An expert's advice on beating brain fog

As told to Tessa Hilton
·6-min read
Photo credit: Oscar Wong - Getty Images
Photo credit: Oscar Wong - Getty Images

Does beating brain fog sound impossible? It doesn't have to be.

Good Housekeeping spoke to Dr Sabina Brennan, health psychologist and neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin about how to identify and get rid of brain fog. This is what she told us...

What is brain fog?

Complain of brain fog to a doctor and you’re likely to be told that it isn’t a recognised condition. But if you mention brain fog to your friends, they’ll know exactly what you mean: fuzzy thinking, trouble concentrating, a sense of grasping for the right word, feeling like your brain has somehow slowed down. In truth, brain fog is not a diagnosis in itself, but a sign that things aren’t right in your body.

Photo credit: Anthony Harvie - Getty Images
Photo credit: Anthony Harvie - Getty Images

Brain fog causes

There are multiple causes of brain fog, from hormonal changes, medications, ill health and, of course, the restrictions and repercussions we’ve all experienced as a result of the pandemic. Mostly, though, it occurs as a result of our failure to look after our brains with good quality sleep, the right nutrition, mental as well as physical exercise and stress management.

Brain fog symptoms

The most common symptoms are loss of mental clarity, inability to focus or concentrate, problems with learning and remembering, slow thinking, issues with language or word-finding and trouble navigating spaces, which many people would describe as clumsiness. Depending on which area of brain function is affected, you can also experience brain fatigue, exhaustion or irritability.

Symptoms of brain fog can come and go but when they occur regularly, they can interfere with the quality of your life, your relationships and your work and, crucially, can railroad your normal capabilities.

Photo credit: Francesco Carta fotografo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Francesco Carta fotografo - Getty Images

Diagnosing brain fog

It’s important to talk first to your GP to rule out any underlying physical or mental health issues. Instead of saying ‘I have brain fog’, you could be more specific so, for example, say: ‘I’m having problems with my word-finding and my brain function but my memory is fine.’ This helps to isolate symptoms.

How to get rid of brain fog

Changing your habits in just four areas of your life can boost brain health and dispel brain fog: sleep, stress, nutrition and exercise, including mental fitness.

To create new healthy patterns, it helps to understand how habits are formed. First, there is the trigger, which can be almost anything, such as a time of day, a person, a place, a mood or scent. The action or reward may be eating, drinking, exercising, going outside, checking your social media. This sequence becomes routine over time. The trigger and the reward combine and a sense of anticipation emerges, cravings develop and a habit is generated. Once embedded in your brain, habits can be reactivated at any time, especially during periods of stress.

The good news is that it’s relatively simple to cultivate a new craving for a healthier habit. For example, if you want to work on going to bed at a regular time, you pick, say, 11pm as your trigger. Reinforce this by setting an alarm on your phone. Your reward each night is then to apply your favourite body lotion before getting into bed. You can cultivate a craving for the scent and sensation of that body lotion by thinking about it throughout the day. By anticipating the reward, you can develop a craving to drive the habit loop of going to bed at 11pm.

Photo credit: mikroman6 - Getty Images
Photo credit: mikroman6 - Getty Images

Identify the problems and solve them

Work through each of the following four areas of your life and see what habits can be replaced by brain-friendly strategies in just 30 days…

Stress less

Even when you feel chronically stressed, you have a lot more control than you might imagine. First, what you think really matters. Negative thoughts prompt your body to respond as if you are under threat.

  • Be realistic about what you can achieve. Recognise when good enough is better than perfect. Also, be reasonable about what those around you, such as work colleagues, friends and family, can achieve.

  • Being present and focused on what you are doing is a natural antidote to stress-induced absentmindedness.

  • Smiling and laughter are natural stress-busters. Try smiling when you wake up, look in the mirror, put the kettle on and when you greet someone. Smiling, laughing and having fun are simply choices we make. If we actively make those choices every day, they will become habits.

Sleep better

If your nights are less than restful, these steps are proven to help better sleep:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule. Never hit the snooze button – get up as soon as you wake up.

  • Get natural daylight as soon as possible after you wake and throughout the day.

  • Exercise first thing in the morning.

  • Start to dim artificial light from about 8pm.

  • Keep your evenings calm, as you approach bedtime in particular.

  • Sleep in the dark and beware of blue light; leave any devices on charge outside of your bedroom.

Photo credit: FG Trade - Getty Images
Photo credit: FG Trade - Getty Images

Feed your brain

What you eat directly affects the way in which your brain functions.

  • Adopt a Mediterranean-style diet and gradually remove unhealthy foods from your freezer, fridge and cupboards.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain performance and memory, and can reduce inflammation. Food sources are fatty fish, nuts and seeds and some plant oils, such as flaxseed.

  • Iron and Vitamin B12 are essential for healthy brain function. If you think you may be deficient speak to your doctor about getting tested.

  • Keep your brain hydrated. Divide your weight in pounds by two and aim for that many fluid ounces of water each day.

  • Maintain a healthy weight, as obesity and high BMI are associated with cognitive dysfunction.

Exercise and look after your mental health

While research shows that aerobic exercise is important to boost brain health, mental exercise is vital, too.

  • Challenging your brain with new experiences and activities promotes neuroplasticity. Learning is like a powerful, brain-changing drug that generates brain cells, enriches brain networks and opens new routes that the brain can use to bypass damage.

  • As well as specific exercise sessions in all forms, look for opportunities to incorporate more movement into your daily routine, and break up long spells of sitting with standing or moving for a couple of minutes.

Worth noting: "It is important to remember that brain fog can also be a prominent feature of conditions such as ME and long Covid," explains Good Housekeeping’s GP Dr Sarah Jarvis. "For anyone who has been struggling with the smallest tasks as a result of these conditions, solving all their problems with lifestyle changes isn’t realistic. However, even in situations such as these, some of the small changes Dr Brennan suggests can make a positive difference."

Dr Sabrina Brennan's book, Beating Brain Fog is out now. It's available from Amazon and major bookstores. BUY NOW

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