by Dr. Amy Moore
Brain fog is a fuzzy term. It’s not an actual medical diagnosis, but the phenomenon is real nonetheless. It’s that feeling of reduced mental clarity, the inability to focus, poor memory, or lack of attention. Brain fog is that sensation of feeling spaced out and scatterbrained. When we talk about brain fog, most people think about adults who are experiencing a lack of mental clarity after a brain injury, following chemotherapy, during menopause, or as a side effect to a prescription medication. We rarely associate brain fog with children. But kids can experience brain fog, too, and at the expense of their ability to think and learn effectively. And sometimes the cause is something we might not have considered! If your child seems scatterbrained, here are seven potential reasons your child may be spacing out in the classroom or at home:
- Lack of Sleep. We talk so much about the importance of sleep for both children and adults. Remember that children’s brains are still developing, and sleep is critical for that process. A lack of sleep can lead to problems focusing on instruction and learning tasks. That mind wandering and daydreaming might be solved by a better sleep routine at night. Aim for at least eight hours to maximize the benefit of sleep on the reduction of brain fog.
- Seasonal Allergies. The dreaded pollen season that brings sneezing and watery eyes may also be a reason your child’s brain is clouded with fog. Why? Allergies are an immune response that triggers the production of histamines and cytokines, chemicals that cause inflammation, not only in the eyes, sinuses, and lungs, but throughout the body. If the body has inflammation, so does the brain! Treating seasonal allergies comes with its own challenges, though. Many allergy medications that reduce the immune response can also cause drowsiness, which worsens the brain fog. So, finding a non-drowsy treatment is the key to reducing the brain fog associated with seasonal allergies.
- Food Allergies. The environment isn’t the only cause of an allergic response. Food allergies are a big culprit as well. Food allergies and sensitivities can trigger the same histamine response experienced with seasonal pollen allergies. Finding and avoiding those foods is the key to minimizing the reaction and the ensuing brain fog. An elimination diet is one way to examine those responses, but allergy testing can also identify foods your child may be sensitive or allergic to as well. Then, avoiding or minimizing exposure to those foods (good luck, Moms) gives you the best chance of reducing the brain fog associated with food sensitivities. Undiagnosed celiac disease (CD), an autoimmune condition fueled by the ingestion of gluten, is a primary cause of food-related brain fog. With a CD diagnosis, eliminating gluten from the diet is the only cure.
- If your child has suffered a sport-related concussion (or more than one) or hit to the head, brain fog is one symptom that frequently emerges following a mild traumatic brain injury. Although concussion-related brain fog is common and can last two to four weeks, you should always consult a doctor any time a child has mental confusion following a head injury just to be safe. In general, the fog will lift once the brain has a chance to recover from the injury.
- We don’t always associate physical symptoms with stress in children, but the connection is real. In fact, anxiety is a primary cause of brain fog. So, children who are suffering stress and anxiety will frequently struggle with memory, focus, and learning. Some of the problem is caused by diverting so much cognitive capacity to battling the anxious thoughts that there’s little left for concentrating on learning. But the chemical response to stress in the body also impacts the ability to focus. When your child is experiencing chronic stress, the body produces an excess of the stress hormone cortisol, which causes inflammation and reduces the connections with the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for managing the learning process. Finding and treating the cause of the stress and anxiety is the most effective approach to reducing the brain fog associated with it.
- Hormonal Changes. It’s commonly recognized that menopause creates cognitive problems as women age, and that’s the result of the hormonal changes they are experiencing. When kids enter puberty, the hormonal upheaval and surges they experience can similarly cause problems with thinking and learning due to brain fog. The good news? It’s temporary and can be minimized by focusing on optimizing sleep, physical activity, and nutrition.
- We know that medications with a “may cause drowsiness” warning label are typical culprits of brain fog. If your child is struggling with memory and focus, it’s a good idea to check the labels on those bottles. Antihistamines and anti-depressants are the top contributors to brain fog, and commonly prescribed to children. Sometimes mental fuzziness is a temporary side effect but talk to your child’s doctor about alternative medications if the problem persists. It’s tough to balance the reduction of your child’s symptoms with maximizing your child’s ability to perform at school!
Brain fog in children is real. And many potential reasons your child may be experiencing reduced mental clarity exist. Whether the cause is allergies, brain injury, or medication side effects, the struggle is frustrating for kids, parents, and even teachers. Finding the cause is the first step in helping your child overcome the frustration associated with the experience of brain fog. Regardless of the cause, a focus on sleep, nutrition, physical activity, and mentally-stimulating activities will create a foundation for thinking and learning that will help overcome the challenges your child may face from these or other speed bumps along the way to adulthood.
Dr. Amy Moore is a cognitive psychologist in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the headquarters of LearningRx, the largest network of brain training centers in the world. She specializes in cognition and learning in neurodevelopmental disorders, brain injury, learning disabilities, and age-related cognitive decline. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Modern Brain Journal, a board-certified Christian counselor, and co-host of the podcast Brainy Moms. Learn more about her work at www.LearningRx.com