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Could It Be Brain Fog?

Brain fog: it’s as if your thoughts must squeeze through a porous sponge before they come out of your mouth. It’s difficult to focus — wait — what focus? Moments of confusion ensue. Oh, and memory: Searching for the right word, that person’s name, an actual event. Yes, brain fog is aptly termed. 
Brain fog isn’t a medical diagnosis, but rather a nonspecific phrase that “implies that the brain is not working the way it should,” says Dr. Dennis Lipton, an internist at Vail Health.

Brain fog is fairly common, but it’s not normal; it’s actually a symptom of other problems, which can be as simple as not sleeping well or as serious as low or high blood sugar in a person with diabetes. 

Even people without diabetes experience swings in blood sugar after eating refined carbohydrates, which can adversely affect cognition. Blood glucose fuels the brain, so the roller-coaster ride produced from eating carbohydrates that break down quickly (like sugar and pasta) occurs because the brain receives too much glucose, and then not enough.

Various illnesses, from fibromyalgia, lupus, thyroid disorders and cancer to depression, hormonal imbalances, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, seasonal allergies, substance abuse, and more, often cause brain fog.

In addition, many prescription medications, including pain relievers, sedatives, some antidepressants, and even over-the-counter sleep aids and antihistamines can affect brain chemistry and cause fogginess. 

Sleep apnea and chronic sleep deprivation are also major culprits, as those suffering miss out on the deep, restful sleep necessary for optimal brain function.

“The brain needs sleep to repair and regenerate,” Dr. Lipton says.

Prolonged stress also leads to a host of symptoms and disorders, including brain fog. The body makes cortisol in response to stress; cortisol increases free radicals, which damage brain cells.

Environmental toxins, especially indoor pollution like mold, pet dander, pollen and cleaning agents, also negatively affect the brain.

People with brain fog may not realize how bad they feel until they treat it and suddenly feel — and think — better. 
“Often people don’t realize they had brain fog until it clears,” Dr. Lipton says.

Many times, treatment can be as easy as going to bed earlier, sleeping with oxygen (for sleep apnea), consuming less alcohol and caffeine, eating healthy food regularly and even drinking more water. Studies have shown dehydration contributes to poor brain function (kids who drank a few cups of water before a cognitive test did better than the control group), and in the High Country, it’s easy to become dehydrated.

“Water is vital to optimal brain function,” Dr. Lipton says, adding that people who visit Vail from a humid, lower elevation should definitely drink more water than usual because living in a humid environment causes the body to become less efficient at conserving water, and it takes a few days for the body’s water-conserving mechanisms to kick in. He says everyone should drink anywhere from 48 ounces to upwards of 200 ounces daily, depending upon levels of physical activity. More than half of Americans are chronically dehydrated, and it only takes about two percent dehydration to affect attention, memory and other brain activity.

Some research indicates that low levels of DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) contributes to cognitive decline, but the body gains all the fat it needs with a healthy, balanced diet —including beneficial fats (nuts, avocados, coconut and olive oil, wild salmon and grass-fed meat).  If there is concern about DHA deficiency, Dr. Lipton recommends blood testing before supplementing. However, vitamin deficiencies do contribute to brain fog. B12 and Vitamin D are common deficiencies, and supplements will help those suffering from such deficiencies. In addition, the Harvard School of Public Health recommends multivitamins for all adults, to fill any nutrient gaps. 

While some doctors, like author Dr. William Davis, who wrote “Wheat Belly,” blame wheat for brain fog, Dr. Lipton says it’s all very individual. He believes processed wheat, such as white flour, is not good for anybody, both because it’s processed and today’s wheat is much different from that consumed just a few generations ago, even in its whole form. But, he’s not convinced avoiding whole grains prevents brain fog, as most long-lived, healthy societies eat whole grains.

Food sensitivities or allergies can result in brain fog; to rule out a suspected food, don’t consume it for a week or two, then eat it, and compare the level of cognitive clarity. It’s also wise to avoid food additives, such as artificial sweeteners and MSG (monosodium glutamate), the latter of which is found in most processed foods (and often labeled as “seasoning,” “spices,” “hydrolyzed protein” or “natural flavors”).

Whether you choose to eat meat or not, Dr. Lipton always recommends eating whole foods — vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains — and avoiding processed foods.  

Since brain fog is either lifestyle-related or a side effect of a medical problem or medications, it’s a very treatable condition. But to break through the fog, you may have to alter your diet, reduce your alcohol intake, change sleep patterns,  reduce stress, drink plenty of water, exercise regularly, or see a doctor to rule out other underlying causes. None of this advice is new — it’s the core of a healthy lifestyle. But above and beyond what we “should” do is the added benefit of reclaiming your brain. 

Imagine being focused, able to reach for names, numbers and thoughts with ease — or at least without the fog.  

About Dr. Dennis Lipton - Internal Medicine  | (970) 926-6340
Dennis Lipton MD is a board-certified internist trained in the essentials of primary care and disease prevention and can help ensure patients receive the proper medical screening tests and immunizations.