies - vitamin and mineral deficiencies are getting increasingly prevalent as our food supply gets increasingly refined and processed. This results in a host of cognitive problems, since nearly all of the vitamins and minerals we know of, have some degree of importance in the complex mechanisms of the brain. Even something as simple as taking a daily multivitamin has been shown to improve cognitive functions and lift brain fog in dozens of studies.
- Inactivity - being a slob does no good for the body. Exercise - not even that strenuous of a kind - is a great way to make your body produce extra endorphins and amp up the glucose and oxygen regulation of the brain. In fact, it has been shown that regular exercise might be one of the most important factors in keeping your cognitive health in check and avoiding brain fog.
- Lack of sleep - when you sleep, your body is in a mode of recharge and repair. Nobody knows exactly why we have to sleep, but we simply have to in order to survive. How can lack of sleep cause brain fog? For one, it has been shown that while we sleep, the cerebral fluid oozes through the brain, flushing out toxins. What would happen if you don't sleep enough and there's toxin build-up within the brain? Some foggery certainly.
- Stress - chronic stress leads to chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol on the other hand, when its elevated for long periods of time, can wreck some serious havoc inside the body. It can also cause brain fog by increasing free radical damage in the brain.
Of course, there are likely many other things that cause brain fog, but at least the points above are clearly proven in scientific studies, and aren't just the common anecdotal rambles you often see on the internet.
How to Cure and Fix Brain Fog Naturally
Just like there are many causes to brain fog, there is also plenty of fixes and natural solutions.
Some of them require more effort than others, but generally speaking, it ain't hard to "lift the fog".
Here's how you do it:
#1. Fix your diet - a brain fog reducing brain boosting diet looks something like this: plenty of carbs from anything other than grains, protein from meat, dairy, and gelatin, fats in moderation from primarily saturated and monounsaturated sources, plenty of fluids, and micronutrient-dense whole foods instead of processed and refined "empty calories".
#2. Sleep more and exercise - first and foremost, a healthy brain needs quality sleep, and lots of it. When it comes to exercise there are two things that top all others for brain health; lifting heavy objects and walking in nature.
#3. Nootropics - the class of drugs and supplements that define cognitive enhancing and neuroprotective compounds is called "nootropics". A whole host of supplements in this category can be used (with scientific proof) to improve cognitive functions and reduce the occurrence of brain fog, few of the key ones for this purpose include: racetams, huperzine A, choline, phosphatidylserine, and eugeroics like modafinil (you can read our nootropics guide here).