If you’ve ever gone through your day feeling like an extra on The Walking Dead—seemingly zombified as you trudge through the motions of your routine—you might chalk it up to inadequate sleep. Or maybe you’re so stressed at work that every single one of your senses feels fried. But it could be something else—like brain fog.
You’ve likely heard the term and have probably even diagnosed yourself with it—but what exactly is brain fog, and can you do anything to clear the clouds? Here, experts break it down.
What is brain fog?
Turns out, it’s more than just feeling tired or lackluster: “Brain fog is difficulty finding the right word, short-term memory loss, and slowing of processing of new information,” explains Dr. Susan Levine, former chair of the Federal Chronic Fatigue Advisory Committee. The onset of brain fog can be fairly sudden, with other cognitive issues accompanying it, like fuzzy thinking and trouble concentrating.
According to a study in the journal Clinical Autonomic Research, most people who experience brain fog say it causes forgetfulness, difficulty thinking and focusing, and generally feeling cloudy. Some people also reported feeling lost and sleepy.
What causes brain fog?
“Brain fog” isn’t an official medical term (it can go by other names, like consciousness clouding or brain fatigue) and is not technically considered a medical condition in itself. It can however, be caused by medical conditions. According to a review in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, one such cause might be chronic orthostatic intolerance, or decreases in cerebral blood flow, which causes brain fog upon standing upright (and is relieved when reclining).
Dr. Nancy Klimas of Nova Southeastern University explains that neuro inflammation could cause brain fog, as well. “The combination of brain inflammation and poor cellular energy production causes the problem, [along with] blood flow problems,” she says.
Ultimately, getting to the bottom of brain fog requires many questions, says Tara Nayak, ND, a naturopathic physician in Philadelphia, PA.: “When someone comes to my office complaining of brain fog, there are a couple of questions I ask: Is it a constant feeling or is there a worse time of day? Is this interfering with your daily life at work, home, or socially?”
Dr. Nayak also points out that gut bacteria may be partially responsible: “Studies have shown that the bacteria in our digestive tracts actually release chemical signals that interfere with our nervous system, through the vagus nerve in the stomach, and send signals to the brain,” she explains. “People suffering from dysbiosis, or an imbalance of gut bacteria, may see improvements in brain fog if they replenish their system with beneficial bacteria and remove some of the harmful strains.”
And, of course, the ever-present issue of stress can factor in as well. Stress signals the body to release chemicals, such as adrenaline, and cortisol that can interfere with a person’s ability to remain calm and think clearly, says Nayak.
You think you have brain fog, now what?
If what’s described above sounds like something you’re experiencing, there are a few things you can do to de-fog.
According to a study in the journal Clinical Autonomic Review, patients with brain fog experienced improvements when drinking water, lying down, exercising, walking, and taking B vitamins. An important note: The same study also found that irregular exercise seemed to trigger brain fog and feelings of fatigue, while regular aerobic exercise seemed to improve it.
First and foremost, Dr. Nayak suggests focusing on fixing the root of the problem. For instance, if you find your fog is stress-related, you might use stress-reduction tools, such as aromatherapy, to give your mind a break.
“Scents can truly awaken the brain,” she explains. “Creating a signature scent of uplifting essential oils such as clary sage, citrus, and rosemary can snap you back to attention! I would suggest carrying your scent with you for a pick-me-up.” (Try The Vitamin Shoppe’s Essential Oils line.)
An array of supplements also exist to help keep your mind sharp, delivering a brain boost when it feels like you’re not running on all cylinders, like Solaray’s SharpMind and Life Seasons’ Clari-T Cognitive Support.
And when it seems as though you simply can’t clear your head of the fog, consider seeking medical attention. You may be experiencing brain fog as a result of something bigger.
“If it persists for more than one or two weeks the person should see his or her regular physician to evaluate for a systemic problem that could be contributing to it, such as thyroid disease or hepatitis,” says Dr. Levine. “They should take a full drug history and possibly be referred to a neurologist for further evaluation, including MRI of the brain.” It could, says Dr. Levine, also be depression or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.