Managing Through Brain Fog

Jul 04, 2024

It was just about ten years ago that I began to panic about going senile.  At the time, my mother was falling clearly and deeply into Alzheimer’s and had finally been checked into to a memory care centre.  I felt sure that I was next in line.  There were so many things I was forgetting:  every day had its ‘senior moments.’  Perhaps you know what I’m talking about?  You walk into a room and then wonder why you are there or what you are looking for.  Those were bad, but for me the absolute worst was managing the OTPs (one-time passwords) I’d receive from my bank.  You know when you use your credit card online, you will often receive a text message with a password from your bank that you need to type into your computer.  Holy cow!  I couldn’t hold the whole six digits in my head at one time.  I’d have to look at the OTP on my phone, remember one or two digits, type them into the computer. and then look back at my phone to remind myself of the next two numbers.  Truly, I was terrified.

In retrospect, it almost sounds a bit funny.  But, I’m sure you can understand that it wasn’t at all funny for me at the time.  I’m sure there are millions of other people in the world who are also afraid.  Brain fog scares alot of us.  Sadly, it’s something that almost all of us will experience at one point or another.  In fact, the incidence of brain fog is very much on the increase. 

Below, I discuss what brain fog is, how many of us have it, why we are experiencing, and, most importantly, what we can do about it.  If you’re worried about brain fog, relax.  There are fixes. 

But what is it? 

Brain fog is a term often used to describe a state of mental confusion or lack of clarity. It is not a medical condition itself but a symptom of various underlying issues.  Brain fog can manifest in various ways, including difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, mental fatigue, and a general sense of confusion.  If you’ve felt it yourself, you’ll know what I mean when I suggest that it’s like a cloud settling over your brain, making it hard to think clearly.

Truly, there are many, many potential causes of brain fog, and a surprisingly large number are tightly linked to our modern, less-than-healthy, lifestyle.  For example, brain fog can be caused by:

Lack of Sleep: Sleep is crucial for cognitive function. Inadequate or poor-quality sleep can significantly impair your ability to think clearly and remember things.  Did you know that according to the Good Body website, almost two thirds of the world’s adult population are not getting enough sleep?  I’m sure this is one reason why the incidence of brain fog is increasing.

Stress and Anxiety: High levels of stress and anxiety can also exhaust your brain and lead to feelings of mental fogginess. And, chronic stress affects your body's ability to regulate cortisol, which can impair memory and cognitive function.

Poor Diet: Nutritional deficiencies, particularly in essential vitamins and minerals like B vitamins, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants, can affect brain function. A diet high in sugar and processed foods can also contribute to brain fog.

Lack of Physical Activity: Regular physical activity is essential for maintaining healthy blood flow to the brain and reducing stress.  Our sedentary lifestyles are surely contributing to cognitive decline.

Dehydration: Even mild dehydration can impair cognitive function. Staying hydrated is crucial for maintaining mental clarity.   

Medical Conditions: Certain medical conditions, like thyroid disorders, depression, and chronic fatigue syndrome, can cause brain fog as a symptom.

Medications: Some medications have side effects that include cognitive impairment or mental fog.

And,  of course, as all of us middle-aged women know . . .

Hormonal Changes: Hormonal fluctuations, such as those experienced during menopause, can impact brain function. Declines in oestrogen levels, in particular, are known to affect cognitive clarity.  We discuss this more below.

Of course, it wasn’t until the COVID pandemic that brain fog was much discussed.  However, as I suggested above, the prevalence of brain fog now appears to be very much on the rise. Actually, considering the wide range of conditions and factors associated with brain fog, it is likely that a substantial proportion of the global population will experience brain fog at some point in their lives. Some studies suggest that up to 30-50% of individuals with chronic illnesses experience brain fog, and given the commonality of conditions like stress, poor sleep, and nutritional deficiencies, a significant portion of the general population may experience these symptoms intermittently. 

So, what does this imply for overall prevelance?  Given that some 70% of global deaths are from preventable chronic illnesses, we can logically esimate that almost three-quarters of the population will eventually get a chronic illness.  Then, let's conservatively say one-third of them will have brain fog.  To me that sounds like twenty-five percent of the world's population, or about two billion people,  will at some point experience brain fog. 

 That's alot of people.  And, what other reasons might explain this?  Well, there are a few other drivers of brain fog, not listed above, that may be contributing to this trend.  One of these drivers is digital overload, something that almost the entire world is experiencing now.  The constant barrage of information from digital devices can overwhelm the brain, making it harder to focus and process information efficiently. 

However, a second, serious explanation for the increased prevalence of brain fog around the world may be our exposure to environmental toxins.  Uh oh. 

Indeed, we live in a soup of toxins.  Each day and every day, we breathe them, eat them, drink them, and absorb them into our bodies.  Collectively, this exposure affects brain health.  Additionally and completely independently, simply being indoors with limited exposure to nature and fresh air can also contribute to mental fatigue.  There is no question that we all need to get outdoors more often.

Yes, getting outside, getting some exercise and fresh air . . .  all of that will help clear the fog.  And, so will:

Improving Sleep Quality: Establish a regular sleep schedule, create a relaxing bedtime routine, and ensure your sleeping environment is conducive to rest.

Better Managing Your Stress: Practice stress-reducing techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or deep-breathing exercises. Almost any kind of regular physical activity can help manage stress levels.

Improving Your Diet: Focus on a balanced diet rich in whole foods, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Avoid excessive sugar and processed foods.

Hydrating Well: As mentioned above, dehydration can impair cognitive function. Make sure you drink enough water throughout the day.

Challenging Yourself Mentally: Engage in activities that challenge your brain, such as puzzles, reading, or learning a new skill. Keeping your brain active can improve mental clarity.  Actually, this spring, I needed to invest in an intensive 16-week Portuguese language course.  I’m sure it worked wonders for my brain health. 

Better Managing Medications:  Of course, if you believe your brain fog is due to the medication used to treat some other underlying illness, you should speak with your healthcare provider about adjusting it.

Managing Menopause:  Certainly, you should talk to your physician if you think your brain fog is related to menopause and to all of the wild, hormonal swings that can occur in this stage of life.  As I’m sure you know, during menopause, the body experiences a significant decline in oestrogen levels, and this decline can seriously affect cognitive function. 

Actually, let’s think about that a bit more . . .


The Role of Oestrogen in Brain Function

If you are a woman of a certain age, you truly should know what the various sex hormones in our body are doing for us, especially oestrogen.   Did you know, for example, that oestrogen is an especially powerful hormone for brain function?  Specifically, oestrogen helps regulate neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are critical for mood, memory, and cognitive function. These neurotransmitters all need to be properly balanced and functioning if we are to maintain our emotional stability and mental clarity.   

Oestrogen also has profound neuroprotective properties, meaning it helps protect the brain from damage and supports the growth and survival of neurons. This protection is crucial in reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases and maintaining cognitive health. 

Finally, oestrogen also enhances cerebral blood flow, ensuring that the brain receives adequate oxygen and nutrients for optimal function.   I’m sure you can understand that improved blood flow supports overall brain health and is critical in preventing cognitive decline.

Very very importantly, it turns out that oestrogen also plays a significant role in regulating glucose metabolism in the brain. Glucose is the primary energy source for brain cells, and oestrogen helps facilitate its uptake and utilisation.  THIS is why so many of us experience brain fog during menopause.  Our oestrogen levels are dropping and, consequently, we’re unable to adequately fuel our brains. 

So . . . when we’re in the midst of menopause, we might want to be thinking either about hormone replacement therapy to ensure we have the oestrogen to support glucose metabolism OR moving towards a keto-green diet (the healthy version of keto).  Adopting a keto diet or at least a lower carb diet would ensure that your brain becomes used to using ketones rather than glucose as fuel.

Talk with your doctor about both of these options.  But do try to implement at least some of the lifestyle changes discussed above - like improving sleep, managing stress, maintaining a healthy diet, and engaging in regular exercise. All of these lifestyle adjustments can help mitigate the effects of declining oestrogen levels on cognitive function.   For me, they certainly did.  As I’ve suggested in many of my social media posts, I leveraged dietary changes, brain training, hormone replacement therapy, and alot of outdoor activity to combat my brain fog.

Finally, think about connecting with other women who are also experiencing menopause.  I’m sure all of us could benefit from more social supports but during this significant life transition we, women, might find the companionship and the shared insights especially meaningful.  I did.

Indeed, together, brain fog is manageable.   OTPs don’t phase me in the least now.  :-)


Yours in health & happiness,