Here’s a quick rundown of possibilities:
- You can temporarily suffer with a foggy head from lack of sleep, low blood sugar, seasonal allergies, food allergies, dehydration, or electrolyte imbalance following heavy exercise.
- If you are a woman of “a certain age,” brain fog is a common symptom of menopause.
- Chemotherapy has a well-known side effect referred to as “chemo fog” or “chemo brain.”
- Substance abuse of any kind can lead to feeling mentally frazzled.
- Sometimes brain fog symptoms are due to a more serious condition such as mercury poisoning, hormonal imbalance, depression, fibromyalgia, thyroid conditions (both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism) or Lyme disease.
- Losing mental clarity is often considered a “normal” side effect of aging, but that doesn’t mean it is an inevitable consequence of growing older.
Brain Fog Cause #1 — When Food Is the Problem
One major cause of brain fog could be the food you eat.
EAT REAL FOOD.
Those 3 words will take you a long way towards eating the best diet for your brain (and overall health).
If it comes in a box or package it’s not “real” — it’s processed. Even if it’s from the “health food” store.
That includes products made from flour (even if it’s whole wheat) or that contain sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
Your brain needs all three macronutrient groups: proteins for neurotransmitter production, complex carbohydrates for steady brain glucose levels, and healthy fats.
You might not realize that your brain is largely made up of fat — about 60% by volume. That’s why low-fat diets have been such a disaster for our brains.
Skipping meals can leave you with a fuzzy brain. So can eating too large a meal. If you’ve ever felt like you need a nap after a big meal you know what I mean.
You may be eating foods you’re allergic to. The most common allergens that can contribute to your lack of focus include soy, dairy, and any food that contains gluten, especially wheat.
According to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, the average American shockingly gets 67% of their calories from these 3 foods! (1)
If you suspect you are allergic to any foods, keep a log of what you eat and how you feel afterward.
You might be surprised to see clear patterns develop rather quickly. Cut out any questionable food for at least a week and notice if you start thinking more clearly.
Eating real food will keep you away from food additives that mess with your brain like MSG and artificial sweeteners.
Both artificial sweeteners and MSG are known neurotoxins that can cause brain fog and other brain-related symptom including headaches, mood swings, dizziness, anxiety, and depression.
Check out our discussion of brain foods and how they give your brain the nutrition it needs to function well.
Cause #2 — When Lack of Sleep Is the Problem
63 million Americans complain of sleeping difficulties. If you have brain fog, it’s likely you’re one of them.
Your brain needs sleep. Sleep is critical to the way your brain works in both the short and the long-term.
Lack of quality sleep will impair your memory, creativity, judgment, and attention.
While you sleep, cerebral fluid rushes in, “power washing” your brain, clearing it of debris.
You consolidate memories while you sleep. Lack of sleep affects your ability to remember what you learned the previous day.
Every day you lose brain cells, but every night you have the opportunity to create new brain cells … provided you are getting enough high-quality uninterrupted sleep.
If you have ongoing problems with sleep, just overcoming insomnia is a potential brain fog cure.
Cause #3 — When Stress Is the Problem
Stress puts you at greater risk for every major disease you hope you never get … including dreaded brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Prolonged stress leads to anxiety, depression, poor decision making, insomnia, and memory loss.
Stress can literally cause your brain to shrink and that’s as harmful as it sounds.
Getting the sleep you need and eating a brain-healthy diet will help diminish stress. Two more things you can do are exercise and meditate.
Physical exercise increases endorphins and delivers more glucose and oxygen to the brain.
Recent research shows that physical exercise may be the single most important thing you can do for your brain.
You don’t need to exercise strenuously to give your brain small energy boosts throughout the day.
Walking is one of the best brain exercises to clear your mind.
Too much sitting is bad for your brain and your overall health.
But Dr. Joan Vernikos, a former NASA physician, discovered the simplest exercise ever. Apparently, the act of standing up is more effective than walking to counteract the ill effects of sitting.
Your brain needs new kinds of challenging stimulation regularly to work as it should.
Over 20 million Americans meditate regularly.
The US Marines use meditation to help troops deal with stressful situations they face on the job. “It’s like doing pushups for the brain,” one general says.
Corporate executives at General Mills, Target, Google, Apple, Nike, HBO, Procter & Gamble, and Aetna Insurance use it to maximize their brain power.
Meditation can make you happier, smarter, and more resilient regarding life’s ups and downs.
Regular meditators experience improved focus and concentration, greater creativity, stress reduction, and better sleep.
Research shows it can actually decrease your biological age by 12 years!
If the drug companies could bottle the benefits of meditation they’d be ecstatic. It would be their new billion dollar pill.
However, meditation the traditional way can take years to yield its full health benefits.
What About Nutritional Supplements?
Maybe you are already doing what you can — eating and sleeping better, exercising, and meditating — but your thinking is still fuzzy.
Then you might want to take a look at what supplements could do to help.
Here are the top supplements to consider:
The Most Common Vitamin Deficiency — B12
If your memory is poor or you’re in a constant state of brain fog, you may have a vitamin B12 deficiency.
This is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in the US with an estimated 40% of adults being deficient.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly since it can lead to a wide spectrum of mental disorders.
Two particularly high risk groups are seniors — who often have poor absorption — and vegetarians since B12 is found only in animal products.
The best quality forms of vitamin B12 are methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin.
Vitamin D — the Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D can lift your mood, banish brain fog and depression, improve memory, and increase problem-solving ability.
Anywhere from 40% to 90% of US adults are vitamin D deficient and over 1 billion people are deficient worldwide.
Sun exposure is the best source, but few people who live in North America and much of Europe can realistically get the sun they need year round.
Vitamin D is rarely found in food, so most people need to supplement.
Take a Multivitamin
The Harvard School of Public Health recommends that all adults take a multivitamin supplement as insurance to fill any nutritional gaps.
Studies have shown that taking a multivitamin alone can improve your memory and overall brain function.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are found in high concentrations in the brain. They are crucial to memory and overall brain health and function, yet are widely lacking in our diet.
The best dietary sources are wild-caught salmon and grass-fed meat. If these aren’t a regular part of your diet, consider taking an omega-3 supplement.
Particularly when brain fog is a problem, choose one with a high concentration of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). This is a major component of brain cells that is most beneficial for your brain.
1. Challenge Your Brain
Before you get into the fancy techniques, focus on challenging your mind in new ways every day. Take a new route to work, learn a new language, read a challenging book, or start a new project. Most entrepreneurs don’t have a problem with this, but many people go through their day without any kind of mental stimulation. Studies have shown that people who continually challenge their brains with even the smallest tasks live longer and retain their brain function until the very end. Keep your curiosity engaged and ask yourself, “why?” in exactly the way a 3 year old would.
2. Dual N-Back Training
Now we’re getting into the cool stuff.
This software program consists of 20 minute computer lessons designed to challenge every part of your brain necessary to boost your IQ. Dual N-Back Training was the focus of our article titled “How To Add 2.75 IQ Points Per Hour of Training.” A person I coach increased his IQ 18 points, and I increased mine 12 points with this method alone. Considering all the other techniques I’ve used over the years prior to Dual N-Back training, that’s a massive increase.
Dual N-Back Training improves memory, problem solving, imagination, and REM sleep. There are some open source versions of Dual N-Back Training such as Brain Workshop that you can download for free.
It takes about a month of daily exercise. Your brain won’t like it at first – you will get bored and frustrated and probably have strange dreams. But when you’re done, you won’t know how you functioned with only half the working memory you just gained. It’s that strong, like a RAM upgrade for your brain.
These are nutrients that have a specific medicinal or pharmacological effect. Nutraceuticals are usually compounds made by the body or plant based. They’re more natural than other drugs and are good for beginners who are apprehensive at the thought of taking a “drug.”
These are all effective brain enhancers that can be purchased for relatively cheap.
Acetyle-L-carnitine (ALC) crosses the blood-brain barrier where it acts as a powerful antioxidant. It acts on both acetylcholine and dopamine function. ALC is neuroprotective and works as a powerful cognitive enhancer. While most studies have been done on rodents, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest it’s effectiveness in humans. Some other interesting benefits are better sperm motility and as a treatment for heart dysfunction. It supercharges your mitochondria which helps your entire system, not just your body.
Krill Oil (EPA/DHA)
I discussed the omega-3’s back in Step 2, so I won’t go into great detail here. These two omega-3 fatty acids are essential for proper brain function and development. They can improve memory, executive thought processes, and are neuroprotective. However, the need for these fats is low, about 350mg a day if you have an optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats from your diet. It’s important to supplement especially if you eat omega-6 oils (nuts and seed oils). I prefer krill oil to fish oil.
Medium Chain Triglyceride Oil
MCT oil turns on your body’s fat burning mode and helps your brain to run more efficiently. It is one of my favorite ways to have more energy, both in my brain and my body. A physician, Dr. Mary Newport, recently used MCT from coconut oil to reverse her husband’s early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Listen to the podcast or read the transcript for free here. When you start using MCT oil, start slowly to allow your body to get used to this much energy this quickly.
Coffee isn’t just caffeine, but caffeine by itself can give you a massive boost in brain power. Caffeine can improve short term memory, alertness, and cognitive function.
A good dose is around 20mg per hour. If you’re taking a big test, you can take one large hit. Studies have shown caffeine can be almost as effective as Modafinil, another supplement I’m about to tell you about. A cup of coffee supplies 95-200 mg of caffeine. Studies have shown caffeine mainly improves your ability to perform less demanding work like simple math problems and organization, may improve mood and has little effect on things like systems thinking and other complicated stuff.
However, if you brew them properly, Upgraded Coffee beans contains two potent brain anti-inflammatory agents, cafestrol and kawehol, which can boost cognitive performance differently than caffeine, especially if you have inflammation in your body. Most coffee has a chemical residue left over from the fermentation process, and this residue (called mycotoxin) has a negative impact on brain function.
Prepared with butter and MCT, Bulletproof Coffee is my favorite adaptogenic herb and my top rated smart “nutraceutical.” I literally have this every day.
4. Smart Drugs (nootropics)
Nootropics from the “racetam” family are some of the most trusted and widely used. I rely on Aniracetam because it’s fat soluble, fastest acting, and has effects on memory I/O, creativity, and stress. The “racetam” family of nootropics is known for improving mitochondrial function and oxygen in the brain.
Most of the research has been done on people with neurological problems (with amazing results), but there is plenty of good evidence to support it’s use in healthy individuals. A double blind placebo controlled trial showed the oldest racetam, piracetam, improved verbal memory in healthy college students.
I’ve used piracetam and aniracetam for years, but I like the next smart drug even more.
This is one of the smart drugs closest to my heart, err, brain. I’ve used this for years for everything from studying at Wharton to working on a start-up that sold for $600 million dollars. I’ve recommended it to countless friends with massive results, and you may have seen me on ABC Nightline or CNN talking about using it for executive performance. Modafinil improves memory and mood, reduces impulsive decision making, increases your resistance to fatigue, and even improves brain function during sleep debt. I’m more inclined to believe people suffer from Modafinil deficiency, rather than it being a supplement. It doesn’t work for everyone, but if it works for you, you’ll love it.
Huperzine A is an alkaloid found in the plant moss Huperzia serrota. This plant has been used medicinally for headaches, swelling, fever, and blood disorders by the Chinese for centuries. It enhances memory, increases nerve growth, and protects against Alzheimer’s. It also increases REM sleep. But beware; it raises acetylcholine levels, which is helpful in 2/3 of people, but harmful in those who are choline dominant (like me). Watch out for a clenching jaw or headaches – if you get those, stop taking it, and double up on Aniracetam until the symptoms go away. (the racetams lower choline, which is a good thing if you have too much!)
Upgraded Aging Formula contains stabilized oxaloacetate, which is a part of the kreb’s cycle that powers your cells’ energy production. It has hugely positive effects on blood sugar control and mimics caloric restriction, but the real win for your brain is that it protects brain cells from excess glutamate. High levels of glutamate are neurodestructive – and you get some every time you eat restaurant food, because restaurants hide MSG in lots of dishes (legally) because people who eat MSG almost always order more drinks and dessert to counteract the blood sugar plunge from the MSG. Sneaky but legal. Upgraded Aging has other metabolic effects around blood sugar too.
Improving your sleep is one of the best ways to boost your brain power. Without enough REM sleep, you increase neurodegeneration and decrease your ability to perform on a day to day basis.
I wrote about ways to improve your sleep in Step 5.
Just when you thought the only similarity between body builders and nerds was their secret obsession with World of Warcraft – it turns out they also take some of the same supplements. Creatine helps you lift more weight, both mentally and physically. Your brain uses creatine to perform synapses, and studies have shown that it improves your brain function, especially in vegetarians who are almost guaranteed to be creatine deficient. The study referenced above used 5 grams per day, which is a good starting place for improving brain function.
Increasing your brain power is not just something for executives and nerds – it’s for anyone with a brain. Imagine if you almost never forgot things. Imagine managing more tasks than you ever dreamed possible without feeling stressed or overwhelmed. No more forgetting where you put your keys or leaving behind papers for work.