Do you find yourself feeling fatigued, flat, or irritable?
Or, maybe you feel that any time you have to focus, concentrate, or remember something it’s like your brain is moving through molasses?
Welcome to the world of brain fog. In medical literature, brain fog is referred to as a clouding of consciousness. (1) Brain fog is almost always connected to chronic fatigue syndrome. Today, you’ll learn if it’s your fatigue that’s causing brain fog, or if it’s your brain that’s causing fatigue!
Let’s get going!
Is brain fog actually a medical condition?
If you picture brain fog on a disease spectrum, delirium would be at the far end of it. Delerium is a defined medical condition encompassing disturbances in attention, consciousness, and cognition. It may also involve other neurological deficits, such as psychomotor disturbances (e.g. hyperactive, hypoactive, or mixed), impaired sleep-wake cycle, emotional disturbances, and perceptual disturbances (e.g. hallucinations and delusions), although these features are not required for diagnosis. (2)
On that same spectrum, with delirium at the far end, brain fog is significantly less severe. Brain fog is listed in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. (3) Though it is referred to as disturbance of consciousness in this text. Since it is listed in medical texts, brain fog can be considered a medical condition.
But don’t expect too much help from the conventional medical community. Why brain fog occurs and what causes it is still poorly understood. You’ll probably leave your doctor’s office with a prescription for an antidepressant and not much else.
Are you dealing with brain fog?
Unfortunately, there is no lab test for brain fog. This makes the diagnostic criteria for brain fog a little shaky. Much like chronic fatigue syndrome, brain fog is a diagnosis based on exclusion. If all your lab tests come back in normal ranges, brain fog is then considered.
Some of the more common symptoms associated with brain fog include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling “spaced out”
- Challenges retaining information
Some have described brain fog as being “awake; but in another way, not awake”. (4) These symptoms are so commonplace in modern society that you probably think of them as normal. The symptoms associated with brain fog are not normal. They’re an early warning sign that something in your body is not functioning properly.
Brain fog could be an early warning sign that your mitochondria have been negatively affected. While researchers still don’t the exact pathology that causes brain fog, I think it’s a safe bet that brain fog is a symptom. Not a disease unto itself.
Below, I’ll outline three of the most common causes of brain fog. These causes are nearly ubiquitous in our society. In all likelihood, you probably have at least one without even knowing!
Follow my below recommendations and overcome brain fog. For good!
Three hidden causes of brain fog. And how to overcome each of them
Below, I list the three most insidious causes of brain fog. I see each of these almost every day in the clinic. If you’re suffering from one (or more) of the three, you probably don’t even know it.
Read on to learn the most common hidden causes of brain fog and how to overcome each of them!
#1 Sleep (or a lack of it)
Have you heard of the latest sleep hack?
A new technology or meditation or diet plan that allows you to only need 4-5 hours of sleep per night. The rest of the time, you can be a high-performance machine! I’m sure you’ve seen courses or books by authors who claim that sleep is a waste of time.
Allow me the space to be crystal clear here, you cannot skimp on sleep. I don’t care what sort of sleep hack the author is touting, there is an overwhelming amount of good, scientific evidence to suggest you need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. (5, 6, 7, 8)
There’s also a great deal of data to suggest that the average Canadian and American is not getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night. (9, 10, 11) And this doesn’t even include the quality of sleep into the equation.
If you account for sleep quality as well as quantity, the percentage of the population getting 7-9 hours of restful, recharging sleep is very low. In Canada alone, 43% of men and 55% of women aged 18 to 64 reported trouble going to sleep or staying asleep. (12) In the United States, more than 9 million people are taking prescription sleep medication. (13)
If your sleep is challenged either through duration (less than 7-9 hours per night) or quality (struggling to fall or stay asleep), your brain is not going to be tack sharp.
The glymphatic system and brain fog
How well do you know your glymphatic system?
The glymphatic system is what your brain uses to clean out unwanted and detrimental proteins that accumulate during your waking hours. Your muscles use the lymphatic system to clean out unwanted proteins. Your brain uses glymphatics.
And glymphatics are absolutely essential for the health of your mitochondria. If you want to overcome brain fog, you need to ensure your body’s mitochondria are producing ATP as best they can. To best do this, you need to ensure you’re getting delta sleep each and every night.
Delta sleep is part of the slow-wave sleep cycle. You may also know it as deep sleep or stage 3 of the sleep cycle. There’s no REM (rapid eye movement) here. Delta sleep is all about a restful slumber.
The more delta sleep you get in a night, the more ATP accumulates in your brain. (14) If you want to overcome brain fog, you’re going to want a lot of ATP accumulating in your brain. High levels of ATP in the brain would be indicative of well-functioning mitochondria. And healthy mitochondria will prevent brain fog.
How to overcome brain fog by improving your sleep
The first step towards improving your sleep is allocating enough time every night. Most of you won’t be able to alter the time that you get up in the morning because work starts at the same time each day. But you do have a lot of control over the time at which you go to bed.
You need to allocate 7-9 hours each and every night for sleep. This will probably mean going to bed earlier than you currently are. Less Netflix is absolutely essential to a good night’s sleep.
After you’ve allocated enough time for sleep, it’s time to make your bedroom a sleep mecca. To do this, you’ll need to eliminate all sources of light. Blackout blinds are a must!
Be sure to enable the blue-light blocking app on all your electronic devices. Better yet, keep all electronics outside of your bedroom (yes, this includes televisions). The blue light emitted from your electronics suppresses melatonin production. If you want to fall (and stay) asleep easily, keeping melatonin levels optimized is essential!
I also recommend that in the two hours before bed you ensure your home is dimly lit. No bright white LED bulbs, please. This too will help your body to produce melatonin. After you’ve got your lights sorted, it’s time to add a magnesium supplement.
Low magnesium levels may cause both disrupted sleep and/or sleep deprivation. (15) The simple act of supplementing magnesium before bed is thought to improve your sleep quality. (16) I recommend a dose of 200-400mg of magnesium glycinate taken an hour before bed.
#2 Blood sugar imbalances (a sneaky cause of brain fog)
I know, I know, your doctor told you that your blood sugar was fine. For some strange reason, doctors don’t seem concerned about mildly elevated blood sugar levels. They’re only concerned with pre-diabetic and diabetic blood sugar readings. As though you suddenly go from healthy blood sugar to diabetic blood sugar levels…
As I’m sure you’ve surmised, your blood sugar rarely jumps from being healthy to being diabetic. Instead, your blood sugar gradually trends in an upward direction. By midlife, you’ll find yourself with a diabetes diagnosis that seemed to sneak up on you. Even though your blood sugar had been trending higher for years!
Brain fog. Your brain is – by weight – the biggest consumer of energy in your body. If your blood sugar is imbalanced, your brain is not going to have a steady supply of fuel/energy. The resulting effect is brain fog.
Your brain doesn’t like to be low on fuel. When it senses a decrease in glucose – the fuel your brain runs on – your brain starts to employ energy-saving tactics. These tactics include fatigue, difficulty retaining information, challenges concentrating, and of course, brain fog.
All of these symptoms are designed to save energy. And they do a good job of it. But they’re not well aligned to helping you overcome brain fog. To do that, you’re going to want to ensure your blood sugar is optimized!
Let me give you a quick glimpse into how vastly different healthy blood sugar readings are from normal blood sugar readings:
Fasting blood sugar:
Ideal range: 4.2 – 4.7 mmol/L or 75–85 mg/dL
Your doctor’s range: 3.6 – 5.5 or 65–99 mg/dL
Ideal range: 5 – 6.4 mmol/L or 90 – 115 mg/dl
Your doctor’s range: less than 7.8mmol/L or 140 mg/dl
Notice how tightly controlled the ideal blood sugar ranges are. This is also known as the functional range for blood sugar. It’s what fnctional medicine practitioners use to determine your ideal blood sugar readings.
Strive for achieving blood sugar readings in the functional/ideal range. If your blood sugar is outside the functional range, you’re likely going to experience brain fog – even when your family doctor tells you that your blood sugar is fine.
If you’re dealing with brain fog, borrow a friend’s glucometer and track your blood sugar. Take a reading when your brain fog is at its most intense. I’d bet that you’ll find an abnormal blood sugar reading!
#3 Undiagnosed celiac disease or a hidden gluten sensitivity
Celiac disease (CD) is a common disorder that is estimated to affect 1-3% of the population worldwide. It is a condition in which the absorptive surface of the small intestine (villi) is damaged by a substance called gluten. Gluten is a group of proteins present in wheat, rye, and barley. The damage to the intestine can lead to a variety of symptoms and result in an inability of the body to absorb nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, which are necessary for good health. (17)
For every diagnosed case of celiac disease, there are 7-10 cases of silent celiac disease that go undiagnosed. (18) Historically, celiac disease was thought of as a wasting disease. Wasting refers to the process by which a debilitating disease causes muscle and fat tissue to waste away. (19) The typical picture of celiac disease involved a child with diarrhea, malabsorption, failure to thrive, muscle wasting, and a distended belly. (20)
In 2004, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) re-classified celiac disease to include symptoms not historically associated with celiac disease. (21) The NIH experts agreed that atypical celiac disease (no gut symptoms) was the most common form of celiac disease today and changed the terminology for the condition.
Did you catch that last part?
Celiac disease that has no symptoms related to the digestive tract is the most common form of celiac disease.
Chronic joint pain, headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, brain fog, and many other symptoms could actually be undiagnosed celiac disease.
Since celiac disease only affects 1-3% of the population, odds are pretty good that you don’t have it. If your celiac screen comes back negative, that does not indicate you have the green light to eat gluten. A condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) could be what’s causing your brain fog and fatigue.
Those with NCGS experience many of the same symptoms (including brain fog) as someone with celiac disease does. But when they get tested for celiac disease, their test results indicate they do not have celiac disease.
It was originally thought that those with NCGS experienced the following symptoms: (22)
- Brain fog
- ADHD-like behavior
- Abdominal pain
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Bone or joint pain
- Chronic fatigue
Just like celiac disease but without the intestinal damage to the small intestine. But new research suggests that those with NCGS experience damage to their intestines. (23) Just like someone with celiac disease does!
Should you get tested for celiac disease?
Below, I outline three situations that would certainly warrant testing for celiac disease:
- If you have a relative who has been diagnosed with celiac disease.
- The closer in relation the relative is to you, the more important testing becomes.
- You may have the specific genes that predispose you for gluten sensitivity.
- Testing is recommended in this situation.
- If you have a pre-existing autoimmune condition
- Examples include multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s, colitis, Hashimoto’s, etc.
- Gluten is often a trigger for autoimmunity.
- Accurate testing is imperative for those with autoimmunity.
- You have unexplained fatigue and/or brain fog
- Gluten tends to be a hidden cause of fatigue and brain fog.
Should none of the above apply to you, I recommend eliminating gluten from your diet for 30-60 days. Avoiding gluten for this time will help you determine whether or not your brain fog is being triggered by gluten. If after reintroducing gluten you experience, brain fog, difficulties focusing, or a decrease in your ability to remember events, gluten is more than likely contributing. And a gluten-free diet is recommended.
Just remember that gluten-free does not equal healthy. The simple act of substituting your bread and pasta for gluten-free varieties probably won’t help you overcome brain fog. Instead, I recommend you adopt a whole foods nutrition plan. This will provide double duty in both removing gluten and balancing your blood sugar.
Nutrition is the first – and most important – step in overcoming both brain fog and fatigue. If you don’t have your nutrition dialed in, it is unlikely your brain fog or fatigue will improve. If you need help identifying exactly which foods cause brain fog and which foods give you energy, please click here.
Ok, there you have it, three of the most common causes of brain fog – and how to overcome each of them!
Now, I want to hear from you.
What have you found to improve your brain fog?
Leave your reply in the comments section below!