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Brain Fog: Real Causes & Treatment

The “shocking” cause behind most cases of brain fog and what you can do about it.

Andri

Written by Andri

15 min read

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Woman zoned out at her work desk

Sometimes, we wake up with cloudy thinking and need some time before beginning the day. Other times, we’re so distracted that we can’t focus on the task at hand. Many of us who caught Covid-19 have felt sluggish, dazed, and unable to think. But for some people, reduced cognitive function is part of their everyday life.

While all of these symptoms are similar, they are definitely not the same. The common thread, however, is that we use the word “brain fog” to express how they make us feel.

Brain fog is one of those conditions that does not really have a formal definition. As a result, it is colloquially used in multiple contexts.

What is brain fog? 

Image of a brain scan

Brain fog is often described as a lack of mental clarity. When you experience it, you might struggle to focus, suffer memory problems, or have trouble processing things. This is evident in complex cognitive situations, like solving a difficult math problem, but it can also affect normal daily activities, like driving a car.

So, how serious is it? 

Let’s learn some cool facts about the brain. 

Our brains are like the CPU of our bodies. Every passive and active body movement begins in the brain. Passive movements include the workings of our digestive system or the regulation of our body temperature. Active movements, however, are more deliberate activities, like walking or standing up from a chair. 

To communicate, the brain initiates a chain reaction. A message starts in the brain, moves to the head of neurons (dendrites), and is then sent to the tail of neurons (axons). Axons transmit the message to the next neuron and the neuron chain continues. It is kind of like a super-fast relay race.

All of this happens within milliseconds. Kind of cool, right? 

This is just a very simplified version of the process. 

The neurons are not physically connected to each other, so there are a lot of processes and players involved in moving the messages between two neurons. 

When one of the players or processes in the relay race is hindered, it becomes a problem. It can cause several conditions linked to cognitive dysfunction, like cravings, stress, low energy, brain fog, blood pressure fluctuations, hot flashes, weight loss or gain, and memory issues. Some may even develop panic attacks, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome, or a sleep disorder.

Back to brain fog. Imagine you are trying to run a 5km track. After a few kilometers, you’re getting tired, but you convince yourself that you can do it. This sends a signal to your body that helps you complete the track. It’s exactly why sports coaches say, “Mind over body”. Your brain is the powerhouse of your body. 

So, when your brain doesn’t function at an optimal level, your issues snowball. Brain fog is not just the absence of mental clarity. Left untreated, the resulting cognitive symptoms can cause you to be unable to do passive or active activities properly. It is not something to be dismissed as “just a mood” or low-level depression. In some cases, medication is required.

What causes brain fog? 

Man laying awake in bed

There are multiple things that can cause brain fog. 

For instance, when you don’t sleep well, you may have trouble concentrating the following day or struggle to remember things. You hear the conversation but don’t really follow it. Sounds familiar? In this case, a lack of quality sleep is the cause of brain fog. 

According to research, stress, lack of sleep, poor eating habits, excessive alcohol, taking medication (perhaps for cancer, menopause, Alzheimer’s disease, or other conditions) or recreational drugs, hormonal changes, and lack of exercise are the most common causes of brain fog. However, we skipped one from this list. 

Can you guess which one? 

We’ll give you some hints. 

  1. You are surrounded by it.
  2. It also causes other health conditions, like weight gain, skin irritation, and respiratory issues. 
  3. It is inside and outside your house. 
  4. Your doctor or healthcare provider will usually overlook this cause.

The answer is toxins. 

Wait, how are toxins related to brain fog?

Illustration about sources of indoor pollution

Each day, we are exposed to high levels of toxins in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we consume, all of which affect our health, impact cognitive function, and cause brain fog.

Toxins are very heavily present in our homes and immediate surroundings. They’re in our candles, incense sticks, fancy perfumes, room fresheners, air conditioners, cleaning products, clothes, paints, etc.

Continuous indoor and outdoor exposure to toxins means toxic gas and solid particulates are entering our central nervous system and red blood cells every day. Even small amounts can snowball into serious health conditions.

Brain fog is one of these serious conditions. Remember the many players and processes required to transmit messages between neurons? Toxins have the potential to interfere with and disrupt this process. 

Imagine not having full brain power due to the pollutants around you. Brain fog is not just career hindering. It could also affect your basic day-to-day activities, your relationships, and your mental health. 

Left untreated, it becomes difficult to shake off and can put you at risk of other conditions, like depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome, low energy and motivation levels, and even cancer.

If it’s so bad, how come we’ve never discussed the role of toxins before?

Usually, when toxins are brought up, the first reaction is “I didn’t know it was so bad”. Do a quick Google Scholar search for “toxins and brain fog”. You’ll find many peer-reviewed studies from national institutes that prove the correlation between the two. Unfortunately, it rarely gets mainstream media attention. 

Even when you go to a medical doctor for treatment, very few will point it out because it’s a second-degree cause. 

For instance, toxins have the potential to throw off our hormonal balance—especially our thyroid function. The thyroid is very sensitive to toxins in the body. While a doctor might determine that a hormonal imbalance is causing the issue, they overlook a potential cause of the hormonal imbalance itself: toxins!

Brain fog is similar in that it’s not formally recognized as a medical condition. Most of us will blame it on a lack of sleep, our depression, the stress in our life, menopause, memory loss due to old age, or even call it “chemo brain” if we’re getting treatment for cancer. We call it “one of those days”. When experienced for prolonged periods, we might correctly determine that it’s a symptom of a bigger issue and seek help from a doctor. However, it is rarely considered a symptom of toxins affecting the brain.

This needs to change! But how? 

It’s on us to take some remedial actions

Our bodies are magical. They do a lot more for us than we know. When we take in toxins, our bodies must continuously work to eliminate them. When we sweat, pee, and exhale, we eliminate toxins. The problem is that we usually take in far more than we eliminate, so they start accumulating. 

How can you start your brain fog treatment?

  1. Measure your toxin levels
Trays of lab testing tubes

Naturally, the first step would be to understand the toxin levels in your body. For that, there are over-the-counter blood, urine, hair, and nail tests to determine your toxin levels. They differ in reliability, but they could be effective for your needs. 

Also, some physicians will help you with the testing and understanding of your toxin levels. 

To increase the reliability of these tests, you must know what you are testing for and what could be harming your health.  

  1. Personalize your testing and detox journey
Well-designed cosy workspace

Educating yourself on the root causes of cognitive dysfunction and the effects of toxins on your brain health can help you take charge of your own toxin detoxification journey. 

This will allow you to do some research, map your symptoms against this information, and understand any risk you are exposed to. 

For instance, let’s momentarily focus on cadmium, which is found in cigarettes (and e-cigarettes), coffee/cacao products, and contaminated water (also including seafood that comes from that water source). It’s also sometimes found in rice and grains. 

Cadmium causes brain fog, sleep disturbance, memory loss, and fatigue. 

If you are experiencing these or other symptoms, or even think that your food/water could contain cadmium, then you can take specific actions to counter it. 

Firstly, you can run tests that help you understand the level of cadmium (or other heavy metals) in your body.

If you are someone who consumes a lot of coffee or coffee products, then you can request a cadmium test result from your preferred brand. There are also online resources like ConsumerLab and Labdoor that already do these tests and educate the consumers about these toxins. 

If you are a regular smoker, then doing a cadmium test could help you understand your risk levels. Of course, the best solution would be to quit smoking, but alternatives like consuming spirulina can reduce the toxic effect of cadmium and other heavy metals. 

Mercury, lead, chromium, and thallium are just some of the metal toxins that enter our system very easily through our food, air, or water. Studying these could be a good starting point for understanding what you are exposed to, what you should get tested for, how it is affecting you, and inform the specific treatment you take. 

  1. Eliminate toxins from your immediate surrounding
Woman meditating in front of a candle and perfume sticks

Prevention is better than cure. Time to put that into action. Detoxification efforts are ineffective if you continue the exposure, right?

We briefly touched upon how even our indoor environment is full of toxins. There are some more obvious sources, like mold, as well as less obvious sources, like incense sticks. 

Like metals, you can focus on understanding the other toxin particles commonly found in normal household items. 

For instance, incense sticks smell amazing. They work so well when trying to create a “pure” ambiance in your home. However, most incense sticks are the opposite of pure. 

The smoke from incense sticks contains particulate matter, gas products, and other compounds that are really harmful to your health (like benzene, toluene, SO2). In fact, the number of particulates found in a single incense stick is greater than in a single cigarette. 

A good exercise is to look around you for common household items that emit a scent. It allows you to understand the chemicals in these products, see which are harmful to your health, and find alternatives. 

Buzzwords like “organic”, “natural”, etc. are a sign of good marketing, not a clean product. Do not fall for them. Even organic soy wax candles can contain artificial fragrances that harm your health. 

  1. Take some simple steps 
Picture of colorful healthy food

A healthy diet of high-quality food plays an important role in how the brain functions and the immune system protects us. 

How? 

There is a concept of the blood-brain barrier (BBB). 

The more we learn about our bodies, the more amazed we are, right? 

Simply put, BBB is a barrier between the brain’s blood vessels, the cells, and everything else that makes up our brain tissue. The BBB protects the brain from pathogens and toxins that could be in our blood. The same barrier also allows good things to enter the brain, like glucose, amino acids, and nutrients. When you have a healthy diet, your body gets enough of these good things and sends them to your brain to help you function optimally. When you eat a very sugary or unhealthy diet, you will lack these essential nutrients, which can lead to a range of cognitive symptoms, like memory and sleep issues. It’s as simple as that. 

Every nutrient consumed has a different role to play. Glucose provides energy and amino acids help muscle formation, while other nutrients help counter the effects of toxins on your health.

For instance, toxins cause inflammation, but the nutrients in turmeric help fight inflammation. 

For brain fog, too, there are very helpful foods, like chlorella, berries, and tea. The power of a good diet and the right nutrients is not to be underestimated. 

Another tip

Sign saying vitamin b5 surrounded by different foods

Look into Vitamin B5. Meat, fish, grains, and legumes are good sources of B5. It boosts your immune system and helps improve your concentration, your sleep, your ability to remember things, and your overall learning capacity. These counter the symptoms of brain fog and can even reduce the necessity for medication.

Get enough sleep, reduce stress, avoid alcohol, get involved in social activities, and focus more on enjoyable activities. Each of these simple steps plays a role in fighting brain fog. 

Don’t be intimidated 

It can be overwhelming to suddenly realize that you are surrounded by toxins. However, this doesn’t have to cause you stress. Let this realization be the start of a healthier lifestyle. 

Take charge of your own journey. Educate yourself on the topic. Learn what applies to you. Take the appropriate actions. It is not a prescribed fixed-time effort. It is a slow and continuous journey toward feeling healthy and active.