Can Depression Cause Brain Fog?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

What is brain fog?

A symptom of depression that some people report is cognitive dysfunction (CD). You may think of this as “brain fog.” CD can impair:

  • your ability to think clearly
  • your reaction time
  • your memory
  • your executive functioning abilities

CD is a significant symptom when it occurs in depression because it can alter your ability to function daily. It may continue even after you’re in remission from depression.

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There are some treatments available to help with CD, but there’s a need for more research in this area of treating depression.

Your doctor may suggest medications and therapy to help, but you may also find that home-based treatments also help improve CD symptoms.

CD statistics

Depression is a widespread mental health condition that affects 5 to 7 percent of adults yearly. It often begins in your teens or 20s and can occur any time in life.

If you develop CD as a symptom of depression, it can affect your mood and ability to interact with people. This can lead to a more severe form of depression than those without the symptom.

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There’s more attention being paid to the effects of CD on depression. Depression was once considered to be only a mood-related disorder but more studies are linking the severity of CD symptoms and depression.

CD is a common symptom of depression. One study found that 85 to 94 percent of those with depression had CD symptoms. And 39 to 44 percent of those in remission from depression continued to have CD symptoms.

Symptoms of CD

CD can include a variety of symptoms that affect your ability to function on a daily basis. Symptoms of CD include several areas of mental processing. Keep in mind that the effects of CD won’t necessarily disappear when other symptoms of depression go away.

  • An inability to pay attention. You may not be able to complete a thought, follow a conversation, finish a task at work, or focus on a book, movie, or TV show.
  • Trouble with your memory. You can’t remember what you were doing, you have to rely on writing things down to remember them, or you lose things frequently.
  • Difficulty with executive functioning. You can’t make decisions, you worry about the possible outcomes of making a decision, or you can’t multitask.
  • Your reaction time is affected. You complete tasks much more slowly than you used to, you feel tired, you feel like your brain is blocked.
  • Symptoms of depression. Keep in mind that CD is just one symptom of depression. You may experience other symptoms of depression that can affect your mental abilities. For instance, lack of sleep or fatigue caused by depression may also be making your brain feel “foggy.”

You should discuss all symptoms with your doctor to determine whether your cognitive impairments are caused by CD or by other depression symptoms.

Causes of CD

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CD is listed as one of the symptoms of depression in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM-5 describes these symptoms as diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day — either by subjective account or as observed by others. Depression, in general, can be caused by a mix of factors, including:

  • your genetics
  • the environment
  • hormones
  • the biology of your brain
  • brain chemistry

You may experience CD with depression because of the way your brain functions and not because of external factors like medications. Medications could be a cause for worsening CD, but newer depression medications have fewer side effects than in previous decades.

The severity of CD symptoms can vary from person to person. Several factors may impact your symptoms. These include:

  • your age
  • whether you’ve had depression before
  • other medical and mental health conditions you have
  • how long you’ve had depression
  • how often you experience symptoms of depression

Treatments

There are numerous available treatments for depression, but they may not impact CD symptoms. In some cases, there’s a chance that the medications you use to treat depression could be making CD symptoms worse.

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In most cases, treatments for depression do nothing to help brain fog. There’s a trend to find treatments for CD symptoms in depression, and some studies have found a few that are effective.

Treatments for mood-related symptoms

There are numerous methods for treating mood-related symptoms of depression. Some of these treatments can help CD symptoms, but many of them will do very little to help CD symptoms.

Your doctor may prescribe a medication to treat your depression. A first-line medication may be a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Your doctor may prescribe a different medication if this medication doesn’t work.

You may also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy if you have depression. Generally, this therapy doesn’t target CD symptoms.

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You may be concerned that medications to treat depression are negatively affecting CD symptoms. There may be some instances where you respond poorly to a medication or your CD symptoms worsen with a certain medication. Talk to your doctor if you have these concerns.

Treatments for brain fog symptoms

There’s more awareness of the importance of treating CD symptoms found in depression than ever before. There are currently a few options available for treating this symptom, but more may be developed as researchers learn more about CD and depression.

A recent study showed that modafinil may benefit CD symptoms in depression. It concluded that this medication can improve episodic memory and working memory in those with remitted depression.

Another emerging treatment for CD symptoms in depression is cognitive remediation therapy, which aims to improve memory and attention. More research is needed to determine the effects of this treatment.

Home remedies

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You may want to try home-based treatments to improve brain fog. One significant treatment for CD symptoms is exercise. Exercise can improve your spatial memory.

Other home practices that may improve CD include:

  • getting enough sleep
  • being realistic in planning your day
  • trying to focus on one task at a time
  • managing stress
  • avoiding caffeine and alcohol
  • trying relaxation techniques such as meditation
  • taking regular breaks

Other conditions

CD can be related to other health conditions in addition to depression. Some of these conditions include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • fibromyalgia
  • menopause
  • multiple sclerosis
  • pregnancy
  • rheumatoid arthritis

When to see a doctor

Depression with CD can interfere with your ability to function normally and may cause disruptions to your life. See your doctor if you suspect you have CD caused by depression to avoid worsening symptoms.

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Your doctor may ask targeted questions about your cognitive abilities to determine the severity of your symptoms. There’s currently no test or scale to diagnose CD symptoms in depression.

The bottom line

You may feel forgetful, slowed, or inattentive if you have depression. These cognitive symptoms may be signs of CD, or brain fog, a common symptom of depression. You should discuss these symptoms with your doctor to determine a treatment plan.

You can visit the National Institute of Mental Health website to find a nearby doctor who can help with your depression.

Read more on: depression, brain


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