Reasons you may have ‘brain fog’

Poor decision-making, lack of concentration, forgetfulness and a general feeling of absent-mindedness or “fogginess” can plague all of us from time to time.

Often referred to as “brain fog”, the sensation is linked to feeling sluggish, tired, unfocused and not being able to make sense of what’s going in our heads – all of which are worrying symptoms that shouldn’t be ignored.

Is brain fog a real thing?

While brain fog isn’t technically a medical condition, it’s a type of cognitive dysfunction that results in a lack of mental clarity and can affect men and women of all ages.

“Brain fog isn’t a medical or psychological term, but a lay term used to describe when our thinking feels a bit sluggish,” Monash University senior research fellow and clinical neuropsychologist Dr Caroline Gurvich says.

“It can include difficulties concentrating, being easily distracted, feeling overwhelmed as well as difficulties with memory, finding the right word, making decisions or solving problems.”

What causes brain fog?

Dr Gurvich primarily looks at how brain fog can affect women, particularly when going through hormonal changes such as menopause and pregnancy.

But she says people experience brain fog for a host of different reasons caused by many different things.

“There are many lifestyle factors that can lead to brief periods of ‘brain fog’, such as sleep deprivation and stress,” Dr Gurvich says.

“(In women) hormones can at times make them more susceptible to brain fog, especially during periods of hormonal fluctuations.

“Many women going through the menopause transition describe brain fog or difficulties concentrating, remembering information, planning and organising.”

She says both underactive and overactive thyroid have also been associated with cognitive difficulties and changes in thinking skills.

Dr Gurvich says women can be susceptible to brain fog during pregnancy. Often referred to as pregnancy or baby brain, this can also go beyond the birth of a child.

Dr Gurvich says the triggers for brain fog are not just hormones but feelings of stress or anxiety, fatigue or issues with diet.

2010 study by the University of Kentucky says chemotherapy patients are also at an increased risk of suffering from brain fog.

Covid-19 brain fog

Not only is brain fog cited as an ongoing health complication, among confirmed Covid-19 cases it’s also become more widespread due to lifestyle factors perpetuated by the pandemic and lockdowns.

“There’s no denying that the pandemic has had an impact on the mental health of the general population,” Dr Gurvich says.

“At a scientific level, there is a link between experiencing ongoing stress and changes in thinking skills, such as ‘brain fog’.  This type of brain fog, occurring as a by-product of stress, anxiety and extended lockdowns is different to the reports of cognitive symptoms following Covid-19 infection.”

Community pharmacist and House of Wellness expert Gerald Quigley says it seems those most affected by brain fog during the pandemic are aged 29 to 40 – possibly because they are more likely to have to juggle greater work and family commitments than other age groups.

What can you do about brain fog?

“To try to reduce brain fog, it’s important to think about what might be the driver of brain fog and then to think about lifestyle factors that can reduce stress and fatigue,” Dr Gurvich says.

Gerald says good sleep habits and proper sleep hygiene shouldn’t be overlooked.

“It’s fundamental for our brain function, which is why sleep deprivation is often interlinked with brain fog,” he says.

“For this reason alone, you should get into the habit of a sufficient and consistent sleep pattern, which will have a flow on benefit to your overall health.”

Things to try if you have brain fog

According to Dr Gurvich, staying socially connected and adjusting these lifestyle factors can help reduce symptoms of general brain fog:

  • Routine: With enough time for rest, sleep and activities that are enjoyable.
  • Exercise: Really important for physical, mental and cognitive health.
  • Mental relaxation: This looks different for everyone, but it’s important to find something that helps you relax.
  • Healthy eating: Boost foods high in antioxidants, zinc, magnesium, vitamins B and C, Omega 3s, and iron including cocoa, turmeric, broccoli, blueberries, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, nuts, oranges, spinach, avocado, eggs and salmon.
  • Coping strategies for stress: Including striving to think about things in a positive light, humour, and learning to accept the situation.
  • Combatting overwhelm: Break tasks down into manageable mini-tasks, write down to-do lists and prioritise.

Dr Gurvich advises consulting your health professional if concerned about brain fog.

Written by Sally Heppleston. Updated by Charlotte Brundrett June 2021.