We’ve all experienced brain fog before, but what causes it, and how can you get rid of it?
In this article, we’re going to discuss the science behind brain fog and how certain nootropics could help alleviate it.
What Is Brain Fog?
Difficulty multitasking, poor focus and concentration, struggling to recall words or ideas relating to the task at hand, decreased ability to learn new things, low energy and mood, accompanied by slower cognitive processing, are all normal symptoms that accompany the process of aging.
These symptoms and more are generally mild and gradual changes experienced by many people from their fifth decade of life onwards. Ensuring adequate exercise and rest accompanied by a diet of high-quality food is the general approach to resolving the aforementioned symptoms, and usually enough to prevent serious cognitive decline in the short-term.
However, if these symptoms appear earlier in life, and are transient and sporadic, this may be an episode of the phenomenon known scientifically as dyscognition, commonly known as ‘brain fog’.
Although symptomatically similar, brain fog is not part of the normal process of aging, and could be a cause for concern if constantly and progressively experienced without adequate reason. Brain fog is a type of cognitive dysfunction that although is not regarded as a medical disorder in itself, may be an indicator of an underlying condition or a state commonly described as mental fatigue, or burnout.
Stress-related burnout is an increasingly prevalent feature in the workers of Western society due to long-term occupational stress and other factors related to the modern lifestyle. Not only do these factors contribute to anxiety and the cognitive phenomenon known as brain fog, unresolved chronic stress has also been shown to induce structural changes in the grey-matter volume of the brain over time (1).
There are a number of reasons that brain fog can occur, and accordingly, a variety of approaches to begin solving the problem. The most important thing to do is to identify the probable cause in order to begin to resolve the issue.
Recognizing an episode of brain fog is not necessarily cause for alarm. Generally symptoms of brain fog are temporary and reversible, although it does indicate a need to address the reasons for it.
Many people will reach for some sort of caffeinated beverages such as tea or coffee in an effort to increase wakefulness and concentration lost to the fog. While this will almost certainly help in the short-term, without employing additional strategies, the benefits of caffeine are likely to diminish in the long-term if causes of brain fog are not addressed.
Continuous caffeine ingestion requires escalated doses of caffeine to achieve the same or lesser effect, while possibly adding to the overall burden due to increased dehydration or further stimulation of an already overworked cognitive system. Another issue is caffeine dependency, and the cognitive difficulties experienced by many when they attempt to lower or cease their consumption, which mimic and may contribute to the difficulties experienced as brain fog.
The purpose of this article is to review the evidence available for nootropic approaches which might aid in diminishing or relieving brain fog symptoms for good.
Triggers Of Brain Fog
Various triggers for brain fog have been reported by sufferers, the most frequently reported in younger people include physical fatigue, lack of sleep, prolonged standing, dehydration, and feeling faint (1).
Possible Causes Of Brain Fog
Diet can be a major cause of brain-fog symptoms. Inadequate nutrition, unbalanced gut microflora, and food intolerances can lead to poor sleep, recovery, and increased inflammation, which can all contribute to the brain-fog equation. Ensuring adequate nutrition and a diet rich in micronutrients, combined with foods that promote a healthy balance of gut microflora is an important part of maintaining vitality and keeping energy levels up.
Hormones are major players in how we think and feel, when normal hormone levels are unbalanced by changes such as menopause, pregnancy, or chronic stress, regular brain function may be disrupted, accompanied by resulting symptoms of brain fog.
Also described by those who experience it as ‘Chemo fog’ or ‘Chemo brain’ brain fog is a common experience for those undergoing chemotherapy treatments for ailments such as cancer. In these instances, brain fog can arise due to the treatment itself, or other issues such as extra stress, poor sleeping, fatigue, infection, or changes in blood count, including anemia or low white blood cells. Although generally short-term, with symptoms resolving once treatments have ended, brain fog in this instance can have a longer duration of months, or possibly years. It is important to talk with your doctor if experiencing brain fog when undergoing medical treatment, they may be able to offer changes-to or alternative treatments, make adjustments to dosing, and explore, eliminate or address other possibilities such as infection, and low red or white blood counts.
Sleep is an important part of the daily decluttering, rest, and repair process that is vital for optimum brain function. Without an adequate quantity of quality sleep, the brain simply doesn’t have enough time to perform its own ‘housekeeping’ in order to maintain smooth operation and optimum energy levels. Stress and some hormone levels are linked directly to appropriate levels of rest, and can feed-back into the process, leading to further sleeping issues and greater stress if left unaddressed for too long.
Stress is commonly a central-player in the brain fog equation. Short-term stress is generally considered normal and healthy. Stress signals for changes in brain and body-system operation that can be beneficial in the short-term, prompting increased productivity, increased cognition, boosting memory and motivation as a means to resolve the stimulus causing stress. Unresolved or ‘chronic stress’ may become a problem. Continually driving the systems that heighten awareness and motivation for an extended duration, leads to a decrease in the effect of their signals, in turn wearing these systems down. Stress often leads to changes in sleeping and in food intake patterns, resulting in too much, or inadequate sleep and poor nutritional choices.
Underlying Medical Conditions
Brain fog may be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. It is important to visit your doctor for a check-up if the previous possible causes of brain fog have been considered and eliminated. If brain fog symptoms continue inexplicably for more than a short period of time, or worsen, it’s imperative to consider and eliminate the possibility they may stem from something more serious. Some of these reasons may be relatively easily addressed, but it’s important to have them diagnosed by a professional in order to ensure a comprehensive assessment of possible causes and professional testing to eliminate those that aren’t responsible.
A variety of medical conditions are known to lead to brain-fog like symptoms, such as:
- Autoimmune diseases such as MS, Ulcerative colitis, Lupus and arthritis
- Chronic fatigue syndrome.
Some conditions are resolvable by simple lifestyle adjustments, dietary changes or supplements, for instance dehydration or anemia. Others such as autoimmune disease or hypothyroidism may require professional diagnosis and specialized treatments to adequately treat and manage them. Once under control, it is likely that brain fog symptoms will decrease or become more manageable too.
What Are Nootropics?
Beyond lifestyle adjustments such as better nutrition, more sleep, rest, and ensuring adequate time to de-stress, nootropics may offer supplementary support in the battle to clear the fog.
Nootropics are cognitive enhancers which may provide benefits such as improved mood, increased mental energy, clarity of thought, better memory recall, and greater concentration. However, not all nootropics are built equally.
Some nootropics with anecdotally purported benefits fail to cross the line when put to the test scientifically. Others have inadequate evidence in human clinical trials, relying on preclinical animal studies for the validity of therapeutic claims, which although positive indicators of probable mechanisms that might afford benefits, may not translate when used in human trials.
Here are some of the best nootropics for brain-fog, as backed by research:
Best Nootropics To Get Rid Of Brain Fog
Brain fog affects focus, cognition, memory and mood, accordingly, the best nootropics to benefit those with brain fog, will primarily target those symptoms.
Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA)
Known for its effects on memory and cognition, ALA also increases the body’s ability to recycle antioxidant vitamins such as Vitamin A and C, levels of which, have been implicated by studies to have a major effect on cognition, especially during stressful times and aging. Properties of ALA include improved memory and neuroprotective effects. ALA has been shown to promote increases in levels of neurotransmitters and their receptors which are normally known to decline with age (2).
A 600mg daily dose of ALA is considered safe long-term (3).
Ginkgo biloba has been proven convincingly effective in the relief of mild cognitive impairment. Recent reviews of studies on standardized ginkgo biloba extract show consistent positive effects on cognition and as a neuroprotectant when in the upper dosing range of 240mg daily (4, 5). Safety of ginkgo biloba extract was found to be superior to that of placebo within all trials conducted.
Centella asiatica, also known as pennywort or gotu kola, is an herb that has a traditional history of use as a brain tonic in both Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Gotu kola is commonly touted as a remedy for anxiety, depression, mental fatigue and memory loss. While animal studies show benefits in learning performance and memory retention.
Clinical trials have mixed results. Possible reasons for these differences include various forms of supplement used, lack of standardization, unknown quality of plant used in the preparation, combination with other ingredients or inadequate doses in trials that failed to show efficacy.
Gotu kola has been shown to improve mood and memory in several trials in humans when dosed at 3g daily (6).
Vitamin C is a potent cognitive enhancer and potent oxidative scavenger that protects the brain from the harmful effects of oxidative stress while recycling compounds such as superoxide.
Vitamin C has a high concentration within the brain and cerebrospinal fluid (up to four times more than in the plasma) and is essential for the protection of neurons that have a high rate of oxidative metabolism.
Unlike many animals, humans cannot synthesize vitamin C themselves. Compounding this, vitamin C is water-soluble, meaning it isn’t retained for long within the body, necessitating daily intake to provide an adequate supply of this essential vitamin. Periods of greater stress increases the demand for vitamin C within the body. Illness and increased physical demand add to this requirement.
Areas of highest vitamin C concentration within the brain including the amygdala, cerebral cortex, and hippocampus, which are responsible for emotions, survival instincts, memory, and higher-thought.
Inadequate intake of vitamin C or long-term demand on the systems that consume the greatest amount of vitamin C will certainly increase the need to ensure stores are adequately replenished. Vitamin C depletion in the brain is more impacted by long-term deficiency than in the short-term, highlighting the necessity to intake adequate amounts of this vitamin on a regular basis, rather than a ‘boom and bust’ intake many may apply during instances such as colds and flu.
Although further investigation is needed, reviews on studies into vitamin C and cognitive status have shown a strong link between inadequate vitamin C and decreased cognition in both normal and aged populations (7). Regular intake of vitamin C is essential for good cognition especially when feeling the symptoms of brain fog.
NADH And CoQ10
NADH is an amide form of vitamin B3, one of a family of vitamins that are key in unlocking energy from food. A placebo-controlled study of NADH in combination with co-enzyme Q10 in those with brain fog as a result of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) showed improvements such as decreased fatigue, better cognition, and decreased brain-fog when compared to placebo (8).
These results are promising enough to warrant larger studies to further investigate the benefits of this combination on those with other conditions leading to brain fog. Daily doses were 200mg CoQ10 and 20mg NADH for eight weeks. No problems with safety or side-effects were reported at this dose.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is an integral component of cell membranes and of the coating known as myelin which surrounds the axons of nerve cells. PS works to protect nerve-cell integrity, in turn conferring benefits in problem-solving, learning, memory and concentration (9).
Pilot studies have shown benefits in aging populations (10) while a study involving 122 individuals taking soybean-derived PS in combination with omega-3 polyunsaturated fat DHA showed statistically significant improvements in memory recognition, sustained attention, and overall cognition (11).
PS supplementation is considered safe when taken in split doses of up to 100mg three times daily (12). Doses above 300mg have been noted to cause gastrointestinal distress or insomnia in some individuals.
For centuries rhodiola rosea has been traditionally been used throughout Europe, Russia, and Asia as an antidepressant and ergogenic aid to relieve stress while boosting physical and mental performance (13). These properties are believed to arise from 2 active constituents: Rosavin and Salidrosides. Salidroside has neuroprotective effects against oxidative damage due to its ability to activate endogenous antioxidant enzymes (14).
Studies regarding the efficacy of rhodiola rosea extracts on stress, energy levels and cognition have reported benefits, although the evidence is mixed. Reviews of earlier literature identified the limitations of previous studies due to methodological flaws and possible bias suggesting further studies in order to assess the true efficacy of rhodiola rosea extracts.
A 2017 study on 100 individuals with chronic fatigue reported benefits within the first week and statistically significant effects observable after 8 weeks of continuous ingestion (15).
Rhodiola rosea extracts are considered safe, with no serious adverse events attributable to supplementation reported during any of the studies. Dosing is suggested at 400mg of extract daily.
A potent cognitive enhancer, creatine helps fuel energy-intensive brain processes by recharging the phosphates on ATP molecules, the energetic currency of the cell, which are consumed as part of energy production by mitochondria, the energy-production centers of the cell.
Although creatine is produced endogenously, and may be acquired within the diet, the daily level of creatine use by the cells may be higher than that acquired by these means combined. This is where creatine supplementation can assist, providing additional creatine in a form that is able to be ingested and stored for future use on demand.
Creatine has additional benefits in its antioxidant activity, which provides a neuroprotective capacity against oxidative inflammation (16).
Creatine has an excellent safety profile and is safe for long-term consumption without the need to cycle supplementation periods. Typical daily doses range from 2g to 5g, with 5 g considered an adequate dose for those with higher demands or body-mass (17).
Brain fog has a variety of causes and symptoms of varying intensity.
Once the underlying cause has been established, there are a number of nootropics with excellent safety-profiles and beneficial potential to assist with banishing brain fog and improving cognitive function.
Due to the diversity of causes and symptoms, a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to have the same benefits for everyone.
A personalized custom-stack of nootropics that target the most relevant symptoms is likely to be the most effective method to comprehensively address the most troublesome features of brain fog.