It’s the middle of a long workday and your brain is feeling fuzzy. You’re unmotivated, it’s difficult to remember important information, and your mind is taking every opportunity to drift.
You might be experiencing brain fog, a term used to describe a set of symptoms that impact your ability to think.
“’Brain fog’ isn’t a scientific term itself, but rather a mild cognitive dysfunction that may be caused by many different conditions,” says Dean MacKinnon, MD, associate professor of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins.
“We all have periods of not thinking as sharply as we’d like. But most of the time, the sensation is temporary,” MacKinnon adds.
Brain fog is a common symptom of:
- chronic stress
- hormonal changes
- poor diet
- certain medications (such as those for anxiety and depression)
- other health conditions or infections
In fact, a 2021 study found that 7 percent of people with long-haul COVID-19 reported brain fog.
MacKinnon says that because there are so many different factors related to brain fog, there’s no one-size-fits-all way of treating it.
If your brain fog is disrupting your everyday routine or making it hard to perform daily tasks, you should make an appointment with a healthcare professional. But, if all you’re experiencing is a little bit of fogginess, it might be worth it to test out a few lifestyle changes.
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Take a real break
Have you ever felt like you just couldn’t get yourself to focus on a task, no matter how hard you tried? Well, research suggests the solution isn’t to try harder. It might be best to momentarily quit.
A 2016 study suggested that stepping away from a task and taking a break can substantially improve your performance, focus, and degree of self-control.
Not all mental breaks are created equal, however. One 2019 study showed that reaching for a cell phone did not allow the brain to recharge as effectively as other types of relaxation.
To give your brain a more efficient break, try:
- Meditating. Just a few mindful minutes can increase concentration, per 2018 research.
- Calling a friend or loved one. Research from 2020 suggests social connection improves brain function.
- Taking a power nap. Naps may strengthen memory retention and cognition, 2017 research says, especially for young adults.
- Doing something creative. This might include painting, writing, coloring, dancing, cooking, or baking. Researchers from 2018 suggested that creativity is a worthy opponent to stress.
- Going outdoors. A large body of research points at nature as a positive promoter of mental health.
You might have heard people comparing your brain to a computer, but the truth is a lot more complicated than that. Your brain and body are intimately connected. So if your mind’s feeling off, it might be helpful to get moving.
Scientists have associated a wide variety of exercises with improved brain function. A 2016 study found that exercise promotes the expression of proteins in the brain that enhance brain function and reduce instances of anxiety and depression.
Research from 2015 has shown that exercise may relieve chronic pain and fatigue. But that’s not all — a 2021 study suggests it can also distract us from upsetting thoughts and a 2017 study notes that it can aid in emotional regulation after a stressful event.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you exercise for 30 minutes per day, any kind of movement counts.
Here are a few activities to try:
- Walking. Even 10 minutes may boost mood, per 2018 research.
- Yoga. Studies, like one from 2019 in Iran, show it can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
- High intensity exercise. It’s been found to improve cognitive function, according to a 2021 research review.
- Stretching. Research from 2019 has found it may improve insomnia.
- Gardening. Robust evidence from a 2017 analysis shows that gardening can reduce anxiety and depression and increase life satisfaction. Plus, harvesting your own fresh vegetables is satisfying and delicious.
We’ve all made the connection between sleep and tiredness, but the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and body are extensive.
Poor sleep affects your ability to make decisions, solve problems, and control your emotions. And what’s more, experts say that sleep deprivation can increase your risk for chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease.
Prioritize sleep with these simple lifestyle changes:
- Go to bed and get up around the same time every day, even on weekends, if you can swing it.
- Wind down at least 1 hour before bed by shutting off your electronics, which are associated with a higher incidence of insomnia shorter sleep duration, per 2018 research.
- Avoid nicotine and caffeine, which are stimulants that can interfere with sleep.
- Keep your room dark with blackout shades, if necessary. Run a sleep sound machine to mask street or household noises.
Brain fog is a temporary condition that can make it difficult for you to concentrate, recall or retain information, and complete tasks.
You may find relief by improving your diet and sleep regimen, adding creativity to your daily life, and taking proper (phoneless!) breaks throughout the day.
For most of us, brain fog is related to lifestyle or temporary stressors. But if your fogginess is accompanied by other symptoms and is significantly impacting your ability to function, it’s worth talking with your healthcare professional to rule out potential underlying conditions.
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