Do you get brain fog? Nutrition and lifestyle interventions can help.

When we walk into a room and forget why, or lose our keys a few too many times, brain health can start to niggle at the back of our minds.

But if we feel a bit mentally ‘foggy’ and sluggish, should we actually be concerned?

Less than optimal brain health can take many forms and is suggested to have many causes.

Dr Dale Bredesen, founder of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in the USA, attributes cognitive decline largely to “three fundamental threats”.

These, he says, are “inflammation; a shortage of brain-boosting nutrients, hormones, and other cognition-supporting molecules; and toxic exposure.”

Inflammation and brain fog

The first of these, inflammation, often goes hand in hand with chronic conditions such as metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels.

All of these are associated with chronic inflammation and are risk factors for stroke and type 2 diabetes which, in turn, are known risk factors for cognitive decline.

Inflammation in the brain

Historically, one of the problems with the fatigue and low mood that can accompany brain fog is that symptoms are often dismissed as ‘all in the mind’, which can make getting help difficult.

A small study on individuals who reported such symptoms after being treated for Lyme disease, however, discovered that patients had inflammation located in the brain.

Senior author John Aucott, MD, said: “What this study does is provide evidence that the brain fog in patients with post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome has a physiological basis and isn’t just psychosomatic or related to depression or anxiety.”

Nutritional therapy for brain fog

Registered nutritional therapists Lorraine Perretta and Olga Preston at the Brain Bio Centre – a specialist clinic at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION) – say that brain fog is not a medical term but is often used to describe a variety of symptoms that include poor memory and concentration, an inability to focus, or a confused, unclear or slow thinking process.

They told Optimum Nutrition: “It can affect someone of any age. Students may notice they are not able to focus when studying.

“Other people may find themselves reading the same passages without taking in the meaning, or perhaps experiencing poor or slow memory.

“Some people may even complain that they have difficulty making decisions.”

If clients present at the clinic with brain fog, they say factors such as imbalances in blood sugars would be investigated.

“Fluctuations in blood sugar affect brain function and ability to concentrate and learn new things. Your brain prefers a steady release of sugar to function properly.”

Gut-brain axis

Evidence suggests that the health of our guts and gut microbiome is important for how mentally sharp we feel.

Removing gluten from the diet in coeliac disease, for example, has been associated with improving brain fog because it gives the gut a chance to heal.

Brain fog has also been associated with overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. Called SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), it is often accompanied with symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain.

Other areas for investigation include exposure to environmental toxins, reactions to food additives, hormonal changes, stress, medication side effects, anaemia, depression, high alcohol consumption and even dehydration.

In their clinical experience, however, Perretta and Preston say the two primary causes of brain fog tend to be gut bacteria dysbiosis and food intolerances.

Dysbiosis, they explain, is often associated with high sugar intake, a lack of dietary fibre, and low intake of foods which support good gut bacteria.

Taking antibiotics can also be a contributor.

A symptom to watch for, they advise, is regularly feeling sleepy and experiencing brain fog after meals, which may be caused by food intolerances.

Improving brain plasticity

Reducing the symptoms of metabolic syndrome may also help. In 2020, a small study investigating brain plasticity found better brain responses were associated with a healthy weight.

‘Brain plasticity’ is a term used to describe the ability of the brain to create new neural pathways, which is essential for learning and development.

Obesity, however, usually coexists with other conditions.

UniSA researcher Dr Brenton Hordacre said it was possible that metabolic syndrome, rather than obesity alone, could be the driving factor for reduced brain plasticity.

He told Optimum Nutrition: “Given increased risk of cardiovascular disease and [type 2 diabetes] with metabolic syndrome, it is possible there could be impact on brain function, as previous studies have shown both cardiovascular disease and [type 2 diabetes] alter brain activity.

 “I suspect what we observed with reduced brain plasticity is not simply linked to one factor, but could reflect a culmination of increased inflammation, increased insulin resistance, cardiovascular abnormalities, reduced physical activity, etc.”

Brain fog vs dementia

Dr Bredesen has suggested there is no single ‘cause’ of cognitive decline, and listing a range of contributing factors including diet, lack of sleep, stress, bacterial infection, environmental toxins and genetics.

In the past, he has compared Alzheimer’s to a leaky roof with thirty-odd holes that need plugging up; entire lifestyles may need to be overhauled.

Perretta and Preston stress it is important to consult a GP when there is a head injury, risk of loss of cognitive function, dementia, an inability for people to look after themselves, and situations where there are serious symptoms in conjunction with the brain fog.

However, they also acknowledge that many people living with brain fog may tolerate it because they assume it is an inevitable part of the ageing process — hence the common expression ‘senior moment’.

“People adjust to not feeling well and that becomes their new normal,” they say. “But they often find themselves feeling alert and more engaged once the fog is lifted.”


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