6 ways to clear up brain fog

Feeling unfocused or have trouble concentrating? It could be brain fog. With brain fog, you don’t feel clearheaded. Your thoughts may seem sluggish and slow. It may even be hard to get through your work or daily life because you feel so out of it.

Brain fog isn't a medical term. However, it's a term that's often used to describe cognitive challenges — particularly when it comes to thinking or remembering. Brain fog impacts everyone differently.1 But this isn't dementia.2

All sorts of things can bring about brain fog, from hormonal changes to sleepless nights.1 Read on to find out the many causes and what to do that may help get your brain back on track.

What causes brain fog?

A number of things can lead to symptoms of brain fog, explains Jacqueline Becker, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. According to Becker, these include:1,3

  • Poor sleep
  • Feeling stressed
  • Certain medications, such as chemotherapy
  • Chronic health conditions, like anxiety, depression and celiac disease
  • Autoimmune disorders, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis
  • Certain illnesses, such as long-term COVID-19

To look for clues, jot down your symptoms and what may be triggering them in a journal, suggests Keith Feigenson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.

“For example, if you notice your brain fog is most severe after several nights of poor sleep, that could be a clear indication that exhaustion is a central factor,” he says. “Some people might have certain foods, like excessive sugar, that contribute to poor cognitive functioning, so a food diary may be helpful too.”

Then talk to your health care provider. Even if they’re not able to uncover the underlying cause of fuzzy thinking, there are techniques you can do to manage brain fog. Most of the time, it involves making tweaks in your daily life. Here are 6 strategies that may help minimize brain fog symptoms.   

1. Set yourself up for quality sleep

“Sleep is essential for cognitive function and memory consolidation. Consistently getting 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep per night can help ensure that your brain is refreshed and ready for the day,” says Becker.

That’s because sleep is important for a healthy brain and body.4 Getting quality sleep helps you think more clearly, and it lowers stress and boosts mood.5 Mood and stress can both contribute to sluggish thinking.4

Getting a good night’s sleep is easier said than done, but you can do a few things to help set the stage. First, try going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day.5 This helps keep your circadian rhythm — an internal “clock” that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles — on track.6

It may also be helpful to limit what you eat and drink before bedtime, says Feigenson. Putting away your devices and avoiding bright lights before bedtime may also support you in getting quality sleep.6

And if you’re lying in bed trying to fall sleep for more than 20 minutes, it’s better to get up and do something relaxing than to stay in bed getting anxious. For example, you could try yoga stretches or reading a book until you feel sleepy.

2. Be active throughout the day

“Exercise increases blood flow, including to the brain, and may help improve mood, sleep and cognitive function,” says Becker. 

Taking a brisk walk, dancing or swimming a few laps may boost brain functions. Those include problem-solving, focusing, learning and memory. Being active may also lower anxiety and depression.7,8

The goal is 150 minutes of moderate activity per week (walking, raking leaves, vacuuming and taking the stairs all count). That’s about 20 minutes a day, which you can split into even smaller blocks of time, if you want.8

3. Try retraining your brain

There are certain strategies that may help your brain function better, Becker notes. “These include breaking large goals into smaller, more manageable tasks and taking regular breaks,” she says. These strategies may help improve your focus when trying to complete tasks. Limiting distractions around your workplace and staying organized are also important.

4. Aim for a balanced diet

Not getting enough nutrients may make you feel foggy, making it harder to pay attention, explains Becker. Low blood sugar — from skipping a meal or eating processed foods or snacks that make blood sugar spike and then crash — can deprive the brain of energy and may have similar effects.9

It may be helpful to eat nutritious foods with antioxidants and omega-3s, a kind of fat found in foods such as salmon, walnuts and flaxseeds.10 That means eating lots of whole foods, lean proteins and plenty of fruits and vegetables, notes Becker.

5. Manage stress

The more stressed you are, the harder it may be to concentrate, which can have an effect on other cognitive functions, such as memory.11 Chronic stress, in particular, can increase cortisol levels, which may negatively impact brain health, explains Becker.

Of course, stress is part of life. The key is to learn to manage it. “The important thing would be to find the best stress reducers that work for you,” says Feigenson.

Deep breathing exercises or using a meditation app may be helpful in relieving stress, suggests Becker. Daily walks and engaging in pleasurable activities more often may also help you feel more calm.

6. Get your COVID-19 booster

One of the risks of having COVID-19 is developing long COVID, which brings with it a range of health issues. One of those is brain fog, notes Feigenson. So, months after having had COVID-19, some people may have a hard time concentrating, thinking or multitasking.12

Getting vaccinated may not prevent you from getting COVID-19, but it may lower the odds of developing long COVID, explains Feigenson. One reason? You’re more likely to get a milder case, which may lower the risk of both long COVID and COVID-related brain fog.13

The bottom line: When you’ve got brain fog, there’s no need to slog through days of feeling out of it. Lifestyle tweaks may be able to help you battle the fogginess so you can start thinking clearly again. And if lifestyle tweaks don’t work or your symptoms get worse, talk to your provider to see if there’s something else going on.

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