Does this situation sound familiar?
You’re in the middle of an assignment or a conversation when, suddenly, your brain seems to short-circuit. Maybe you forget a word or you totally space out. Instead of feeling sharp, you feel like you’re walking through jello. You lose concentration, and the world seems like it’s moving faster than you can keep up with.
If you’ve experienced an instance like this, you might be dealing with brain fog.
Put simply, brain fog is a term to describe mental fatigue. And, depending on how severe it is, it can impact your performance at work or school.
Brain fog is undeniably frustrating: you know you can do exceptional work, but having no mental clarity can feel like running in slow motion. On top of that, getting flustered can aggravate the symptoms, thus repeating the cycle.
The good news is that brain fog is not permanent. By taking the right steps, you can reverse the symptoms to find a clear mind and even prevent them from happening again.
What Is Brain Fog?
Before we dive into details, it’s important to note that “brain fog” isn’t an official medical term, nor is there a test or measurement for it. Rather, it’s a loose term used to describe chronic mental fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and cognitive dysfunction. It is not a disease, but rather a reaction to specific circumstances (which we’ll explore later).
“Suffering from brain fog is basically the opposite of feeling level-headed, calm, optimistic and motivated,” says Jillian Levy of Dr. Axe.com. “Brain fog can easily rob you of inspiration and happiness, while increasing the likelihood for symptoms of anxiety and depression.”
Think you might have brain fog? Let’s take a look at the symptoms so you can make an accurate self-diagnosis.
Brain Fog Symptoms
Brain fog affects people in different ways. You might experience one or all of the following symptoms which can vary in intensity depending on the day. Here are the four most common symptoms of brain fog:
1. Lack of Concentration
When you can’t concentrate, mental tasks can feel like a moving target. Rather than being able to hone in and focus, your mind constantly wanders off, making it difficult to get anything done.
Brain fog can affect your ability to remember all kinds of information, including academic material, daily tasks like forgetting your car keys, or personal memories like what you ate for dinner last night.
3. Chronic Fatigue
I fell asleep during my fair share of lectures in college, but chronic fatigue is much different. As a symptom of brain fog, chronic fatigue is characterized by extreme, never-ending tiredness that can’t be remedied by rest or caffeine.
Since chronic fatigue is also a symptom of other disorders, consider talking to your doctor if it’s happening to you.
4. Mental Flatlining
The remaining symptoms of brain fog can be classified under what I call “mental flatlining.” Instead of feeling sharp and active like you normally would, you feel “off”: dull, unmotivated, unproductive, and maybe depressed. In this state, all of your day’s tasks and activities blur together, making it seem like you’re living in slow motion.
If you’ve experienced any or all of the above symptoms, you know they take a toll on your academics, work, and social life. But what causes these brain fog symptoms? And what can you do about it? Read on to find out.
Causes of Brain Fog (and How to Fix Them)
When you have the flu, it’s usually just a matter of bad luck that you have to wait out until you feel better. Brain fog, on the other hand, is different: it’s not something you can catch, nor something you can ride out until the symptoms disappear.
Brain fog is your body’s way of telling you that you probably need to make some changes in your daily life. However, when you can’t think straight and you have assignments and obligations piling up, figuring out and fixing what’s causing brain fog probably isn’t at the top of your to-do list.
To help you regain mental clarity ASAP, here are five common causes of brain fog (and what to do about them):
1. Lack of Sleep
College students typically aren’t known for having great sleep habits: maybe you’re even pulling an all-nighter as you’re reading this.
You might be tempted to sacrifice sleep to get more done, but that comes with a price.
Lack of sleep, and the inevitable fatigue that follows, can be one of the main causes of your brain fog. Optimal rest (which is 7-8 hours per night for most college-aged students) plays a key role in cognitive function. Without it, we’re left feeling groggy and stressed.
Solution: Get Enough Sleep
Max Hirshkowitz, chair of the National Sleep Foundation Scientific Advisory Council, suggests that college-aged people should get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night.
This will allow your body to rest and recover after long days of rigorous mental and physical activity. If you have trouble getting to bed on time and getting enough sleep, check out our guide to best practices for sleeping.
2. Lack of Exercise
Did you know that aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping) actually increases the size of the parts of your brain that are associated with thinking and memory? Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and has been demonstrated to improve sleep, boost memory, and reduce stress in addition to its physical health benefits.
As you can see, when we let our bodies become inactive for too long, we put our brains at risk for becoming inactive, too. This can lead to the symptoms of brain fog: difficulty sleeping, impaired memory, and increased stress.
Solution: Exercise Regularly
The internet is flooded with information that can cause us to feel overwhelmed about what a “good workout” really is.
Truthfully, you don’t need all the frills to counteract brain fog. Your goal is to sweat—it doesn’t matter how you get there.
When the human body is faced with stressful situations, it releases cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone. Normally, cortisol levels subside when stress passes. But if you’re stressed 24/7, those hormones continually flow throughout your body, making it difficult for you to calm down and think clearly.
It’s no surprise that some of the symptoms of high cortisol levels mirror the symptoms of brain fog, such as:
- Having a hard time falling asleep
- Inability to focus
- Constantly craving junk food
Solution: Manage Your Stress
Some people are better at handling stress than others, but the biological effects of stress can still contribute to brain fog. Here are some practical tips for stress management that can be applied in college and beyond:
- Recognize that you are stressed and don’t deny it. That tends to make it worse.
- Be okay with saying no to obligations that aren’t absolutely necessary or that you don’t have time for.
- Talk to somebody. There’s no shame in asking someone for help or just expressing your struggles to someone you trust. You’d be surprised how many of your peers experience the same issues.
4. Poor Diet
If you thought binging on potato chips and candy only had physical consequences, think again. Your brain is the hardest-working organ in your body, and if you want it to function at the highest level, you need to give it the fuel it needs.
A poor diet consisting of processed sugar (such as candy or ice cream), refined carbohydrates (such as chips, white bread, and cookies), and a lack of protein and vitamins can have a severe impact your mood, energy, and focus. And all of this leads to brain fog.
Solution: Fuel Up With (Healthy) Brain Food
The main macronutrients that feed our brains are proteins, which are the building blocks of our neurotransmitters. Additionally, foods such as salmon, walnuts and pecans, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, and coconut oil contain brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids that our brains rely on to build brain cells and process information.
If you’re looking for a simple, effective diet solution, focus on adding more leafy greens, dark berries, omega-3s, and a high-protein lunch.
Have you ever noticed how runners are often dazed and confused after finishing a marathon? Chances are, they’re dehydrated — and you can experience the same side effects if you’re not hydrated throughout your classes, work, and extracurriculars.
Your brain clocks in at 73% water. And according to a study at the University of Connecticut, even a 1% dehydration level can impair cognitive function. Here are just a few side effects of dehydration:
- Increased fatigue
- Inability to focus
- Impaired short-term and long-term memory
- Impaired problem-solving capabilities
Sounds a lot like brain fog, right?
Solution: Drink More Water
You may have heard that you need to drink 8 glasses of water a day to stay hydrated. However, it turns out that this is a myth.
In reality, staying hydrated isn’t about drinking the “perfect” amount of water (or other fluids that contain it). This is because the quantity of fluids you need changes based on all kinds of factors such as your weight, activity level, and even the temperature.
To keep yourself hydrated, just follow these simple rules:
- Drink fluids when you feel thirsty. This will be easy if you always keep a reusable water bottle with you.
- Eat a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, and high-quality protein sources (which contain both water and electrolytes).
- Limit your consumption of drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol.
Okay, that was a lot of information (which I hope you found valuable.) Now you might be thinking: Where do I start?
Whenever I’m faced with a chronic problem, I always try to understand the whole situation before obsessing over particulars.
In the case of brain fog, you’ll want to identify its root cause before making specific changes. For instance, it won’t matter how many leafy greens you eat if you’re only sleeping four hours each night or taking on more work than you can handle.
There might not be a magic pill to beat brain fog, but with moderate adjustments and a little patience, you can put the odds of a fog-free life in your favor.
By Dominic Vaiana