Before jumping into the 6 neuroscience-backed ways to combat brain fog, you need to understand what exactly brain fog is.
It’s a pretty common term, and you might have used it yourself to describe feeling a little muddled and unfocused.
But to tackle brain fog, you need to understand why it happens.
This allows you to combat the specific reasons you’re experiencing brain fog in the first place.
First, let’s tackle a common misconception about brain fog.
Brain fog isn’t, technically, a medical condition.
As the name suggests, brain fog refers to when your head feels kind of “cloudy”.
You have trouble focusing. You tend to forget what you were doing or saying, in the middle of doing or saying it.
New information is harder for you to absorb or understand, and you feel sluggish and demotivated.
It’s harder for you to think critically or creatively, and your head feels heavy and muddled.
As you can see – brain fog is pretty bad for learning, productivity and everyday life.
And it might also be a warning sign about an underlying condition you ought to attend to.
Brain fog could stem from your lifestyle – things like your sleep, diet, exercise, etc. could all play a role.
It could also be a side effect of a medical condition you ought to seek professional advice for.
Some medical conditions brain fog might be the symptom of include diabetes, anemia, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, lupus, depression, etc. People recovering from Covid-19 also report brain fog as a side effect of the infection.
If your brain fog persists despite at-home attempts to combat them, do seek out your doctor’s advice.
Identifying any underlying medical conditions and starting the appropriate treatment can naturally reduce brain fog.
This article addresses lifestyle factors which might be causing brain fog, or compounding existing symptoms, and how to tackle them based on neuroscience!
Table of Contents
1. Cut Down on Sugar
2. Be Careful with Your Caffeine
3. Get Quality Sleep
4. Avoid Blue Light after Dark
5. Manage Your Stress Levels
6. Manage Your Diet
6 Neuroscience-Backed Ways to Combat Brain Fog
1. Cut Down on Sugar
If the answer is yes, you’re likely no stranger to sugar rushes – and sugar crashes.
You get an initial burst of energy; your mood’s great, and you might even feel hyper and excited.
But not long afterwards, as the sugar passes out of your system, you feel tired, sluggish, and unfocused.
This is brain fog. And if you’re continuously experiencing cycles of sugar rushes and crashes, you wreak havoc on your ability to learn and focus.
To understand why, you need to learn a little bit about the brain chemical dopamine.
Dopamine is a neuromodulator, and among its many roles, it’s a very important player in motivation.
When you anticipate a reward, dopamine surges down your brain’s mesolimbic or reward pathway.
It’s why, when you’re looking forward to something, whether it’s a snack you saved in the fridge, a movie you’ve been anticipating, a work project finishing up with flying colors – you derive pleasure from the process of expecting it.
When you reap the reward, your dopamine levels spike up even more, after that initial spike of anticipation.
You experience a sense of fulfilment, pleasure, satisfaction, and reward. And often, this is what pushes you to want to experience it again, because your brain enjoys it so much.
However, while dopamine does create a sense of pleasure and reward, there’s another side to dopamine you might not know about.
For every spike of dopamine, there’s a corresponding release of chemicals that cause pain.
This doesn’t mean physical pain, or even something you’d notice, recognize, or classify as pain.
And it’s this pain that makes you crave more of what gave you the dopamine spike.
It’s what pushes you to keep getting more of that reward, to satisfy the craving.
Things which cause really sharp bursts of dopamine are followed by a keener sensation of pain.
This is why people can get so easily addicted to drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. They cause massive surges of dopamine, followed by massive crashes.
Sugar, while it doesn’t cause as huge a surge as drugs and alcohol, still spikes your dopamine up considerably.
And this is then followed by a dopamine crash – leading to you craving more sugar to stave off the pain.
And the reason why this becomes a vicious cycle and can lead to constant brain fog is this:
Every time your dopamine spikes from eating sugar, each subsequent spike of dopamine is less than the one before.
Each subsequent spike of pain, on the other hand, increases with each lower pulse of dopamine.
Too much sugar, and you’ll basically end up in a vicious cycle of craving more and more sugar.
The withdrawal symptoms, which cause you to feel lethargic, struggling to pay attention, learn or recall, are the pain half of dopamine’s pleasure-pain equation.
This is why it’s so important to avoid too much sugar.
Even foods with hidden sugars that you can’t taste can cause dopamine spikes. Neurons in your gut detect the presence of sugar and fire off signals to your brain to release dopamine anyway.
If you’re overconsuming sugar, all the rushes and crashes might create long-term challenges in your brain’s ability to learn and focus.
Not to mention it’s damaging effects on your health overall.
Sugar doesn’t just include sweet treats – refined flour and empty calories like white rice fall under bad sugars as well.
Bottom line – practice moderation with sugar! Opt for healthier and more natural alternatives, like fruits and healthier carbs, like wholegrains.
2. Be Careful with Your Caffeine
This is why you might feel like you need a cup of coffee to start your day. The dopamine boosts your alertness and helps narrows your focus down on what you want to pursue.
Another aspect of why caffeine is so effective in waking you up is its relationship with adenosine.
Adenosine is a molecule that builds up through your waking hours and makes you drowsy as the day goes along.
Caffeine works by basically binding to the adenosine receptors and stopping the molecule from doing its job.
Now, a boost from a cup of coffee to lift your alertness and focus is just fine.
However, because of the dopamine spike, you have to be careful with your pleasure-pain balance.
Remember, for every subsequent spike of dopamine, you experience less pleasure and more pain.
When your dopamine levels drop after that initial spike, and the caffeine passes out of your system, there’s a crash.
All the adenosine that had been held off by the caffeine now binds with your receptors.
You may feel drowsy, tired, unfocused, and even irritable or moody during this caffeine crash.
And this sensation of pain might push you to drink more cups of coffee.
Like sugar, this can also trap you inside a vicious cycle of withdrawal symptoms and damaging your dopamine pathways.
Too much caffeine can also over-activate you – they can make feelings of stress and anxiety worse.
So, what can you do to moderate your daily caffeine intake?
One solution is to delay your first cup of the day by about 2 hours after waking up.
Remember, adenosine builds up over your waking hours. When you’ve just woken up, adenosine is at its lowest.
This means that when you drink coffee or tea right after waking, there’s not much for your caffeine to block.
By the time the adenosine starts building up, the caffeine in your system has already started to fade.
Delaying your first cup to a couple hours after waking gives adenosine the chance to build up.
As a result, caffeine gives you a natural boost of alertness and focus to carry you past the time you’d have a midday crash.
This boost lasts longer into the day, as well.
Avoid having caffeine later in the day, too, to make sure you don’t end up disrupting your sleep. As you’ll see in the following section, poor sleep is also a cause of brain fog.
Another option is to switch out your coffee for black and green teas, particularly green tea.
Green tea contains the amino acid l-theanine, a well-researched relaxant. While tea will also give you a dopamine boost, the l-theanine balances out the effects of the caffeine.
You get a boost of alertness, while also remaining calm and relaxed!
3. Get Quality Sleep
The overly simple assumption is that sleep gives your brain the chance to rest.
However, that’s not entirely accurate – your brain is still very much active while you’re asleep.
It’s working to synthesize everything you learned during the day with what you already know.
It draws from this new information and the existing information it has, and creates new ideas, connections, solutions, and more.
As it does this, it also shifts what you learned during the day into your long-term memory.
If you’ve pulled all-nighters before, you’ll realize that a couple of days later you’ve forgotten most of what you learned.
Without sleep, your brain just doesn’t get the opportunity it needs to consolidate your learning and memory.
That’s not the only reason you might be tired and forgetful, though.
Scientists find that just one night without sleep can cause a build-up of the waste product beta-amyloid in your brain.
This build-up affects your memory, learning, mood, focus, and more.
One of the areas where this build-up happens is your amygdalae – the brain’s almond-sized nuclei which regulate memory and mood.
Your amygdalae process things like stress, anxiety, fear, and so on. When you don’t get enough quality sleep, your amygdalae grow larger.
Studies find that people who don’t get quality Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep tend to be more reactive to negative emotions compared to those who do.
If you wake up feeling upset, irritable, moody, stressed, anxious, etc., it could be because of poor sleep.
And if you’re frequently not getting enough sleep, it could have long-term damaging implications for your brain and body health.
So, what could be behind your inability to fall asleep? Read on to find out more about one of the biggest culprits.
4. Avoid Blue Light after Dark
Maybe your eyes felt tired, dry, or irritable. Maybe, after a while, your brain just felt cloudy, and you couldn’t concentrate.
This phenomenon, known as Digital Eye Strain (DES), is something millions of people all over the world experience.
And if the symptoms sound familiar to brain fog, that’s because staring into the blue light emitting screens is one potential cause of this issue.
This is because your eyes are not equipped to handle blue light by itself.
Blue light when it’s mixed in with other light wavelengths, as in natural sunlight, is fine. In fact, it’s actually good for you, since this blue light during the day suppresses your sleep hormone melatonin.
This keeps you alert, awake, and in a good mood throughout the day.
However, after dark, you’re still surrounded by sources of artificial light. And one of the most prevalent sources are blue light emitting devices and appliances.
Your laptop, phones, TV, and even LED light bulbs in your home and workplace emit artificial blue light.
Of all the light wavelengths in the visible light spectrum, blue light scatters the most.
And this makes it very hard for your eyes to focus. They have to work overtime to make out contrast in what they’re seeing to feed information to your brain.
And your eyes are an extension of your brain and nervous system. As they overwork and experience strain, so does your brain. Hence, overtime, the brain fog.
That’s not all. Bright artificial lights, not just blue light, suppress not only your melatonin but also your dopamine pathways at night.
You’ll end up finding yourself unable to sleep, and demotivated and unable to focus or stay alert the following morning.
Again, like a lot of the things you’ve learned about in this article, this can become a vicious cycle.
Blue blockers are one solution to cutting down artificial light in the evenings. But even they won’t be 100% effective if you’re constantly exposed to bright lights after dark.
Another option is to switch out bright lights in your home and workplace to dimmer orange- or red-tinted lights. Bright lights of any form can disrupt your sleep, so choosing dimmer, blue light cancelling options is best.
It’s also important to put your devices away a couple of hours before bed.
If you’ve ever taken your phone to bed and found yourself scrolling through your socials or YouTube for hours despite not meaning to, this is another case of dopamine working against you.
You feel anxious that you’re missing out on something or keep anticipating the reward of engagement on your posts or content that you might enjoy.
You’re both making yourself anxious from the fear of missing out and exposing your eyes to a ton of light.
If you absolutely can’t resist taking your phone to bed, try leaving it in a different room while going to sleep.
If you can’t get your room to be fully dark, use a sleep mask or t-shirt over your eyes.
5. Manage Your Stress Levels
The important thing is to understand that stress can be good and bad. And you want to be able to tap into the good stress, and better manage the bad.
Mild levels of short-term stress can actually be good for learning.
Your adrenaline levels are high, making sure your brain and body are alert and aware, ready to jump into action.
Acetylcholine, a neuromodulator involved in sharpening your focus and helping filter out unnecessary information, rises.
And of course, as you work on whatever you’re focused on, and your brain anticipates a reward, you get dopamine!
However, acute (short-term) stress can become chronic stress if you don’t learn how to turn it off.
This can upset your sleep, cognitive functioning, brain and body health, mental health, and yes – it can cause brain fog.
So, what can you do to switch off an unhealthy stress response?
Use Physiological Sighs
This leads to a buildup of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream, which elevates your feelings of stress and anxiety.
An easy method of offloading this carbon dioxide is through using physiological sighs.
Essentially, you draw in a deep breath, through your nose, followed by a shorter, “top-up” breath.
Then, breathe out slowly through your mouth. Do this several times.
What this does is basically pop those alveoli back open, allowing you to get rid of the stress-inducing carbon dioxide.
Meanwhile, when you breathe out more deeply than you breathe in, it signals to your brain to slow your heartrate.
This leads to a chain reaction of your brain and body working to alleviate your stress response.
Physiological sighs are the most direct and immediate physiological tool for tackling your stress response!
Boost Your Serotonin Levels
Where dopamine is the molecule that makes you want more, serotonin makes you feel content with what you have.
When your levels of serotonin are high, you feel sated and comfortable, experiencing a sense of bliss.
One of the ways of boosting your serotonin levels is with social connection.
Spending time with your family, friends, pets, etc. can be a very powerful tool in helping combat long-term stress.
On the other hand, social isolation amps up your levels of tachykinin.
This molecule can induce a lot of stress. It makes you feel more paranoid and afraid and can harm your immune system.
So, if you’re stressed, make some time to hang out with loved ones, or do something you love to do.
6. Manage Your Diet
For example, vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient your brain needs to upkeep its health and functioning.
Vitamin B12 deficiencies might make you feel more forgetful and have a harder time retaining things in memory.
Meanwhile, a lack of this nutrient in your diet can cause other problems. And these can result in brain fog as a side effect.
Deficiencies of this vitamin might, for instance, put you at risk of macular degeneration, wearing down cells in your retina.
Like you read earlier, your eyes are basically extensions of your brain. And damage to one of the main, most crucial sources of information input you have can severely impact your learning.
Another function of B12 is in the formation of red blood cells. A shortage of it could lead to anemia – of which brain fog might be a side effect.
As you can see, your diet and lifestyle can influence not just your brain but your body overall.
And these conditions and habits can then manifest in brain fog.
To combat and prevent brain fog, you need to know how to recognize and tackle the things that cause it.
With these 6 neuroscience-backed ways to combat brain fog, you can do just that!
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com, HowtoLearn.Teachable.com, best selling author and an internationally noted brain and learning coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.
Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™.
She is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!
Contact Pat to find out more about the Brain 2.0 Brain Advantage Learning and Career Assessment and customized faster learning programs for professionals and students.