Updated: Nov 30, 2021
Brain fog feels like not being at the top of your game, forgetting the name of someone you just met or losing your train of thought. It can be described as a mental vagueness and for those of us that live in our heads or pride ourselves on our ability to achieve, experiencing brain fog can be really confronting. While yes, there are a lot of medical reasons why we can experience brain fog such as an underactive thyroid, blood sugar imbalances, certain medications, chronic pain or perimenopausal hormone changes, for most of us it comes down to diet and lifestyle choices.
If you want to improve your performance at work or have a big project due why not try focusing on these five things to improve your mental alertness:
1. Good quality and quantity of sleep: Adults should be aiming for between 7-9 hours of unbroken sleep every single night. All of the new parents out there will be all too aware of how it feels to be sleep deprived and what this feels like for their memory, focus and concentration. The knowledge that this phase is not forever and the joys felt with caring for young children are enough to get you through, however, for everyone else out there experiencing poor quality and/or not enough sleep this needs to become a priority as a matter of urgency for your health. Having less than six hours of sleep has been likened to a blood alcohol reading of 0.05%, a marker that suggests you are unfit to drive a car. Sleeping is not just a waste of time out of the day, there is a lot that goes on inside the body while you are in bed, one of those being the digestion and detoxification of waste products. One toxin in particular, beta amyloid which has been linked to Alzheimer's Disease, has been shown to be flushed from the brain during sleep due to the way that fluids circulate throughout the brain while we are switched off at night. Aiming to achieve a full night of sleep, every night, is better than any medicine for your brain and whole body health.
2. Eliminate gluten: The term Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity is a bit of a mouthful but basically it is referring to a large population of individuals who do not have Coeliac Disease (an autoimmune allergy to gluten containing foods) but are showing signs of intolerance or sensitivity. This is often associated with gut health and digestive symptoms from eating gluten containing foods, however, there is more and more evidence coming out suggesting that the effects of gluten are much more far flung around the body than just the gut. A survey conducted last year on 125 individuals who have Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity found that 48% experienced brain fog when eating gluten. The Coeliac Disease Foundation also reports that brain fog improved in a large portion of patients once they stopped consuming gluten, using results from five research studies for their findings. You might be thinking “but I don’t have coeliac disease and I’m not sensitive to gluten, so does that mean I’m OK?”, and the answer is we don’t know yet. Research is relatively young in assessing the effects of gluten on healthy individuals, however, with more data coming out on the negative impacts of gluten with those suffering from ADHD, Autism, Schizophrenia, autoimmune conditions and headaches we can begin to draw links between neurological function and consuming gluten.
3. Regular movement outside: Moving your body regularly is not only great at maintaining a healthy weight range, supporting cardiovascular health and improving strength, flexibility and stability it is also vital for maintaining cognitive function. A meta-analysis in 2003 looking at children in school settings found that those who participated in regular physical activity had improved learning capabilities in a variety of areas such as mathematics, perceptual skills, and memory. On the other end of the spectrum, research looking at an older population (between 60-75) found that those who were assigned aerobic activity for 6 months had improved cognitive scores and reaction times than those who were assigned non-aerobic activities. Research has also looked at the impact of the environment on cognitive abilities and found that exposure to nature improves mental performance which suggests, in combination with the previous two studies, that a lifetime of movement and doing it outside, such as a daily walk, can assist with mental alertness.
4. Meditation: By now most of us would understand that meditation is far more than just sitting in silence every day trying not to think thoughts. For decades there have been scientists studying the brain of meditators to find out exactly what goes on from a neurological perspective and the results have been quite impressive. One of the most profound findings is in long-term meditators and the volume of grey matter in their brain. This is the stuff our brain is made from and is in charge of memory and orientation. Upon brain scans, those who had a 20 year meditation practice showed far greater volumes of grey matter than those of comparable age who did not meditate, which suggests that meditation actually keeps the size of your brain bigger for longer. If you haven’t been meditating for long or haven’t started your practice yet, don't worry! Another study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped to improve both memory and focus performance on critical thinking tests.
5. Cut down on toxins: Every day we increase our toxic load just from existing in a modern world (exhaust fumes, household chemicals, plastics, overuse of medications, etc.), however, there is a lot we can do to reduce this load and improve our health and the biggest players in our control are cigarettes and alcohol. Most people who have over-indulged with alcohol may have experienced a lapse in memory to some degree either while drinking or the day after. The reason for this is that the brain is not able to form new memories while intoxicated, contrary to some of us believing we have lost a memory, the fact is, we never formed it in the first place. As the amount of alcohol consumed increases, so does the impairment to memory, therefore sticking to the recommended daily limit when drinking and having days off alcohol will be beneficial to your brain function. Nicotine found in cigarettes binds to a large number of receptors in the brain which influence memory, attention and learning. Initially the effects of nicotine give the feeling of improved cognition, however, long term heavy use of cigarettes has a strong association with cognitive decline, especially in the middle age population.
Along with these five tips, some of my favourite herbs for improving focus include Rosemary, Ginkgo, Bacopa and Lion’s Mane. If you are truly concerned about your brain fog, it is advised to speak to your primary health practitioner about investigating possible causes. By working on your specific needs and areas of health along with a combination of these treatments and a well balanced diet your mind should feel sharp and clear again.