“Just as physical exercise is a well-known and well-accepted means to improve health for anyone, regardless of age or background, so can the brain be put ‘into shape’ for optimal learning. “ — Naveen Jain
I recently surveyed people asking them what was the #1 thing they wanted me to write about?
By a mile, it was how to improve brain fog.
Brain fog, and the experience of brain fog can be incredibly variable across people — it can last 5 minutes or 5 decades.
While it is incredibly frustrating, it is often a symptom of something bigger.
Brain fog is a subset of an underlying physical, chemical, or emotional imbalance.
The good news is, in most cases, with a few minor nuances, most experiences of brain fog is completely reversible.
In this article we are going to dissect the most common reasons why brain fog occurs, and then most importantly, 9 easy solutions on how to fix it.
NOTE: This article is 3,229 words. If you want the simple supplementary checklist and Quickstart Guide to Keto and Fasting as a PDF download, get it right here. It’s free.
Brain Fog = Brain Inflammation
“If you don’t think your anxiety, depression, sadness and stress impact your physical health, think again. All of these emotions trigger chemical reactions in your body, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system. Learn how to cope, sweet friend. There will always be dark days.” — Kris Carr
Brain fog classically shows up as any of the following
- Lack of focus
- Lack of mental clarity,
- Slower decision making
- Fatigue and irritability
- Poor concentration
- Low energy,
- Slowed learning and processing time
(Psst — see a pattern here? For my nerd army, these are all examples of poor frontal lobe function…more on that in a minute)
These symptoms are a result of inflammation (most often mediated through oxidative stress).
This of course, will hamper your brain’s ability to function properly.
While inflammation can literally be anything, when it comes to brain fog, it usually boils down to the following 4 silos:
What We Eat
How We Move
How We Sleep
What We Think
If you look closely at most of the symptoms of brain fog, the detective in you will tell you these are all very much symptoms of a weakened frontal lobe.
Our frontal lobe is essentially what make us human.
The frontal lobe is our “new” brain, and is involved in making good decisions, critical thinking, and executive function.
When we are stressed, the way this plays out neurologically is by decreasing blood flow and activity of the frontal lobe (“new brain”) to a midbrain area called the limbic system (“old brain”).
With increased activation and blood flow to the limbic system, we essential move towards survival — and away from growth, happiness and joy — we become more reactionary, fearful, and emotional.
(Perhaps the origin of the phrase ‘temper’ tantrum, comes from the over activation of the temporal lobe. Think of a kid who is just throwing the worst temper tantrum — we know developmentally their frontal lobe is not fully developed, hence the lack of rational thought, and the ‘temporal’ tantrum)
Bottom line is, when we are stressed, especially over the long term, our frontal lobe goes offline.
Over time, as our frontal lobe is weakened, it loses its ability to do its job properly.
Rational thought, better decisions, and adult-like regulation of emotion become an insurmountable task over time.
Diving deeper, if we could just choose the top three answers on the board survey says the major functions of the frontal lobe (“new brain”) it has 3 main functions:
1. To inhibit flexor musculature and keep us standing upright
2. To dampen our stress response
3. To control our emotions
So, when the frontal (“new brain”) is offline, our sympathetic nervous system, will start to take over.
Sympathetics are involved in the stress response.
Meaning in body, the sympathetic nervous system makes
- blood pressure increase
- heart rate increase
- blood clotting increase
- cholesterol production go up
- fear and anxiety go up
- insulin sensitivity is down regulated
- immune response attenuated
- reproduction go down
- ability to learn and focus goes down
- decrease in serotonin
So while the root cause may be different, the end result is that your stress response is being chronically over activated, leading to inflammation in the brain.
Let’s talk about how you can kick this to the curb.
1. What You Eat
“The best diet for overall health, and specifically for heart, brain, and cancer risk reduction, is a diet that’s aggressively low in carbohydrates with an abundance of healthful fat” — David Perlmutter
One of the most common sources of brain fog is your diet.
On the flip side, it is also one of my favourite mediums to improve brain fog.
Have You Ever Experienced Brain Fog Following A Meal?
If so, you will need to examine possible triggers that may be coming from your food.
I like to start with the most common foods that can trigger inflammation:
- Lectins (things like legumes, beans, peas, lentils, nightshade vegetables (eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, grains soy products)
- Casein (this includes all dairy products…sorry cheese lovers)
- FODMAPS (stone fruits, beans, lentils, wheat, rye, sweeteners, artificial sweeteners,
In many cases, brain fog just comes from a terrible diet.
The standard American diet (nicknamed ‘SAD’, because it truly is) is full of toxic, nutrient devoid garbage, highly processed carbohydrates, low or nonexistent fibre, and inflammatory sources of fat.
Easy Solution #1: Figure Out Your Food Intolerances
“I eat healthy when I can; I eat a burger when I want, and I work out. You have to live with the routine that keeps your body the healthiest, and that’s what I do — I don’t change it for a swimsuit shoot. You have to figure out what works with your body the best.” — Gigi Hadid
One of the easiest ways to identify whether you have a food intolerance is testing for Ig-G mediated antibodies
Symptoms of food intolerance can be any of the following:
- gas and bloating
- stomach pain
- loose stools
The problem is these symptoms do not immediately happen following the consumption of the food like the immediacy an allergy would.
This is an intolerance, not an allergy, so the response is often slower.
So you can see how this might pose a problem — it is difficult, and often non sensical, to pair the cheese you ate 7 days ago with your current headache and bloating.
Easy Solution #2: F Bad Carbs
“In 2010, I consulted with President Clinton after his bypass grafts occluded and encouraged him to make healthy lifestyle changes including a whole-foods, plant-based diet low in refined carbohydrates” — Dean Ornish
Yes, I said F.
Reducing your intake of processed carbohydrates and increasing consumption of brain healthy fats (like my online Keto Clean program) will help lower the inflammatory response, heal the gut, and improve metabolic and fuel efficiency.
I like to structure cycles of sugar detox in 28 day increments.
(You can do anything for 28 days, right?)
Increasing brain healthy fats, and reducing toxic carbohydrates are going to allow you to get into ketosis, and begin burning ketone bodies as fuel.
For brain fog, this is exceptionally useful, as ketone bodies produce less oxidative stress compared to glucose, and most often will help clear up foggy thinking, and create more energy than you know what to do with.
Easy Solution #3: Fasting
“Fasting is the first principle of medicine” — Rumi
Lastly, one of my favourite proxies for improving brain fog is fasting.
To dive deep into the physiological benefits of fasting, you can check out this article
Fasting will up regulate BDNF in the brain.
BDNF is like MiracleGro for your brain.
When you release BDNF, it helps grow new brain cells and new brain pathways and circuitry.
BDNF essentially increases your brain’s plasticity, and its overall size and volume.
When your brain cells face a stressful situation (either short or long term stress), higher circulating levels of BDNF will protect brain cells from being destroyed.
This makes us flexible.
More adaptive to stress.
Studies following patients were able to show that those with the highest levels of BDNF had less chance of developing dementia and the brain changes we see in Alzheimers.
2. How You Move
“If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.” — Hippocrates
We all know what happens when you DON’T exercise:
- joint stiffness
- loss of range of motion (through creep and adhesion formation)
- bone mineral loss
- cardiovascular deconditioning
- anxiety, depression, and a propensity for mood disorders
- weight gain
- loss of lean muscle mass, and increase in adiposity
When we do exercise, one of the most potent ways we help brain fog is by up regulating BDNF
Aerobic activity (think of steady state cardio activities like running, dancing class, bike ride, cycle class) and anaerobic activity (think burst training, HIIT, speed drills) all level up BDNF expression.
As we’ve discussed before, BDNF is the things that keeps your brain big, thick, and juicy.
And hey, if there is one organ in your body which you want to have that descriptive profile, it is definitely your brain.
While all exercises are going to be beneficial, there are some that are going to drive better outcomes for brain health, and specifically brain fog.
I want to go an inch wide and a mile deep on the BEST exercises for brain health and reducing brain fog.
My favourite types of exercises for helping brain fog are
1. Coronal Plane Exercises
2. Eye movements along the horizon
If you think about the movements we typically do during the day, they are all very midline, and mostly involve forward and backward motion:
- Sitting at a desk
- Computer work
- Browsing social media
Your eyes scroll up and down, and your arms and legs are pretty much midline most of the day during these exercises
Even most cardio machines at the gym are designed to keep your limbs close the midline, moving back and forth.
The elliptical machine
The stair stepper
The stationary bike.
They basically all have the same motion — legs go forward, legs go backward.
Legs flex, legs extend.
These are movements that are in the sagittal plane.
In other words, your arms and legs are not stretching out to the side, but rather going forward and back.
Easy Solution #4: Side To Side Movement
“I’ve been here all night
I’ve been here all day
And boy, got me walkin’ side to side (Side to side)” — Arianna Grande
When thinking about developing an exercises routine for beating brain fog, it is best to try and integrate movements that move away from the midline.
These are called coronal plane exercises.
In other words, legs and arms go out (called abduction) and then come back (adduction).
Great examples of coronal plane exercises (or exercises that move away from the midline) could be
- skater squats
- medicine ball twists
- side to side jumping
- lunging to the side
- jumping jacks
- football / wide stance running on the spot
- spiderman pushups
These types of exercises activate proximal muscles that are commonly weak, and atrophy with time.
Easy Solution #5: Horizontal Eye Movements
“The sexiest part of the body is the eyes. That’s what I believe.” — Clive Owen
The same is true for eye movements. Moving our eyes up and down all day (think of the vertical scrolling that happens on platforms like Facebook or Instagram) activates an area in the brain that drives up sympathetic
Instead, make a point to move your eyes across the horizon (activities like reading and writing facilitate this), as well as focused and pointed horizontal eye movements several times a day
Congrats for getting this far along in my nerd safari. You’re about 1/2 way through. If you want the simple supplementary checklist and Quickstart Guide to Keto and Fasting as a PDF download, get it right here. It’s free.
3. How You Sleep
“Tired minds don’t plan well. Sleep first, plan later.”— Walter Reisch
One of the biggest stressors to our brains that affect sleep is excessive use of technology.
Technology, and all of its blue light glory, will disrupt sleep signalling in the brain for restful, restorative sleep.
Blue light, when detected by an area of the brain involved in sleep (called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus), will stop the natural secretion of melatonin, one of the hormones involved initiating and maintaining sleep.
When our frontal lobe is weak — we can also experience poor sleep, which will impair recovery, increase inflammation, and induce brain fog.
Easy Practice #6: No Blue Light Around Bedtime
“The blue light emanating from our cell phones, our tablets and our laptops is playing havoc on our brain chemicals: our serotonin, our melatonin. It’s screwing up our sleep patterns, our happiness, our appetites, our carbohydrate cravings.” — Harley Pasternak
Best practices are to reduce (and eliminate) device use 2 hours before bedtime, and always wear blue light blocking glasses in the afternoon and into the evening.
I tend to recommend True Dark glasses, as they have different glasses for day and night that will filter out all of the different wavelengths during the day and evening.
I also like to darken the lights in the home an hour or so before bedtime.
This will signal to the brain that it is night time, and so begins the hormonal cascade to initiate sleep.
Easy Solution #7 : Chuck Your Pillow
“Ignorance is the softest pillow on which a man can rest his head.” — Michel de Montaigne
Another sleep-related reason why brain fog may be occurring is reduced oxygen intake overnight, known as hypoxia.
Sleep position, and getting rid of your pillows is incredibly helpful for promoting proper spinal alignment, and improving oxygen uptake.
While it seems “common” knowledge to try and sleep on your back with a pillow, this is more the work of marketing geniuses trying to sell us more stuff.
A working knowledge of mechanics will quickly reveal why this may be a contributing factor to a hypoxic brain environment.
The two motions in the neck we lose as we age is extension and rotation.
So sleeping in a positions that will naturally encourage either extension, rotation, or both simultaneously are going to naturally benefit the neck, and breathing.
We spend most of our days in a flexed, hunched over position.
Over the course of time, spending many hours in this position your spine will begin to deform into a flexed, or hyperkyphotic state.
Meaning, your muscles, ligamnets and joints will start assuming the flexed position, EVEN WHEN YOU ARE NOT FLEXED.
What we known about this postural distortion is that poor posture is linked to higher mortality rates.
So first things first…ditch the pillows if you like sleeping on your back.
This will naturally induce a mild extension in the neck (which, structurally, you are required to have for normal mechanical function), and more importantly, not created a flexion moment.
Easy Solution #8: Prone Sleeping
“I sleep on my stomach with my head under a bunch of pillows so if someone wants to come in and try to kill me they can’t tell if I’m there or not, so they’ll just leave.” — Wiz Khalifa
Second thing second — if you can slowly and methodically train yourself to get comfortable sleeping on your stomach, then you have unlocked the secret bonus level of neck health, and potentially brain fog — by inducing a better night’s sleep through improving oxygen uptake.
Sleeping on your stomach encourages diaphragmatic breathing, which, apart from strengthening the diaphragm, can reduce hypoxia.
It is also super awesome for the mechanical flexibility and longevity of the joints of the neck, so it is a win-win-win.
On the flip side, sleeping on your back with a pillow, induces flexion into the spine….but you already have alllllllll the flexion you need — you do that all day err day when you are awake.
Think of the amount of time you spend at your desk, on your phone, driving, or travelling in a seated position — your neck is likely in a flexed position during most of this.
You don’t need more flexion.
You need more extension!
4. How you THINK
“Everyone has the ability to increase resilience to stress. It requires hard work and dedication, but over time, you can equip yourself to handle whatever life throws your way without adverse effects to your health. Training your brain to manage stress won’t just affect the quality of your life, but perhaps even the length of it.” — Amy Morin
Just like physical motion starts in the brain — our thoughts are also motion, too.
Our motion and our thoughts even use the same areas of the brain as we do for physical motion:
- Cortex (initiates our thoughts…just like it is the area to initiate physical movement)
- Basal Ganglia (filters out unwanted thoughts…just like it filters out unwanted movements)
- Cerebellum (coordinates and edits thoughts…just like it coordinates our movements)
Side note: Which is a potential neurological explanation why we think it is an EXCELLENT idea to call an ex when we have had too much alcohol.
Alcohol is toxic to the cerebellum — so when you’ve had a few drinks, your coordinator and editor — the cerebellum — is offline and doesn’t tell you that maybe this is a bad idea.
This is a big reason why we see such a protective effect of exercise and mental health.
Just like improving our physical fitness will improve our brain health, so will improving our mental fitness, capacity, and endurance.
I have found, both personally and professionally, employing mindfulness practices will help sharpen and strengthen your frontal lobe.
Easy Solution #9: Mind Fitness
“Training gives us an outlet for suppressed energies created by stress and thus tones the spirit just as exercise conditions the body.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger
Whenever we are thinking of cultivating a healthy body, we must always include mindset work.
That might include things like
- gratitude practice
- affirmations (I like to set them on my phone to remind me through the day)
- focused breath work
- forgiveness (both of yourself and others)
- self compassion
- self care practices
- adhering to a morning routine
- adhering to an evening routine
Simply said, exercising your mind muscle, and giving yourself the space and time to get better.
While brain fog can be a cofactor for many different conditions, sometimes getting the basics right can make all the difference in the world.
The fantastic news here, is in most cases, brain fog is completely fixable. Become your own health detective, and figure out what works for you.
In my practice, I have found properly implementing these stress reducing tactics make your brain and body function at their best.
Want To Do A Deeper Dive Into Diet To Reduce Brain Fog?
This is one of the easiest intermediaries to clean up the chemical noise in your body.
Learn how to eat for optimal brain health, energy, and clarity of mind.