This blog was originally posted on health.com
Who among us hasn’t experienced straying attention, trouble concentrating, or stumbling over the perfect word? A lot of the time brain fog is just a fact of life in the dizzying world we live in.
“Brain fog is present in many of us who are overworked, sleep-deprived, multitasking, or asked to remember too much,” says Gayatri Devi, MD, a psychiatrist and neurologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
But brain fog is also part and parcel of many medical conditions, something that goes wrong with the 100 billion nerve cells and 100 trillion connections that make up your brain.
There is good news though: Once you pinpoint a cause, you can often find a treatment for brain fog, Dr. Devi says. And, comfortingly, the problem is rarely dementia.
Here are five reasons for what might be causing your mental haze and how to fix it.
Migraines are a direct hit on the mind, and “brain fog is very real for people with migraine,” says Cynthia E. Armand, MD, an attending neurologist at Montefiore Headache Center in New York City.
Migraine brain fog translates into difficulty with concentration and comprehension and moments of “What word am I looking for?!” It can occur before, during, or after headache pain, says Dr. Armand.
Many migraines are handled with medication, which can also help mental acuity. “The usual migraine action plan consists of a medication to use during migraine attacks. A preventive medication is added if individuals experience attacks more frequently,” says Dr. Armand. “Since this is not a one-size-fits-all approach, it is good to speak with your neurologist or headache specialist about any brain fog experienced and your migraine management.”
After years if not decades of debate, most scientists and lay people now agree that there is such a thing as “menopause brain”–lapses in memory, difficulty concentrating, and trouble paying attention compared to before this mid-life change.
Not every woman experiences brain fog around the end of her period, however, says Pauline Maki, PhD, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There are big differences between women in the way they experience this. Nevertheless, it is absolutely measurable and detectable in the best research studies we can conduct.”
But while most people associate these memory slips with the end of menstruation, menopause brain may be most acute earlier on. “It’s actually detectable in early peri-menopause, when menstrual cycles begin to become less regular,” says Maki. “If anything, [the symptoms] get better after menopause.”
We don’t know yet if memory eventually improves or if estrogen–taken by some women in menopause to help with other symptoms, like hot flashes–might help with brain fog too, she says.
Other than hormone therapy, what can you do to jog your brain? Sleep well, limit alcohol, exercise regularly, and follow a Mediterranean diet.
The scientific jury is still out on whether “pregnancy brain” is a real thing, Maki says, but many women who have been pregnant (and probably the people who know them!) will tell you it is.
Pregnancy brain fog is tricky to study, Maki says, for many reasons, including the fact that pregnancy can cause sleep disturbances and anxiety, which themselves could cause brain fog.
Even though the optimal study hasn’t been done, there is research suggesting that periods of hormonal fluctuation–which would certainly include pregnancy–are linked with psychological symptoms like mood and memory.
You could argue that depression is the very embodiment of brain fog. Not only do you feel sad and lose interest in your favorite activities, you may find your thinking and speaking slows down or you have difficulty focusing, making decisions, and remembering things.
Other mental health conditions, like anxiety, can also cause brain fog.
There are many effective medications and forms of therapy to treat depression that might help with cognitive symptoms too. As always, getting enough sleep, exercise (even just walking), and healthy foods can keep your brain on a clear path.