Picture this: you're on your way to the kitchen to retrieve something important – maybe the phone charger or a treat – but the moment you get there, it's as if your brain split open and you've completely forgotten what it is you're doing.
We’ve all had such moments. Times when everything seems hazy and unclear, and remembering things you know like the back of your hand is a struggle, when peels end up in the frying pan and perfectly good meat goes into the bin. As disorienting and inconvenient as such days can be, most of us simply let out long-suffering sighs and go back to bed to give our brain time to recharge its batteries.
What is brain fog?
So long as such days are few, far between and can be accounted for – perhaps you’ve been sleeping poorly, working long hours or are dealing with an extended personal crisis – there really is no cause for alarm. Trouble arises when the feeling persists for long stretches, keeps you from functioning to your full potential and brings other psychological symptoms along to make matters worse.
Alarm bells should start ringing when it feels as if the layer of fog that has enveloped the brain shows no sign of dissipating.
“Brain fog is not a medical or scientific term. It’s used colloquially to describe symptoms like confusion, haziness, disconnectedness, disorientation and lethargy,” says Dr Shyam Bhat, a psychiatrist and integrative medicine specialist from India.
“Since the symptoms are varied and not well-defined, brain fog can be attributed to a number of causes, physical or mental, including metabolic issues, diabetes, anaemia, endocrine issues or infections like Covid-19. Stress and anxiety are common causes for brain fog, and this is usually accompanied by other symptoms such as insomnia, irritability and a feeling of restlessness.”
The pandemic has spurred the symptoms along. While there are no conclusive studies on the occurrences of brain fog in people who haven't contracted the virus, there are plenty that link Covid-19 to the group of symptoms commonly associated with it.
Brain fog and the pandemic
A survey by Indiana University School of Medicine found that more than 50 per cent of its sample group of almost 4,000 recovered Covid-19 patients reported struggling with focus and concentration, and more than 30 per cent reported memory problems, dizziness or confusion.
A similar study of more than 800 patients in Spain found that 57 per cent developed brain-related symptoms. Headaches, dizziness and loss of smell or taste were common in the early stages, while disorders of consciousness were common in advanced Covid-19 cases, especially among older patients.
“We know that Covid is a neuro-invasive virus,” says Dr Ioannis Delipalas, medical director and consulting psychiatrist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. "Patients with mild infections can experience neurological symptoms like loss of smell and taste, short-term memory loss, headaches and poor concentration for up to 12 weeks. For patients with more severe infections, the symptoms can persist for close to six months."
It’s not only coronavirus patients who are complaining of continued battles with mental acuity in the current climate, though. The reason could simply be the stress of the pandemic and prolonged periods of isolation, suggests Delipalas. Our world has changed drastically in the past two years, and many are struggling to cope.
“Physical proximity and touch play an important role in feeling happy and ‘normal’. Deprived of everyday interactions such as handshakes, touches, hugs and other physical expressions of affection, it’s understandable that some are still left feeling lonely, isolated and anxious – and all three can leave the brain feeling foggy,” he says.
“But we need to watch out for warning signs in us and those around us, especially if they persist over weeks – insomnia, loss of interest in having a social life and suicidal thoughts. Seek help immediately if you spot these, they could be signs of underlying mental health issues such as clinical depression or general anxiety disorder in patients complaining of brain fog.”
Diet and exercise for brain health
The good news is there’s a lot you can do if brain fog is not caused by a medical condition. Apart from Delipalas’s recommendation of simply making the effort to stay connected to others through phone and video calls, modifications to diets and staying physically active can make a world of difference.
Dr Nicole Sirotin, chairwoman of preventive medicine at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, offers food recommendations for brain health.
“The best diet for high-functioning brains must include fibre, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, folate, zinc and magnesium. Do eat fresh fruits, especially berries; olive oil, avocados and cold-water fish, all of which have omega-3 acids; plus whole grains, lentils and fresh vegetables, especially broccoli and beans, for fibre to increase the diversity of the bacteria in the gut, which helps with mood regulation.
“Fish like trout, salmon and tuna, as well as milk and eggs are rich sources of vitamin B12. Seeds, nuts, eggs, kale, spinach and legumes are all rich sources of magnesium and zinc,” she says.
“High-fat diets that are rich in processed foods are linked to higher incidents of depression. And obese people are at twice the risk of developing midlife dementia. So cut out or severely limit ready-to-eat meals, fried food, fatty snacks and baked goods like cookies and cakes.”
How beat brain fog
When it comes to physical activity, Bollywood fitness and yoga expert Deanne Pandey offers a four-step guide.
Step 1: Start small. When you’re already feeling anxious or low and haven’t exercised for a long time, setting extravagant goals such as completing a marathon or working out for an hour every morning will only leave you more despondent if you fall short. It’s better to set achievable goals and build up as you go along.
Schedule workouts when your energy is at its peak, be it first thing in the morning, at lunchtime before the afternoon lull hits, or even at night before hitting bed. Just make sure you do something.
If the brain fog has you feeling tired and unmotivated, try dancing to some music or simply going for a walk. Even a 15-minute walk can help clear your mind, improve your mood, and boost your energy level. As you move and start to feel better, you can add more challenge to the routine.
Step 2: Focus on activities you enjoy. Any activity that makes you move counts, be it a run in the park with your dog or playing Frisbee with a friend. Even taking on a home improvement project or gardening is enough to get started. The idea is to slowly ease your body into being more active to simply improve your mood with a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Step 3: Be at ease. Wear clothing that’s comfortable. Don’t force yourself into clothes that may no longer fit, they’ll only make you feel worse about the lockdown pounds and continue the spiral of sadness.
Step 4: Reward yourself. Yes, you’ll feel much better after a workout, but there’s no harm in keeping your motivation high with a treat for your discipline, be it a smoothie, a bubble bath or an extra hour of Netflix.