The other day, my friend told me that she’d frantically been searching for her glasses – until her husband pointed out they were on her face.
Another friend told me about a time when, stopped at a stoplight, she started to worry so much that she’d left a burner on the stove on that she turned around and went back home to check, even though she was running late.
Everyone experiences moments like these, especially when stress is high. And right now, stress is high for everyone I know!
Women come into my practice regularly and are often embarrassed to tell me how many times a day this happens – especially when it’s something that could compromise safety (like leaving the burner on).
A lot of these women are caring for aging parents, and are seeing firsthand the way mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia plays out. They are so fearful that these moments of fog indicate they could be headed the same direction. Women with children who have ADHD worry that perhaps they have it as well, and never knew. Almost all of them are worried that it’s only going to get worse.
The big question I get is “If I’m this forgetful now, what’s it going to be like in ten years?” In fact, the fear of decreasing mental abilities is often far greater than fear of developing physical limitations.
I try to reassure my clients that for the large majority of women under 70, there’s no reason to panic. These episodes of forgetfulness or inability to focus are common signals that your body is overburdened and not getting the support it needs — and this includes how well you are coping with stress. Symptoms like fuzzy thinking, attention and memory problems can also develop due to changing hormones in perimenopause or menopause as well as other physiological imbalances that can be easily addressed with simple changes to lifestyle and nutrition.
Fear and shame should never guide you when it comes to your health. Examining what’s truly going on allows you to then take action to change the situation and begin thinking clearly again.
In this article, I’ll discuss some common root causes of fuzzy thinking, along with some suggestions on how to combat each to find clarity.
When is fuzzy thinking serious?
Fuzzy thinking is a serious problem far less often than you might think. Conventional medicine brackets lapses in cognitive function (like many other problems) within two extremes. On the minor side, you have a temporary state of mental deterioration that is a direct result of a traceable behavioral pattern or situation — sleep deprivation, low blood sugar, illness, falling in love, childbirth, poor eating habits, and acute stress are a few examples. In this scenario, clarity returns when the “crisis” is over.
On the more severe side, you have mental lapses that do not improve with time and self-care. These may indicate onset of a serious underlying mental or physical condition, including but not limited to: clinical depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD (also known as ADD), dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, or brain trauma or disease. Obviously the more serious neuropsychiatric conditions are topics of scientific research and get more press, so we hear a lot more about them.
But thinking in extremes makes it easy to either dismiss something that should be addressed or veer into catastrophic thinking when it comes to your own cognitive symptoms. It should bring peace of mind to hear that the spontaneous development of degenerative mental conditions in midlife is typically the exception, not the rule.
Of course, if you have a family or personal history of a clinical disorder, or recently have experienced significant trauma, it makes sense to call your health care practitioner and discuss your situation. And if loved ones are worried, it can’t hurt to listen to their concerns and get more information. There are a range of tests that can help put everyone’s minds at ease – or give you important information that you need.
It’s far more likely, however, that your lapses are minor. While you may be quite anxious about them, try to think about them as signals – like any other symptom – that you need to give your health some attention. When I see women with fuzzy thinking, I assess it in the context of the whole picture, and often, the simple explanations are the culprit. Let’s take a look at these.
Stress and over-scheduling — the brain foggers
Women are fantastic multitaskers. We are hardwired to spin many plates in the air at once — and make dinner while we’re at it. So many women highlight this ability as a badge of honor, but it can come at a great cost. Women are finally beginning to realize that they can have it all…but not all at once!
Think of it this way: Your brain is a filing cabinet and the information you receive are the folders, filtered and filed by your short and long-term memory systems. In today’s world, the cabinet is overflowing. And the older you are, the more jammed that filing system becomes, especially if you aren’t taking care of yourself. And the old information is already firmly inside the cabinet, so the newer files are pushed aside and discarded. That isn’t to say you can never absorb new information, but you have to make room for it.
Distraction and over scheduling are also key players. You can only think of so many things at one time and if you’re running everywhere, not even taking time to breathe, your brain may just decide it’s time for a break. Spacing out and shutting down are very real coping mechanisms for chronic stress.
Under chronic stress, your adrenal glands are overloaded, and stop functioning as they should. This can cause a range of symptoms – including that fuzzy thinking we’re talking about. In light of this, reducing stress, both emotional and environmental, and learning positive coping mechanisms are terrific therapy for the brain. Your lifestyle and daily schedule may be the first place to start when thinking about what may be causing your mental fog.
Up all night, fuzzy all day
It’s probably no surprise that quality sleep has a huge impact on your health. Sleep deprivation, whether minimal or dramatic, is a huge problem in our modern culture. And we all know that when we are running on empty, we just don’t think well.
If that never ending “to-do” list is keeping you up late at night, or if you are drinking a lot of alcohol to help yourself relax, your REM sleep may be deficient. A valuable part of information processing occurs during REM sleep, so if you go too long without it you’ll start to feel the mental effects — as anyone who has pulled one too many all-nighters can attest.
When sleep deficits are short-term, we can generally recover well and quickly return to normal functioning once better sleep patterns are restored. But many women face each day with an ongoing sleep deficit that is cumulative over weeks, and even years. Catching up on your zzzz’s is one of the easiest and quickest ways to improve fuzzy thinking.
Nutrition, inflammation, and exercise
Have you ever sat through a long meeting without eating breakfast? If so, you’re probably well aware of the role that nutrition plays in brain function. A wide range of nutrients have been linked with optimal cognitive function, including B-complex vitamins, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids.
This may be due to the reduction of inflammation and plaque production along nerve endings. Inflammation is a natural immune process designed to protect your body from foreign substances. But an overactive inflammatory response can cause all kinds of health issues. Inflammation in the brain has been linked to several neurological disorders. So making sure you’re getting optimal nutrition for reducing inflammation can help keep cognitive function on the right track.
Exercise is also a key player in cognition. Just as less plaque on our arteries makes way for easier blood flow, exercise naturally opens your arteries to increase blood flow. Like all living tissue in our bodies, the brain needs oxygen (via blood) to do its job and regular exercise makes for better circulation all around. Fittingly, some common symptoms of heart disease are memory loss, aphasia (a loss for words) and fuzzy thinking, thanks to inefficient blood circulation.
Food sensitivities and mental clarity
Undiagnosed food sensitivities can be another culprit in cognitive dysfunction. I often see drastic improvement in women who remove wheat and gluten from their diets. Sensitivity to yeast (candida) can also manifest as fuzzy thinking, which can improve when you avoid yeast’s favorite food: sugar!
We all have unique reactions in our bodies to different substances, so you may have some sleuthing to do — but don’t disregard the possibility that mental fuzziness is the telltale sign that something is awry in what you are eating. The cleaner you can make your diet, the easier it is to identify any connections. Try eliminating foods that commonly cause problems – especially gluten, dairy and sugar – and see what you discover.
This is also a great time to consider reducing carbohydrate consumption, since it has a big impact on a source of depression and fuzzy thinking that’s often overlooked: Insulin resistance.
Insulin Resistance, Hormonal Balance, and Fuzzy Thinking
Your cognitive function relies on a steady supply of oxygen and glucose. When levels dip, you yawn or begin to crave food. If your circulation and metabolism are hopping along, and your hormones are balanced, your brain gets what it needs without much fanfare. However, insulin resistance — a precursor to diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease — can make this whole process far more complicated by causing inflammation and affecting brain function.
Some women discover that they’ve become insulin resistant when they enter perimenopause and menopause. Before that time, estrogens appear to have a protective effect; when levels decline the protective effect is diminished, but you gain the opportunity to understand what’s really been going on in your body. This is one of the many gifts of menopause.
If you are dealing with insulin resistance, reducing your simple carbohydrate load may significantly improve your mental clarity — not to mention your mood. And once you’ve stabilized your insulin and cortisol levels, addressing other components of hormonal balance becomes more straightforward. Your body can’t balance its “minor” hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone among them) until your insulin metabolism is on an even keel.
Estrogen and brain circuitry
Balance between estrogen and progesterone is also crucial for proper brain functioning and healthy neurotransmitter levels. Any woman who has experienced sugar cravings, bouts of fatigue or extreme mood swings as part of PMS knows instinctively that estrogen and progesterone influence how you feel and think.
The impact of hormones on cognitive processes have been getting more research attention as studies have shown correlations between estrogen levels and the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Estradiol, in particular, appears to have a potent neuroprotective, antioxidant effect, preventing our neurons from oxidative damage and early death.
Other studies are showing that estrogen profoundly impacts mental agility by helping the brain strengthen and expand the nerve endings — dendrites — that complete the final, crucial steps in cognitive functions. Estrogens help connect the little wires in our brains to make processes like memory, reasoning, and mood run smoothly.
So hormonal balance can clearly have an impact on memory and attention in perimenopause and menopause. Supporting your body’s hormonal transition with gentle endocrine support is one way to reboot your natural hormonal rhythm and help regulate estrogen levels.
Heavy metals and fuzzy thinking
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up heavy metal toxicity. This is an extremely controversial subject and a lot more research is needed to fully define the connections with cognitive impairment. But research has documented a loss in cognitive performance due to poisonous levels of at least seven different heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, mercury, nickel, and silver).
Exposure to aluminum, while not technically a heavy metal, has been linked to cognitive disorders, including reduced verbal and visual memory, visuo-spatial problem-solving, concentration, “concept formation” and attention, as well as with increased risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Humans are exposed to low levels of heavy metals constantly, and little research has been done on the cumulative effects of this exposure. But I believe that if we have proven that high levels of heavy metals affect brain development and functioning, it stands to reason that long-term exposure to low levels would have a detrimental effect.
Ironically, there is one metal that causes fuzzy thinking when you have too little of it in your system: iron. Anemia, or iron deficiency, is a common concern in women. Fortunately, this is a condition that is easily treatable with a few dietary changes and temporary iron supplementation, and it’s easy to detect with a simple blood test.
A little awareness can help explain and address fuzzy thinking
Understanding the many factors that impact increased cognitive lapses can free you from worry and spur you into action. There’s a lot you can do to change course, once you know where the problem originates. But first, notice what’s going on in your body and consider whether any of the above factors are at play. Knowing the root cause of symptoms is the best step towards a clear mind and a healthy life!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD