By Claire Kimber
Do you ever have days where you find it impossible to concentrate and focus, that perhaps your thoughts or decisions are happening in slow motion? Or do you often forget your words in the middle of a sentence, or perhaps, even more embarrassingly, someone’s name?
This ‘clouding’ of consciousness is quite common, although, not normal. The ‘brain fog’ that you are experiencing is a symptom of something else happening in your life, rather than a medical condition, generally falling into one or two categories – it is either ‘lifestyle’ related or a side-effect of a medical condition or medication.
My clients often describe their ‘brain fog’ symptoms in the following ways:
• Poor concentration
• An inability to focus on complex issues
• Difficulty retaining information
• A lack of mental clarity
• Mental fatigue
Possible causes of lifestyle ‘brain fog’ include:
• Low level or chronic stress
• Lack of, or disrupted sleep patterns
• Hormonal changes or imbalances
• Inadequate or poor dietary habits
• Lack of physical activity
Low Level or Chronic Stress:
We are living in unprecedented times where our levels of stress could be considered to be at an all-time high. We may be stressed about the fragility of our health and the health of our loved ones, about our work, or the uncertainty surrounding it, concerned about our finances. We are having to adapt to new ways of working, either remotely or in an environment with PPE and ’social distancing’.
We are currently living in a world where stress is the predominant constant in our lives; a VUCA world, one of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity dominating our lives in unprecedented ways.
We know that stress can negatively impact our health, but what about our cognitive performance?
Scientists have discovered that there is a real link between physical and emotional stress and our gut microbiota. Evidence suggests our gut microbiome responds directly to stress-related signals: chronic, unmanaged stress can impact our microbiome and impair our gut’s ability to produce much-needed neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The result is a detrimental impact on mood, memory and attention; the holy grail of cognitive performance under pressure.
There is an important protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which not only helps support the survival of existing brain cells or neurons but also promotes new neuron growth and connections and is therefore essential for learning and memory.
Unfortunately, our stress hormone, cortisol, acts in opposition to BDNF, reducing BDNF as it increases, which means that when we are under stress, we are less able to learn and adapt our thinking or even make good business decisions!
Chronic stress can also cause premature brain aging by allowing too much calcium into our brain cells, effectively killing them. So you can see having high levels of cortisol circulating for too long can have a neuro-degenerative effect on the brain, causing ‘brain fog’, memory issues, anxiety, depression etc.
Lack of or Disrupted Sleep:
There is so much research now to show how detrimental a lack of sleep is on our ability to function. In fact it has been reported that every night in the UK, 22% of people have trouble falling asleep.
Research shows that chronic sleep deprivation and insomnia are correlated with decreased BDNF. When we rest and relax BDNF is produced, so ensuring a good sleep routine is key in helping our brain to produce more brain cells and connections therefore supporting neural plasticity.
Sex hormones: We have all heard about ‘baby brain’ with the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy that can cause an expectant mother’s forgetfulness.
But anyone can experience hormonal imbalances, whatever their sex or stage of life. During the menopause, the decrease of oestrogen and progesterone can cause memory problems and ‘brain fog’. One study found that 60% of women have difficulty concentrating during the menopause. ‘Brain fog’, does not just happen in ‘women of a certain age’, in men too, a lower testosterone level at any age can also explain mental fatigue.
Thyroid hormones: Your thyroid gland is responsible for producing and releasing hormones that help control energy, metabolism and executive function. If our thyroid hormones are not working effectively we can experience symptoms, which include memory loss, low mood, fatigue, ‘brain fog’, low motivation and anxiety.
Inadequate or Poor Dietary Habits:
Good cognitive function requires a lot of nutrients for it to work and perform well. It needs lots of energy to be produced, which require B vitamins, iron and a host of other co-factors. It needs good levels of protein and essential fats, and anti-oxidants to protect it against damage. If our diet is low or lacking in these essential nutrients, our brain cells can essentially slow down and contribute to ‘brain fog’.
In fact our brain is one of our heaviest organs, demanding oxygen, water and glucose, and uses about 20% of our body’s glucose to function. So if you are not fuelling it correctly and not keeping hydrated you might find it hard to concentrate.
Our Western diet, high in refined sugars and simple carbohydrates, processed foods and meats and vegetable oils, and can be detrimental to our GI tract as well as our brains. In addition to impacting our body’s insulin response, sugar and refined carbohydrates are also pro-inflammatory and can cause oxidative stress. In the brain, inflammation can result in the expression of anxiety-inducing chemicals, resulting in depressive symptoms like lethargy, sleep interruption and even learning impediments.
Moreover, sugar and refined carbohydrates feed ‘bad’ bacteria and yeast in our gut which can lead to a whole host of symptoms ranging from allergies and joint pain to major, work-sabotaging ‘brain fog’.
But wait, there’s more! Too much sugar affects your memory and decision making as it decreases BDNF. Inflammatory foods such as refined sugars, vegetable oils, processed meats and alcohol, can increase pro-inflammatory chemical messengers (cytokines) in the blood and the brain which can contribute to low-grade inflammation that can manifest as a ‘foggy’ brain.
Inflammation also influences mood disorders by inducing changes to our gut microbiome and disrupting our gastro-intestinal function. Our gut is home to trillions of bacterial cells which make up this unique ecosystem. As well as allowing nutrients to enter the body and keeping opportunistic pathogens locked out, our microbiome activities also influence our brain. To support our health our gut microbiome needs to be diverse and this diversity helps keep it balanced. However, if it is not balanced – something called dysbiosis – opportunistic microbes can take advantage and proliferate, resulting in inflammation.
We often refer to the gut as the ‘second brain’ because we have a network of neurons (nerve cells) in the lining of our gut. Our gut and brain are connected by the vagus nerve. This nerve is able to send messages to our brain and vice versa. The connections between the two organs means that the gut-brain axis is a vital player in our mental health and wellbeing. It certainly explains why stress can take a toll on our digestion, but also why digestive problems can make us unhappy.
The good news is that we can do something to help reduce this inflammation and alter our microbiome. Because our gut and brain are intimately connected, diet matters a great deal when it comes to mood and cognitive function.
Exercise boosts blood flow into two key regions of the brain associated with memory. Any physical activity that helps to get our blood flowing so that it can deliver oxygen and nutrients to our cells is good and our brains needs a lot of both to function well. If we sit still for too long or have a very sedentary life, our circulation slows down and therefore so will our cognitive function.
What can we do to help ourselves:
• Manage your response to stress – whilst we may not be able to avoid stress we can manage our response to it. Avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine as both act as ‘stressors’.
• Ensure you have a good sleep routine – aim to sleep for 7-8 hours each night, keeping ‘bedtimes’ and ‘waketimes’ the same each day as having a schedule is key to optimising our sleep and cognitive performance. Maximise your exposure to bright light during these dark winter days – a light box can help and I have personally found having a Lumie Vitamin L lamp very effective whilst I’m working at my desk.
• Get tested – speak to your GP. Possible blood tests include:
o iron ferritin levels or vitamin B12.
o full thyroid panel (include active thyroid hormone as well as thyroid antibodies).
o Sex hormones – oestrogen/progesterone/testosterone
• Eat brain food – Our brain is composed of the nutrients found in our diet so it makes sense to eat them.
o Hydration – your brain is made up of 80% water. Drinking our recommended 1.5 – 2 litres of water daily is vital, since being dehydrated by just 2% has been shown to impair performance in tasks that require attention and immediate memory skills. So hydration is key for efficient cognition.
o Fat – The next biggest component is fat – your brain membranes are made up of fat and this determines how efficiently messages get from one cell to another – remember it is about eating the right fats! Healthy fats include avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Eating oily fish, such as wild caught salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring (SMASH fish), as these are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids which have been linked to healthy brain function, including concentration.
o Protein – needed for our neurotransmitters. Include organic grass fed meat, free range poultry, organic dairy, beans and pulses.
o Eat a Rainbow. – Every meal should contain an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruit and salads – the more colourful the better! These contain key vitamins and minerals which are important not only for the functioning of your whole body, but also for your brain to help perform vital tasks. Certain B Vitamins such as B5, B12 and folic acid (found in leafy greens) support the healthy function of the nervous system (the brain, spinal cord and the nerves), vitamin C (some examples are kiwi, blackcurrant, red peppers and citrus fruits) has been linked to protect against age-related brain degeneration. Red and purple fruits such as blueberries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins, which are effective in improving or delaying short term memory loss. Zinc is also vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills and the best source can be found in pumpkin seeds which also are full of stress-busting magnesium – double whammy!
• Increase your daily physical activity – whether it’s walking, running, cycling, resistance training or yoga, regular exercise can help better control stress responses and also help cognitive function, as well as muscle tone – so a win/win here!
Cliff Kimber a R2B coach uses the Gazing performance systems way of looking at this, three circles, “what can’t I control”, “what can I influence”, “what can I control”. Just listing each in relation to your ‘brain fog’ will help you make quick and easy changes to the way you view the role of nutrition in your cognitive performance and in your general mental health and mental wealth. And I use this with some clients, enabling them to rapidly assess the changes that they can make towards a healthier way of seeing through the fog.