Brain fog: Symptoms, causes, medication, remedies

Experiencing moments of mental cloudiness or detachment is something many individuals grapple with. Often termed “brain fog,” this sensation isn’t a standalone medical condition but a symptom reflecting deeper underlying issues. 

Imagine navigating a misty road where every turn and decision feels uncertain; that’s the essence of brain fog. Beyond mere cognitive disturbances, it profoundly affects emotional well-being and overall life quality. 

This comprehensive guide will delve into its symptoms, root causes, and potential interventions, offering insights and actionable strategies for those seeking mental clarity and sharpness.

What is brain fog?

Brain fog is a colloquial term that describes a constellation of cognitive impairments, encompassing feelings of confusion, forgetfulness, and a lack of focus or mental clarity [1].

It’s like viewing life through a hazy lens, where decision-making becomes slower and routine tasks feel burdensome. 

Rather than a standalone diagnosis, brain fog serves as a symptom, hinting at potential underlying issues ranging from lifestyle factors, such as lack of sleep or stress, to medical conditions like hormonal imbalances or chronic fatigue syndrome. 

The experience is subjective, with individuals often reporting feeling “spaced out” or “zoned out,” as if there’s a disconnect between the mind and the surrounding environment.

While it can be transient for some, for others, it persists, impacting their daily activities, emotional well-being, and overall quality of life.

what are the symptoms of brain fog
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What are the symptoms of brain fog?

Brain fog, while a colloquial term, encapsulates a range of cognitive disturbances that many individuals experience.

Though not clinically diagnosed as a standalone disorder, its symptoms are palpable and can profoundly disrupt daily life. Below are some of the most common manifestations [2], [3]:

Cognitive disturbances

  • Trouble concentrating: One of the hallmark signs of brain fog is a decreased ability to focus. Tasks that once seemed routine become challenging. Distractions seem to have a heightened effect, making productivity wane.
  • Forgetfulness: Short-term memory lapses are prevalent. Forgetting names, misplacing objects, or struggling to recall recent events can be frequent occurrences.
  • Difficulty processing information: Absorbing new information or following complex instructions becomes arduous. There’s a sensation of the mind being sluggish, almost as if it’s trudging through mud.

Emotional symptoms

  • Feeling detached or disconnected: There’s a sense of not being fully present, almost as if observing events from a distance. This can lead to feelings of isolation, even in familiar settings or among known faces.
  • Reduced motivation: Apathy or a lack of enthusiasm for tasks, even those previously enjoyed, is common. The drive to initiate and complete tasks diminishes.
  • Mood swings: There can be unpredictable shifts in mood, ranging from feelings of sadness to irritability, often without a discernible trigger.

Physical symptoms

  • Fatigue: Despite adequate rest, there’s a persistent feeling of tiredness. The body and mind both feel drained, making it tough to embark on daily activities.
  • Headaches: Frequent, dull headaches, not tied to any other medical condition, can accompany brain fog.
  • Sleep disturbances: Difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up feeling unrefreshed are common. This disrupted sleep can form a vicious cycle, exacerbating other brain fog symptoms.

It’s essential to recognize that while these symptoms might feel distressing, they don’t necessarily denote a serious medical condition.

However, their impact on the quality of life can be significant. The underlying causes can vary from lifestyle factors to medical conditions, each contributing to this cognitive haze in unique ways.

For anyone experiencing these symptoms, it’s crucial to consult a healthcare professional. A thorough assessment can rule out potential medical conditions and provide guidance on interventions, whether lifestyle adjustments, therapeutic strategies, or potential medications. 

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8 Common causes of brain fog

Brain fog often stems from discernible causes. While the experience is subjective and may vary from one individual to another, some common factors and conditions can trigger or exacerbate this mental haze. 

Understanding the underlying reasons behind a problem can help establish a basis for resolving it and perhaps even reducing its impact. Here are some of the prevalent sources:

1. Stress and chronic fatigue

Prolonged periods of stress can overburden the brain, leading to fatigue and cognitive impairments. The constant release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, affects brain function and memory.

2. Sleep deprivation

Adequate sleep is paramount for cognitive function. A lack of restorative sleep, whether due to insomnia, sleep apnea, or other disturbances, can impair concentration, memory, and decision-making abilities.

3. Hormonal changes

Hormonal imbalances, particularly involving the thyroid or during transitions like menopause [4], can contribute to brain fog. Thyroid issues, for instance, can influence metabolism and energy, affecting brain function.

4. Medications and drugs

Certain medications, including some antidepressants, antihistamines, and pain relievers, have side effects that can induce cognitive disturbances. Similarly, excessive alcohol or recreational drug use can lead to temporary or lasting brain fog.

5. Diet and nutritional deficiencies

The brain relies on a range of nutrients to function optimally. Deficiencies in vitamins like B12, D, or omega-3 fatty acids can lead to decreased cognitive function. 

Furthermore, diets high in sugar or processed foods can spike blood sugar levels, leading to short bursts of energy followed by crashes, exacerbating feelings of mental fatigue.

6. Chronic illnesses and inflammation

Conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or autoimmune diseases often list brain fog as a symptom. The body’s inflammatory response, especially when chronic, can impact brain function and lead to cognitive disturbances.

7. Mental health issues

Disorders like depression, anxiety, or PTSD can manifest cognitive symptoms akin to brain fog. For example, depression often involves difficulties in concentration and decision-making.

8. Environmental factors

Exposure to toxins, whether from mold, chemicals, or pollutants, can negatively impact cognitive function. Likewise, dehydration, often overlooked, can impair focus and clarity.

What is the role of medication in brain fog?

The complex interplay between medications and cognitive function showcases the brain’s sensitivity and how it reacts to chemical changes. 

Medications, while often beneficial, can sometimes be a double-edged sword. They can either trigger brain fog as a side effect or serve as a means to alleviate it. 

Understanding this dynamic is essential for anyone grappling with cognitive disturbances.

1. Medications that may cause brain fog as a side effect


While essential for managing mood disorders, certain antidepressants, especially when initiated or undergoing dosage changes, can lead to transient cognitive impairments. Examples include tricyclic antidepressants or certain SSRIs. Over time, as the body adjusts, these symptoms might diminish.


Medications like diphenhydramine, commonly used for allergies, can cause drowsiness and a sense of “mental cloudiness.” This is due to their sedative effect on the central nervous system.

Blood pressure medications

Beta-blockers, used to treat high blood pressure and certain heart conditions, can sometimes lead to fatigue and memory issues, though these side effects are not universal.

Pain relievers

Opioid analgesics, while effective for pain management, can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and cognitive dullness, especially at higher doses.


Medications like diazepam or lorazepam, used for anxiety or sleep disorders, can have sedative effects that manifest as cognitive disturbances [5].

Chemotherapy drugs

Sometimes termed “chemo brain,” cognitive impairments can arise after chemotherapy, characterized by memory lapses and concentration issues [5].

2. Medications used to relieve brain fog

Nootropics and cognitive enhancers

Drugs like modafinil or piracetam are sometimes prescribed to enhance cognitive function, especially in conditions like narcolepsy or certain neurodegenerative diseases. They promote alertness and improve mental clarity.


While not medications in the strictest sense, certain supplements can aid cognitive function. Omega-3 fatty acids, often derived from fish oil, support brain health. Vitamin B12 injections can be beneficial for those with a deficiency, as low levels can contribute to brain fog.


In conditions like ADHD, stimulant medications such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) or amphetamines (Adderall) can enhance focus and reduce symptoms akin to brain fog.


Interestingly, while some antidepressants can cause brain fog, others, especially when treating underlying depression or anxiety, can alleviate it.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) can improve mood and, by extension, cognitive clarity for many patients [6].

How to get rid of brain fog naturally?
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How to get rid of brain fog naturally?

While medications have their place in addressing brain fog, there are numerous natural remedies and lifestyle adjustments that can offer significant relief. Incorporating these changes can improve cognitive function and overall well-being, fostering a holistic approach to mental clarity.

1. Make dietary adjustments

  • Balanced blood sugar: Consuming whole foods, focusing on complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats can stabilize blood sugar levels, preventing spikes and crashes that exacerbate brain fog.
  • Hydration: Drinking adequate water throughout the day supports optimal brain function. Even mild dehydration can impair concentration and cognition.
  • Limit processed foods: Reducing intake of processed foods, high in sugars and unhealthy fats, can diminish factors contributing to brain fog.
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2. Improve your sleep hygiene

Prioritizing 7-9 hours of quality sleep nightly can significantly impact cognitive clarity. Establishing a regular sleep schedule, optimizing the sleep environment for comfort and darkness, and reducing screen time before bed can promote restorative rest.

3. Engage in regular exercise

Physical activity boosts blood flow to the brain, enhancing cognitive function. Whether it’s brisk walking, yoga, or more intense workouts, consistent exercise can alleviate symptoms of brain fog.

4. Manage stress levels

  • Deep breathing exercises: Techniques like the 4-7-8 method (inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7, exhale for 8) can calm the mind and reduce stress.
  • Therapeutic practices: Engaging in talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy can address underlying stressors and offer coping mechanisms.

5. Take supplemental support

While it’s essential to consult a healthcare professional, some supplements might aid cognitive function. Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, ginkgo biloba, and Rhodiola rosea are examples that some individuals find beneficial.

6. Limit alcohol and caffeine

While moderate caffeine can enhance alertness, excessive intake can disrupt sleep and exacerbate brain fog. Similarly, while a glass of wine might be relaxing, excessive alcohol can impair cognitive function.

7. Try a digital detox

Periodically unplugging from screens, especially in our tech-saturated world, can reduce mental fatigue. Allocating specific times for breaks or even full days without digital devices can rejuvenate the mind.

8. Engage in cognitive activities

Puzzle-solving, reading, or even learning a new skill can stimulate the brain, keeping it sharp and active.

By adopting a holistic approach, and blending natural remedies with lifestyle changes, you can effectively combat brain fog.

These adjustments not only offer cognitive benefits but also enhance overall health and wellness, underlining the interconnected nature of your physical and mental well-being.

When should you see a doctor for brain fog?

While occasional moments of forgetfulness or distraction are a normal part of life, persistent or worsening brain fog deserves medical attention. It’s vital to consult a healthcare professional if:

1. Duration: The cognitive disturbances last for extended periods or become progressively worse over time.

2. Intensity: The severity of the fog disrupts daily activities, work, or relationships.

3. Associated symptoms: Accompanied by headaches, dizziness, vision changes, or neurological symptoms.

4. Mood changes: If feelings of depression, anxiety, or significant mood swings coexist with the fog.

5. Medications: Recent initiation or change in medications that might be inducing cognitive side effects.

6. Sleep issues: Persistent sleep disturbances or unrefreshing sleep.

7. Physical symptoms: Accompanied by unexplained weight changes, fatigue, or other systemic symptoms.

Always prioritize your mental health. If you are uncertain about a situation, it is always wise to consult a professional. This will ensure that any underlying issues are identified and dealt with effectively, leading to optimal cognitive function.

How do doctors test for brain fog?

Diagnosing brain fog isn’t a straightforward process due to its subjective nature. Instead, healthcare professionals employ a multi-faceted approach to discern underlying causes. Here’s a glimpse into the diagnostic journey:

1. Clinical interview

The process typically begins with a comprehensive discussion, where the doctor seeks to understand the nature, duration, severity, and impact of the cognitive disturbances.

2. Medical history reviews

A thorough review of your medical history, including past illnesses, surgeries, and current medications, can provide clues to potential triggers or causes of the fog.

3. Physical examination

A general physical exam can help rule out systemic conditions. Specific neurological exams may also be conducted to evaluate your cognitive and motor functions.

4. Blood tests

Bloodwork can identify hormonal imbalances (like thyroid dysfunction), vitamin deficiencies (such as B12 or vitamin D), infections, or inflammatory markers.

5. Neuropsychological testing

These are specialized assessments that measure memory, problem-solving, attention, and other aspects of cognitive function.

6. Imaging

In certain cases, MRI or CT scans might be recommended to rule out structural abnormalities or conditions affecting the brain.

7. Sleep studies

If sleep disturbances are suspected, polysomnography or other sleep assessments might be conducted.

Are DIY brain fog tests accurate?

DIY brain fog tests, often found online or in app stores, have surged in popularity, offering quick evaluations of cognitive function.

While some may be based on legitimate cognitive exercises, their accuracy and utility are subjects of debate.

Firstly, the environment in which these tests are taken can vary greatly, potentially influencing results. Distractions, fatigue, or even the device used can affect performance.

Secondly, these DIY tests often lack the rigorous standardization and validation processes that professional neuropsychological assessments undergo. Without this, interpreting results becomes challenging.

Furthermore, cognitive function is multifaceted. A brief test might not capture the full spectrum of your abilities or deficits.

While such tests can be entertaining and might offer a general sense of your cognitive agility, they shouldn’t replace professional evaluations.

Anyone genuinely concerned about brain fog or cognitive decline should seek a thorough assessment from a healthcare professional.

Closing thoughts

As we try to comprehend brain fog, we have explored its symptoms, causes, effects of medication, natural remedies, and diagnostic methods.

While occasional lapses in cognition are a universal human experience, persistent brain fog warrants attention and understanding. 

The journey towards clarity often requires a multi-pronged approach, encompassing lifestyle changes, possible medical interventions, and continuous self-awareness. Importantly, DIY solutions and online tests can only go so far. 

Genuine concerns about cognitive health should always lead to professional consultation. By actively addressing and understanding brain fog, we can better navigate the complexities of mental well-being in our modern world.


Is brain fog a mental illness?

Brain fog is not classified as a mental illness; it’s a symptom often characterized by confusion, forgetfulness, and a lack of focus. However, it can be associated with various mental and physical health conditions, including stress, anxiety, depression, and certain medical disorders.

Is brain fog just anxiety?

Brain fog is not solely a result of anxiety; it’s a general term for cognitive difficulties like confusion and forgetfulness. While anxiety can contribute to or exacerbate brain fog, various other factors, including stress, lack of sleep, medications, and medical conditions, can also be responsible.

How does brain fog start?

Brain fog can arise from various factors, including chronic stress, inadequate sleep, hormonal imbalances, or certain medications. Environmental triggers, nutritional deficiencies, and underlying health conditions can also contribute to its onset.

Can brain fog last?

Yes, brain fog can persist over time, especially if its underlying causes are not addressed. Its duration varies among individuals and can range from fleeting moments to more chronic, prolonged periods.

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