Brain fog is an often misunderstood, yet very treatable symptom of many chronic illnesses and conditions.
Common causes of brain fog include chronic inflammation, gut imbalances, poor digestion, hypothyroidism, vitamin B12 deficiency, ADHD, and more.
Finding your anti-inflammatory diet and incorporating probiotics are foundational steps in treating brain fog.
Improving your sleep quality, addressing hormone imbalances, and correcting nutrient deficiencies are also essential when needed.
Brain fog is one of the most frustrating symptoms to deal with, in part because it’s not always recognized by healthcare providers. Although it’s a common symptom (and now much more well-known since the pandemic and the emergence of “long COVID”), there’s not much direct research about brain fog, and there are no standard tests, treatments, or criteria to aid diagnosis.
However, for practitioners and patients who are willing to dig a bit deeper, there’s a lot that can be done to relieve symptoms of brain fog. I want to reassure you that having brain fog does not mean that you are experiencing permanent cognitive decline. Brain fog is treatable, and you can restore your cognitive abilities.
Learning how to get rid of brain fog can help you to get back to your life and through your days without such a struggle. Based on the research that is available so far, reducing systemic inflammation, supporting the gut, addressing hormonal imbalances, and correcting nutrient deficienciesseem to be among the most promising strategies when it comes to reducing mental fatigue and fogginess [1, 2,3, 4, 5, 6, 7].
Specific treatments may include adjusting your diet, taking probiotics for gut and digestive support, correcting a vitamin B12 deficiency through supplementation, and many other options.
Here, we will explore the research behind the root causes of brain fog and how to get rid of this elusive symptom.
What is Brain Fog?
Brain fog is a term that is used to describe symptoms including slow or cloudy thinking, difficulty focusing, reduced memory or forgetfulness, and difficulty completing cognitive tasks [8, 9].
Brain fog has been described or reported in relation to several different chronic health conditions, including:
Let’s take a quick look at some of the simple steps that can be taken in order to get rid of brain fog:
Start with the basics
Get regular exercise
Practice stress management
Follow an anti-inflammatory diet
Determine individual trigger foods (ex. gluten)
Consider the role of histamine and mast cells
Support your gut
Identify and treat any underlying imbalances such as SIBO
Pursue other treatments
Correct any nutrient deficiencies
Balance your hormone levels
We’ll explore each of these steps in more detail later, but first, let’s take a look at some of the common root causes of brain fog.
Underlying Causes of Brain Fog
There is no single cause of brain fog, but several key factors, including inflammation, gut and hormonal imbalances, and nutrient deficiencies appear to contribute.
Chronic inflammation throughout the body has been associated with cognitive dysfunction, and it is a common thread across many of the conditions that are linked to brain fog [16, 23, 24].
Brain fog has been observed in various disorders, including fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and among patients undergoing chemotherapy. As noted in one review on brain fog and cognitive impairments among patients with celiac disease:
“All of these disorders have one thing in common with [celiac disease] — they are associated with systemic inflammation” .
Getting your inflammation levels under control is essential when it comes to getting rid of brain fog.
Mast Cells and Histamine Intolerance
Brain fog is a common symptom of mast cell disorders and histamine intolerance, which both involve excess or chronic inflammation [25, 26].
Mast cells are specific kinds of white blood cells that release inflammatory molecules, including histamine, in response to various triggers. This is a normal function of a healthy immune system. But in some cases, mast cells are triggered too often or without appropriate cause, which can lead to excess inflammation and histamine levels throughout the body (including in the brain).
The gut and the brain are connected in a multitude of ways, and brain fog may be caused by imbalances in the gut [27, 28]. For example, intestinal inflammation and leaky gut can lead to inflammation in the brain [29, 30, 31, 32]. Imbalances in the gut microbiome can also directly contribute to brain function [27, 33, 34].
Brain fog is one of the most common symptoms I see among my patients, and it often comes alongside fatigue and digestive symptoms. In the clinic, when we target and treat gut health, mental clarity and brain function also tend to improve.
SIBO and Liver Dysfunction
The gut-liver-brain connection might not seem obvious, but it may have a role to play in brain fog. Think of the connection this way: all toxins in your gut are processed by your liver. If your liver is overburdened for any reason, these toxins may build up in your blood and get into your brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier.
A type of cognitive impairment that sometimes occurs in liver disease, hepatic encephalopathy (HE), has been linked to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). While HE is fairly uncommon and is usually seen in those with chronic, severe liver disease, it does underline the connection between a taxed liver, a disrupted gut, and cognitive dysfunction.
In fact, the presence of SIBO is often what sets cirrhosis (liver disease) patients with mild cognitive impairments apart from cirrhosis patients without brain issues .
Research has also shown that Rifaximin, an antibiotic that is often used to treat SIBO, can prevent and improve HE [36, 37]. In a 2020 study, treatment of SIBO significantly improved mild HE, while treatment of the stomach infection Helicobacter Pylori (H. pylori), did not . This further highlights the significance of a gut-liver-brain connection.
These findings may be relevant for brain fog and cognitive function in the general population, as they suggest that treating bacterial overgrowth in the gut can help to reduce mental fogginess and cognitive dysfunction.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
New research suggests that addressing vitamin B12 deficiency may improve brain fog. Vitamin B12 is closely related to energy levels and brain function, and many people do not consume or make enough of this essential vitamin due to a compromised gut microbiome, low or no meat consumption, and certain medications.
An observational study was conducted to see if vitamin B12 supplementation could improve minimal cognitive impairment (MCI). The selected patients reported symptoms such as memory loss, forgetfulness, poor focus and concentration, generalized tiredness, lethargy, poor balance, and feeling pins, needles, and tingling sensations.
A total of 202 patients with brain fog symptoms and low vitamin B12 levels (either mild, moderate, or severe deficiency) were included in the study and given vitamin B12 for three months. The results showed that 84% of participants reported symptom improvement and 78% had improved cognitive scores after three months of taking vitamin B12 .
Hypothyroidism also appears to be linked with brain fog symptoms. One survey study found that over 90% of participants reported frequent brain fog despite being treated with thyroid hormone medication.
This data corresponds with my clinical observation that gut imbalances are often a trigger for thyroid issues. If you have been diagnosed with thyroid disease and medication is not helping your brain fog, it may be time to take a closer look at your gut health as a root cause.
The above study also found that nearly half of the participants reported having brain fog prior to their diagnosis, suggesting that brain fog can be an early sign of hypothyroidism.
Additionally, the participants reported several factors that improved their brain fog, including adjusting their thyroid hormone dose, changing thyroid medication, getting more rest, exercising, improving their nutrition, and reducing stress .
Making sure to take thyroid medication consistently is especially important for managing brain fog in hypothyroid patients .
Hormonal Changes (Menopause)
Hormonal changes related to menopause may contribute to brain fog. One study found that 62% of middle-aged women reported having brain fog, and many of them attributed their brain fog to hormonal changes, stress, aging, sleep disturbances, and emotional factors .
One literature review noted that hormonal changes related to menopause are often accompanied by brain fog symptoms . The review also noted that 40-56% of women report sleep difficulties during menopause , and brain fog and reduced sleep are likely related.
Overall, these findings suggest that the normal hormonal changes that occur during menopause are associated with brain fog in some women, and other issues such as sleep and mental health disturbances may also occur during this time of life.
Fascinatingly, the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can closely resemble those of brain fog. For example, a 2021 systematic review found that adults with ADHD had deficits in cognitive functions related to attention, processing speed, and verbal memory (43).
Sleep deprivation is also a common issue in ADHD patients. One study found that 43% of people with ADHD had significant insomnia . Another study found that improving sleep hygiene helped reduce ADHD symptoms in children . This suggests that improving sleep hygiene could potentially reduce cognitive symptoms (including brain fog) in people with ADHD .
Dietary changes may also reduce cognitive symptoms of ADHD. One small study found that a 12-month gluten-free diet normalized ADHD symptoms in people with celiac disease . This suggests that some people’s ADHD-like symptoms are actually linked to gluten autoimmunity.
Additionally, one study showed that an elimination diet significantly reduced ADHD symptoms in over 60% of child participants , while another review found that an elimination diet can substantially improve ADHD symptoms in children .
How to Treat Brain Fog
Now that we have a better idea of what’s behind brain fog, it’s time to dive into treatments that address these underlying causes.
Start With the Basics
A few fundamental lifestyle changes can help reduce inflammation and improve brain fog.
One of the most important things you can do to support brain health is to eat an anti-inflammatory diet that focuses on whole foods.
Avoiding sugar, processed foods, and other inflammatory foods can make a huge difference when it comes to cognitive function [1,2]. In the next section, we’ll break down and simplify the different diet options so you can find what’s best for you.
Think about what you eat on a daily basis. Are there any processed foods that you’re consuming every day without thinking, and what could you replace those foods with? For example, if you put vanilla-flavored coffee creamer in your coffee every morning, you could replace it with pure coconut milk and stevia or monkfruit drops for sweetener. Small changes like these add up over time!
A 2020 systematic review of 29 studies concluded that exercise or physical activity may help to treat brain fog associated with cancer and chemotherapy (“chemo fog”) .
Exercise has been shown to reduce inflammation and improve the microbiome, which may help to explain the cognitive benefits [50, 51].
Find a type of movement you can do for 30 minutes a day. If 30 minutes seems like a lot, remember that it doesn’t have to be all at once. You could do a 10-minute yoga video in the morning and a 20-minute walk at lunch. Or a 10-minute walk, 10 minutes of weightlifting, and 10 minutes of active stretching. Find what works for you and makes you feel good.
Getting enough sleep might be one of the most important things you can do for your gut and your brain.
Lack of sleep can lead to leaky gut and inflammation .
A study on cognitive impairment in Crohn’s disease also found a strong association between poor sleep quality and cognitive dysfunction .
If you’re not getting to bed early enough (and I’ve been guilty of this myself), set an alarm on your phone to get ready for bed just 10 minutes earlier than you normally would. Follow this schedule for a few days and then push it another 10 minutes earlier. Repeat until you are going to bed at the ideal time for you (typically somewhere between 9–11pm for most people).
Improving your sleep will depend on a number of factors, including hormonal causes, but there are many factors in your control such as having a nighttime wind-down routine before bed, going to bed at a consistent time every night, and getting sun exposure early in the day to normalize your circadian clock.
Chronic stress is a common cause of inflammation and leaky gut, which can have a negative impact on cognitive function [53, 54].
Practicing mindfulness meditation and reducing stress levels in other ways may help to calm inflammation and reduce brain fog.
If you’re feeling stressed right now, a quick reset might help. There are hundreds of short, guided meditation videos on YouTube for stress and anxiety relief. Emotional freedom technique, also called EFT tapping, can calm the nervous system and help lower stress fast (guided videos are also available on YouTube).
Otherwise, taking a quick break to practice a hobby such as playing an instrument or making art can provide stress relief. Give yourself permission to leave when you need a break and come back to whatever you were doing when you feel calmer.
What’s the Best Diet for Brain Fog?
The most important thing to remember when choosing your ideal diet for brain fog is that you want to reduce inflammation.
A healthy, anti-inflammatory diet eliminates processed and refined foods, added sugar, and other inflammatory foods. The emphasis is on a balance of nutrients and a variety of fresh, whole foods.
A 2019 review suggested that an anti-inflammatory diet may prevent or reduce leaky gut and brain inflammation, thereby reducing cognitive symptoms like brain fog .
Another review suggested that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in added sugar may help reduce inflammation and brain fog in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy .
There are a few different templates for an anti-inflammatory diet. However, I often recommend the Paleo diet. The Paleo diet eliminates processed foods, grains, dairy products, and additives, and it focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs, grass-fed meats, and healthy fats.
I would recommend trying a Paleo diet for brain fog if:
Your current diet is higher in inflammatory or processed foods, and;
You don’t have any other known conditions or intolerances that may benefit from a more specialized diet.
Gluten and Other Food Sensitivities
Some specific foods might trigger an immune system response and inflammation. Gluten is one example of a food sensitivity or intolerance that has been linked to brain fog:
Brain fog has been reported as a common symptom among patients with both celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity [16, 17].
One small study on patients with celiac disease (an autoimmune condition) found that brain fog was resolved after following a gluten-free diet for 12 months .
Does this mean that everyone who has brain fog should avoid gluten? No. Gluten is highly inflammatory to those who are sensitive to it, but not everyone needs to go gluten-free. A 2-3 week gluten-free trial is a great way to determine if you are gluten-sensitive. If your brain fog (or any other health symptom) improves on a gluten-free trial, continue with the gluten-free diet. If not, there is no need to go gluten-free.
Low FODMAP Diet
The low FODMAP diet may help some people with brain fog, especially those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or SIBO . Studies have found that a low FODMAP diet can reduce inflammation and digestive symptoms [55, 56].
One study showed that a low FODMAP diet led to improvements in brain fog for patients with IBS . These improvements were related to changes in the gut microbiome and a significant reduction in the inflammatory molecule histamine.
A low FODMAP diet eliminates certain kinds of carbohydrates that are fermented by (and feed) gut bacteria. High FODMAP foods include various types of legumes, grains, and certain fruits and vegetables.
I would recommend trying a low FODMAP diet if:
Symptoms do not improve on an anti-inflammatory or Paleo diet, and;
You have suspected or diagnosed SIBO or IBS.
Low Histamine Diet
A low histamine diet may help some people to reduce brain fog. This diet reduces the intake of dietary histamine, which is important if your body is producing excess histamine, such as in mast cell disorders. (25, 26)
A low histamine diet eliminates aged and fermented foods, alcohol, and certain kinds of fruits and vegetables.
I would recommend trying a low histamine diet if:
Symptoms do not improve on an anti-inflammatory or Paleo diet, and;
You have suspected or diagnosed histamine intolerance or a mast cell disorder.
Probiotics for Brain Fog
Recent studies have shown that probiotics can help to improve cognitive function [5,6,7,27, 57].
A 2020 meta-analysis of 7 human and 11 animal studies concluded that probiotics enhanced cognition. The effects of probiotics on cognitively impaired individuals were greater than those on healthy ones .
A 2020 clinical trial on healthy older adults showed that probiotics changed the makeup of the gut microbiome and improved cognitive function and mood .
Two clinical trials have demonstrated that supplementing with probiotics for 12 weeks can improve cognition in patients with Alzheimer’s [6,7].
A study found that probiotics can help to improve cognitive function in fibromyalgia .
Probiotics work by restoring balance to the gut ecology. This stops the cycle that leads to leaky gut and systemic inflammation. Research confirms that probiotics reduce inflammation [32, 58]
There are a few other treatments that have been shown to provide some benefits for patients with brain fog:
One review found that luteolin, a flavonoid (a type of chemical found in plants) with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, can improve brain fog in patients with the mast cell disorder mastocytosis .
Another review found that fasting can help to improve cognition and brain health for those with neurological diseases and slow down age-related cognitive decline .
In the case of a B12 deficiency, correcting the deficiency through oral supplementation or B12 injections can improve brain fog .
For patients with non-gut-related hypothyroidism, taking thyroid medication consistently and supporting the thyroid with nutrients like selenium can improve cognitive function. [60, 61]
Other anti-inflammatory supplements, such as curcumin, fish oil, and resveratrol may also help to reduce brain fog, but research is lacking. However, these supplements are generally considered to be safe and can be effective in getting rid of brain fog if diet and lifestyle changes don’t seem to work.
However, they are contraindicated in select health conditions, so check with your doctor first before starting a new supplement.
How to Get Rid of Brain Fog — For Good
Brain fog is a signal that your body and brain are inflamed and may be an indication of imbalances in the gut. By following a few key strategies, you can reduce inflammation, heal your gut, and clear up brain fog.
Eating to reduce inflammation is essential to getting rid of brain fog. Supporting a healthy gut with high-quality probiotics is another important step. It’s also important to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, practice stress management techniques, and get regular exercise.
More specific conditions like vitamin B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism, menopause, and ADHD are also among the common causes of brain fog. If you have been diagnosed with one of these conditions and are experiencing ongoing fogginess, consult with your practitioner.
For a more detailed and personalized plan to heal your gut and reduce inflammation, check out my book,Healthy Gut, Healthy You.
The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high quality formulations, including Brain Boost, to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.
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