What is Brain Fog?
If you’ve ever forgotten the name of an everyday item or found yourself easily distracted, it’s easy to blame it on brain fog. But true brain fog isn’t a condition or diagnosis — it’s a multifaceted symptom, and a vague one at that, says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan.
“Brain fog can present in different ways for different people,” Dr. Rawls says. “While it can include easier-to-measure issues like concentration problems, poor memory, or even dizziness, for most people, it’s harder to define: You just feel fuzzy, like things aren’t clicking, everything’s in slow motion, and you can’t put thoughts together — like walking in a fog.”
By comparison, when your brain is sharp, you see multiple dimensions, can think clearly and quickly, and stay focused.
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter, you probably know what brain fog feels like. And for obvious reasons, it can have an enormous, negative impact on your quality of life. Brain fog affects your work, productivity, decision-making, personal relationships, energy levels, and simple day-to-day functioning.
But if brain fog is just one symptom of a bigger issue, what is it?
Unfortunately, defining it can be as hard to pinpoint as the symptom itself. Brain fog has been linked to multiple chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and autoimmune and gastrointestinal disorders. Still, there may not always be a clear root disease or cause. Chances are, though, it won’t be your only symptom.
“In addition to brain fog, maybe you’re also tired, stressed, not eating or sleeping well, your bowels don’t seem to be working properly,” says Dr. Rawls. “All of these are symptoms of general body dysfunction, where cells aren’t being nourished properly, and toxins aren’t being removed.” He believes mild inflammation and congestion in the brain are at play but also points to recent research on a potential new culprit: Bacteria.
How Bacteria Affects the Brain
Doctors used to think that the brain was sterile and protected by the blood-brain barrier, but now know that it's not. If bacteria got in, it was bad news, immediately signaling an infection requiring antibiotics.
However, research now shows that’s far from the case. Bacteria lives in the brains of healthy people. It also lives in the brains of those with neurological diseases. Studies have linked pathogenic bacteria with multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
The Brain Microbiome
“There is a whole spectrum of microbes in our brain, so we now know the brain has its own microbiome,” Dr. Rawls says. And, like the microbiome in your gut, the one in your brain could become overrun with pathogenic or inflammatory microbes. In other words, says Dr. Rawls, brain fog and other brain symptoms may be a sign of immune dysfunction brought on by microbial imbalances — bad bacteria running amok, interfering with cellular processes, and triggering inflammation.
Suppose disturbances of the brain’s microbiome contribute to brain fog or other neurological problems. In that case, the next logical step is to consider the health of your body’s central microbiome — the one in your gut, which ironically is sometimes called your second brain.
“We know that our gut microbes affect our emotions and vice versa, so it makes sense that our gut microbes may be affecting our brains in other ways,” Dr. Rawls says.
Dr. Rawls says it’s wise to take a two-pronged approach to address brain fog: Adopt a healthy lifestyle that balances your gut microbiome and enhances brain function and cognitive processes.
The good news is that what’s good for your brain is usually good for your gut, and vice versa.
Here are some natural and effective steps to start today.
7 Ways to Clear Brain Fog and Support Healthy Cognitive Function
1. Feed Your Microbiome Plenty of Plants
Fiber-rich veggies and fruits are great for their gut health-supporting powers. For one, fiber provides good bacteria in your gut with fuel that helps them flourish and prevent pathogenic bugs from setting up shop. Fiber also helps move stool through your intestinal tract, clearing out harmful bacteria in the process.
As for the brain, keeping gut pathogens in check may indirectly help protect the brain from proteins and inflammation that could play a role in neurological and other diseases.
While all fresh produce is beneficial, several fruits and veggies are especially friendly to gut bacteria. For example, dandelion greens contain high amounts of inulin, a specialized fiber that gut microbes prefer. Jerusalem artichokes (sometimes called sunchokes), garlic, leeks, onions, and bananas also contain inulin, and all have likewise been shown to increase the numbers of good bacteria or support a healthy microbiome.
2. Try Gut-Supporting, Brain-Boosting Herbs
Several herbs have been used for centuries in traditional medicine to promote optimal brain function.
When researchers gave a group of people either ashwagandha root extract or a placebo for eight weeks, those who got the herbal extract showed significant improvement in memory, sustained attention, executive function, and information-processing speed compared to the placebo group. Dr. Rawls says that Ashwagandha also helps support your gut health by balancing stress.
This native herb from India has a mild sedative effect but also helps support memory, focus, and mental functioning by affecting choline. Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter linked to memory and cognitive function. It has been found that higher levels of choline coincide with better cognitive performance in adults. Other studies show that bacopa inhibits inflammatory pathways in the brain and improves cognitive performance and behavior in kids with ADHD, college students, and dementia patients.
Turmeric is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, Dr. Rawls says. “It’s interesting that most people in India eat curry — which contains turmeric — every day, and that despite poor sanitation, high levels of pollution, and other issues, India has some of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease in the world,” he says.
Indeed, a recent study found that people with mild memory complaints who supplemented with curcumin (a turmeric compound) saw significant memory improvement, while those given placebos did not.
A well-known herb in traditional medicine for improving memory and reducing brain fog, this wood-like vine from the Amazon rainforest now exhibits powerful benefits in modern research. For example, healthy adults who took a supplement containing cat’s claw bark powder for six weeks saw significant improvements in short-term memory compared to the control group. Another exciting and recent study found that cat’s claw reduced brain plaques and tangles — typical signs of memory problems and cognitive decline, especially in Alzheimer’s disease — through specialized anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
A mushroom rather than an herb, lion’s mane supports healthy brain function through antioxidant, immune-modulating, and other neuroprotective properties. According to a report in the Journal of Complementary and Integrated Medicine, researchers found that it may help stimulate neuron growth.
Most of the ingredients listed above can be hard to find alone. For a one-stop solution, try Vital Plan’s Brain Boost product, which has what you need to improve your brain and cognitive health.
3. “Fatten” Your Brain Up with Avocados and Olive Oil
“There’s a lot of fat in the brain, and some of the fat you eat goes right into your cell membranes. So healthy, unsaturated fats from plants and fish make for healthy, flexible brain cell membranes,” says Dr. Rawls. On the other hand, saturated fat from meat, hydrogenated oils, and fried foods can make cell membranes stiff like lard or trigger inflammation in cells.
Just consider a study published in the Annals of Neurology, which tracked the diets of more than 6,000 older women over four years and tested their memory and cognitive functioning. The women who maintained the sharpest minds over the years consumed the highest amounts of monounsaturated fats from avocados, olive oil, and nuts. On the other hand, those who ate the most saturated fats did the worst on memory and cognitive tests.
4. Get Your Fill of Omega-3s
Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are often called brain food since they contain omega-3s. These beneficial fatty acids help extinguish and prevent inflammation and are also key brain nutrients. Studies have shown that removing EPA and DHA (the two main omega-3s) from the diets of animals reduced brain concentration and triggered other behavioral changes. Research in humans, meanwhile, suggests that eating your omegas can improve cognitive performance, as well as help protect functioning as you age.
The easiest way to increase your omega 3s intake is to take the Vital Plan Krill Oil Plus product, which gives you more bang for your buck when compared to regular fish oil supplements. Learn more about krill oil vs. fish oil here.
5. Prioritize Sleep
If you’ve ever spent a night tossing and turning, you know how lack of sleep impacts your brain and ability to think clearly. Not getting enough sleep can also increase stress and mess with your gut bacteria, which may compound its effects on your brain, Dr. Rawls says.
There are multiple ways to encourage a better night’s rest. Check out these simple tips below to get the best night’s sleep you can:
- Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.
- Avoid stimulating TV shows or books.
- In the hours before bed, turn off electronics, which give off blue light that tricks your body into believing it should be awake.
- Try to keep stress in check; stress is toxic to sleep and creates a vicious cycle since lack of sleep contributes to more stress.
- Calming herbs such as passion flower, bacopa, magnesium, and CBD oil can help your body relax and drift off.
6. Diffuse Stress with Exercise
Stress not only messes with brain function by disrupting sleep, it also triggers other cognitive problems.
While there are many ways to reduce stress, physical activity is one of the best. Not only can burning off nervous energy keep you calm, but exercise can also directly affect the brain and cognitive functioning.
A review in the journal Frontiers in Psychology finds that physical activity modulates genes that produce several changes in the brain that support optimal cognitive functioning. Numerous other studies have linked exercise to enhanced memory, attention, executive control, and performance on verbal, math, and perception tests.
7. Treat Your Senses to Rosemary
Aromatherapy can be especially effective at helping improve focus and concentration. While a few herbs are linked to those and other cognitive effects like memory, “Rosemary is at the top of the list,” Dr. Rawls says.
For example, in one study, researchers had people perform math and visual processing tasks while they diffused rosemary essential oil nearby. They then measured participants’ blood for signs of the rosemary compounds. What they found was a correlation between blood concentrations of rosemary compounds and improved speed and accuracy during testing.
The Bottom Line: You CAN Eliminate Brain Fog!
Whether you’re dealing with severe brain fog along with other systemic symptoms or just looking to stay sharp as you age, there are plenty of natural ways to do it. And the best part is that they don’t only do your brain good, but they’ll help keep your entire body healthy, too.