We've all experienced those moments from time to time—forgotten a name, had a hazy memory, misplaced our keys. After all, in today's age of multitasking madness, it's easy to lose track of a few details. But when these "senior moments" happen regularly, they become more than passing phenomena; they can signal a condition loosely referred to as brain fog. "Senior moment," by the way, is a misnomer, since brain fog affects people of all ages. That means the condition has less to do with aging than with overall health.
The term "brain fog" describes the symptoms well—people feel as if there is a thick fog dampening their mind. While the medical and mental health establishments don't generally recognize brain fog as a condition, it's a surprisingly common affliction that affects people of all ages. Symptoms include pervasive absentmindedness, muddled thought processes, poor memory recall, difficulty processing information, disorientation, fatigue, and others.
Because the condition is loosely defined, the causes themselves have been quite murky. But we now know that good cognitive function depends on numerous physical systems running smoothly: strong circulation, efficient digestion and detoxification, antioxidant activity, and more. Impairments in these functions can deprive the brain of nutrition and damage neurons and brain cells. So by understanding and strengthening these complex interrelationships, we can help combat brain fog and improve overall health simultaneously. Here's how to alleviate brain fog:
1. Improve your diet and digestion. A nutrient-dense diet and healthy digestion are at the core of long-term vitality. Nutrition affects every system in the body, but especially the brain. Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, has long associated cognitive power with strong digestion. More recently, researchers have found an abundance of neuropeptides (molecules that transmit brain signals), in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and have also shown that the beneficial bacteria in our GI tracts influence brain health, mood, and much more. Overall, healthy digestion is a complex process of assimilation and organization, much like the way the brain "digests" information.
One issue linked to both diet and brain fog is chronic inflammation. Of all the factors that influence inflammation, diet has the most direct impact. A number of nutrient-dense foods with specific anti-inflammatory qualities, such as green vegetables, sprouted grains and legumes, and healthy fats, are shown to support brain health and cognitive function. On the other hand, junk foods high in sugars and trans fats fuel inflammation and impair cognitive function. Worse, insulin dysfunction—usually related to chronically elevated blood sugar from an unhealthy diet—is a major risk factor in dementia and cognitive decline.
Read More: 9 Blood Sugar–Lowering Foods
In addition to a nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory diet, certain herbs and nutrients— cardamom, pomegranate, cinnamon, galangal, chromium, and zinc, for instance—support digestion and nutrient absorption and help reduce inflammation.
2. Detoxify. Heavy metals and toxins like mercury and lead, pesticides, and pollutants can accumulate in the body, contributing to inflammation and deadening cognitive function over time. A gentle detox program with natural cleansing supplements along with an anti-inflammatory diet can help improve brain function.
Modifed citrus pectin (MCP) has been clinically proven to safely remove heavy metals and other toxins from the body without affecting essential mineral levels. MCP binds to toxins, allowing them to be gently removed by the body's detox systems. The compound also binds to an inflammatory protein called galectin-3, which has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and other conditions.
A major factor in brain fog is oxidative stress, caused by unstable molecules called free radicals. Free radicals fuel inflammation and damage brain cells and DNA, so be sure to pack in antioxidants, which scavenge harmful free radicals, reduce inflammation, and help detoxify the body. Berries and dark greens and other richly colored fruits and vegetables are good choices, as they contain powerful antioxidant compounds that defend against oxidative stress. Honokiol extract from magnolia bark is a powerful botanical antioxidant and powerful neuro-protector with a wide range of additional benefits. Other powerful antioxidants that help detoxify the body are vitamin C, lipoic acid, N-acetyl-L-cysteine, and selenium.
3. Support cell power. Cellular power plants called mitochondria use oxygen to create energy, and there are more mitochondria in brain cells than in other cells. So it's important to support mitochondrial function to improve oxygen utilization in the brain.
There are a number of supplements that enhance cellular energy production and support brain health, such as NADH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), which is found in all living cells. In addition, supplements like CoQ10, acetyl-L-carnitine, L-carnosine, and medicinal mushrooms all support mitochondrial function and reduce inflammation, while helping to combat free radicals. As such, they can offer important support for cognitive capacity, vital energy, and overall health.
4. Control stress. I don't think it's a surprise to anyone that chronic stress can impair mental function. Think of how difficult it was to study the night before a test—sometimes the facts just don't stick.
Ongoing stress is inflammatory, elevating levels of hormones like cortisol that can lead to chronic inflammation in both brain and body. In addition, chronic stress can cause glucose imbalances, destroy brain cells, increase fatigue, and fuel depression.
Read More: 6 Signs You're Way Too Stressed Out
There are a number of practices that have been shown to reduce stress and benefit the brain, especially yoga, tai chi, and meditation. The breathing that is so essential to these disciplines increases oxygen throughout the body, which in turn increases energy. These exercises are also shown to reduce inflammation and help calm an overactive nervous system.
It's also important to take time to enjoy life. Meet up with friends, go to a show, get a massage. Enjoyment relaxes us and can have a powerful impact on both our mental and physical health.
5. Exercise. One of the underlying issues we see in brain fog is the inability to get oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Many times this comes down to a circulation issue, which can be related to a sedentary lifestyle, lack of exercise, and other factors. Regular exercise also increases neural connections throughout your body, balances hormones, and supports numerous other aspects of health. Studies now show that one of the most important things you can do for your brain is to get up and move around—go for regular walks, take bike rides, get out in nature. If you find yourself stuck in a fog, get out and exercise, and notice the clarity you feel afterwards.
If brain fog persists, see your doctor. In serious cases, it can signal an underlying neurological or inflammatory condition, such as Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, or diabetes. Most importantly, don't let brain fog become your normal state. With the right support, you can stay sharp and protect brain health—at any age.
Integrative medicine expert Isaac Eliaz, MD is the founder of the Amitabha Clinic & Healing Center in Sebastopol, Calif.
Published on: September 4, 2013