by Dr. Will Cole
Of all the health problems I talk to patients about, there is one that is dramatically overlooked and not taken seriously: brain fog. I hear on an almost hourly basis how people are left to fend for themselves with debilitating brain fog and its partner in crime – chronic fatigue. Patients describe it to me as living in a haze, their lives passing them by. Instead of being engaged in the present moment, they feel like they’re watching life from a distance. Their thinking is no longer sharp, and their brilliant minds are sidelined.
So why do problems like this fall through the cracks of mainstream medicine? Partly, I believe, because there is no obvious medication available. But in functional medicine, my goal is to get to the core reason why people struggle with health problems, so let’s dig deeper and not settle for a life of mental fogginess.
Brain fog and inflammation
Inflammation is not inherently bad, in fact, it’s a necessary part of your immune system. We need inflammation to fight off infection and to heal – we would all be goners without a healthy inflammatory response. But as with everything else in the body, it’s all about balance! Too much inflammation in the body can cause your protective blood-brain barrier (BBB) to be more permeable, leading to brain inflammation. This neuro-inflammation is sometimes called “leaky brain syndrome,” and this inflammatory oxidative stress (OS) in the hypothalamus of the brain is the underlying cause of brain fog.
The hidden causes of brain fog:
But “brain fog” is a very general term, isn’t it? The name tells you what it is (impaired brain function), but it doesn’t tell you what’s causing the inflammation in the first place. So let’s dig even deeper into the top underlying reasons for inflammatory brain fog.
1. Thyroid problems
Every cell of your body needs your thyroid to be healthy and work at full capacity. And thyroid hormone imbalances have been shown to cause inflammatory-immune responses. Your thyroid works by receiving the proper messages from the brain through the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid (HPT) axis, so if your hypothalamus is inflamed, it causes dysfunction in the brain-thyroid axis. The end result? A vicious cycle of inflammation.
2. Adrenal fatigue
Just as you have the brain-thyroid axis, you also have the brain-adrenal (HPA) axis. Dysfunctions of this hormonal circadian rhythm are known as adrenal fatigue. During adrenal fatigue, your main stress hormone cortisol can be all over the place and this imbalance can stress out your immune system. Just like thyroid problems, brain fog can be both the cause and the effect of adrenal fatigue due to the brain-hormone connection.
3. Viral infections
Low-grade chronic viral infections such as Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) are linked to a wide array of inflammatory problems like chronic fatigue syndrome. Your brain needs vitamin D to thrive, and the villainous EBV has been shown to actually block the body from using it.
4. Leaky gut syndrome
Your gut and brain are inextricably linked – they are even formed from the same fetal tissue when you were growing in your mom’s womb. In the medical literature leaky brain syndrome is highly associated with leaky gut, and an increase in gut bacterial toxins called LPS has been shown to affect brain inflammation.
5. Candida overgrowth
6. Histamine intolerance
Some people – particularly people with the gut problems mentioned above – are more prone to something called histamine intolerance. This happens when the body doesn’t break down the immune cell histamine and it causes a release of superoxide, a nasty free radical that causes a lot of inflammatory damage.
7. Inflammatory foods
Inflammatory foods high in sugar or ones that contain gluten (wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and oats) and casein (milk products) are a problem for many people. And high blood sugar levels from these foods can triple free radical inflammatory damage – not cool.
Toxins such as mold and heavy metals are two factors, often overlooked, that I’ve found contribute to brain fog in my patients.
9. Poor sleep
If you’re not sleeping well at night, you don’t need me to tell you it affects your brain health. Sleep loss decreases the inflammation-fighting antioxidant glutathione, which increases oxidative stress in the hypothalamus, causing brain fog.
10. Methylation impairments
Methylation is a big biochemical superhighway that happens 1 billion times every second in your body. It makes your brain healthy and also helps detox your body. People, like me, who have genetic methylation changes such as the MTHFR mutation are not so good at detoxing and bringing inflammation levels down.
What to do about brain fog:
1. Find out your inflammation levels.
I run several different labs to assess where my patients’ inflammation levels are:
- TH1/TH2/TH17-dominance test
- Leaky-gut labs
- Blood-brain barrier labs
- Methylation genetic labs
These labs will tell you what you’re up against; now let’s do something about inflammation.
2. Bring in the cellular repair team.
Try adding some gynostemma and gotu kola to your morning. These two plant medicines have been shown to decrease oxidative cellular damage and increase cellular energy, paramount to overcoming brain fog.
3. Support your methylation.
Methylation is needed for optimal detox pathways and brain function. Methylation runs primarily on B vitamins, so general support of methylation impairments can be started by taking activated B vitamins, like B9 L-Methylfolate (L-5-MTHF) and B6 Pyridoxyl-5-Phosphate (P5P). Read my other tips on supporting methylation in my article on the subject.
4. Go bright or go home.
In addition to providing you with the most bioavailable source of vitamin D (which is lacking in the brain during mental fog), the sun also provides you with infrared light. This is essential to balancing the immune system and calming inflammation levels. On sunny days, spend at least 30 minutes outside and soak up the rays. If you can’t make it outside or live in a cloudy climate, far infrared saunas are another great option.
5. Get adaptogenic
Adaptogens like astragalus and reishi are two great ways to balance the immune system and gently boost energy. Read my definitive guide to adaptogens to get the 411 on how to bring these balancers into your life.
I originally wrote this article for mindbodygreen.