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This article has been written by experts and fact-checked by experts, including licensed nutritionists, dietitians or medical professionals. The information in the article is based on scientific studies and research.
It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
The scientific references in this article (marked by 1, 2, 3, etc.) are clickable links to peer-reviewed research material on the subject being discussed.
We’ve all experienced brain fog at one time or another.
For some people, though, it’s a constant problem. No matter how much they try to fight through the fog, mental clarity seems almost impossible to achieve.
There are many reasons why people lose focus or experience memory problems. The most obvious is the natural changes in brain function and structure that occur as we age.
But many other factors can impact thought processes and memory, and most can be treated effectively.
Let’s explore methods that can help restore mental clarity.
These two terms are commonly used, but it helps to define them more rigorously.
Brain fog is a symptom, not an actual health or wellness condition.
It’s characterized by issues like the inability to concentrate, memory difficulties, grogginess, and disorganized thinking.
There are several common types of “brain fog” that many of us have experienced.
The first three problems are usually temporary. The first issue (a hangover) resolves naturally, and the next two can be overcome. The last problem can only be eased, not solved.
Long-term problems with memory problems or cognitive performance, mental confusion, or focus, though, may indicate that diagnosis and corrective action are required to restore mental clarity.
When you have a clear and focused state of mind, you’re said to be experiencing mental clarity. It’s the opposite of brain fog.
Mental clarity allows you to avoid distractions, easily recall important facts and memories, and make decisions after considering all salient information.
In today’s world, people may have difficulty maintaining mental clarity even in optimal circumstances.
One big reason: the rapid growth of everyday distractions like social media can make it even more difficult to concentrate and focus on productive work.
Don’t believe it?
A few years ago, Microsoft released a study claiming that the average human attention span had dropped to just eight seconds. That’s a 25% decline from the year 2000 when people still read newspapers and watched TV instead of getting spending hours on Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.
When a lack of mental clarity becomes a continuing problem, it’s time to figure out what’s causing it. There are a number of possibilities.
An inability to maintain mental clarity can be caused by many mental health or medical conditions. Several of those issues may be intertwined.
This is a common cause of brain fog.
Sleep deprivation is often linked to a decreased quality of life, and one of the most common symptoms is a decline in focus and cognitive performance.
Many people never realize that they’re not getting enough sleep and may feel fine physically. They might be sticking to the “guideline” of 7-8 hours of sleep per night that they’ve heard repeatedly from parents, teachers and healthcare professionals.
Here’s the truth. Getting less than seven hours per night can indeed impact physical health, but the amount of sleep that people need varies considerably. The optimal amount depends on factors like age, physical fitness, and health and medical conditions. Many people can get away with fewer than eight hours; others may need nine or ten.
Most importantly, studies have found that sleep deprivation leads to lower levels of concentration, alertness and memory function.
Chronic stress can wreak havoc on the body and brain.
Comprehensive reviews of the scientific literature have found that high levels of stress can hurt immune system function and cause poorer cardiovascular health, gastrointestinal issues, problems with hormone production, and depression.
Stress can also have negative effects on the nervous system and brain health, causing problems that range from memory and cognitive difficulties, to structural changes in the brain’s anatomy.
And when people constantly worry about the issues causing their stress, that’s an enormous distraction that can lead to mental exhaustion.
We’ve briefly mentioned hormones, but they factor into this discussion for another reason: naturally occurring changes in hormone levels may also lead to brain fogginess.
The drop in estrogen levels that accompanies menopause has been shown to have little-known side effects like memory problems, a decreased ability to concentrate, and lower cognitive function. Similar problems can be caused by changes in estrogen and progesterone levels during pregnancy.
Several dietary factors can contribute to brain fog.
Many health conditions may cause issues with mental clarity. They include autoimmune disorders like chronic fatigue syndrome and diabetes, fibromyalgia, diabetes, anemia, migraines, hypothyroidism, obesity, and even simple dehydration. Depression may also be to blame for some cases of brain fog.
A lack of focus and optimal brain function can be caused by some medications, and a common side effect of chemotherapy is a brain fog that’s often called “chemo fog.”
Many approaches may help relieve problems with focus, cognition, and brain fog. Seeing a doctor is often the first step.
Anyone with existing medical or mental health issues should first consult with the doctor or health professional treating those conditions, to ask if their brain fog could be caused by their medical condition.
That’s not just a perfunctory suggestion. Many inflammatory and immune conditions, for example, can cause inflammation in the brain or spinal cord that affects concentration, memory or cognitive function. Treatment with steroids may be able to relieve the brain fog fairly rapidly.
A number of the other physical (or mental/emotional) conditions which could be causing poor brain performance can also be treated. Iron supplements can treat anemia-related declines in mental clarity, and therapy or psych medications are often able to help patients with brain fog caused by depression or anxiety.
A medical consultation should also be the first step for those who regularly take medications and are suffering from poor mental clarity. Their doses or prescriptions may need to be changed.
New or worsening physical or mental issues should be discussed with a medical professional as well. They might have implications for cognitive function that would never occur to most people. Doctors can also check for issues like hormone imbalances or gluten sensitivity which can affect mental clarity.
Changes in daily routines may be all that’s needed to clear troublesome brain fog. Some people can restore mental clarity by removing potential distractions and focusing on their well-being.
For others, it’s more complicated. We’ve mentioned health and wellness issues that can impact mental clarity, and the solutions for many of them are fairly obvious.
Ensuring that you regularly get eight-to-nine hours of sleep per night is a good place to start.
You may even be one of the people who need more than nine hours. A little experimentation should make that clear – since if you get more sleep and then wake up in a better mental state of mind, you’ll have your answer.
Getting enough sleep should also boost your energy levels and overall well-being. Just don’t overdo it; too much sleep can also cause low energy and brain fog. Find your sweet sleep spot and see if it helps.
We know, this is easier said than done.
However, stress is perhaps the number one problem that affects mental clarity. Anything you can do to figure out and relieve the root causes of your stress will help both your mind and body.
The more stress you can eliminate from your life, the better your mental clarity will likely be.
We’ve mentioned that brain fog can be caused by a vitamin B-12 deficiency or food allergies. Those issues can easily be dealt with by taking vitamin B supplements and/or making dietary changes.
But simply living a healthier lifestyle and following a healthy diet can maximize energy levels, physical fitness – and mental clarity. In fact, diets designed to improve brain function focus on eating healthy, whole foods like lean protein, healthy fats (like foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids), and colorful vegetables (which are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories).
Add to that the obvious health benefits of eating a healthier diet (and of course, avoiding tobacco and limiting alcohol consumption), and you have a sensible initial approach to a lack of mental clarity.
Popular diets may also provide brain-boosting power. A good example is the keto diet.
Ketogenic eating deprives the body of the carbohydrates normally used to produce glucose, the fuel that the body and brain depend on. That forces the body to produce molecules called ketones to be used as a substitute energy source. The body burns stored body fat to make ketones, which is why keto leads to weight loss.
And not only can the brain function just fine on ketones, but they’re actually a better fuel source than glucose. Studies show that some cases of cognitive impairment may be caused by the brain’s reduced ability to use glucose.
In short, the ketones generated on low-carb diets can help the brain function better and potentially reverse a loss of mental clarity.
Some common dietary supplements have been shown to provide benefits for those who are dealing with brain fog or cognitive difficulties.
The roots of this plant have been used in Eastern medicine for centuries. It’s said to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, support the immune system, control glucose levels and boost energy.
Ginseng also appears to be able to improve memory performance and reduce the stress that can impair mental clarity.
Another common Eastern medicine supplement, ginkgo biloba, supposedly helps with respiratory problems and problems with the circulatory system.
Ginkgo biloba extract is also used by some people who claim it eases their age-related cognitive impairment. And studies show the reason why it may help: ginkgo biloba appears to improve working memory performance and cognitive processing.
Ayurvedic medicine practitioners use this herb as a treatment for chronic pain, depression, ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.
Several studies have researched the benefits of bacopa and found that it also has some brain-boosting benefits. It acts as an antioxidant to provide neuroprotection, increases blood flow in the brain, and modulates brain activity. The studies found that bacopa shows promise for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and epilepsy as well.
In modern Western culture, patients often seek out prescriptions or supplement pills instead of making lifestyle adjustments or trying natural remedies.
The two options many people choose for issues with mental clarity are nootropic medications and over-the-counter supplements.
Nootropics, or “smart drugs,” were all the rage a few years ago. They’re still around, but the buzz around them has died down a little.
A nootropic is a substance that theoretically improves cognitive function. We discussed several of them in the last section, and others that purportedly boost focus or mental performance include fish oils, L-theanine, rhodiola rosea, and lion’s mane mushrooms.
The nootropics that received all the publicity, however, were prescription medications commonly used to treat ADHD, narcolepsy, or Alzheimer’s disease. These medications like modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall are only prescribed off-label for problems like brain fog.
Do they work? Some small studies imply that they might, and many users swear by them. Unfortunately, these medications come with a wealth of potentially hazardous side effects like high blood pressure, vision problems, racing heartbeat, and insomnia – and since they’re stimulants, there’s a high risk of addiction.
For those reasons, the prescription meds that some people take as nootropics should only be used for their designed purposes.
It’s difficult to watch TV for more than a couple of hours without seeing commercials for products claiming to improve memory and support brain function.
Unfortunately, there’s no rigorous medical research showing that those “brain health” supplements work any better than the natural nootropics we’ve mentioned. In fact, many of the commercially-available supplements contain some of those natural substances along with coffee fruit extract, which is believed to provide neuroprotective benefits.
Some also contain a substance called apoaequorin, a protein found in some jellyfish. Manufacturers base their claims of effectiveness on a small study that they conducted themselves. They say that some participants showed very slight improvements on cognitive tests that the manufacturers administered.
However, evidence suggests that apoaequorin is broken down in the stomach before it ever has the opportunity to reach the brain and provide any benefits.
Bottom line: no shortcut helps you achieve mental clarity. The suggestions we’ve laid out are a better road map for those who need to eliminate brain fog and become more focused and productive.
Published: April 25, 2022
Last Updated: August 19, 2022
12 Min read
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