Brain fog may sound a bit vague, even made-up, but it’s an issue affecting thousands of people. There are various medical terms for this ailment: clouding of consciousness, mental fog, and cognitive impairment are just a few. Regardless of the name we give it, and the underlying cause, brain fog can be a debilitating and frightening problem.
What Is Brain Fog?
Simply put, brain fog is an impairment of cognitive facilities. It can manifest in several ways: poor concentration, reduced comprehension levels, extreme fatigue, memory issues, loss of visual and spatial skills, and generally reduced cognitive function.
At its worst, it can make you slower, dumber, clumsier, and more forgetful. In turn, these symptoms can then exacerbate stress and lead to more mental fatigue.
Symptoms of Brain Fog
It can be tough to tell when someone is experiencing brain fog. Particularly, the nature of their cloudiness might make it hard for them to recognize it in themselves or properly explain it to you. Symptoms to watch out for in others include a change in mental alertness, unusual memory lapses, inability to concentrate, and seeming dazed, confused or disoriented.
These are also the symptoms you can try to be aware of in yourself, though when in the fog, you may recognize it as a general difficulty in thinking. Experiencing fog is most often described by sufferers as a general sense of haziness and stupefaction, similar to the feeling of cotton wool in your head that comes with a heavy cold or flu.
Trying to think through the fog or perform routine tasks can become impossible—akin to attempting fine needlework while wearing heavy gloves.
What Causes Brain Fog?
Brain fog has no single known cause. Instead, this symptom most often associated with other medical conditions, including:
- Multiple sclerosis
- Pregnancy, menopause or other hormonal changes
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic pain
- Postural tachycardia syndrome
- Sleep disorders
- Cancer (as a result of chemotherapy treatments, often known as “chemo brain”)
Patients diagnosed with any of the above may occasionally experience brain fog as a side effect of their illness. It can occur in those without such diagnoses, though, and is affected by lifestyle factors, including:
- Medications or the interaction of multiple medications
- Lack of sleep
- Poor diet
The Pathology of Brain Fog
Biologically speaking, the processes that make you foggy are poorly understood. Some research suggests that brain fog occurs when the stress hormone cortisol is present in too high a quantity, for a prolonged period of time. This overwhelms your brain, leading to exhaustion and fog.
Other research exploring the connection between the brain and the central nervous system found that an overly sensitive nervous system is a key component in fogginess, with sensory overload aggravating brain fog. Fog can also be exacerbated or even caused by abnormal blood flow to some areas of the brain, malfunctioning neurotransmitters, or abnormal connectivity patterns within the brain.
How to Deal with Brain Fog
As there are many possible underlying causes of mental fog, treatment plans can vary. They usually start, however, with a self-care regime, which includes proper sleep, a healthy diet, removing stressors, and an exercise plan.
Doctors may prescribe medications are sometimes prescribed, usually if the brain fog is experienced as a side effect of MS.
Management Tips and Tricks
One of the issues with fog is that it’s not always consistent; symptoms can vary in severity, duration, and scope, and can be intermittent. This is particularly frustrating because it adds to the feeling that you might be able to push through it. However, continuing to fatigue yourself while experiencing any level of brain fog will only worsen symptoms.
Instead, sufferers need to manage their symptoms proactively in order to lessen the duration and severity of attacks.
There are a few tips you can use to help you through the foggy patches:
- Use organizational systems: These can be invaluable in simplifying your required mental processes when suffering from fogginess.
- Use tech: Medication reminders and tracking apps can help keep you on top of your life, no matter your cognitive level.
- Consistency: Keep your routines consistent, and items in the same places. This will allow you to do a lot by muscle memory.
- Write everything down: Your memory will not work well when you’re in a fog, so jot stuff down for later. This eases anxiety caused by memory issues and ensures everything is kept track of appropriately.
- Know your triggers: Some tasks or situations will tax your brain more and cause an increase in brain fog. Keep a note of foggy patches, and try to avoid common triggers.
- Break down tasks: When you’re in a fog, any task, no matter how small, can be divided into smaller elements to make them more achievable.
- Avoid stimulants: Caffeine, energy drinks, and other stimulants may seem like they’ll help, but the unreliable temporary uptick in your cognitive abilities comes at a high cost. You will crash much harder and suffer more fog in the long-term if you rely on stimulants.
- Use Supplements: Some studies suggest supplements can help brain fog. This is more likely to be true if it is caused by a nutritional deficiency.
- Rest: Proper rest is the single most important tool in fighting and overcoming fog. Both your body and your mind need plenty of rest to allow your brain to recover. Sleep is vital, but so is mental rest, which can be achieved through mentally relaxing hobbies like video games or listening to music.
- Acceptance: Beating yourself up while you’re in the fog will get you nowhere. Accept your limited abilities, know they’re temporary, and continue with appropriate self-care.
When Should You Worry?
For those who know the underlying cause of their fog, learning how to manage and alleviate it will be a chore that goes hand-in-hand with the treatment plan for their underlying illness. However, if your fog worsens over time, changes significantly, or coincides with new symptoms, you should see your doctor. It may correspond to a change in your underlying illness.
For those experiencing fog without a known cause, it’s always smart to visit your doctor to ensure nothing else is going on. There is no test that can diagnose brain fog, but it is usually an indicator of an underlying issue, so a physical exam is appropriate.
Brain fog is a frustrating, upsetting problem, but it can be managed and lessened with proper care. Always make sure your self-care is at the top of your priority list. This will keep you as healthy and as sharp as possible.
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