I was having dinner at a friend’s house the other day, and halfway through the meal, she jumped up and exclaimed “Wait! I completely forgot about the quinoa salad!”. She had prepared a beautiful meal from scratch, including this amazing quinoa salad, she had made up our plates, and we were eating contentedly– but she had left the quinoa salad on the kitchen counter, and didn’t realize it until we were halfway through.
“I can’t believe I did that,” she said when she came back into the dining room, shaking her head. “I just don’t know where my mind has been lately”.
Forgetting the quinoa salad wasn’t really a big deal, but as it turned out, she had been forgetting all kinds of things– for months. Not only that, but she was struggling to concentrate at work, waking up exhausted, and catching herself unsure of what she was about to say or do throughout the day.
In other words: classic brain fog. We have all been there, and we all know how frustrating it is, especially those of us who experience it chronically. I see women all the time who are struggling with brain fog, which shows up in a bunch of different ways, including difficulty concentrating, difficulty thinking clearly, lapses in memory, moodiness, fatigue, and sometimes just a general feeling of “fogginess”… “brain fog” is one of those conditions that requires very little description!
Even though brain fog is extremely common, beyond frustrating, and can interfere with all areas of our lives and health, I find that it tends to be really poorly understood and handled in conventional medicine.
Like fatigue, brain fog is one of those “invisible” symptoms that can be hard to pinpoint, which means that it tends to be overlooked or dismissed by doctors. This is such a widespread problem that a lot of women I see in my practice tell me that they haven’t received any guidance or undergone any investigations at all for the issue.
Let me just start by saying that brain fog is not something anyone should have to suffer through chronically, and it is definitely worth getting to the bottom of it. Not only can brain fog interfere with just about every aspect of your life, from work to relationships to mental health, it is often a sign of an underlying imbalance or deficiency that needs to be addressed.
What Brain Fog Could Be Telling You About Your Health
I look at the rise of persistent brain fog as a really clear example of the problems with the current, typical lifestyle in our country. We are bombarded with brain-fog inducing stressors left, right, and center, from high-stress work schedules to lack of sleep to an abundance of sugar and inflammatory, processed foods.
Sometimes, our society seems to value productivity or being busy above health. This is backwards for so many reasons, not the least of which is that we actually can’t do meaningful work if our health is suffering!
Brain fog is often brought on by a combination of physiological, emotional, and environmental factors. Inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, high stress, adrenal fatigue, and lack of good quality sleep can all contribute, and they tend to work together.
In this article, I’m going to break down some of the most common culprits of brain fog, and what you can do to tackle them in order to get your clarity back.
You might not be getting enough sleep
This one might seem obvious at first glance, but I talk to women all the time who have gotten so used to a lack of sleep that they don’t even give it a second thought anymore.
If I could give you one piece of homework in order to kickstart your journey towards uncovering the root cause of your brain fog, it would be to prioritize good quality sleep.
Most of us know that sleep is important– and we actually really like sleep! But we are also busy and preoccupied. In an ideal world, we would all be sleeping peacefully for 8 or 9 hours every night, without fail. But we live in a world that is a lot more hectic and complicated. Our culture has perpetuated this crazy idea that sleep is sort of negotiable, and that success means skimping on shut-eye in order to get more done.
Even if you don’t buy into this ridiculous narrative, you can probably relate to the reality. When we’re trying to squeeze too many things into our days or weeks, a good night’s sleep is generally the first thing to go. We are way more likely to just go to bed a little later or wake up a little earlier if it means not having to cancel a meeting, miss a social engagement, or get the house cleaned up before company arrives.
This is okay every once in a while, but not when it becomes a routine. More and more studies are coming out all the time that clearly show that when your sleep suffers, your health suffers. Brain fog is one common consequence, and we also see issues like increased risk of chronic disease and weight gain.
7-9 hours a night of restful sleep is absolutely essential in order to achieve mental clarity. When I talk to women who tell me that they just don’t really need as much sleep as other people and can function on 5 or 6 hours a night, I see this as a huge red flag!
It can take time for the effects of sleep deprivation to catch up to you, but the truth is that our brains, bodies, and hormones simply are not able to function properly without adequate sleep.
Unfortunately, many of us are relying on stimulants like caffeine and sugar– often way more than we actually realize– which can trick us into feeling energetic and refreshed, when in reality they are contributing to the imbalances that may eventually lead to chronic brain fog and other symptoms.
Many women do, on the other hand, prioritize and value good quality sleep, but struggle with insomnia or a busy brain in the middle of the night. If this is the case, it is important to work on getting to the root of that problem, and taking a look at any habits that might be getting in the way of your sleep.
Long story short? Brain health, hormonal balance, and neurotransmitter function require good quality sleep. Insufficient sleep can also lead to increased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which might keep you up at night, exacerbating the problem.
Make sure to consider your sleeping habits and patterns as a first step towards clearing up brain fog!
There could be a deficiency or imbalance in your diet
Just like sleep, what we eat is an extremely important regulator of mental clarity, and it’s an area where we have a lot of power to make positive changes.
Inflammation is a major cause of brain fog (not to mention a contributing factor to chronic disease of all kinds), so one of the most helpful things you can do is avoid inflammatory foods (especially the processed, packaged, sugary, or fried varieties, as well as gluten and dairy), and focus on fresh, anti-inflammatory foods that support brain health.
In natural health and functional medicine circles we talk a lot about what to avoid, and that’s definitely important, but we also need to remember to look at what we might be missing from our diets. The brain requires a complex variety of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids in order to make the chemicals we need and function properly, and an underlying deficiency is often at the root of common concerns like brain fog.
Complete protein sources (including grass-fed meat, fresh-caught fish, and eggs) are necessary in order to provide us with all of the essential amino acids we need for the production of brain-supporting chemicals and hormones.
Healthy, high quality fats (including avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and wild-caught fish) are also necessary for brain function, hormonal balance, and to reduce inflammation.
Healthy, complex carbohydrates (like fruit, sweet potatoes, and yams) are important for the production of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin.
If you are already eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods, the next step to look into is whether you may have an underlying food sensitivity, or a gut issue that could be preventing your body from properly absorbing and using the nutrients you are consuming.
You may have an underlying hormonal imbalance
Hormonal imbalances are really common in those who suffer from chronic brain fog. A hormonal imbalance is often influenced by the first two factors I mentioned (lack of sleep and nutritional deficiencies) as well as stress and adrenal dysfunction, but other factors can contribute as well.
If hormonal imbalances are not uncovered and treated, problems may continue even after making positive lifestyle changes. I always look at potential hormonal issues with my patients, and I often find them! I look at this as a positive thing– if you can find the problem, you can almost always fix it.
Hormones and brain function go hand in hand. Any imbalance can totally throw the brain and the rest of the body off their game, and create a cascade of dysfunction. There are a few hormones in particular that have a lot of influence over mental clarity, and that can lead to brain fog if levels are off.
Low thyroid function can lead to a lot of sluggishness and difficulty thinking. Insulin resistance, often brought on by a diet high in refined sugar, is another common problem that can lead to brain fog. The mood balancing neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are also major players here.
Imbalances in estrogen or progesterone levels can also lead to brain fog, and this helps to explain why so many women have a hard time concentrating, remembering things, and thinking clearly during perimenopause and when other hormonal changes are occurring.
A decline in estrogen and progesterone levels during perimenopause and menopause is natural, but if levels are too low or if there is too much fluctuation, it can be problematic. I highly recommend working with a functional medicine practitioner who can take a look at your hormonal balance and identify any underlying issues.
Another hormonal imbalance that is extremely common among those who struggle with brain fog is levels of cortisol that are too high or too low, which brings us to the next factor.
You may have adrenal fatigue or dysfunction
I’ve mentioned before that I see some level of adrenal dysfunction in pretty well all of my patients, so it may come as no surprise that it is also one of the most common underlying causes of brain fog, one of the most prevalent symptoms I see in my practice.
I’ve left adrenal fatigue to (almost) the end, mostly because of how connected it is to the other factors I’ve talked about here. Adrenal fatigue is brought on by an overload of stress, which includes everything from working a challenging job and taking care of a family to lack of sleep and a diet high in inflammatory foods, and supporting adrenal health means addressing all of those stressors.
So, if improving your sleep and your diet doesn’t completely solve the problem, I promise that it’s still helping and it’s still so important for your health! You just might need to take a look at the other factors in your life that could be impacting your stress response and adrenal health.
When cortisol levels are chronically high, as we tend to see in the earlier stages of adrenal fatigue especially, it can lead to brain fog, memory issues, anxiety, and neurodegeneration. Cortisol levels also influence dopamine and serotonin levels, which can exacerbate the problem.
As the adrenal glands are responsible for the production and regulation of a number of hormones, adrenal fatigue is also often an underlying cause of hormonal imbalances.
It may be a sign of a gut imbalance, and/or a more complex medical condition
There are a number of chronic illnesses that are associated with brain fog, which makes sense, as everything that goes on in the body and brain is connected in one way or another.
Depression, hypothyroidism, autoimmune conditions, and fibromyalgia are among the chronic diseases that often come with brain fog. In many cases, these conditions themselves are related in part to the imbalances we’ve talked about here, from hormonal imbalances to an inflammatory diet, and some of the same strategies can be used in treatment.
Brain fog is also a common symptom of chronic Lyme disease, which may be something to investigate if you have not yet been able to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Brain fog is also a common symptom of a gut imbalance, including leaky gut, gluten intolerance, or candida overgrowth. The gut and the brain are inextricably linked, and one can’t function properly if the other is imbalanced. Gut issues can also help to explain why brain fog and other symptoms may persist even when your diet has been overhauled, as you may be struggling to absorb or process the nutrients you are taking in.
Healing brain fog naturally
I’ve talked about a number of different things that brain fog might be telling you about your health, and in many cases, it’s a combination of all of these factors.
In order to heal from brain fog naturally, it’s important to address all areas. Focus on getting good quality sleep by prioritizing 7-9 hours a night, ditching stimulants like caffeine later in the day, avoiding alcohol, and turning off screens and devices well before bedtime. Take a close look at your diet, and consider working with a functional medicine practitioner who can help you to identify any possible deficiencies or sensitivities. Look for ways to reduce stress in your day-to-day, and make time for the things that bring you joy.
There are some supplements that may help with brain fog, including adaptogenic herbs like rhodiola and ashwagandha that can help to regulate the stress response, omega 3 fish oils to support overall brain health, and B vitamins. It’s best to discuss these options with a practitioner.
Work with a functional medicine practitioner in order to identify any underlying hormonal imbalances, and help you to come up with a personalized plan for cutting through the fog.
Are we ever going to live in a world in which we never misplace our key? Probably not! But it is possible to overcome persistent brain fog naturally, and feel clear, focused, and joyful again. I’ve seen it so many times, and I believe that you can get there too!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD