Where is my head today? Have you ever heard that phrase? Have you ever experienced one day where you clearly whip through a basic math problem and other days where you struggle to make change for a dollar? Some days you are a rolling encyclopedia and other days you can’t drum up your neighbor’s name? While day to day variation in cognitive function is normal, a term called brain fog has been coined to express those times we feel our brain is processing information in low gear and focusing feels, well, foggy.
Brain fog is more a litany of symptoms than an actual diagnosis and its causes are equally broad. So, let’s focus here on a few things we can do to keep our brains functioning in high gear. Of course, you want a health care professional to evaluate you for the myriad conditions that can interfere with mental clarity. After that, a few tweaks toward a healthier lifestyle can have dramatic impact.
Nutritional psychiatry is a new and rapidly growing field. As science and medicine gain understanding of the intersection of health and brain function we are learning that good nutrition is critical for the optimal functioning of the brain.
Our brains work 24/7 and that takes fuel 24/7. This mean high quality foods concentrated in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to nourish and protect from oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function. This can even include worsening of symptoms of mood disorders such as depression.
Good nutrition for the brain is not all in your head. The growing field of nutritional psychiatry is also finding correlations between how you think, feel and behave and the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut. This makes perfect sense, given that 95% of the serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter) is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, that your gut is lined with a hundred million nerve cells and what you eat influences this active neural pathway traveling between your gut and brain.
Look to the Mediterranean diet, generous in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, fatty seafood and fiber, to guide your dietary choices. Avoid empty calorie junk food, refined carbohydrates, sweetened beverages and highly processed meats.
Other factors exist that can result in brain fog. Exercise and physical activity is fundamental to feeling good, improving alertness and even problem solving. If you are sedentary, start slowly, but simply move more. Most of us could increase our activity levels if we tried. Stand up, walk at work, take stretch breaks, invite friends for a hike and schedule a little time at the gym.
Drink water. Even mild dehydration can result in reduced cognitive ability. Avoid sweetened beverages. Get adequate natural sunlight. Sunlight is important in regulating a number of processes in animals. Sleep. That wonderful, regenerative gift is needed to reset and detoxify your brain. Finally, manage stress. Stress itself can be damaging, so find ways to minimize its impact. You will be thankful when the fog lifts and the way ahead is clear and focused.
Cathy Moore is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and agriculture program leader at Cooperative Extension of Jefferson county. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.