Integrative Treatment of Brain Fog
Updated: Aug 7
Understanding memory, brain fog, neuroplasticity, and more.
Brain fog broadly describes a problem with attention and memory, but the details vary from person to person.
Causes of brain fog include fatigue, inflammation, and pain, among others.
Tools for neurologic recovery include working with numbers, exercise, socialization, and mindfulness.
Fumbling for the right words is frustrating. Why do I feel this way? It didn’t used to be this hard to think. Memory problems and brain fog, which are distressing symptoms for many people, make everyday functioning more difficult. Brain fog comes and goes. It can change day to day, even hour to hour. Its episodic nature can make it hard to capture, treat, and study. When many people talk to their practitioners, the brain fog they describe often gets brushed aside. But brain fog is real.
What Is Memory?
How does an experience become a memory? It starts with paying attention. If we can’t focus on something, the brain can’t understand and store it. Poor sleep, anxiety, depression, trauma, and inflammation can all worsen attention. What we think is a memory problem can sometimes be an attention problem.
Once you’ve paid attention to and taken in an experience, it is stored as a short-term memory. More short-term memories are forgotten than transferred to long-term storage. Memories that get prioritized are often those associated with new experiences or those with emotional significance.
Your state of mind plays a big role in whether a short-term memory goes into long-term storage. The brain can’t prioritize thinking and learning if it feels like there is an imminent threat or something more important to pay attention to.
When you try to remember something, you must retrieve that memory out of storage. Your memories are scattered strategically throughout the brain, not stored all in one place. Finding where the memory is stored requires some degree of organization. When this search for the memory is slow, we call it a problem with processing speed. There is some evidence that processing speed can be reduced by a number of factors common in long illness, including increased inflammation and depression.
In most cases, brain fog impairs attention and usually affects processing speed too. Brain fog is just like foggy weather: fog covers up details and slows everything down.
What Is Brain Fog?
Brain fog broadly describes a problem with attention and memory. The details, though, vary from person to person: some have problems with multitasking, others respond slowly to questions, and still others are unable to pay attention at work or school. Improving brain fog requires a holistic approach. Why? Because brain fog is a symptom. It appears to be the brain’s reaction to imbalance, overload, and inflammation. We need to target the roots of the problem—or problems. We don’t yet understand why some people’s brains are more predisposed to developing fog. For some, it’s their mind’s way of telling them they are overloaded. For others, brain fog can be caused by something as specific as a food they have eaten. Here are some causes of brain fog.
Blood pressure changes
Brain Fog Vs. Dementia
For the most part, brain fog and dementia are very different conditions. Think of the brain as a computer. As we said earlier, brain fog is a problem with the software: the fog slows everything down and makes the software slow to run, but the structure of the brain, the hardware, is okay. Dementia, on the other hand, is a hardware problem. In dementia, the brain gets more and more damaged over time, and thinking and memory become impaired as a result. We worry about dementia when someone isn’t just having difficulty thinking quickly or paying attention, but also seems unable to manage their usual activities of daily living and may be inadvertently putting themselves in unsafe situations. This is different from the normal memory changes with aging. In healthy brain aging, people can be expected to have a harder time remembering details or names, but this doesn’t impair their ability to take care of themselves.
Brain Fog Clearing and Memory Optimizing Tool Kit
Once you have targeted underlying causes and understand your unique brain’s strengths and weaknesses, you can design an integrative medicine recovery plan. Some large medical centers offer cognitive rehabilitation, a type of rehab specifically aimed at strengthening thinking and memory. If this service is not available where you live, your health care team can design a recovery program for you. Maximizing Neuroplasticity
Adult brains can develop new capacities and make new connections, even in the face of illness. This is called neuroplasticity.
Neurologic recovery looks different depending on what is happening with your unique brain. With the right brain training and environment, you can clear the fog and harness your neuroplasticity. Even just one activity a day is a great place to start and is likely to help your brain grow. Here are some tools and ideas to help:
Play cards. Start with a simple game like War, then try Go Fish or Uno. Even simple games keep your brain engaged.
Work with numbers. Try simple calculations in your head. Try Sudoku or balance your checkbook.
Enhance your spatial reasoning. Assemble puzzles, draw a map of your neighborhood from memory, or sketch the fruit on your table.
Strengthen your memory. Try to recall meaningful life events. Tell them to a friend or write them down. Push yourself to remember as many details as possible.
Involve all the senses. Seek out experiences that bring together sound, taste, smell, sight, and touch. For instance, go to a farmers’ market or interactive museum.
Try something new. New activities create new networks in the brain. Go to another part of your neighborhood or town and explore, pick up a few words in a new language, or listen to new music.
Move your body. Exercise enhances neuroplasticity, prevents cognitive decline, and supports thinking.
Socialize. Loneliness is hard on the brain. When you socialize, you are using multiple parts of your brain to process language and pick up on social cues. From research, we know that socializing protects against dementia. Thinking of it as a tool for neurologic recovery can motivate you to find a way to socialize that works for you.
Stay hydrated and eat a MIND diet: The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet has been shown in studies to improve brain health, slow cognitive decline, and protect brain functioning. For most people with brain fog, we target 2.7 liters of fluids a day for women and 3.7 liters for men. Check with your primary practitioner to see if these are the right goals for you. Go outside. Getting connected to nature has an anti-inflammatory effect and reduces stress hormones. Being in nature can strengthen memory and attention. The more time you spend in nature, and the more removed it is from urban settings, the better.
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can be a powerful tool for balancing your nervous system and reducing brain fog.
Juliet Morgan, MD, and Meghan Jobson, MD - Blog - Book: Long Illness: A Practical Guide to Surviving, Healing, and Thriving.