June 24

The 9 Best Ways to Clear Brain Fog When You Are Chronically Ill

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The frustrating thing about brain fog is that it cannot be officially treated with medication. But there are proven lifestyle changes you can make to effectively clear it up and I’m going to share the best ones with you. 

Brain fog is a symptom that is commonly experienced amongst people with chronic illnesses and – simply put – it just makes daily life painfully slower. 

Unfortunately, most of us (myself included) can’t afford to forgo our daily responsibilities because our brains have decided to work in slow motion for the foreseeable future. 

That’s why clearing mental fog is probably one of the most important things that you need to work for your social, mental and financial wellbeing. So now the question is – how do you do this?

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The best ways to clear brain fog are by making adjustments to your: 

  1. Food and water intake; 

  2. Body and brain exercises; 

  3. Sleep routine; 

  4. Stress-relief outlets; and 

  5. Mental and physical clutter.

Before I get into how to clear brain fog – I’m going to share a little bit on the possible reasons why you might have it and what symptoms you need to look out for. 

What is Brain Fog?

brain-fog-and-confusion

As I mentioned at the top, brain fog cannot be treated with medication directly because it’s actually not an official medical condition. If you’re a spoonie, it’s likely to be a side effect of the condition you have. 

The most common range of chronic illnesses that could increase your risk of brain fog are: 

  • Mental illness (e.g. depression);
  • Thyroid disorders (e.g. Hashimoto's);
  • Gut disorders (e.g. Crohn’s Disease);
  • Sleep disorders (e.g. sleep apnoea); or
  • Chronic pain (e.g. fibromyalgia).

Of course, the list extends far beyond what I’ve mentioned here. 

You may also struggle with brain fog if you have anaemia, food sensitivities, blood pressure issues, vitamin deficiencies, heavy metal exposure, or even negative side effects to current medications. 

How to explain brain fog 

When you have brain fog, it can be tricky to explain because the set of symptoms are so vast. But here’s a little analogy I came up with that I like to use when I’m describing what it feels like to someone else: 

Brain fog is like driving a car. Only the windshield has been washed with dirty water, the wipers are gone and your lights just won’t switch on and you have no idea why.   

Instead, you can look at it as a compilation of symptoms that inhibit certain mental functions. 

If you’re a spoonie who’s familiar with this – then this list common symptoms that I’m about to share shouldn’t come as a surprise. 

If anything, you can use it to remind yourself that what you’re going through is real and deserves acknowledgement.

The most common symptoms

  1. Lack of concentration – to the point where your head actually hurts if you try to focus too hard. Which brings us to the next point… 
  2. Headaches – that usually feel like consistent, dull aches that inhibit your thought-process. 
  3. Memory loss or forgetfulness – birthdays, deadlines, medication, or even forgetting you have bread in the toaster so you get a fright when it pops up (yes I did that). 
  4. Persistent exhaustion – where you wake up in the morning feeling like it’s bedtime, or fall asleep in a 4D movie (yes, I did that too).
  1. Low productivity – to the point where your biggest achievement of the day was putting pants on. Wearing a bra is tomorrow’s problem! 
  1. Demotivation – where you’re reluctant to try and do anything because you feel like you just keep f*cking up.
  2. Lower cognitive function – this refers to your overall ability to learn, think, reason, remember, make decisions or focus. 

I’m going to share 11 proven ways that you can make changes to these lifestyle features and clear up any mental fogginess you’re struggling with right now. 

Just remember that each suggestion I’m about to make needs to be considered discerningly. Although they have all worked well for me – some may not be ideal for your specific chronic illness. 

It’s a good idea to get insight from your doctor about which ones are most suited to you.

Eat a Well-Balanced and Nutritious Diet

healthy-eating-clear-brain-fog

You might be surprised at how closely your stomach and your mind are linked. In fact, besides your brain, the only other part of your body that even has neurons is your gut.

Did you know that about 95% of your feel-good hormone, serotonin, is not produced in your head but actually your gut? So by eating the right foods you can really promote a healthier mind too. 

5 ways to lower brain fog through your food choices 

  1. Avoid foods high in refined sugars.


    As tasty as they may be – they’re highly inflammatory and are proven to impair your brain function. Never mind brain fog, they could even trigger more serious mood disorders like depression.

    Examples: Pastries, chocolate, candy, ice-cream, pasta and bread. 

  1. Increase your intake of foods high in prebiotics.

    Our guts have millions of good bacteria that help keep your digestion healthy. And like we now know – a healthy gut means a healthy brain-fog-free mind! 

    Prebiotics help feed the good bacteria and help keep them strong.

    Foods high in prebiotics: garlic, onions, leeks, bananas, barley, oats and flax seeds.
  1. Increase your intake of foods high in probiotics

    Probiotics are the good microorganisms (mainly bacteria), that boost your gut and brain health directly. You can find them in certain fermented foods.

    Foods high in probiotics: Kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha and pickles.

A note on yoghurt: Although yoghurt can be high in probiotics, sometimes its cultures are killed off in its manufacturing process – which means it has no benefits for gut or brain health.

Additionally, it is often flavoured with lots of sugar which is highly inflammatory. So it would undo all the hard work of the probiotics once it gets to your gut. 

If you like yoghurt and want to get rid of brain fog – look for plain, sugar-free yoghurt that specifies it has got live cultures in it.  

  1. Dose up on foods high in omega 3 fatty acids

    Omega 3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that improve your ability to process information and help your body build its brain cells.

    Both really important functions for a sharp and keen mind.

    Foods high in Omega 3: fatty fish like salmon or mackerel, nuts and seeds.
  1. Boost your memory with berries 

    Something that makes brain fog so irritating is how poor your memory can become – but research shows that berries can help with that!

    It’s the flavonoids that give them those bright pigments that seem to boost memory capabilities.

    Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or even blackberries are all great options – as long as you’re getting two small portions a day. 

Keep Hydrated

drinking-coffee-together

I could never understand why taking a break from work to drink a glass of water helps me keep focused and refreshed – but it does! 

If you’re on chronic medication, especially pain killers, please take extra note of what I’m saying because painkillers are notorious for causing symptoms that lead to dehydration. 

Drinking water is proven to help improve cognitive functions, concentration, memory, stress, headaches and more.  

So make sure to keep a bottle next to you, or get creative with how you choose to increase your intake if you’re not a fan of drinking water.

Creative ways to increase your water intake

different-kinds-of-water-intake
  1. Create fresh fruit infusions; 

  2. Use a little lemon; 

  3. Drink herbal and caffeine-free teas; 

  4. Make homemade ice teas; and

  5. Drink more homemade broth-based soups. 

Exercise Regularly

woman-doing-exercise-outside

The reason exercise helps is super simple. When you’re active it helps improve the blood flow around your body and to your brain. 

Healthy blood flow to your brain is associated with better cognitive functions, improved sleep and lower stress levels. The less active you are – the higher your risk of impaired brain function too. 

Now I know that exercise when you have a chronic illness is tricky. Everyone is different and so are your physical limits. 

Just remember it’s not about what activity you choose to do, but ensuring that you’re listening to what your body’s needs are throughout the process.  

Looking back at my own health over the last five years proves that this can vary so much. I’ve gone from aerial yoga to only being able to wiggle my toes for 10 minutes, to brisk walks in the park. 

If you’re looking for good ways to get active, but you’re not too sure what could work – here are some suggestions I can make depending on your basic physical limits: 

Bed stretches – e.g. leg raises, ankle circles, half bridges and supine spinal twists. 

  1. Going for walks – even if it's just around your living room. 
  2. Tai Chi – especially warm-ups that can be done right from your bedroom. 
  3. Yoga – particularly slow forms like Hatha or Yin Yoga. 
  4. Resistance training – where the objective is to move your body against resistance to build strength.  
  5. Pilates – similarly to yoga, Pilates works on your postural alignment, strength and balance.

Focus on Sleep

woman-with-brain-fog

It’s cool to talk the talk here – but to walk the walk is super hard. Sleep and chronic illness create deeply disruptive and co-dependent cycles. I know this all too well! 

So when I say that you should focus on sleep, the sub-clause is that you should only push for it when it’s possible. 

Certain sleeping medication is notorious for making you feel pretty drowsy when you wake up the next. So as much as it may help you get to sleep – it may not be that effective in clearing brain fog. 

However, there are some (scientifically backed) bed-time habits that you can use to help you fall asleep a little easier that won’t leave you feeling like hell the next day. 

5 better bed-time habits to clear brain fog

  1. Dim your lights (or turn them off completely).

    Your circadian rhythm is an internal process that regulates your sleep cycle. It uses physical, mental and behavioural changes to see whether your body is ready to sleep or not. 

    One of the changes that affects it strongly is light. So if you dim your lights or switch them off – it lets your body know that it’s night and time to sleep. 
  1. Avoid naps.

    As good as an afternoon nap may feel – it’s another behavioural change that’s proven to disrupt your circadian rhythm when you try to sleep at night. Especially if your naps last longer than two hours.

    I know that if you’re feeling drained or in a lot of pain due to your health it may be necessary to nap. But if you’re feeling strong enough – try and watch a movie instead. It’s something I like to do to avoid day-time napping. 

  1. Don’t eat a meal just before bed.

    The food you eat has quite a big impact on the quality of your sleep. If you have a big dinner – it usually takes about 2-3 hours to digest.

    If you try and lie down straight after dinner it can actually make you feel quite nauseous – if that happens to you it’s normal! Your body is telling you it needs time to digest food before it can sleep. 

  1. Listen to music or read a book. 

    Choose the right music or the right book (not an eBook) that helps you relax and it can really kickstart your sleep-cycle. Both are great ways to help relieve stress and re-centre your thoughts. 

    Music therapy, in particular, has proven to be effective for anyone suffering from a chronic sleep disorder. But it all depends on how you like to wind down.

    If you’re looking for some therapeutic music inspiration you can take a look at My 5 Chronic Pain Playlists Depending on Your Mood 
  1. Have a hot shower (or bath). 

    This is one of my favourite pre-bedtime rituals. One of the main reasons it’s useful, and why I love it, is that it helps regulate your core body temperature before you jump into bed. 

Try Mindfulness and Meditation

woman-meditating-clear-brain-fog

This isn’t pseudo-science – it’s something that’s being actively studied and shows incredible findings. 

Mindfulness is a practice that aims to help you build awareness and acceptance of the present moment. People who practice it swear by the fact that it positively influences your mental health and brain activity.  

Now the professionals are getting involved and there’s definite evidence to back up this age-old practice. 

In 2011, a Harvard team led by Sara Lazar found that eight-weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) can actually change your brain for the better. 

The main changes noted include: 

  1. An improvement in the areas of the brain that regulate memory, learning and emotional regulation. 

  2. A decrease in the brain cells responsible for emotions like anxiety and stress.

So how does this affect brain fog? 

Well, Lazar and her team were able to prove that these brain changes were not just physical – they actually make you feel and experience an improvement in your overall mood and mental wellbeing.  

If you’re new to mindfulness that’s perfect! There’s no time like the present to give it a go. 

Click here to link to an awesome step-by-step daily mindfulness practice that you may find very useful.  

Otherwise, you can check out this article where I recommend some of my favourite apps for people with chronic illness – including some really practical ones for mindfulness meditation: Top 13 Best Apps for People with a Chronic Illness

Get Into Stress-Relieving Hobbies

people-keeping-busy-at-home

Although mindfulness works on alleviating stress – it’s not the only thing that can help. Anything that helps you destress and calm down should automatically help reduce your brain fog too. 

Stress is a biological feedback system that gets activated in response to life events, usually when you feel threatened. This is our fight or flight response. 

So stress can be really good for you when you need to cope under serious situations. But when it’s activated all the time it can end up exhausting your body and your mind.  

A tired mind equals a foggy mind! 

So it really doesn’t matter what you like to do to destress – but it’s important that you pick up a hobby to help you relax during these times to alleviate mental exhaustion. 

To give you an idea, some of my favourite stress-relieving activities include yoga, painting, going for walks in nature reserves, swimming and reading. 

Some other stress-relieving hobbies you may like include: 

  1. Arts and crafts – scrapbooking, drawing or knitting. 

  2. Slow-paced physical activity – long walks or swimming. 

  3. Stress-relief socialising with friends and family.  

  4. Cleaning up or doing simple DIY tasks around the house.  

  5. Pampering – massages, mani/pedi or facials. 

Try Intermittent Fasting

brain-to-gut-relationship

Intermittent fasting is something I never thought I’d do and now I can’t imagine starting my day without it. 

It’s proven that experiencing intermittent hunger actually helps clear your mind and improve overall brain function.   

The most common intermittent fasting technique is called the 16/8 method where you eat during an 8 hour period and restrict your intake of food for the remaining 16 hours of that day. 

A common way to do this is by eating between 1pm – 9pm and skipping breakfast in the mornings. The theory that breakfast is the most important meal of the day is actually not true. 

In saying this, intermittent fasting is definitely a dietary change that you should run past your doctors. You already have underlying health conditions and your body cannot afford to weaken unnecessarily. 

Here’s an excerpt from the book Neurofitness, written by neurosurgeon Dr Jandial, who can explain exactly why intermittent fasting is so important and how to do it properly.  

Give Up Clutter 

woman-running-from-clothes-clear-brain-fog

When things don’t have a home, they pile up and cause clutter quickly. But if you designate a space for all the items that you need, it stops you from hoarding whatever you don’t need.

It’s one of the best ways to keep your space clean and to declutter your mind. Something super important if you have brain fog and easily forget items or misplace them. 

Since your environment can play such an integral role in your mood, energy and mental clarity – it’s worth trying.

Top three clutter-clearing tip

  1. When you finish using something important – put it back.

    For example, when you finish using your card for an online purchase – put it back in your bag or you’ll forget it the next time you do a grocery run.
  2. Assign a home to everything you own.

    When things don’t have a home, they pile up and cause clutter quickly. But if you designate a space for all the items that you need, it stops you from hoarding whatever you don’t need.
  3. Embrace the KonMarie™ method.

    Developed by the renowned organiser Marie Kondo, this method shows you how to declutter your home by focusing on keeping and collecting the things you love. 

 If you’re embarking on this journey for the first time – just remember to be patient with yourself and set small, easily attainable goals. Consider it as an ever-evolving work-in-progress to build a home that helps you.

And if you’d like to know more about keeping organised when you have brain fog then this read is for you: 11 Tips for Staying Organised with Brain Fog

Build Your Brain Power

woman-reading-to-clear-brain-fog

Just like physical activity helps pump blood to your brain so that it can function efficiently – doing mental “workouts” is just as important if you want to keep a sharp mind. 

I know that I’ve just said it’s important to destress – and that still holds. But everything in life needs a balance and this is included.  

If you don’t use your brain then the connections that keep information flowing between your neurons can become faulty or disappear entirely. 

In the beginning, this can present as brain fog but the effects of not using your brain can be much more severe in the long run.  

The point is that although you need to rest – don’t get complacent in your comfort zone. I.e. move it or lose it! 

And if your chronic illness is acting up and you’re stuck at home it doesn’t mean your brain needs to get bored.

Three ways to work your brain out from bed

  1. Read, read and read some more!

    Especially if it allows you to learn something new. You can also use this opportunity to boost your vocabulary. Highlight new words you come across and look up their definitions.

    I like to keep a notepad for all the new words I learn and make it a challenge to use each one at least 3 times on the day I find it. 
  2. Get your hands deep into a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

    Okay, it can be smaller if you prefer – but try to make it tricky. The whole point is that completing a jigsaw puzzle requires quite a few cognitive skills and is a super good way to challenge your brain. 
  1. Learn a language.

    Studies show that learning another language can help improve cognitive functions like memory or being able to switch more fluidly between tasks.

    But if standard language-learning isn’t for you – you can try your hand at a musical instrument. This teaches you the unique language of music and will stimulate your brain in a similar way. 
Marina

Marina Wildt is an experienced health and wellness writer, chronic illness warrior and founder of The Discerning You. In the last 12 years, she has gone from being paralysed in a wheelchair to living a full life alongside her conditions and now she wants to share all the practical advice that she has learnt with you.


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