If you’ve ever forgotten the name of an everyday item or found yourself easily distracted, it’s easy to blame it on brain fog, especially since mental fogginess seems to be an increasingly common complaint these days. But true brain fog isn’t actually a condition or diagnosis at all — it’s a multifaceted symptom, and a nebulous one at that, says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan.
“Brain fog can present in different ways for different people,” Dr. Rawls says. “While it can include easier-to-measure issues like concentration problems, poor memory, or even dizziness, for most people it’s harder to define: You just feel fuzzy, like things aren’t clicking, everything is in slow motion, and you can’t comfortably put thoughts together — like walking around in a fog.” By comparison, when your brain is sharp, you see multiple dimensions, can think clearly and quickly, and stay focused.
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter — by choice or not — you probably have a clue what brain fog feels like. And for some obvious reasons, it can have an enormous, negative impact on your quality of life. The ripple effect extends to your work and productivity, your decision making and thought processes, personal relationships, energy levels, and simple day-to-day self-care and functioning.
But if brain fog is just one symptom of a bigger issue, what is it? Unfortunately, defining it can be as hard to pinpoint as the symptom itself. Brain fog has been linked to multiple chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and autoimmune and gastrointestinal disorders, but there may not always be a clear root disease or cause. Chances are, though, it won’t be your only symptom.
“In addition to brain fog, maybe you’re also tired, stressed, not eating or sleeping well, your bowels don’t seem to be working properly,” says Dr. Rawls. “All of these are symptoms of general body dysfunction, where cells aren’t being nourished properly and toxins aren’t being removed.” He believes mild inflammation and congestion in the brain is at play, but also points to recent research on a potential new piece of the puzzle: Bacteria.
How Bacteria Impact the Brain
Most medical professionals used to believe that the brain was a sterile environment, protected by the sophisticated and normally impenetrable blood-brain barrier. If bacteria ever got in, it was bad news and signalled an infection that required antibiotics STAT, Dr. Rawls says.
However, work from researchers at the University of Alabama now show that’s far from the case. They were the first to find that bacteria live in the brains of healthy people. Since then, other studies have also found bacteria in the brains of those with neurological diseases. In fact, multiple studies have linked pathogenic bacteria with multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
“There is a whole spectrum of microbes in our brain, so we now know the brain has its own microbiome,” Dr. Rawls says. And, like the microbiome in your gut, the one in your brain could potentially also become overrun with pathogenic or inflammatory microbes. In other words, says Dr. Rawls, brain fog and other brain symptoms may be a sign of immune dysfunction brought on by microbial imbalances — by bad bacteria running amok, interfering with cellular processes, and triggering inflammation.
If disturbances of the brain’s microbiome are contributing to brain fog or other neurological problems, the next logical step is to consider the health of your body’s central microbiome — the one in your gut, which ironically is sometimes called your second brain. “There’s good evidence that microbes in the gut produce significant quantities of neurotransmitters,” Dr. Rawls says. “We know that our gut microbes affect our emotions and vice versa, so it makes sense that our gut microbes may be affecting our brains in other ways.”
And in fact, the same researchers who discovered bacteria in healthy brains found that most of those microbes come from three families that are also common in the gut. While it’s unknown whether the microbes traveled from the gut to the brain or how else they might have got into the brain in the first place, the scientists found no signs in the healthy brains that those bacteria were causing inflammation or other damage.
Given this new development, to address brain fog, Dr. Rawls says it’s smart to take a two-pronged approach: Adopt a lifestyle that both balances your gut microbiome and enhances brain function and cognitive processes. The good news: The two often go hand-and-hand — what’s good for your brain is usually good for your gut, too, and vice versa. Here are some natural and effective steps to get started today.
7 Natural Ways to Clear Brain Fog and Support Healthy Cognitive Function
1. Feed Your Microbiome Plenty of Plants
Fiber-rich veggies and fruits are well known for their gut health supporting powers. For one, fiber provides the good bacteria in your gut with fuel that helps them flourish and prevent pathogenic bugs from setting up shop. Fiber also helps move stool through your intestinal tract, clearing out harmful bacteria in the process.
As for the brain, researchers have long thought that keeping gut pathogens in check may indirectly help protect the brain from proteins and inflammation that could play a role in neurological and other diseases. And now that we know gut microbes actually reside in the brain, there’s even more incentive to fill up on high-fiber plants.
While all fresh produce is beneficial, there are several fruits and veggies that studies suggest are especially friendly to gut bacteria. For example, dandelion greens, which contain high amounts of inulin, a specialized fiber that gut microbes prefer. Jerusalem artichokes (sometimes called sunchokes), garlic, leeks, onions, and bananas also contain inulin, and all have likewise been shown to increase numbers of good bacteria or support a healthy microbiome.
2. Try Gut-Supporting, Brain-Boosting Herbs
Several herbs have been used for centuries in traditional medicine to promote optimal brain function. But most herbs have other noteworthy characteristics, too. “It’s interesting that many of the herbs that are used for the brain also have antimicrobial properties, and I think that’s a big part of how they work and what they do,” Dr. Rawls says. He recommends the following herbs for your brain and bacteria:
When researchers gave a group of people either ashwagandha root extract or a placebo for eight weeks, those who got the herbal extract showed significant improvement on memory, sustained attention, executive function, and information-processing speed compared to the placebo group, reported a study in the Journal of Dietary Supplements. Ashwagandah also helps support your gut health by balancing stress, Dr. Rawls says.
This native herb from India has a mild sedative effect, but also helps support memory, focus, and mental functioning by affecting choline, Dr. Rawls says. Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter linked to memory and cognitive function. Higher levels of choline coincide with better cognitive performance in adults, reports a study in the American Journal of Nutrition. Other studies show that bacopa inhibits inflammatory pathways in the brain and improves cognitive performance and behavior in kids with ADHD, college students, and dementia patients.
Turmeric is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, Dr. Rawls says. “It’s interesting that most people in India eat curry — which contains turmeric — every day, and that despite poor sanitation, high levels of pollution, and other issues, India has some of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease in the world,” he says.
Indeed, a recent study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that people with mild memory complaints who supplemented with curcumin (a compound in turmeric) saw significant improvement in memory, while those given placebos did not. The curcumin group also got a mild mood lift and other healthy changes in the brain.
A well-known herb in traditional medicine for improving memory and reducing brain fog, this wood-like vine from the Amazon rainforest is now exhibiting powerful benefits in modern research. For example, healthy adults aged 18 to 35 who took a supplement containing cat’s claw bark powder for six weeks saw significant improvements in short-term memory and executive functions compared to the control group, reports a paper in the journal Human Psychopharmacology. Another exciting recent study in the journal Scientific Reports found that cat’s claw reduced brain plaques and tangles — common signs of memory problems and cognitive decline, especially in Alzheimer’s disease — through specialized anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
A mushroom rather than an herb, lion’s mane supports healthy brain function through antioxidant, immune-modulating, and other neuro-protective properties, according to a report in the Journal of Complementary and Integrated Medicine. More specifically, one study in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms found that it may help stimulate neuron growth.
3. “Fatten” Up with Avocados and Olive Oil
“There’s a lot of fat in the brain, and some of the fat you eat goes right into your cell membranes,” Dr. Rawls says. “So healthy, unsaturated fats from plants and fish make for healthy, flexible brain cell membranes.” On the other hand, saturated fat from meat and free radical-inducing hydrogenated oils and fried foods can make cell membranes stiff like lard or trigger inflammation in cells.
Just consider a study published in the Annals of Neurology, which tracked the diets of more than 6,000 older women over four years and that tested their memory and cognitive functioning. The women that maintained the sharpest minds over the years consumed the highest amounts of monounsaturated fats from sources like avocados, olive oil, and nuts. On the other hand, those who ate the most saturated fats did the worst on memory and cognitive tests.
4. Get Your Fill of Omega-3s
Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are often called brain food since they’re loaded with omega-3s. These beneficial fatty acids help extinguish and prevent inflammation, but they’re also key nutrients for the brain. In fact, studies have shown that removing EPA and DHA (the two main omega-3s) from the diets of animals reduced brain concentration and triggered other behavioral changes. Research in humans, meanwhile, suggests that eating your omegas can improve cognitive performance, as well as help protect functioning as you age.
Increasing your intake of omega-3s via fish oil or krill oil supplements is also smart. Reviews in the journals Nutrients and the International Journal of General Medicine suggest that omega-3 fatty acid supplements may help protect against neurodegeneration and reduce cognitive decline as you get older.
5. Prioritize Sleep
If you’ve ever spent a night tossing and turning, you already know how lack of sleep impacts your brain and ability to think clearly. Research backs it up: Lack of shut-eye or poor quality Zzs can impair both attention and working memory, plus long-term memory, decision making, and more. But not getting enough sleep can also increase stress and mess with your gut bacteria, which may compound its effects on your brain, Dr. Rawls says.
There are multiple simple ways to encourage a better night’s rest. For example, start with your bedroom environment and sleep hygiene.
- Keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet.
- Avoid stimulating TV shows or books.
- In the hours before bed, turn off electronics, which give off blue light that tricks your body into believing it should be awake.
- Try to keep stress in check; stress is toxic to sleep and creates a vicious cycle since lack of sleep then contributes to more stress.
- Calming herbs such as passion flower, bacopa, magnesium, and CBD oil can help your body relax and drift off.
6. Diffuse Stress with Exercise
Stress not only messes with brain function by disrupting sleep, it also can trigger cognitive problems on its own in a variety of ways. For example, the hippocampus is your brain’s memory center, but it’s also the part of the brain that houses the most receptors for glucocorticosteroids — a type of hormone released when you’re stressed. What’s more, the hippocampus is the region that responds most strongly to stress, according to a review in EXCLI Journal.
It’s no surprise, then, that stress is linked to memory problems. But high levels of stress or chronic stress can also lead to other changes that impact cognitive performance.
While there are plenty of different ways to reduce stress, one of the best is physical activity, Dr. Rawls says. Not only can burning off nervous energy help to keep you calm, exercise can have a direct effect on the brain and cognitive functioning.
A review in the journal Frontiers in Psychology finds that physical activity modulates genes that produce a number of changes in the brain that support optimal cognitive functioning. For example, exercise makes your brain more plastic — meaning better able to form new connections and learn, change, and adapt. Plus, it can trigger an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, the area most tied to memory. Studies have also linked exercise to enhanced memory, attention, executive control, and performance on verbal, math, and perception tests.
7. Treat Your Senses to Rosemary
Aromatherapy can be especially effective at helping improve focus and concentration. While there are a few herbs linked to those and other cognitive effects like memory, “Rosemary is at the top of the list,” Dr. Rawls says.
For example, in one study in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, researchers had people perform math and visual processing tasks while they diffused rosemary essential oil nearby. They then measured participants’ blood for signs of the rosemary compounds. What they found: A correlation between blood concentrations of rosemary compounds and improved speed and accuracy during testing.
Whether you’re dealing with severe brain fog along with other systemic symptoms, or you’re looking to stay sharp as you age (including remembering where you left your keys), there are plenty of natural ways to do it. And the best part is that they don’t only do your brain good, they’ll help keep your entire body healthy, too.
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