More and more people are experiencing “brain fog” and looking for answers. While we all experience lack of clarity or forgetfulness at moments, brain fog can be more persistent. What causes brain fog, and when should you be concerned? More importantly, what causes brain fog, and what can we do about it? Let’s find out.
What is Brain Fog?
Brain fog is not a medical term or diagnosis: it’s a general term to describe a feeling of mental sluggishness, lack of clarity, or difficulties with memory or concentration. When brain fog is diagnosed as part of a medical or mental condition, it is usually called “clouding of consciousness.” Generally speaking, brain fog is characterized by:
- feelings of confusion
- feelings of mental fatigue
- thinking more slowly than usual, and taking more time with cognitive tasks
- being easily distracted
- struggling more than usual to organize and prioritize thoughts and activities
- difficulty finding or using words correctly
Generally speaking, the main characteristic of brain fog is a sensation of lack of mental alertness or awareness. Therefore, the primary way to identify brain fog is whether a person is experiencing these feelings more often or more severely than they usually do.
Everyone experiences these sensations occasionally, but when brain fog interferes with daily activities or work performance, people may feel concerned.
What Causes Brain Fog?
Brain fog can be caused by various physical, mental, and emotional conditions. Here are the most common causes of brain fog:
Mental causes of brain fog
- Stress. Stress is more than a mental condition. Stress has a wide range of physical as well as mental and emotional effects, including pain, fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, and even immune problems. Stress often contributes to an inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, and memory problems. Acute stress and PTSD often make brain fog episodes worse and longer-lasting.
- Anxiety. Feelings of brain fog are frequently associated with anxiety, making people struggle to concentrate and to think clearly. Anxious thoughts dominate the brain, leaving fewer resources available for normal cognitive functions.
- ADHD. Brain fog is a common symptom of ADHD, where it is also known as Sluggish Cognitive Tempo. ADHD can cause distractions and daydreaming, loss of alertness, and difficulty with concentration.
- Depression. Depression is another common cause of brain fog. Depression can cause cognitive and attention problems, making it difficult to remember, focus, and pay attention when needed.
Physical causes of brain fog
- Autoimmune conditions. Brain fog is a frequent side effect of autoimmune diseases like lupus and multiple sclerosis. Many patients report moments of forgetfulness and confusion, and it is so common that physicians often call it “lupus fog”.
- Diabetes. Diabetes impairs healthy circulation, which in turn causes brain fog and difficulty focusing. Over time, diabetes can also cause more severe cognitive damage, including memory loss, impaired reasoning, and slower thinking.
- Fatigue. Most people will experience fatigue-related brain fog at some point in their lives. Brain fog is one of the most common symptoms associated with chronic fatigue syndrome.
- Fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia frequently causes brain fog, known as “fibro fog”. Because fibromyalgia can cause many of the symptoms that contribute to brain fog, like sleeplessness, low mood, stress, and pain, it’s no wonder that it also causes mental slowness, forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating.
- Menopause and pregnancy. Hormonal changes can trigger brain fog, especially when these changes are rapid and extreme, as they are in pregnancy, menopause, and other hormonal conditions. Hormonal changes can also exacerbate brain fog by making it difficult to sleep and causing more stress.
- Covid-19. Many people report brain fog as a result of Covid-19, although scientists are still researching and trying to understand many of the neurological effects of Covid. Many people complain of a lack of alertness and feeling of mental slowness long after they have recovered from the physical effects of the illness.
Other causes of brain fog
- Medications. Many medications cause brain fog as a side effect. Over the counter and prescription sedatives, sleeping aids, pain medications, and mood stabilizers are often known to impair memory and cause brain fog.
- Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy and other cancer treatments can have long term cognitive effects, including brain fog. Since cancer treatments often cause stress and pain, hormonal changes, problems with sleep and nutrition, and changes to the immune system, it’s no wonder that they also often cause feelings of confusion and lack of mental clarity.
- Lifestyle. Many lifestyle choices can contribute to brain fog. Poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and dehydration can also cause brain fog.
Finally, brain fog is sometimes caused by allergies, anemia, lyme disease, and even cold and flu. In other words, anything that may stress or impair your physical and emotional health may potentially cause brain fog.
When Should You Be Concerned About Brain Fog?
Since so many things cause brain fog, it’s normal for most people to experience it from time to time. However, brain fog may also be a symptom of a more severe condition. So how can you tell? When should you be concerned about brain fog? If you aren’t sure whether your brain fog is severe or not, here are some of the common causes of brain fog to consider:
- Are you tired or stressed?
- Are you sleeping and eating well?
- Are you getting a healthy amount of physical and mental activity?
- Are you experiencing or recovering from an underlying physical or mental condition?
- Are you taking medication with brain fog as a side effect?
- Are you experiencing hormonal or immune system changes?
Here are the signs that your brain fog may be severe:
- When you don’t know what caused it. In the case of fatigue or pregnancy, you may be able to easily identify what has caused your brain fog. If you don’t know why you are feeling this way, you may be concerned.
- When it interferes with daily tasks. If brain fog makes it difficult for you to complete ordinary tasks that are not usually difficult or challenging, it may be a cause for concern.
- When your brain fog is sudden and severe. If you have a sudden severe incident of confusion or memory problems, it may be a sign of more significant problems.
- When brain fog is persistent. If your brain fog seems to be continuous or goes on for a long time, it may be worth checking out.
Suppose brain fog is sudden and severe, or persistent, and isn’t associated with some of the most common brain fog causes. In that case, it is a good idea to see your physician and find out whether your brain fog is a sign of a more severe physical or cognitive impairment.
Brain fog affects everyone from time to time because we all occasionally experience fatigue and stress, and we aren’t all in perfect health all the time. But brain fog can also be frustrating, making ordinary tasks take longer and more challenging to perform well at work, school, and home.
Protecting your physical and cognitive health is the best way to prevent brain fog and keep your mind sharp, clear, and focused.