After helping over 1,000 clients with brain fog and healing my own, I’ve figured out all of the causes and the most effective solutions. Read on to learn more about brain fog and how you can also find the solution to eradicating it.
What Is Brain Fog?
Brain fog is a collection of symptoms such as forgetfulness, lack of mental clarity, confusion, and inability to focus. It’s not a clinical term and is also referred to as ‘mental fog,’ ‘clouding of consciousness,’ or ‘cognitive dysfunction.’
It is generally caused by inflammation in the brain, stemming from some underlying cause.
Brain Fog Symptoms
- Fatigue and low energy (including chronic fatigue syndrome)
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor working memory and executive function
- Poor ability to memorize things
- Impaired ability to process new information and delayed processing
- Low motivation
- Mental confusion
- Wandering thoughts; inability to sustain a train of thought
My Brain Fog Story: Finding the Cure
I’ve suffered from brain fog as long as I can remember. Brain fog is what got me interested in health at an early age. At 12, I endeavored to stop eating any food with sugar and ate only whole grains.
I’ve always tried to eat as healthy as possible, yet I still had brain fog. I would always read about health when I got the chance, but nothing helped that much.
After many years of experimentation and research, I finally figured out what caused my brain fog and how to heal it. After having over 1,000 clients with brain fog (as of March 2018), I’ve identified the most common causes of brain fog and have helped others heal their condition as well.
How Long Does Brain Fog Last?
Brain fog can last anywhere from a few minutes to decades, especially if someone hasn’t found the underlying causes. It depends on what the causes of the brain fog are.
In most cases, brain fog is reversible.
The Cause of Brain Fog
An Imbalanced Limbic System
Brain fog is essentially caused by an issue in the area of the brain responsible for many functions, including executive function, general cognitive function, and emotional balance. This area is called the limbic system. Within the limbic system, the hypothalamus – often known as the ‘control center’– is most affected.
Brain fog can be caused by the limbic system being imbalanced, usually as a result of an injury or highly stressful event. A big bout of inflammation, free radicals, or emotional stress are the mechanisms by which these brain changes occur.
The limbic system is responsible for:
- Wakefulness (increases)
- Appetite (increases)
- Motivation (increases)
- Body warmth (increases)
- Gut flow by way of the vagus nerve (increases)
- Metabolism (increases)
- Blood pressure (increases)
- Emotional regulation
- Executive function
- Memory – short and long-term
The hypothalamus, in particular, plays a critical role in the following:
- Thermal regulation
- Circadian rhythms (regulates sleep-wake cycle)
- Hunger, satiety
- Blood pressure, heart rate
- Gut function
- Sex drive and hormones
- Glucose regulation
- Vision [R]
Inflammation and Free Radicals Can Cause Brain Fog
Inflammation and oxidative stress affect the limbic system and can cause it to be imbalanced.
The main SOD2 variant rs4880 GG is more common in my brain fog clientele, and there’s a lot of scientific research on it.
A study in 2014 found that the expression of another antioxidative enzyme gene that breaks down H2O2 (MPO/Myeloperoxidase) was also strongly tied to cognitive performance. Having a mutation in these genes could result in cognitive impairment [R].
Conditions Associated with Brain Fog & Caused by Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
Brain fog is much more likely to be experienced in conjunction with other conditions. This is the case with conditions that are heavily associated with oxidative stress and inflammation.
Inflammation hits the brain stem as well in CFS [R].
It’s no wonder that brain fog is commonly cited in people with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia – the same processes are driving all three.
Brain fog can be exacerbated by mood disorders such anxiety, OCD, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and alcoholism because it is widely believed that oxidative stress plays a role in these disorders [R, R, R].
In fact, science is discovering now that many antidepressants work by combating oxidative stress [R].
I’ve noticed a strong correlation with these disorders – especially OCD, anxiety, and depression- and brain fog in my clients. I had all three when I used to have brain fog.
It’s not surprising that all of these conditions also have a connection with inflammation.
Female hormones such as estrogen and estradiol tend to display antioxidant activities and lower oxidative stress, which is why women with menopause sometimes develop brain fog.
When a woman goes through menopause, a reduction of these hormones shifts the oxidant-antioxidant balance in favor of oxidants.
Symptoms of Limbic System Problems
The limbic system is responsible for many things, so if you’re having brain fog, it will often go together with other symptoms. The hypothalamus is the most impacted part of the limbic system.
If you have a handful of these symptoms, it could mean that you’re having limbic system problems:
- Circadian rhythm issues – tired in the day, awake at night
- Lower motivation
- Suppressed appetite and often weight loss
- Memory problems
- Cold hands and feet, problems with temperature regulation
- Gut problems, including constipation
- Lower thyroid and sex hormones
- Overstimulated HPA axis
- Lower blood pressure
- Frequent urination
- Procrastination – Overambitious, but not enough motivation to implement the ambition
- OCD/problems letting go of thoughts
- Attention problems
- Hormonal issues
- Lower libido and sex drive
- Visual problems
The Most Common Brain Fog Triggers
I’ve had clients with brain fog from all of the following causes. I’ve ordered them from most common to least common. These can cause brain fog either by causing inflammation or by causing long-term changes in the brain.
- Lectins and inflammatory agents in plants
- Anxiety or chronic stress
- PTSD or a very stressful event
- Drug-induced (usually THC, LSD, MDMA, alcohol)
- Sleep problems (bad quality or not enough)
- Night shift work/circadian disruptions
- Not enough light or sun
- Imbalanced hormones
- Obesity or a terrible diet
- Lack of exercise
1) Brain Fog and Diet
There are many other possible sources for brain fog. However, I’ve only listed the most common ones that wouldn’t be diagnosed by your doctor.
If you get brain fog after eating, then you must look more carefully at your diet.
Brain Fog After Eating
The most common causes of brain fog are lectin and food sensitivities. When people consume a food that causes inflammation, it will often cause brain fog.
Lectins are plant proteins that induce an immune response.
Plant lectins resemble certain tissues such as the joints (synovium) and the thyroid.
People with lectin sensitivity will most often experience inflammation in their gut, joints, thyroid, and brain (hypothalamus). Sometimes they’ll go on to develop an autoimmune condition eventually.
In some cases, people only have to stay away from specific proteins or foods and they’re fine.
However, lectins are not the only problem in food.
Some common triggers of inflammation are:
- Lectins (every food has lectins, but we can be sensitive to different lectins)
- Gluten (wheat, spelt, rye, barley, and oats)
- Casein (all dairy products)
- FODMAPs (short-chain carbohydrates that are often poorly absorbed by the small intestine)
- Trypsin inhibitors
- Yeast (in gluten-free bread)
- Food additives like carrageenan (in rice milk, almond milk, etc.)
You can be allergic to any other food as well. Egg and fish allergies are quite common, so pay attention to them.
You should try out the strict version of the Lectin Avoidance Diet, which has helped a lot of clients with brain fog.
In some cases, brain fog can simply come from a horrible diet. High glucose levels can cause a threefold increase in free radicals, which can damage human cells [R].
If you’re living on a Standard American Diet, then that is likely a significant contributing factor to your brain fog.
2) Brain Fog and Sleep
Not sleeping well is another common cause of brain fog.
Hypoxia drives psychiatric conditions by causing neurons to get overexcited (glutamate excitotoxicity). This excitation causes increased levels of free radicals and mitochondrial breakdown.
Even if you don’t have sleep apnea, bad sleep is still a significant cause of brain fog, but may not be the whole story.
People with morning brain fog should particularly watch out for this. Adequate sleep in my book means getting the amount of sleep you’d get if you didn’t have an alarm clock.
- I suggest doing a sleep study and checking how much slow wave and REM sleep you’re getting.
- See my post on how to improve your sleep.
3) Brain Fog and Infections
Science is increasingly becoming aware of the link between various autoimmune conditions and infections – usually earlier in life.
When someone was healthy their whole life and suddenly comes down with brain fog after an infection, an effort should be made to identify and get rid of the infection. In the case of viral infections, you should take steps to control it.
Infections can cause chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, leading to brain fog.
Sometimes, infections such as viruses can be latent and then be reactivated by some stressor (lack of sleep, poor diet, etc.)
The Epstein-Barr Virus is a common viral infection that causes harm. Even if it’s another virus, controlling viral infections have common themes.
People with severe immunodeficiency struggle with controlling viral infections.
Since you can’t rid yourself of a virus, you want to instead make sure your immune system always keeps it at bay.
- If you’re Th2 dominant, then you want to rebalance your immune system.
I’ve seen cases where brain fog was caused by a bacterial infection.
If you can identify that you have a bacterial infection, then targeted drugs such as antibiotics would be a better option than herbs.
Only gram-negative bacteria have lipopolysaccharides, which is a significant reason why they cause inflammation.
I’ve seen other cases where candida or fungal infections were the sources of the brain fog.
Candida comes from an immune deficiency. Environmental triggers include refined carbs, stress, low stomach acidity (could be from antacids), and antibiotics.
Anybody with brain fog after antibiotic treatment and/or a particularly stressful period should look into candida as being the cause.
Candida and bacterial infections can usually be cured through conventional and alternative means.
d-e) Parasites and Protozoa
Although less common in the developed world, parasitic infections can also be problematic.
Blastocystis hominis, tapeworm, roundworm antibodies, tissue worm, and Toxoplasma are common parasitic infections.
4) Brain Fog, Heavy Metals, and Toxins: The Role of Mold
Any kind of toxins can stimulate the immune system and cause inflammation and oxidative stress.
Heavy metals and toxins increase oxidative stress in the body. Since heavy metals accumulate in the body, they may cause increased levels of oxidative stress in the body.
Even necessary minerals can also accumulate in the body and cause oxidative stress in the long term.
People exposed to mold or other biotoxins and who go on to develop Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS) develop a certain kind of brain fog.
These inflammatory markers will often be elevated if exposed to toxins:
5) Brain Fog and Low Acetylcholine
People with chronic inflammation and brain fog (often from chronic infections) sometimes exhibit a mix of symptoms that almost exactly match symptoms from drugs that inhibit acetylcholine.
People with toxin issues will often fit into this boat.
6) Brain Fog, Insulin Resistance, and Hypoglycemia
People with brain fog often get hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) because the limbic system helps control blood glucose balance. But, hypoglycemia can in turn cause brain fog.
Insulin resistance is when insulin doesn’t do a good job at bringing glucose into cells. When you are insulin resistant, you’ll experience more significant blood glucose fluctuations, which is even worse than sustained high levels of glucose [R].
7) Brain Fog and Hormonal Imbalance
Genes that resulted in lower melatonin, for example, were found to be associated with cognitive dysfunction [R].
More specifically, these hormones inhibit superoxide (and other free radicals): Melatonin, pregnenolone, progesterone, DHEA, testosterone, estrogen, androstenedione, DHT, IGF-1, and oxytocin [R, R, R, R, R, R, R].
All of these listed hormones are anti-inflammatory as well.
Brain injuries from car accidents, being in the military, being a competitive athlete, fighting (professionally or not), or any kind of hit to the brain can lead to low hormones. If you’ve received head blows from any source, you must check your hormones.
- I believe the most common, fundamental causes of low hormones are generally chronic inflammation, circadian imbalances, sleep problems, or chronic stress.
Brain Fog and the Thyroid
With regard to thyroid hormones, low or high thyroid hormones can cause oxidative stress [R].
People with brain fog often have low levels of thyroid hormones. However, low thyroid hormones are a result of inflammation, not the cause of it. In fact, having a high level of thyroid hormones increases inflammation. [R, R, R].
8) Brain Fog, Leaky Gut, and Dysbiosis
Lectins are the most common reason for having a leaky gut, in my opinion.
To prevent microbial imbalance or dysbiosis, the gut needs the right ingredients to work well (like prebiotics), which is also why the right foods matter.
Probiotics can also be great at helping to modify inflammation.
Also, the limbic system is important for gut function.
9) Brain Fog, Allergies, and Histamine
Allergies and asthma are as a result of Th2 dominance.
People can also consume foods with histamine – mainly fermented and cured foods and beverages.
If you don’t have enough of an enzyme to break histamine down, then this can be the cause of your brain fog. I’ve found this to be the case for some people.
The mechanism by which histamine causes brain fog may be as a result of oxidative stress [R].
Otherwise, when mast cells activate, they release superoxide, which supports my central theory of brain fog (that superoxide is responsible) [R].
10) Brain Fog, Anxiety, Chronic Stress, and Depression
In almost all cases of brain fog, people experience anxiety and often depression/bad moods.
This is mainly because inflammation increases our stress response and causes anxiety. This also leads to depression. This certainly happened to me.
Indeed, that’s why cognitive dysfunction, depression, and anxiety often go together (also because they’re all influenced by the limbic system) [R].
Oxidative stress can also cause anxiety [R].
Chronic stress can elevate inflammation in the long run (by causing glucocorticoid resistance) [R].
11) Brain Fog and Drugs
There are many drugs that can cause or contribute to brain fog.
If you’re an alcoholic, then that will most likely be the cause of your brain fog.
I’ve seen brain fog induced by alcohol, marijuana, LSD, MDMA, cocaine, and ayahuasca. The mechanism is almost certainly related to limbic system dysregulation.
I’ve also seen brain fog induced by antibiotics, which can produce free radicals and may damage your mitochondria [R].
All 3 bactericidal antibiotics induced a dose- and time-dependent increase in free radical production: Ciprofloxacin (a fluoroquinolone), ampicillin (a β-lactam), and kanamycin (an aminoglycoside).
The fluoroquinolone antibiotics and some other antibiotics can damage the mitochondria and produce free radical leakage.
12) Brain Fog and Genetics: MTHFR, CNR1, SOD2, APOE4, and Other Mutations
There are a whole bunch of genes that don’t interact with our current environment well.
Genetic mutations interact with the environment in very significant ways. Knowing you have a mutation can help guide you on a more focused course of action for your brain fog.
The CNR1 variation can cause a lot of problems with the limbic system and your gut.
Having the MTHFR mutation can hamper your ability to ‘detox’ and can result in inflammation and oxidative stress.
The SOD2 mutation causes a 33% decrease of the enzyme (MnSOD) that breaks down superoxide in the mitochondria. Superoxide production can cause brain fog.
Obviously, your genes are only a part of the story. It’s usually the case that you need to have these mutations and other factors that increase oxidative stress.
The good news is that genes can be overcome with lifestyle and supplement choices.
Is your brain fog from lectins, an infection, or something else? The genetic data can help you figure that out. It’s a significant piece of the puzzle. Therefore, you want to check your 23andme and upload it to SelfDecode, by far the most powerful genetic analyzer and the most innovative and largest company on the market. Just spit in a tube and send it out.
Other Factors That Contribute to Brain Fog
The following are biological factors that make brain fog worse and are a contributory cause of brain fog.
Brain Fog and Adrenal Fatigue
The Limbic system/hypothalamus directs the adrenal glands. Adrenal fatigue is a misconception and the root cause of fatigue has to do with the hypothalamus, not your adrenal glands.
Brain Fog and Derealization/Depersonalization
Brain fog and EDS, G6PD, Thalassemia, Anemia, and Gilbert’s Syndrome
Some conditions like Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency and Thalassemia increase the risk of brain fog for somewhat different reasons.
G6PD deficiency results in higher levels of oxidative stress because of less reduced glutathione.
Thalassemia results in lower red blood cells and hemoglobin, which means less transport of oxygen. This increases the risk of hypoxia in various tissues.
Anemia will also increase the risk of brain fog for the same reason: increased risk of hypoxia in various tissues.
Gilbert’s Syndrome is associated with brain fog possibly because it’s often caused by low glucuronidation, which limits the ability to detox.
Euler’s Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is associated with brain fog because of its effects on collagen formation, which affects many systems in the body.
4 Brain Fog Treatments, Fixes, and Cures
1) Get Sunlight and Fresh Air
Sun is great for decreasing inflammation. Although uncommon, I’ve had a few cases of brain fog that were relieved simply by being outside and getting more sun.
Keep in mind that sunlight can make some autoimmune conditions worse.
Sun also suppresses seasonal allergies, which are IgG and IgE related allergies. [R].
Besides UVB rays directly suppressing autoimmunity, vitamin D, which is a byproduct of UVB, also decreases Th1 and Th17 immune responses. The sun makes sulfated vitamin D, which is better than supplemental vitamin D.
With regard to oxidative stress, UVB increases our body’s internal antioxidant defenses [R].
People think that taking a vitamin D supplement will make up for not getting sun. This is false. In my opinion, most of the benefits from the sun don’t involve vitamin D.
The most beneficial ingredient of the sun is probably not even the vitamin D, but the infrared that it provides.
I recommend an hour of sun on most of your body (don’t exceed an hour for any spot).
2) Take Care of Your Sleep and Circadian Rhythm
The circadian rhythm is deeply connected with inflammation and both can cause the other to get out of balance.
The circadian rhythm is also tied to oxidative stress [R].
Disrupting your circadian rhythm will result in brain fog, as happens during jet lag. Some people are more sensitive to circadian disruptions.
Researchers have shown that the 24-hour circadian clock also influences cognitive performance in a wide variety of areas, including verbal reasoning and working memory. Researchers conclude that factors that disturb circadian rhythms can also affect cognitive performance.
Circadian disruption can come about for a variety of reasons, but the most common is a lack of light in the day, too much light at night, disrupted sleep patterns, and chronic inflammation.
Disrupting circadian rhythms can also lead to heart diseases, neurodegenerative conditions, and cancer [R].
People with brain fog are often wired but tired at night, fatigued in the day, and lack a cortisol spike in the AM. They can be hot at night and wake up to pee multiple times.
These are all symptoms of circadian disruption. I used to have these symptoms, but getting better meant my metabolism increased in the day and slowed at night.
I now get tired at night and am awake in the day. I feel warmer in the day and cooler at night. I don’t get hypoglycemic at night. My vasopressin release has normalized so I don’t wake up to pee. I am alert and awake in the day and get tired at night, and have a good amount of energy until right before bed – when I crash out. I wake up refreshed and ready to hit the day when my circadian rhythm is working properly.
Too much or too little exercise can contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress.
I’ve never had a client whose brain fog was solely related to exercise, but it can be a contributory factor.
Moderate exercise brings down inflammation and oxidative stress. Interval exercise is particularly good.
Yoga is also particularly good because it balances the HPA axis.
Don’t confuse endurance exercise with moderate aerobic exercise.
Although not as good as interval exercise or yoga, aerobic exercise can decrease inflammation as well (Th1, Th2, and Th17 immune responses) [R].
Recommendations: Push-ups, yoga, pull-ups, walking, and sprints. Short sprints running as quickly as possible for 30 seconds make me feel really good, yet not worn out after 3 sets.
4) Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
One common theme with people who have brain fog and chronic fatigue is lower vagal tone, which means lower vagus nerve activation.
Vagus nerve activation is important for relaxing us by decreasing norepinephrine and increasing GABA and lowering inflammation (such as TNF) by stimulating acetylcholine.
The bottom line is that the vagus nerve is important for optimal brain function and directly combats the underlying causes of brain fog.
How to Know If Something Is Causing or Helping with Your Brain Fog
I find that most of my brain fog clients have trouble telling if something is somewhat helpful with their brain fog. They would be able to tell if a supplement or device completely takes away the brain fog, but not if it partially improves their brain function. Brain fog is a complex problem and most people will need multiple interventions to completely fix it. Therefore, I recommend using Brain Gauge to quantify if any supplements, devices, or lifestyle changes help with your brain function to any degree, so that you can create your own brain fog protocol that works. You can read about Brain Gauge here and purchase it here. Use code SELFHACKED to save 15% off any Brain Gauge device.
Supplements and Vitamins for Brain Fog
These supplements get rid of inflammation and oxidative stress and help the limbic system.