Yes, Brain Fog IS Real — And Here's How To Fix It
by the Axon Labs Team | Are you struggling with Brain Fog? Try our combo pack today.
It’s a term that gets tossed around, with the assumption that everyone knows what it is.
And that’s fair.
Its name is almost its own explanation — and everyone knows it’s not good.
But is it a real thing? Could you ever go to your doctor and come away with an actual diagnosis of Brain Fog? Or is it just something we say — like “the blahs” — that lacks a real medical definition?
You may be surprised, but the answer is YES.
You may have heard of the “DSM,” or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is a massive book that is basically the final arbiter on mental health issues, according to doctors.
And although it uses the terms clouding of consciousness or disturbance of consciousness, “brain fog” is accepted as the everyday-language equivalent — like saying “the flu” instead of influenza.
Disturbance of Consciousness Also known as Clouding of Consciousness or subsyndromal delirium - defined by the DSM IV as any “cognitive disorder not otherwise specified.”
So what is Brain Fog, exactly?
If you want to impress your friends with a term you won’t remember if you actually have brain-fog, you can call it subsyndromal delirium.
As in, if the sufferer takes a few steps further into the cognitive murk they would be diagnosable as delirious… But they’re not quite there yet.
What they will feel is “out of it,” in a dulled or dreamy state, their judgment suspect, with attention being hard to muster and even harder to maintain. A
If this sounds like a catch-all description of a bad brain-day, you’re not wrong.
The DSM instructs clinicians to code brain fog as bad miscellany: “cognitive disorder not otherwise specified.”B
However, one standard element of brain fog is lowered arousal (wakefulness). You can’t be peppy and brain-fogged at the same time. These two states are in opposite directions on the spectrum of alertness. This is one factor that distinguishes brain fog from mild cognitive impairment — as might accompany a concussion, where the sufferer might be prone to confusion, but just as wakeful as normal.
Brain fog always has a low-energy feel to it, like your wakefulness dial is stuck at 70% and won’t budge any further — despite coffee, and despite the day’s demands.
What causes Brain Fog to roll in?
If brain fog sounds like a vague diagnosis, it’s probably no surprise that it can be caused in a variety of different ways.
In fact, it might be more accurate to say that the state we want to be in — alert, focused, clear-headed — is a very specific state that requires everything working right and our brain having all the raw materials it requires. And futzing up any of these inputs is likely to cause brain fog.
Research shows there are five predominant contributors to brain fog, which we’ll expand on shortly:
- Eating the wrong foods. (What you’ve been taught about “health food” may be shockingly wrong…and your grandma knows what you should eat instead.)
- A collection of invisible toxins — including those that your doctor may be prescribing you.
- Failing to get the right kind of sleep each night. (In 2014, the National Sleep Foundation discovered that 45% of Americans are affected by poor sleep each week.)
- Chronic stress caused by lifestyle, work, and family.
- Illness and congenital disease.
Let’s look into these ways that we might descend from clear mental skies into the soupy murk of brain fog…
Cause #1: The Wrong Diet
There are two “flavors” of dietarily-induced brain fog:
- The long, slow, and constant — caused by a consistently poor diet, but not any one particular meal.
- The more acute type, with “spikes” of brain fog that come on as a result of eating some specific thing. This plays out more like a poisoning or an allergic reaction.
We’ll talk about this latter case first.
Acute Case: “The Revenge of Dinner”
Brain fog and inflammation go hand in hand.
And not just among food causes of brain fog. When a particular meal makes you feel foggy afterwards, odds are it is because something in what you ate is putting your body on the defensive (i.e. causing an “inflammatory response”) fast.
Everyone has some foods to which they are particularly vulnerable, and sometimes these are easy to identify. (“Every time I eat peanuts, I swell up like a blowfish.”)
But other times it might be a particular compound or ingredient it is hard or impossible to identify just by looking at the food.
Lectins are an example.
These are plant proteins that induce an immune response in some people — whose bodies mistake lectins for similar protein markers from inside animal bodies.
In a lectin-sensitive person, their immune system senses lectin and assumes that foreign animal tissue has breached their outer defenses. It then launches an inflammatory defense. (This is similar to when a transplant recipient’s body tries to “reject” a donated organ.)
Lectin-sensitive people may get inflammation in their gut, their joints, their thyroid glands — and importantly for brain fog — in the hypothalamus region of the brain.
Continuing to ring the body’s inflammatory “alarm bell” by eating foods that induce a sharp response can lead to a state of constant alert. The guards get called out for false alarms so many times that eventually they stop going back to their barracks. And they start harassing anyone who’s nearby. We call this autoimmune disease.
The Elimination Game
Of course, lectins aren’t the only way to ring the immune system’s alarm bells.
And not all lectins — which are present in all plants — trigger most people’s immune systems. (Not by a long shot; otherwise plants wouldn’t be healthy eating.)
But they provide a good example of the kind of thing that can provoke brain fog but not be as easily identified, say, a shellfish.
The way to handle allergens like this is with an elimination diet.
Simply put: If something in your diet is causing problems, but you don’t know what it is — give no food the benefit of the doubt, but roll back to a diet that has almost nothing controversial in it, then add things one by one.
See when the brain fog reappears…and then you’ve got your culprit. (SelfHacked.com offers a super-strict elimination diet which could be a great starting point from which to re-add candidate foods.)
"Round up the Usual Suspects!"
Besides lectins, which we’ve been picking on as an example, there are plenty of other biochemical suspects that might be at the root of an acute brain fog response from food.
- Gluten (wheat, oats, barley, etc.)
- Casein (the dairy protein that dairy-sensitive people are sensitive to)
- and even Caffeine (it’s true!)
In all cases, if you really think that food is a brain fog trigger for you, then an elimination (and re-integration) diet protocol can identify the guilty parties.
Chronic Case: “Doc, I’ll do anything — just don’t mess with my diet.”
Sometimes it might not be just one particular meal to point the finger at. Or one particular ingredient.
There is such a thing as a generally bad diet — and unfortunately, the “Standard American Diet” is a pretty good example of what not to do.
With waistlines bulging — along with the percent of the population getting diabetes (and at increasingly early ages) — there is every sign that “normal” is not what you want from your diet. Not these days.
And a “normal” diet can lead not just to extra pounds, but also to brain fog.
Sugar is a primary culprit — especially the highly-refined, quick-into-the-bloodstream kind that can make your blood sugar meter look like a cross-section of the Andes mountains (as opposed to the low, rolling hills your cardiologist would rather see).
People worldwide have been eating more processed sugars and less healthy fats — a trend now widely recognized as a public health disaster.
Although the brain uses glucose (a sugar) as a fuel source, having the supply of glucose zigzag during the course of the day leaves the brain unable to properly function.
Think of the chaos caused on Wall Street when oil prices are volatile — then move the analogy to your brain.
Low blood sugar can cause brain fog, with its feelings of low energy and lethargy.
And spiking glucose levels with a bowl of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs™ can triple the cell-killing free radicals produced during cellular metabolism.
(Although adult humans can grow new brain cells…it’s best not to kill off the ones you have.)
Having a “healthy diet” is easy advice to give — but the dietary devil is in the details.
Probably the simplest popular explanation comes from food writer Michael Pollan in his bestseller In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto C: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
We are also big fans of the following advice. (Add or subtract the optional “[great]” depending on how old you are.)
“If your [great] grandparents wouldn’t have recognized something listed on the ingredients panel, don’t eat it.”
We like to call this the “Great Grandma Filter.”
Could brain fog be from something as obvious as not getting enough water?
Maybe it’s not so obvious after all — not with 75% of Americans thought to be chronically dehydrated. Your brain is about three-quarters water (that’s not a bad thing!), and if that number dips due to dehydration, cognitive impairment is the inevitable result. D E
The cost of drinking a little too much water versus too little — which basically begins and ends with “I need to pee more often” are so small compared to mistakes in the other direction, that it doesn’t make sense to not have a beverage handy at all times.
And if it’s a “boring” beverage like water or unsweetened tea, so much the better.
One more thing: Dehydration has more than one way of negatively affecting the brain.
When you’re dehydrated, your blood is gooier and doesn’t flow as easily in the small capillaries that supply the brain with oxygen. So not only does blood flow less freely — ideas do too.
Cause #2: Toxins (including the ones your doctor might be prescribing you)
We’ve already covered how unintended toxins (both natural and unnatural) can be present in foods…but food and drink aren’t the only ways substances enter our bodies.
Toxic and semi-toxic compounds can gain access to us through our skins, our mucous membranes and even the air we breathe.
The number of never-before-seen chemicals humanity has invented in the past century is staggering — not quite 1000 per year, but close.
Only a few hundred of those have been tested for safety. F
(Don’t think about this; it could cause mental stress, discussed below.)
But toxins don’t have to be new or manmade to be…well…toxic. Molds, dust, smoke, pollens, even the fumes you can huff from a nearby volcano — all of these can do damage.
You can’t stop breathing, but you can choose where you breathe.
Cities are great, but city air is worse than country air. You knew that. And you probably also know that the difference can impact your brain. G
But are taxi fumes and gutter gas another cause of brain fog?
With thousands of unregulated chemicals blowing on the city breeze, bet on yes.
But odds are good that you spend most of your time indoors. And here’s what most people don’t know: Indoor air pollution can be worse than outdoor air pollution. A lot worse. H
It’s strange but true: your innocent-looking furniture could be invisibly “out-gassing” its insides into your insides. Formaldehyde and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are real concerns, often present in mattresses, carpet, and other fluffy furniture.
Mix in some bread mold, pet dander, household cleansers, ancient cigarette smoke, and that thing you thought was microwave safe but turned out not to be…and you’ve got yourself an indoor, airborne chemical stew.
Molds, dust, pet dander, pollen, perfume, air fresheners, cigarette smoke, and household cleaners get trapped inside the average home.
You probably spend half your day breathing your household air — maybe two-thirds of that time specifically in your bedroom — so you owe it to yourself to not let brain fog start at home.
4 Steps to Becoming Your Own EPA
Boost your air quality with these four steps you can follow immediately:
- If you smoke, stop. But at the very least do it outside. But then you’ll be diffusely poisoning your neighbors. So just stop. ;)
- Unplug the chemical/electric air fresheners. Just because they smell clean doesn’t mean they are clean.
- Switch to natural and “mild” cleaning and personal care products. Consider ditching many of them outright. Put these through the Great Grandma Filter (mentioned above) too.
- Filter your bedroom air. If most of the air you breathe is in your bedroom, invest in a HEPA air filter to minimize the toxin load in this, your most easily controlled environment.
When medicine flouts the Hippocratic Oath.
The Hippocratic Oath that doctors take is famous:
“First, do no harm.”
But when you think about it, isn’t it weird that we don’t hold medicines to the same standard?
If you can get past the silly objection that “medicines can’t talk,” it’s apparent that the equivalent oath for a therapeutic substance would be: “First, have no negative side effects.”
And this clearly isn’t the case.
Brain fog is one of the most commonly reported side effects of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
“Statin” drugs used to manage cholesterol level are famous for causing memory loss. Prescription sleeping pills can promote sleep — but also yield a residue of half-asleep, foggy wakefulness.
And an entire class of drugs called anticholinergics get their name from their blocking the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at targeted receptor sites.
While this can be medically useful, it also interferes with concentration, learning, memory-formation. Toss in a little diminished arousal (which you could fairly do, as acetylcholine is an excitatory neurotransmitter) and you’ve got the primary symptoms of brain fog.
If you’re taking a prescription medication, ask your doctor whether it might be causing or worsening brain fog. And if you use OTC medications, pay attention to how they affect your cognition and alertness in your hours afterward. Keep a particularly close eye on anti-allergy medicines like Benadryl and sleep aids like Tylenol PM.
Cause #3: Ineffective Sleep
Since we just mentioned sleep medications, let’s keep on the topic of sleep.
Because poor sleep is a major contributor to brain fog, and could be a cause even in the absence of other factors, if the problem is serious enough.
“Poor sleep” could mean one of three things:
- Lack of sleep, or
- Sleep with frequent interruptions — as with sleep apnea or a newborn baby in the house, or
- Sleep that logs enough hours but never gets “deep” enough for the brain to fully recover from the previous day’s activities.
How exactly this recovery happens — while the sleeping brain is also growing new cells, consolidating memories, and burning almost as many calories as during wakefulness — is not yet clear. I
And the problem is a hot-topic. With 45% of Americans struggling to get good sleep all week long, proper “sleep hygiene” is now the subject of many books, lectures, courses, TED Talks, and more.
So for the answer to the question “Can sleep problems contribute to brain fog?”
Mark that with a big, definitive Yes.
Cause #4: Chronic Stress
Have you ever got cut short on sleep and felt grumpy?
(Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.)
You’ve also probably felt stressed and grumpy when you learned about some future situation that will make you lose. In a nasty vicious circle, stress about poor sleep can cause poor sleep which leads to poor performance, greater stress, and so on and so on…
Not a good situation.
One common element in this cycle is the “stress hormone” called cortisol.But it’s not only sleep deprivation that can spike cortisol levels.
All sorts of stressors ratchet up its release.
But don’t get the idea that cortisol is a “bad” chemical. Not at all.
cortisol literally causes you to wake up in the morning. It can be thought of like a biochemical Paul Revere, yelling “Hey, something is about to happen — perk up!”
The problem is when cortisol is always present.
Then, instead of alerting the body to get ready for something, it’s bothersome but it can’t be taken seriously.
This is the worst of both worlds — like the “little boy who cried wolf,” who is annoying in his own right, and also actually increases the danger that a wolf will eat you, because you give up on taking him seriously.
Mental stress increases cortisol. Sustained mental stress leads sustained elevation in cortisol levels. And brain fog symptoms are seen in both people with insufficient cortisol (“I just can’t seem to wake up”) and those with excessive cortisol (“I’m burnt out from being under constant stress-arousal.”) J
You can almost think of the brain fog’s resulting from chronic stress as a perverse counter-move.
Brain fog is like your brain saying “I just can’t deal with it!” to the source of the stress — and creating the situation where it really can’t deal with it.
Like a soldier who shoots off his own finger so he doesn’t have to face the enemy who is stressing him out.
In the case of brain fog, the better strategy is just to not have enemies (a.k.a. chronic stress).
This is easier said than done, of course. And while stress can’t be entirely avoided, it can be reduced and managed.
5 Effective Ways To Reduce Chronic Stress
- Physical exercise
- Time spent happily with friends and loved ones
- Exposure to nature
Each of these well-documented stress relievers carries direct benefits — plus the added bonus of reducing stress-induced brain fog.
Cause #5: Illness and Congenital Disease
As little as a 1–2% reduction in blood flow to the brain can make a human fall unconscious.
With our brains so susceptible to even small disruptions, it should come as no surprise that when we’re sick from a temporary illness — or hampered by a long-term medical condition—brain fog can be the result.
Sniffles, Cough and… Brain Fog
Viral infections, bacterial infections, even fungal infections — all cause immune responses from the body which include tissue inflammation.
And as we’ve seen again and again: Where inflammation goes (grows?), brain fog can follow.
Of course, no one likes getting sick, and you try to avoid getting sick anyway, even without brain fog as a potential bonus in the viral gift-bag.
The “good news” is that when brain fog is induced by a temporary illness, it should clear up on its own as your immune system fights off the illness and your body returns to normal.
But if you find that brain fog lingers after an illness, but you felt cognitively normal before…that’s when you might want to check with your doctor and run a blood test looking for inflammatory markers.
Could something be keeping your immune system in “crisis mode” even when the illness that triggered the problem has passed?
We’ve already discussed the “stress hormone” cortisol and how its long-term elevation can lead to inflammation and to brain fog.
On the flip side of the coin, many hormones are anti-inflammatory, and if their levels drop below a healthy range, brain fog could result.
- The sex hormones testosterone and estrogen.
If you experience brain fog and you haven’t been able to shake it by addressing the potential causes listed so far, a blood test might be in order.
Consult with your doctor to see if your hormonal levels are within a healthy range for a person of your age and sex; solving low hormone levels may be another angle of attack for dealing with brain fog.
Fruit of the Poisoned Tree
There are many longer-term health conditions for which brain fog might be an additional symptom — sometimes with its own context-specific name.
You’ve probably heard the term chemo brain for people dealing with chemotherapy. Brain fog and chemo brain’s descriptions are basically indistinguishable; “chemo brain” is just the name used when brain fog results from chemotherapy.
Same with “fibro fog” from fibromyalgia. And “lupus fog” for sufferers of lupus (technically, systemic lupus erythematosus). Thyroid conditions resulting from both over- and underproduction of thyroid stimulating hormone cause brain fog as well…although these don’t come with a catchy name, for some reason.
All in all, a variety of conditions from A to Z can result in brain fog.
We tried to come up with a list starting with “ADHD” for A, “Brain Trauma” for B, etc. — but we couldn’t come up with a good “Z” and stopped at “W” for Withdrawal from Addictive Substance. But it is a long, long list.
In any event, none of these medical conditions are lifestyle choices or environmental factors; they are all situations where brain fog, if it happens, must be dealt with and not just avoided.
So how can you get rid of Brain Fog?
We’ve already touched on several brain fog countermoves in the relevant sections above. But there are a few catch-alls that haven’t been mentioned yet, and anything that works bears repeating.
1. Get Quality Sleep
For most of us, if we have poor sleep habits, we know about them already: not scheduling enough time for sleep, using the phone or laptop right before bed, etc.
But if you want to dig in to “the literature” on how to optimize your sleep, check out the book Say Good Night to Insomnia by Gregg D. Jacobs, Ph.D. K
It’s based on research conducted at the Harvard Medical School, and gives both the how-to and the why-to on good sleep practices.
Physical exercise gets your blood flowing — and therefore more glucose and oxygen flowing to the brain. This automatically improves wakefulness and diminishes brain fog.
Exercise also burns off cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and stimulates the production of new brain cells.
Importantly, the most important benefits of exercise for brain fog, cardiovascular health, and maintenance of a healthy weight don’t require major Crossfit sessions or running ultra-marathons.
Low level activity dotting your calendar throughout your day can have a major impact. The handy acronym for this is N.E.A.T. — Non-Exercise Active Thermogenesis. Basically: Burning more calories than you do when you are just sitting.
If you want to dig into the substantial body of research behind NEAT, we recommend Get Up! (How Your Chair Is Killing You) L and Sitting Kills, Moving Heals M by James A. Levine and Dr. Joan Vernikos, respectively.
3. Manage Your Stress
Getting quality sleep and exercise should help with stress as well as brain fog…
But if you’ve ticked those boxes and you’re still foggy, it might be time to address stress directly.
This might mean giving yourself blocks of time in the day when you turn off incoming stressors like email, texts and mobile phone calls and make time for intentional stress reduction with techniques like meditating, journaling, reading, exercise (already mentioned), and exposure to natural environments — which, interestingly, is shown to have a significant impact. (i.e. It’s not just “get outside,” but “get outside in nature” where you get the most bang for your relaxation buck.)
You can also fight stress head-on by scheduling time for things that you love.
Joy fights stress — go figure.
This has a lot to do with the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is a crucial part of the brain’s motivation and reward systems.
The lack of dopamine makes the blahs of brain fog possible. Aggressively working fun into your schedule beats back the fog.
4. Address Hormone Imbalances through Diet
Misfunctioning thyroid and adrenal glands and chronic fatigue syndrome can all be at the root of brain fog symptoms. Many solutions to these issues have been discussed already: stress reduction, improved sleep, etc.
But a person’s diet remains one of the most powerful (and natural) tools for balancing off-kilter hormone levels.
Avoidance of processed sugar, alcohol and “white carbohydrates” is a great place to start.
Calvin, the comic character from Calvin & Hobbes, famously ate “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs™” cereal, rocketing from an overstimulated frenzy into a sugar-crash torpor that looked a lot like brain fog.
And unfortunately, the comic artist wasn’t straying too far from reality.
We love caffeine, but too much caffeine (and how much is “too much” varies from one person to the next) can stress the adrenal glands.
And without primed adrenals, it’s hard to perk to attention — another brain fog symptom.
Keeping your hormones balanced through the diet can be accomplished with adequate protein and plenty of healthy fats.
After decades of pro-carbohydrate cheerleading by the medical establishment, the dangers of a diet too low in fats are now being generally recognized. N
While the specifics will vary from one person to the next, making 20–30% of your food intake quality sources of protein (e.g. grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry and wild fish, cage-free eggs) and 30-40% healthy fats (coconut and olive oil, avocado, nuts/seeds, etc.) will help manage inflammation and give your hormone levels the ability to self-regulate.
Also, Diet for the MIND by Dr. Martha Clare Morris O is a brain-friendly diet and cookbook to help dispel brain fog from your kitchen.
5. Supplement with Phosphatidylserine
Phosphatidylserine (or “PS,” as no one can seem to pronounce this) is a naturally occurring compound vital to the membranes of the brain’s neurons — allowing important molecules in while keeping others out.
PS can be produced within the body but most of it typically comes dietary sources.
Direct supplementation can further assist our PS stores to assist with the growth, repair and replenishment of neurons.
Note: Phosphatidylserine is one of the key ingredients in Nexus by Axon Labs. You can learn more here.
6. Supplement with Citicoline
As you might guess from its name, it raises the levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, an “excitatory” neurotransmitter important in memory, learning, and the initiation of movement. It is used throughout the world as a therapy against neurological disorders including stroke, brain injury and dementia. V
Many medications are acetylcholine-blockers, and if brain fog is a partial consequence of this, supplementing with citicholine can be an effective countermeasure W.
The energizing effects of citicoline can combat more generic sources of brain fog as well.
Note: If you want citicoline, it’s also found in Nexus by Axon Labs. Learn more about Nexus here.
Stepping Out of the Fog
Although the “fog” part of the brain fog name is only an analogy, it’s a pretty good one. In a fog bank, it’s impossible to know how close you are to the edge…until within just a few steps, the fog fades away, giving visual clarity.
Brain fog can often feel very much the same — disorienting and murky while you are trapped “inside” of it.
But with the root causes identified, you can work through them and be confident you’ll break free of the fog. No fog bank goes on forever. ;)
- A Barbara Schildkrout (2011). Unmasking Psychological Symptoms. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 183–184. ISBN 9780470639078.
- B Augusto Caraceni; Luigi Grassi (2011). Delirium: Acute Confusional States in Palliative Medicine. Oxford University Press. p. 11. ISBN 9780199572052.
- E Cognitive performance and dehydration.
- FNew Alarm Bells About Chemicals and Cancer
- G Air Pollution May Raise Dementia Risk
- H How Indoor Air Pollution Works
- I Brain may flush out toxins during sleep
- J RHR: High Cortisol and Brain Fog
- K Say Good Night to Insomnia: The Six-Week, Drug-Free Program Developed At Harvard Medical School
- L Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It
- M Sitting Kills, Moving Heals: How Everyday Movement Will Prevent Pain, Illness, and Early Death -- and Exercise Alone Won't
- N 7 Low-Fat Diet Risks You Need to Know About!
- O Diet for the MIND: The Latest Science on What to Eat to Prevent Alzheimer's and Cognitive Decline -- From the Creator of the MIND Diet
- P Effects of phosphatidylserine therapy in geriatric patients with depressive disorders.
- Q Soybean-Derived Phosphatidylserine Improves Memory Function of the Elderly Japanese Subjects with Memory Complaints
- R The effect of phosphatidylserine administration on memory and symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial.
- S Effects of various cerebral metabolic activators on glucose metabolism of brain.
- T Efficacy of citicoline as an acute stroke treatment.
- U Cognizin® Citicoline Increases Brain Energy (ATP) by 14% and Speeds up Formation of Brain Membranes by 26% in Healthy Adults
- V Therapeutic applications of citicoline for stroke and cognitive dysfunction in the elderly: a review of the literature.
- W Citicoline: neuroprotective mechanisms in cerebral ischemia.