Reclaim Your Mental Clarity: An Integrative Approach to Clearing Brain Fog
Dr Mark Atkinson
Reclaim Your Mental Clarity: An Integrative Approach to Clearing Brain Fog
Brain fog, whether intermittent or chronic, is a real problem.
It's hard to feel good about yourself and do your best in life when the foundational hallmarks of good health - mental clarity, good focus and great memory - are below par.
Some people intermittently lose access to them, while others struggle to recall what it was like to exist with a “brain that works’.
The generic term to describe this loss of clarity, focus and memory in the presence of fuzzy/clouded thinking is brain fog.
Brain fog includes a combination of:
- Fuzzy / slow thinking
- Feeling ‘spaced’ out and confused or disoriented
- Mental tiredness
- Poor concentrating
- Difficulty multitasking
- Difficulty finding the right words
- Difficulty remembering
At its worst, it feels like living within a “broken brain”’ or existing within a “‘foggy cloud of confusion.”
Most people have experienced transient brain fog, a fog that arrived, was around for a few hours or days and could (usually) be linked to an event or reason alcohol overindulgence, hormone imbalances, sleep deprivation, an acute infection or illness, or being significant under stress can trigger the experience of brain fog.
But with this type, the brain is back online within a few days.
The challenge is when the brain fog is either persistent or recurring, and it isn’t obvious what the cause is.
A functional, integrative approach to brain fog is systematic and comprehensive. It involves resolving the root cause(s) and limiting/avoiding triggers, whilst simultaneously improving controllable lifestyle factors (such as food, exercise, sleep, stress and rest) and enhancing brain function using neurotech such as light stimulation and neurofeedback. Let's take a look at these in turn.
Enhancing Brain Function
Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that uses real-time displays of brain activity to train individuals to regulate their own brain function. A pilot study at UCLA found neurofeedback training (18, thirty-minute sessions) considerably reduced the debilitating effects of chemo brain (neurocognitive deficits resulting from chemotherapy treatment), in nine female breast cancer patients who had completed chemotherapy at least one year prior.
Neurocognitive testing conducted after the neurofeedback sessions showed substantial improvements in the study participants’ information processing, executive set shifting and sustained visual attention. Each improved in everyday functioning and had overall psychological improvement.
Photobiomodulation (PBM), also known as low-level light therapy, is a non-invasive treatment that uses light to stimulate cells and tissues.
A pilot study published in the journal of neurotrauma investigated the effects of PBM on cognitive function and quality of life in patients with traumatic brain injury. The study used transcranial LED therapy to deliver light to the brain for 18 sessions over six weeks. The researchers found that PBM improved cognitive function and quality of life in the patients.
Another pilot study found that PBM can help reduce the amount of brain fog experienced by people with post-COVID impairment of brain function. PBM is believed to work by increasing blood flow to the brain, reducing inflammation, upregulating the cytochrome c oxidase in the mitochondria and promoting the growth of new brain cells.
I cover the fundamentals in this article.
Address the root cause / triggers
Read through the following list and consider which could apply to you. These are best identified and treated (in many cases) with the help and support of a healthcare professional, especially one trained in functional medicine, nutrition or naturopathy.
Any source of inflammation can create the experience of brain fog. You might have heard of leaky gut, a condition in which the integrity of the gut wall is compromised allowing food particles, gut bacterial toxins and other chemicals to enter the bloodstream. These in turn activate the immune system and generate further inflammation.
The equivalent of leaky gut for the brain is called brain-blood barrier (BBB). This barrier is a single-layered lattice of cells joined together by tight junctions whose job is to selectively control what substances go in and out. When this isn’t working as it should, leaky brain syndrome is said to be present and this increases the probability of the brain becoming inflamed. Here’s a good article on the topic.
The following list isn’t comprehensive, but it is a good place to consider the source of inflammation relating to your brain fog.
- Food sensitivities
- Gut microbial imbalances, leaky gut and/or SIBO
Food sensitivities - for example to dairy, soy, gluten, corn, eggs can in some people trigger an inflammatory response in the body and cause brain fog. Some people are also sensitive to certain sweeteners, such as aspartame and/or MSG the flavor enhancer. Food sensitivities can also show up with headaches, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, rashes, and weakness.
If you suspect this might be the case for you, consider the following. Try an elimination diet, food sensitivity testing (such as the Cyrex Assay or P88-DIY Dietary Antigen Test ordered through a health practitioner), or work with a registered dietician or nutritionist to get to the root cause.
Gut microbial imbalances, leaky gut and/or SIBO - imbalances in the gut microbiome (the ecosystem of bacteria that resides within the large intestine) and/or the presence of yeast, pathogenic bacteria and/or parasites can give rise to inflammation. These imbalances can be tested for using a microbiome stool sample.
Sometimes the bloating, gas and digestive discomfort, might be due to inadequate levels of stomach acid and/or digestive enzymes. Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) is a condition caused by excessive amounts of bacteria in the small intestine. This is typically diagnosed based on history, symptoms and a SIBO breath test. Symptoms can include bloating especially after consumption of carbohydrates, lower abdominal discomfort, low energy and constipation/loose stools. A good book on GI health is The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Myer, MD.
Allergies - occur when our immune system responds to the presence of a substance in a way that releases excessive amounts of inflammation-producing chemicals, such as histamine. The immune system has become hypersensitive. Depending on the allergy and the body’s response, symptoms can include itching, runny/stuffy nose, itchy red eyes, breathlessness, skin rash and coughing.
Some of the most common triggers of allergies include pollen (from trees, plants and grasses), dust, food, animal fur and dander, mold and fragranced products. If you suspect the underlying cause of brain fog could be an allergy, then a great resource to learn more is Dr Gallands book, The Allergy Solution. It includes a detailed questionnaire to identify whether allergies are present.
Infection - Any acute or chronic infection can create inflammation and brain fog. A significant number of people have reported brain fog post covid-10, as have people with Lyme disease and Epstein-barr virus. Studies have shown that EBV can replicate in the central nervous system (CNS) and disrupt the integrity of the blood-brain barrier (BBB). BBB injury is associated with brain fog, neurocognitive impairment, neuronal damage, and inflammation.
Toxicity - heavy metals within the body and brain can cause brain fog. These include mercury (especially if you have silver fillings), cadmium, lead, copper or aluminum. Naturopathic physicians tend to be well versed in how to diagnose and treat heavy metal toxicity.
Other causes and triggers include mold/mycotoxins, especially Ochratoxin A and mycophenolic acid. Chemicals (cleaning products, pesticides, herbicides, perfumes, scented products, fabric softeners) can also be triggers especially for people who are sensitive to them. A great book on Lyme disease, mold toxicity, chemical sensitivities and environmental illness is Toxic - Heal your Body by Neil Nathan, MD.
If your brain fog is chronic, infection, mold toxicity and heavy metal toxicity are three of the most likely underlying causes to explore. They often go hand-in-hand as heavy metal toxicity, along with mold exposure, nutrient deficiencies (especially Vitamin A, D3 and zinc) and chronic stress suppresses the immune system's ability to contain or clear infections.
For the brain to function as it should, a steady-supply of glucose along with mitochondria and an energy production system that works effectively are required. Anything that compromises either the supply of glucose and the ability of the brain cells to produce energy can lead to brain fog. Irritability, and a deterioration in focus and energy soon follow!
Brain fog can, for some people, be a sign that they have a blood-sugar/insulin issue such as insulin resistance, pre-diabetes or diabetes. This insulin issue can be identified from a blood test +/- glucose challenge.
People with significant mitochondrial dysfunction such as chronic fatigue also experience significant amounts of brain fog. Many people with brain fog benefit from both reducing the amount of refined sugar they consume and switching to a nutrient dense, whole-food diet that doesn't spike blood sugars. The best way to tell if food is causing swings in blood sugar is to measure it with a continuous blood glucose monitor (check out Levels and Veri).
A great site for information on low carb eating is Diet Doctor.
If you take any medication it’s worth checking its known side effects, as some classes of medications can cause brain fog and memory issues. This includes acetylcholine acting antihistamines, sleep medication (such as zolpidem), heart / blood pressure medication (beta-blockers), tricyclic antidepressants (such as amitriptyline and nortriptyline), benzodiazepines for anxiety and opiate pain killers. This site is a good resource for checking drug side-effects.
A disturbed night's sleep or chronic insomnia can lead to brain fog. One of the many functions of sleep is to clear waste products. This is carried by the waste clearance system of the brain, the glymphatic system. The glymphatic system is constantly filtering toxins from the brain, but during wakefulness this system is mainly disengaged.
During natural sleep, a significant increase in clearance happens during non-rapid eye movement sleep. Sleep deprivation impairs this. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious disorder not to be missed. Its hallmark is breathing that stops and starts throughout the night. Other symptoms include tiredness throughout the day, morning headache, brain fog, and heavy snoring, gasping or choking at night. If you suspect sleep apnea you should see a sleep specialist.
Stress is the body's response to perceived/actual challenges. It's designed to mobilize energy and resources to deal with the challenge, to survive the threat. Once the challenge has passed or been resolved the brain/body should shift back into rest and restore mode.
Chronic stress happens when our brain/body lives with an ongoing stress state. The high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and the increase production in inflammation and excessive production of damaging oxidants ROS (reactive oxygen species) lead to inflammation, immune suppression and in some people, brain fog. Addressing the reasons for the stress, whilst engaging in healthy self-care and rebalancing the nervous system using practices such as heart rate coherence training, is the key to exiting chronic stress.
Low-functioning thyroid (hypothyroidism) and fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone (mainly perimenopausal, menopausal and premenstrual) can all lead to brain fog. I suspect these are relatively common causes and if you think this could apply to you, it is recommended to get your hormones tested with the support of a functional medicine practitioner. Two good books on hormones are Hormone Intelligence by Aviva Romm, MD and Underactive Thyroid by Dr Sarah Myhill.
Other conditions associated with brain fog include concussion / head injury, autoimmune diseases (such as lupus and multiple sclerosis), fibromyalgia, Alzheimer's disease, strokes, depression, B-vitamin, magnesium and omega-3 essential fatty acids deficiencies, histamine intolerance, methylation problems. All of these need to be diagnosed by a healthcare professional.
Brain fog is a condition where people experience a loss of clarity, focus, and memory, resulting in fuzzy/slow thinking, feeling spaced out, and having difficulty finding the right words or remembering things. It can be caused by factors such as inflammation, food sensitivities, gut microbial imbalances, and leaky gut. A functional, integrative approach to brain fog involves enhancing brain function using neurotech such as neurofeedback and photobiomodulation, and improving lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, sleep, stress, and rest. Addressing the root cause/s of brain fog is also essential for resolving the issue.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Mark Atkinson or sens.ai the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.