Most of us are familiar with the dreaded afternoon slump. You know, that time of the workday, usually taking place between 2 and 3PM, when our eyes cloud with exhaustion and we hunch over our desks and to-do lists, asking ourselves repeatedly, “Why?” Okay, so we’re being a little dramatic. It’s true, however, that a constant sense of exhaustion is all too pervasive in today’s world.
That said, you might not be as familiar with how the oft-cited cause for that exhaustion, also known as “brain fog,” differs from the afternoon slump. To begin with, one is a normal biological experience, something that occurs about seven to nine hours after waking up; the other, not so much.
In order to tackle brain fog, we first need to understand it, as well as what typically causes the cognitive impairment. That’s why we talked to Dr. William Cole, a leading functional medicine expert and doctor of chiropractic, for his insight on brain fog and what its potential causes might be—because it may be fairly prevalent today, but that doesn’t make it normal.
First, what exactly is brain fog, and how does it differ from the afternoon slump?
As a society, we tend to throw around the term “brain fog” in a fairly casual manner. Despite what you may have heard about the term, it is not a medical condition in and of itself. Brain fog can be caused by a number of lifestyle factors; it can also manifest as a symptom of a medical condition or illness, or even as a side effect of certain medications.
And yes, it differs from the slump in clarity and energy that we tend to fight off with an extra cup of coffee around 3PM. “Brain fog is something that is more or less a constant presence in your everyday life, whereas the afternoon slump is centered around that particular part of the day,” Dr. Cole shares.
“Even though some people may experience feelings of fogginess along with that afternoon slump, brain fog is a specific problem that someone can have without ever experiencing an afternoon slump, and vice versa,” he continues. Possible symptoms include decrease in memory and mental clarity, lowering of focus and concentration levels, and a sense of confusion and fatigue, among others. According to Medical News Today, potential causes for brain fog may include multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, lupus, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and more.
It’s important to note that not all the causes for brain fog are serious medical conditions. Again, a host of lifestyle factors affects how seriously brain fog might affect you, including age, hormonal changes (like menopause for women), poor diet or sleep, physical inactivity, and others.
Let’s take a look at how Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and inflammation, two major potential causes of brain fog, can affect brain function.
How does Chronic Fatigue Syndrome factor in?
Studies show that brain fog can also be caused by biological illnesses like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, so please be sure to see a professional if your symptoms continue for a prolonged period of time or if they should worsen.
Are you curious how CFS affects brain function? Us, too. “To really understand CFS and brain fog, we need to look at the origin of CFS—the brain,” says Dr. Cole. “Your brain instructs your adrenal glands through a web of communication called the HPA axis. This system is responsible for releasing various important hormones, including cortisol, your body’s stress hormone. Ultimately, CFS occurs when there is a dysfunction of your brain’s communication with your adrenals.”
He continues, “This dysfunction creates an imbalance in cortisol, causing it to be high when it should be low, and low when it should be high.” This then affects the body’s waking and sleep patterns, which explains the pervasive lack of both mental and physical energy that accompanies it.
What about inflammation?
This 2015 study posits that “inflammatory molecules secreted in the brain could contribute to [certain neuropsychiatric diseases] possibly including brain ‘fog.’” But we still don’t know what really triggers inflammation in the brain, although some say that chronic inflammation can be caused by unhealthy lifestyle habits.
“Research is just starting to scratch the surface on our understanding of inflammation and how it affects the various areas of our body, including the brain,” Dr. Cole says. “Since CFS and brain fog are such common symptoms, people have just equated it to a side effect of their busy lives or just a part of getting older. But the more we learn about the body, the more we understand that just because something is common doesn’t make it normal.”
Brain inflammation is rare, but if you’re concerned with lowering your body’s inflammation levels in general, discuss testing options with your doctor.
There’s no simple fix, but you can also try following the Mediterranean diet, which is high in anti-inflammatory foods like fruits and veggies, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils. If you’re not sure where to begin, check out our Mediterranean meal plan to start you off on the right foot.
Change your diet
Brain fog is also linked to poor diet, and in some cases, deficiencies such as low iron levels. A 2013 study published in the journal Nutrients showed that higher levels of body iron (achieved through upping protein intake at lunch), had significant effects in benefiting memory, attention, and cognitive performance.
You already know that nixing highly processed foods from your diet is a huge step forward for your overall health and wellbeing. Stepping away from your desk and enjoying a protein-packed lunch can improve your brain power throughout the rest of your workday, too.
Boost brain function with better sleep
Of course, we’re not suggesting that napping is a cure for a serious illness like CFS. Naps do, however, help to improve mood and alertness—just be sure to cap it off at 20 to 30 minutes. Any longer than that, and you’ll likely feel groggy.
Don’t have time for a nap? Set yourself up for success by improving your sleep hygiene. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep hygiene is “a variety of different practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness.” Try revamping your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary to improve your chances at nabbing more restful ZZZ’s. You can absolutely boost your brain function by getting more (and better!) sleep.
What may potentially trigger your symptoms is unique to you
“Every person’s biochemistry is unique and therefore what our symptoms are, and what specifically triggers our symptoms, is going to be individual to each person,” Dr. Cole shares. “To what degree [you might experience these triggers] is going to be unique to you. Your individual tolerance to each of these stressors may be different than someone else, but you can always work on minimizing these triggers in your life.”
As you can see, there are multiple reasons why you may be fighting the good fight against a foggy brain—and plenty of ways to go about doing so.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.