Last week we began a series on brain fog, a term used by patients to describe a situation in which they’re experiencing poor focus and concentration, memory problems, and/or an overall lack of mental clarity.
There are medical conditions, covered below, associated with brain fog that your doctor can screen for using a few simple blood tests. You can also start working on some of them yourself.
And while there are excellent nutritional supplements called smart drugs (nootropics) designed to improve focus and memory, you’ll want to hold off on these until any potentially reversible health problem has been diagnosed and treated.
The most common causes of brain fog are not linked to illness
—Stress. Reduce stress with daily exercise (a long walk is a fine start), sound sleep, and nutritious food. Go online to learn yoga, meditation, or tai chi and practice daily. Stay connected to people you can talk to and consider getting a pet.
—Poor sleep. Sleep is essential for a clear head. Turn off electronic devices an hour before bedtime and read a book before you sleep. Also, avoid alcohol. Poor sleep can be caused by obstructive sleep apnea, so if you suspect it or your partner says you snore or even stop breathing during sleep, ask your doctor to order a sleep study.
—Nutritional issues. These are a far more common than people appreciate. You may have a vitamin deficiency (especially B-12 and D) or a hidden food sensitivity or food additive (MSG, aspartame, etc) sensitivity. You can set yourself on the path to normalizing your body’s vitamin and mineral levels, detoxify your liver, and determine if you have hidden food sensitivities with a ten-day detoxification program called Clear Change by Metagenics.
You’ll need to eat strictly organic whole foods (no junk with additives, preservatives, etc.) and carefully avoid the big six food sensitivities (dairy, egg, corn, gluten grains, citrus, and soy). If you feel especially toxic, you might consider the 28-day Clear Change instead.
—Medications. If you’re taking virtually any prescription drug, run a quick online search to see if your medication has brain fog as a side effect. For example, search for statins brain fog. Common brain fog culprits include birth control pills, blood pressure meds, statins for cholesterol, and antidepressants. Caution: Don’t discontinue anything before discussing with your doctor as there are usually alternatives available.
Common illnesses causing brain fog
—Any condition that causes chronic inflammation, chronic fatigue, or changes in your blood sugar levels. These can include autoimmune disorders, allergies, fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic Lyme disease, and the frequently overlooked chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS), which is triggered by your body’s absorption of black mold toxins.
—Thyroid problems, either overactive (hyperthyroid) or underactive (hypothyroid). Even a minimally underactive thyroid can interfere with brain function. Test yourself by measuring your basal body temperature. If you’re fortunate, a small dose of thyroid hormone can work wonders for your brain.
—Anemia, which essentially means you’re not bringing enough oxygen to your brain. Iron deficiency from loss of menstrual blood is by far the most common cause of anemia, but vitamin B12 deficiency is a close second. Like thyroid, sometimes simply correcting a low blood count works like magic.
—Undiagnosed or poorly treated diabetes is famously associated with brain fog. Your brain needs a steady supply of glucose to run efficiently. The moment it’s confronted with too much (hyperglycemia) or too little (hypoglycemia), it goes off kilter.
—Dehydration. Brain fog is one sign of dehydration and chronic, low-grade dehydration is very common, so drink up, even if you’re not thirsty. Dehydration is the topic of a book I recommend called Your Body’s Many Cries for Water.
—Mood disorders. I mentioned these last week, including depression, anxiety with or without panic attacks, and obsessive thinking. Although counseling, eating a nutritionally dense diet, exercise, and being in sunlight are all helpful, sometimes a prescription antidepressant to regulate neurotransmitters is called for. Surveys of patient satisfaction have shown that antidepressants get very high marks from patients themselves. It’s not uncommon to hear “I can think again” when one of the mood disorders is successfully treated.
—Attention deficit disorder (ADD). A frequently overlooked cause of brain fog, especially in women, is undiagnosed ADD. Historically, ADD was overlooked in school-age girls. The boys were screened for hyperactivity while the girls sat quietly, though some were seriously unfocused. This condition was later named Inattentive ADD and for some women it can gradually worsen with time. If it ever crossed your mind that ADD is a possibility, take this simple screening test. If you get a positive result, discuss the results with your doctor.
After reading this, if you have issues with brain fog you now have plenty to do. Get some simple blood tests, check your thyroid (including basal temperature testing), screen yourself for ADD, begin a detoxification with food sensitivity elimination testing, and, most important, work on issues of stress.
I don’t know if watching the election returns tonight will help much with the stress part. Wait and see how you feel tomorrow morning.
David Edelberg, MD