Brain Fog: Time to burn it off and reclaim your brain

Dr. Miranda Wiley, ND

Have you ever found yourself stuck mid-sentence trying to find the right word? Or any word for that matter!?

Do you ever walk into a room for “something” only to stand there blankly, trying to remember what on earth you were supposed to do or supposed to get?

Do you find yourself multi-tasking, not by choice, but because your attention wanders and you can’t seem to stay focused for more than a few minutes? Or sometimes not even for a few seconds?

Brain fog is a surprisingly common symptom for many patients. It rarely occurs in isolation but is more likely to be associated with other changes in lifestyle or physiology. Pregnancy-brain or “mom-nesia” refers to this effect in pregnant women, but what about the rest of us that aren’t pregnant and still struggling with concentration, focus, communication, and the ability to stay on task.

Of course, sex hormone variability doesn’t just occur in pregnancy, and both males and females are subject to changes in mental function from imbalances in hormones. Estrogens target nerve tissue and support the brain in creating synapses between neurons, boost the density of neuroreceptors as well as levels of certain neurotransmitters that facilitate mood and learning.

But, as with anything else, too much estrogen, in both men and women, can backfire leading to increased anxiety. Excess estrogen, or estrogen dominance, in either gender can occur from exposure to plastics, birth control medications, or excess stress (to name a few).

Likewise, variability in testosterone, again both in women and in men, can influence particular types of learning such as spatial reasoning. And because testosterone influences the strength of tissues including nerves and blood vessels, a testosterone deficiency in either gender may be a root cause of the increasingly poor memory associated with aging.

Thyroid hormones and adrenal hormones also play into mental function through manipulation of neurotransmitter production. Every cell in our body has a receptor for thyroid hormone, and more specifically thyroid hormone is required for serotonin to cross the blood-brain barrier.

As such, thyroid imbalance may be a root cause of depression and/or brain fog in many people. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that supports learning and memory consolidation.

Like the ripples in a pond from multiple rain drops the roles of each hormone and neurotransmitter touch and influence each other, and may serve to reinforce a pathway through the brain, or balance it out by lessening it. Serotonin has direct effects on brain function, but also feeds two other pathways that can aggravate or assuage brain fog.

Firstly, serotonin appears to support adrenal function and stress response at the level of the pituitary. Altered adrenal function is a common underlying condition behind brain fog and impaired learning and concentration.

Secondly, serotonin is the precursor for melatonin, our “sleep hormone”. Most people are familiar with the struggle to think clearly when over tired! A failure to access the deepest levels of restorative sleep brainwaves during the night can set us up to struggle mentally the following day. If this pattern of superficial or interrupted sleep becomes ingrained, through chronic insomnia or shift work, then it becomes harder and harder to “just push through it” on a daily basis.

Adrenal dysfunction is a very common root cause of brain fog. Acute stress raises levels of cortisol, one of our main stress hormones, while prolonged stress may lead to low levels of cortisol. Both imbalances are associated with poor cognition and learning deficits in both adults and children.

Restoring optimal adrenal function is a cornerstone of many naturopathic practices since vague symptoms of poor focus, not feeling oneself, generalized fatigue, mild depression, cravings for salt and/or sweets, tends to fall through the cracks of current western medicine.

But the adrenals are imminently treatable through lifestyle changes, optimized nutrition, herbal medicine, and nutraceuticals. Life is always going to throw curve balls so supporting the adrenals at the first sign of imbalance is an excellent awareness and practice to maintain.

The brain is also highly responsive to variations in blood sugar – also ultimately a hormonal process, but one that we can manipulate through good dietary choices. Balancing each meal with good quality protein, clean fats (such as coconut oil, olive oil, and omega 3 fats from fish and/or flax oil), and colourful carbohydrates from a range of vegetables will help to balance insulin and minimize the blood sugar crashes that can make thinking clearly such a trial.