When you were younger—or just kid-free, stress-free, and pandemic-free—you may not have even noticed the ease with which you turned a phrase, or could immediately name that actress, that restaurant, or your fourth grade teacher. As you get older, though, your brain may not be quite as nimble. Add to that poor diet, an overload of mental input, stress and anxiety, and you may sometimes find yourself struggling to find the right words or remember the name of that guy who was in that show about that thing. It's called "brain fog" and it can be nerve-racking, creating a brain fog anxiety that can have you frantically searching Google for answers.
So what is brain fog exactly? "The best way to describe it is when you really just don't feel like yourself. It's actually your brain's way of telling you that something isn't optimal," explains Mike Dow, PhD, PsyD, brain health expert and author of The Brain Fog Fix. "It can unfold differently for different people. It could be trouble bringing words to mind, a gray mood, low energy, or forgetfulness."
The good news is that it's usually just temporary, and with the right lifestyle changes, you can get your brain back on track. We talked to experts to learn what you can do to clear away the brain fog.
Change up your diet.
Oddly enough, poor gut health is one of the leading brain fog causes. "There is a ton of emerging research suggesting that the sugar and processed foods, which feed the bad bacteria in our gut, lead to inflammation not only in the body, but in the brain," explains Sarah Bridges, PhD, a Minnesota-based psychologist. It's why you may often feel sleepy after a sugary treat or carb-heavy meal. That "crash" is not only physical, but mental as well. In fact, about 95 percent of dopamine and serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitters) are produced in your intestinal tract.
While you may not want to skip your favorite goodies entirely, experts recommend incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods into your diet. "Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, and taking prebiotics and probiotics, can introduce healthy bacteria into the gut, which helps your body better produce those brain-boosting neurotransmitters," explains Dow. "You'll also want to make sure you're getting enough omega-3s, either from clean seafood or supplements, which can also remedy brain fog."
Intermittent fasting—limiting your eating window to 10 hours per day—may also improve brain function. "Intermittent fasting causes new brain cell growth, called neurogenesis. By giving your body a break from digesting, you're actually giving your brain a break as well," Bridges says.
Alleviate your stress.
These days, our brains are inundated with information from the news, social media, and the constant influx of texts and emails flooding our smartphones. The result: Our brains are fatigued. "When you have too much of a cognitive load—meaning you're doing too many things at once, or have too much on your mind—it taxes our mental reserves," says Bridges. "It's too much for our brains."
According to experts, we have something called ultradian rhythms, which are cycles that play out during our waking hours. According to Bridges, research suggests that working in 90-minute intervals, and then taking a break to get water, take a short walk, or make a phone call, can help improve your brain power. "By minimizing those stretches of work time, you alleviate the stress on your brain."
Meditation can also help clear your head. Dow recommends meditating for 12 minutes every day (although even a few minutes will help). And absolutely, try to put the phone down for a few hours a day to prevent information overload.
Improve your sleep habits.
Sure, a bad night's sleep here and there is going to leave you sluggish the next day, but if your overall sleep patterns aren't optimal, your brain won't be at its best. "Poor sleep habits can hit us in two ways, increasing our stress levels and disrupting the brain's opportunity to rest and recover," says Bridges. "This can come from having an inconsistent sleep schedule, not sleeping soundly, or waking up in the middle of the night—all of which can give you transitory brain fog."
A 2020 study done at Stanford found that stepping outside for a few minutes in the early morning as the sun rises, and again before the sun is going down, will reset your circadian rhythms. "That light helps to align your natural sleep-wake cycle, which allows your brain to go into 'self-clean' mode at night, cleaning out the brain-fog-causing plaques," Dow says.
Get a walk in.
We know that a good workout gets the blood and oxygen flowing through the body, so it makes sense that exercise would also give the brain a boost. "Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, helping it to perform at its peak," Dow explains. The good news is you don't always have to hop on a spin bike or get in some burpees to get moving (although those help!). Even a daily walk—an hour is best—can reset your brain.
Play some brain games.
According to Dow, when it comes to the brain, the phrase "use it or lose it" really rings true. So turn off the mind-numbing TV for an hour and instead, play some solitaire, do a crossword, or play a board game (preferably one with a memory element). Even learning something new—as long as it's engaging and not stressful—can give your brain a much-needed tune-up.
Of course, if these lifestyle improvements aren't fixing the problem, and your brain fog seems to be lingering, you may want to check in with your doctor.