If you often forget what you are about to say, you cannot remember why you entered a room, or keep getting distracted very easily and frequently, you might be experiencing brain fog. Much like a foggy atmosphere impairs your vision, brain fog impairs your cognitive functioning. Although the experience is much older, the concept of brain fog can be traced to the early 1800s, when the German physician Georg Greiner first used the words “fogging of the light of reason” or “clouding of consciousness”, to refer to symptoms that accompany delirium. Although brain fog is not a medical diagnosis, it is a common experience and is characterised by a lack of mental clarity, poor concentration, inability to focus, memory problems, feeling spacy or confused, forgetfulness, and being overwhelmed by mundane tasks.
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What are the Causes?
There are innumerable reasons for getting brain fog. Spending multiple sleepless nights, CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), taking medications like ‘antihistamines’, long days of travelling and jet lag, migraines, extremely stressful life events, depression, hormonal changes during pregnancy or menopause, or even a particularly severe cold are some of the causes of brain fog amongst many others. Eating foods that one is allergic to, such as dairy or peanuts, can lead to brain fog. It may also be a symptom of more serious illnesses, which include anaemia, hypoglycemia or diabetes, hypothyroidism, and autoimmune diseases such as Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, and lupus. These can weaken a person’s immune system and cause their blood pressure to rise.
A patient undergoing cancer treatment may also experience brain fog, which is known as the ‘chemo brain’. In such circumstances, the brain experiences mental exhaustion and it becomes difficult for the person to carry out regular cognitive functions. Recently, COVID-19 has also been linked to brain fog. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of COVID-19 patients reported cognitive difficulties, which develop during or after the initial infection and may persist for 3 months, and in rare cases, even longer.
When is it Serious?
A simple analogy to brain fog is actual fog. In winter cold weather, fog is expected and normal, but it is temporary and bound to clear up after a while. However, if it persists for an abnormally large duration (several months or longer) it may be indicative of a more serious issue, such as climate change. Similarly, brain fog is harmless if it only lasts for a short period. But if the symptoms carry on for several weeks or cause extreme difficulties in even basic functioning, it may be critical, and it is advisable to contact a doctor immediately in such a case.
What are the Symptoms?
Brain fog is different from run-of-the-mill forgetfulness. The term preferred by clinicians to refer to brain fog is ‘cognitive impairment’. It tends to affect executive function: a set of mental skills that allow a person to plan, process, organise, and memorise information, follow directions, display self-control, and stay focused despite distractions. If sustained, brain fog can cause permanent damage to cognitive ability. Some other indications that can lead to a diagnosis of it are sleep apnea, a deficiency of Vitamin B, and other hormone and thyroid issues.
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How to deal with it?
Brain fog is a complicated issue. Doctors have not been able to find a singular physical cause for it, especially in the case it is not accompanied by an illness. Even in the case of a serious illness, it can be caused due to several different factors. In patients who have suffered from virus-based infections, such as Covid 19, Ebola, or HIV, inflammation is the main cause of brain fog. It may also happen because of damage to the blood-brain barrier, which can allow harmful substances to enter the brain. On the other hand, in someone with diseases like multiple sclerosis, cognitive impairment could arise from direct damage to the brain cells. Therefore, there is no definite method to cure it, and treatment depends upon the cause of brain fog. The list that follows includes some general tips that may come in handy in handling short bouts of brain fog due to relatively trivial reasons such as stress or fatigue, as well as cause-specific treatments for disease-related cognitive impairment:
Short-term adaptive strategies can be very helpful in managing everyday tasks. These include – setting reminders and alarms to prevent yourself from missing appointments, events, and meetings; writing notes and creating to-do checklists for your tasks, and taking regular breaks during long periods of work or study to maintain focus and attention.
Maintaining good physical health and overall energy levels can prove to be beneficial in clearing up brain fog. Cardiovascular exercises are especially beneficial. Aerobic exercises can also lead to better brain health. They are associated with better memory formation and increased neural connectivity.
In addition to exercising, maintaining a healthy and balanced diet that includes a variety of foods that are rich in vitamins and antioxidants is also vital. In the case of nutritional deficiencies, taking supplements can help. In case of anaemia-induced brain fog, iron supplements can be used to boost the production of red blood cells.
Maintaining a proper social network can provide the required intellectual stimulation to pull one out of brain fog. Surrounding oneself with friends, family, and acquaintances can help not only reduce stress but also create a supportive environment essential for emerging from cognitive impairment. A supportive school or work environment, which includes considerate teachers or superiors who agree to make adjustments to accommodate it, such as extra test-taking time and extension of deadlines can ease a person’s anxiety regarding cognitive impairment significantly.
In the case of autoimmune diseases, corticosteroid medication can suppress inflammation and clear it. Doctors have found medication administered for treating ADHD (Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder) is also useful in clearing up brain fog. Other clinical trials are underway to research treatment methods for cognitive impairment induced by chemotherapy.
- Avoid substances that affect brain functioning, for example – alcohol and caffeine.
- Engaging oneself in brain-stimulating activities, especially puzzles and word games can also prove to be useful.
- Adequate sleep – Getting the proper amount of quality sleep can also help one in emerging from it. Resting, especially for those suffering from Covid 19 or undergoing taxing medical treatments such as chemotherapy, is of utmost importance.
Although complex to understand, it is treatable. Studies are continually striving to understand the condition, and looking for new treatments to help people prevent and cure cognitive impairment. Several lifestyle changes, that have been recommended above, can help you overcome brain fog, and lead your lives with ease.