What Is Brain Fog, and How Do I Get Rid of It?

While you're at work, have you ever caught yourself just staring at your computer screen? You feel completely zoned out – but not on purpose. 

You can’t focus. 

You check your phone, and 30 minutes have passed. Yet, no ideas have come, and your train of thought has failed to arrive. What gives? Well, it could be brain fog. 

What is brain fog?

According to Healthline, brain fog itself is not a medical condition. It’s more of a symptom or a type of cognitive dysfunction. Anyone can experience it,  and “it involves memory problems, a lack of mental clarity, poor concentration, and an inability to focus. It also can feel like mental fatigue. Brain fog can happen for a variety of reasons, the most common being, stress, burnout, and lack of sleep. Over time though, there are simple habits that can improve brain fog.”

Take a Break and Make New Memories

In 17 studies encompassing 730 patients with clinical burnout and 649 healthy controls, clinical burnout was associated with impaired performance in episodic memory (International Journal, of Work, Health, and Organizations).

Episodic memory allows us to remember specific events. Because each person has a different perspective and experience of an event, episodic memories of that event are unique to each person. Here are a few examples of episodic memories.

  • Remembering the day you got promoted, and recalling how accomplished and happy you felt.

  • Remembering a dinner date with friends, how the food tasted, and the things you laughed about.

  • Remembering a day when you helped someone or where someone helped you and what the emotional experience of that was like.

For example, have you ever thought back to a hectic period of your life and thought to yourself, “Oh, my gosh. That’s all such a blur.” Well, the dynamic of stress and episodic memory have come into play. And when it comes to brain fog, this dynamic is important because we need our memories to combat burnout. For example, even if we feel settled about our life choices, burnout can impact our ability to feel satisfied or happy when we look back on our lives. Burnout impairs our ability to relive happy experiences and relish in them. That’s why it’s important to use your PTO, take a break, and place boundaries. Because even with the intention of making good memories, you need habitual self-care to make them last. 

So, when we feel burnt out, it’s important to make time for ourselves, seek professional help if needed, eat well, and rest. Doing so will not only enable us to remember finer details about our new experiences, but it will allow us to value and cherish them in the future. 

During periods of burnout, “studies have shown that recalling happy experiences can help to disrupt negative thought patterns, alleviate anxiety, and even lower cortisol levels.”

Feeling connected to our memories is important for long-term happiness and fulfillment, and it helps us feel equipped to take on new challenges.  The International Journal of Work, health, and Organization states that episodic memory helps us savor and maintain positive feelings. It also gives us an increased ability for emotion regulation  More simply, episodic memory not only increases our wellness, but it gives it more longevity.

Ultimately, the power of memories can prevent us from burning out as easily, and when there’s less burnout, there’s less brain fog. So, take a break, make taking care of yourself a habit, and then, make new memories.

Eat when you’re hungry

Let’s talk about another powerful way to avoid brain fog – don’t skip lunch.

In a survey of over 5,000 workers from workplaces across the U.S., there is data that describes how common skipping lunch is. The study found that workers are 40% more likely to never take a lunch break than they were a year prior (Forbes, 2023). 

Nearly half of survey respondents (48%) said they skip lunch at least once a week. While 29% of workers block off time on their calendars for lunch, 62% say they can't actually use it for a meal (Forbes, 2023). 

23% of workers reported that the reason is wanting to finish their work ASAP, 22% fear they won’t have enough time to get it done, and 20% reported they have too many meetings to take a break (Forbes, 2023).

Therefore, current data shows that we are now more hungry, more willing to ignore hunger, and hungrier for longer periods of time when we’re at work. What are the health implications of this?

When we’re hungry, the body produces something called ghrelin.  Ghrelin is a hormone produced in your stomach. Your stomach releases ghrelin when it’s empty to signal your brain that it’s time to eat. Ghrelin is often called the hunger hormone, but it does more than control hunger. Studies show that the disruption of ghrelin can also influence our “episodic memory.” Actually, by ignoring hunger cues, several hormones are disrupted including insulin, leptin, cortisol, and ghrelin

Furthermore, skipping meals can cause us to overeat foods that don’t contribute to our bodies. On the other hand, eating a diet that does not empower our bodies can lead to brain fog. It can also lead to poorer sleep.

Get Better sleep

Every night,  1 in 3 Americans do not sleep enough (NIH), which is alarming.  According to researchers, sleep deprivation disrupts our brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other, leading to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception. Moreover, sleep deprivation (SD) amplifies amygdala reactivity (red) in response to negative emotional stimuli. Basically, this means that sleeping less can impair decision-making by making things seem worse than they truly are. 

Scientists measuring sleepiness have found that sleep deprivation leads to lower alertness, difficulty in focusing, and difficulty in performing tasks that require logic and complex thought. Sleep deprivation also impairs judgment, decision-making, and memory.  Research suggests that the nerve connections that make our memories become strengthened during sleep. 

So, if you often catch yourself asking, “What was I just saying,” or “That was today?” you might be going through brain fog because of sleep deprivation among other reasons. Brain fog looks like taking much longer to a complete task, difficulty sorting out thoughts, and difficulty organizing your day.

Yes, brain fog can be caused by other things like menstrual periods, colds, or certain disorders. But, nutritional deficiencies, sleep deprivation, and burnout are three things that can be more conveniently addressed. We can try to create new habits that address these issues. While society rewards pushing our bodies and minds to the limit, what’s most important is honoring your body and being able to reflect on life with fulfillment. It is also essential to make yourself feel valuable through self-care on a day-to-day basis.