Banish brain fog with these simple lifestyle shifts

Ever ‘lost’ your phone in the washing machine? Tried to open the front door with your credit card? That’ll be brain fog, says Dr Sabina Brennan. And the good news is you can banish it fast with her simple lifestyle shifts.

‘I just can’t think straight’, ‘I can’t even remember what I did yesterday’, ‘I’m struggling to find the right word.’ Sound familiar? It’s not a sign you’re going mad or are no longer capable. You have brain fog. This can be a symptom of an underlying health condition, a side-effect of medication, the result of hormonal changes or the consequence of dietary issues, lifestyle choices or stress.

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This last cause makes it more common than ever right now, thanks to the pandemic. In the past year you were more likely than ever to have found yourself opening the oven to put on a load of washing, putting the washing-up liquid in the fridge, or getting up from the sofa only to stand there thinking, ‘But what did I get up for?’

The good news is that it can be reversed and eliminated. No matter how old you are, you can learn how to think faster, sharper and better.

What is brain fog?

If you google ‘brain fog’ you will get tens of millions of results in less than a second. However, if you search for ‘brain fog’ on the NHS website you will draw a complete blank – ‘no results found’. Yet it’s an incredibly common experience. It is a collection of symptoms that gives rise to loss of mental clarity. Symptoms are persistent, occur regularly and interfere with the quality of your life, relationships and work. You experience slowed thinking, problems concentrating and difficulty focusing. You may have trouble with remembering, learning new things or language issues such as difficulty finding the right word.

With brain fog you feel ‘off’ because your brain is malfunctioning. It is not working like it used to. The likelihood is you’ve never had to think about how your brain works before. It just did. It was seamless, automatic. Now so many things feel effortful, mechanical, slow or off-kilter. That’s the brain fog experience.

Consider these five lifestyle upgrades the pillars of the battle against the fog. This is how to improve your brain health – and safeguard it for the future.

1. Improve your sleep

According to the World Health Organization, we are in the midst of a sleep-loss epidemic, with one in three people getting insufficient sleep. There is a very real chance that loss of sleep or poor sleep quality is the cause of your brain fog. Being deprived of just one night’s sleep will impair your ability to learn and encode new information. But don’t panic: there are simple tweaks you can make with very little effort to improve your sleep and help banish the fog.

Firstly, don’t fight the biological nudge towards a nap. Having a short sleep can actually boost brain performance. Nappers benefit from an increase in alertness in the period immediately after waking up, and extended alertness later in the day. It can also improve performance, making you both faster and better.

Nappers are also less likely to have accidents than their non-napping counterparts. There is evidence, too, that a short snooze improves memory and learning. Power naps actually increase memory by 20 per cent for the remainder of the day. Timing and duration are critical: naps should be either less than 20 minutes or at least 90 minutes, are best taken six to eight hours after waking and no later than 3pm.

There are also some simple tweaks to improve the quality of your sleep during the night. Start by getting the lighting right: electric light disrupts the sleep-wake cycle, hormone regulation and core body temperature, so get into the habit of turning off or dimming overhead lights in the evenings – use low lighting such as side lamps. Avoid turning on bright light in the bathroom which wakes up your brain by mimicking daylight. Ban blue-light exposure from digital devices for an hour before sleep and altogether in the bedroom. If you wake in the night, don’t be tempted to reach for your phone: the blue light will wake you up. If you plan to go to bed at 11pm, then turn off the TV and other devices at 10pm and switch to listening to music or reading a print book beside a side lamp.

2. Look for silver linings

Poorly managed stress and high levels of stress hormones can interfere with your ability to think clearly, learn and remember. Understanding your attitude to stress and the way you think will help you to find ways to start clearing the fog.

When it comes to stressful situations, assessing your own thought process is crucial. If you think negative thoughts or obsess about what can go wrong, your body will respond as if you are under threat, releasing adrenaline and cortisol. What you believe about your ability to control aspects of your life is also important. Do you tend to see events as passively happening to you, determined by luck, fate or chance? Or do you feel in control of your own destiny? People who feel they play an active role in shaping their lives tend to be happier, less stressed and less depressed than people who place control outside themselves.

Globally stressful events like the pandemic are beyond your control, so there is no point in stressing over them. Far better to focus on things that you can control, such as how you react and what practical steps you can take. If you feel stress rising, ask yourself, ‘How important is this – will it matter next month, next year? Is it worth getting upset for?’

Try to look for silver linings. We notice the negative more easily so focusing on positives takes effort, but negative thinking is both a source and a consequence of stress and is a common symptom of anxiety. Practising positive thinking reduces stress which has brain-health benefits. Try writing down your negative thoughts: the simple act of putting them on paper may release your brain from having to remember them.

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3. Exercise your brain

When was the last time you consciously made an effort to exercise your brain? You need to stimulate it to promote the growth of new brain cells and strengthen the connective tissues between them. Challenging your brain by regularly exercising it allows it to expand its capacity and will help you to overcome the fog.

Experiencing new things, meeting new people and encountering new situations is a great way to enrich the connections between your brain cells. Your mind will benefit once there is novelty involved. Make a conscious effort to seek out ‘first times’ in multiple areas of your life: listen to a different radio station; read a book from an unfamiliar genre, or a different section of the newspaper; order something different from the menu. Reclaim the curiosity of childhood: ask questions, don’t limit yourself to the familiar or assume that your viewpoint is correct. Allow yourself to be amazed by the world and the people around you.

Routine activities aren’t a challenge; you need to push yourself to the next level, try something different or learn something new. The first time you do a crossword it involves learning, which brings brain benefits. Once you are doing crosswords every night, it becomes routine so the benefit is very limited. Try a harder crossword or set a time limit within which to solve it. You will need to stretch yourself, push yourself beyond your comfort zone or current ability.

4. Move your body

The more steps (literally) you take, the healthier your brain becomes. Physical exercise has direct benefits on the structure and functioning of your brain: it will shrink less as you age if you remain physically active.

With regular exercise, you will see improvements in memory, attention and the speed with which you process information. Extensive research shows that aerobic exercise benefits your brain and improves various cognitive functions including those commonly affected in brain fog. Research also indicates that regularly engaging in both aerobic exercise and resistance training improves cognitive function in adults over 50.

Make exercise a part of your daily routine and you will notice a big difference in your ability to concentrate and ease other symptoms of brain fog. Build towards at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Find as many ways as you can to incorporate movement into your daily routine. Get off the bus or train a couple of stops early. Park a little further away from your destination. Take the stairs. Housework counts, so attack it with gusto!

Possibly the simplest tweak ever is standing up more. Really. The brain actually performs better when we stand. Sitting for prolonged periods can lead to mental fatigue, and lack of motion can push your body into sleep mode. If you reduced your daily sitting time from eight hours to six hours by standing for two hours, spread over the day, every day for 12 months, the net effect is the equivalent of running six marathons a year. Start to view standing as a form of exercise: stand for specific activities such as talking on the phone.

5. Eat your way to a better brain

Your brain is made up of 73 per cent water with the remainder comprising macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that impact on your brain development, function, energy and mood. What you eat directly affects your brain and how well it functions, so next time you shop for food, consider shopping for your brain.

Keep your mind in good shape by adopting a Mediterranean-style diet with lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, pulses, fish and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for memory and can reduce inflammation (find them in wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, fish and garlic).

Iron and vitamin B12 are essential for healthy brain function: B12 deficiency results in symptoms of brain fog such as memory issues, difficulty thinking and reasoning. Your body can’t make vitamin B12 so get it from meat, eggs, poultry and dairy. (Vegetarians and vegans may be deficient, so should speak to a health professional.)

Aim to spend longer preparing your food than you do eating it and replace high-calorie sugary snacks with a healthy alternative. People who eat more than 2,000 calories a day have double the risk of memory loss compared to people who eat fewer than 1,500 calories. A lower calorific intake can help you hold on to memory function in later life.

Recognise these symptoms?

  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, solving problems and/or making plans
  • Being unusually disorganised or scattered
  • Difficulty thinking clearly, feeling ‘foggy’
  • Inability to multitask
  • Feeling confused
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Finding it difficult to focus
  • Short attention span
  • Slowed thinking, learning and/or processing of information
  • Slowed reactions
  • Slower than normal completion of routine activities
  • Problems expressing thoughts/understanding language
  • Struggling for the right word
  • Issues navigating spaces (such as bumping into things)
  • Problems recognising or drawing shapes
  • Brain fatigue
  • Feeling mentally exhausted
  • Irritability

Beating Brain Fog by Dr Sabina Brennan is published by Orion Spring, price £14.99. To order a copy for £13.19 until 4 April, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

Edited extract by Natasha Poliszczuk. Artwork: @getmarktodoit.