By Dr. Tatiana Habanova, DC, DACNB
For many, especially those with a brain injury, brain fog is like that uninvited guest who makes themselves way too comfortable at the dinner table. And once settled in, getting rid of them can be very difficult. Brain fog begins to take over the way you feel, how you think, and slowly separates you from the very fabric you called your life. By altering your cognitive functions like focus, attention, concentration, information processing speed, and initiation, you are eventually at the mercy of its subtle, but consistent influence and begin unconsciously adjusting your life to accommodate this unwanted guest, all the while not realizing your very essence is slowly slipping away.
Brain fog shows up differently in everyone. Just like snowflakes, no two are alike. For some, brain fog is transitory and mild. It comes and goes. For example, if one had one too many drinks the night before and woke up “hung over,” that’s the effect of brain fog. With adequate rest, hydration and time, the feeling of a fuzzy brain goes away. The same holds true for gluten, dairy, and other potential food items one has become “sensitive” to. Once the system is exposed to a trigger (i.e.: toxin or food item), a metabolic cascade occurs, leaving one feeling as if their head is in the clouds.
For others, brain fog is more a constant experience of haze ranging from mild to severe. It just always seems to be there. In addition to the cognitive symptoms, one can also have memory issues, light and sound sensitivity, blurry vision and eye strain, and vestibular symptoms, just to name a few. Essentially, this type of brain fog is due to the neurons (brain cells) being less stable/fit to function at the capacity they are being asked to do. For example, if one is reading, the brain must control both eyes to move in exactly the same speed, the same distance along the page, and in a coordinated fashion so accurate eye movements occur, and one does not experience blurry vision. If the nerves that control the eye muscles are unable to perform at peak state, then errors with smooth coordinated eye movements cause one to become tired (brain-based fatigue), as well as experience difficulty with reading, short term memory, and spatial awareness.
Now, let’s get to the root cause of neurologically-based brain fog.
In order for neurons to work efficiently, they need three essential nutrients. Often, this is referred to as the three Neuro Necessities. First, each neuron requires a constant supply of oxygen. The brain utilizes up to 20% of the oxygen carried in the blood and 50% when thinking hard, being creative, or under stress. Shallow breathing with minimal rib cage expansion is an indicator the quality of breath is less than ideal. To demonstrate the power of breath, take a few deep, slow, prolonged breaths in and out, and then notice if you suddenly become more alert and aware.
Second, a constant source of fuel, preferably in the form of fats and carbohydrates, is required as the brain never stops working (even when you are sleeping). Many people, unknowingly, create the effects of brain fog by not eating a balanced healthy diet, skipping meals, or ignoring underlying sugar handling issues (i.e.: insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, etc.), which hinders the availability of glucose to brain cells.
Lastly, each neuron requires appropriate stimulation (not too much and not too little — I call this the “Golidlocks Rule”). This is essential for neurological pathways to be maintained and kept viable, just like a well-walked path doesn’t allow the weeds to grow on it. When the demand placed on the neuron is greater than it can cope with, the neuron begins to undergo a slow neurodegenerative process, which leads to a slow spiraling decline in cognitive functions.
An important note: Multiple brain fog-producing mechanisms can be occurring simultaneously to create a chronic state that waxes and wanes. For example, someone can have a food intolerance (i.e.: gluten, dairy, soy) which produces an inflammatory event, which affects brain cell function, plus they may not have enough or too much neurological stimulation to a pathway causing it to undergo transneuronal degeneration (TND).
By understanding the various mechanisms that produce brain fog, assembling a plan of action to turn brain fog into boosted brain function is easier. Focusing on the three Neuro Necessities is the foundational step for this process. Working with a trained professional who can properly assess brain function, and then create a care plan that can be properly executed is extremely valuable in overcoming brain fog.
Dr. Habanova is the host of Brain Health Savvy, a weekly podcast that inspires listeners through real conversations on all things pertaining to women’s brain health. She transforms women in simple, yet real ways. Her sass, wit, and straight-from-the-hip style on women’s brain health and empowerment encourages women to seek their true potential, to be fierce and unapologetic while leading from authenticity, and to embracechange as they buck societal norms in favor of better brain health.