The Foggy Brain: How To Overcome Mental Fatigue

You’ve felt it: confused, irritable, spacey, unable to focus on one thing. So-called brain fog can strike after a long day or first thing in the morning. It’s a scourge for a healthy, happy, and balanced life. Learn about the causes of brain fog and discover guided meditations that bring back mental clarity and energy.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
brain fog mental fatigue
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

Feeling mentally fuzzy and grouchy can be discouraging. There are many factors that can cause brain fog, ranging from underlying health conditions  to lifestyle factors. Discover how to get rid of brain fog with simple steps to clear our minds and feel better.

What Is Brain Fog?

Brain fog isn’t a medical condition, but a symptom. According to WebMD, it’s a “term used for symptoms that can affect your ability to think”. This mild cognitive impairment can interfere with work, home life, or school.

Brain fog can happen as a result of a medical condition, a lifestyle issue, or a shift in the body’s chemistry. It’s common in healthy individuals and individuals with chronic conditions alike. Vanquishing brain fog requires taking an objective look at our health, our lifestyle, and our present-moment choices.

What Does Brain Fog Feel Like?

The definition of mental fatigue is open-ended, as is the list of signs that accompany it. Brain fog symptoms range from mild to severe and include:

  • Lack of focus and clarity
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Forgetfulness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of mental clarity
  • Slower learning time 
  • Low energy or fatigue

Any of these symptoms on their own can be draining. Combined, it can feel like you’re operating behind a blurry glass window, watching the world go by but unable to fully participate. We’re likely to forget the thread of a conversation, lose a common noun in casual conversation, feel like we should be on top of simple day-to-day tasks, or find ourselves getting more and more frustrated at our inability to remember task we’d been planning for weeks.

Finally, brain fog is a human condition. It’s not relegated to the old or the sick. Know that you’re not alone in your experience with these symptoms of cognitive impairment.

Common Brain Fog Causes

Brain fog can happen as a result of medical conditions, lifestyle factors or changes in the physiology. It shows up when our brain’s resources become taxed as a result of an underlying issue; there’s an imbalance in the system that we need to address in order to allow the brain the space to refresh itself. 

Before we get started on the common causes of brain fog, remember to check with a medical professional to get clear about the underlying cause of your mental fatigue. They will be able to diagnose the cause and provide treatment.

Certain Health Conditions Can Result In Brain Fog

Medical conditions associated with inflammation, fatigue or changes in blood glucose level can cause mental fatigue:

  • Conditions that influence inflammation can change the way your brain “talks” to the rest of your body, resulting in brain fog. For example, individuals with Multiple Sclerosis can have general brain fog that turns into serious issues with memory, attention, planning, and language. 
  • Other inflammation-related conditions that cause brain fog include autoimmune diseases like lupus, arthritis, and food sensitivities or allergies.
  • Diabetes can result in mental fatigue as it involves changes in the level of glucose in the blood.
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a fatigue-related condition that can bring brain fog. The body becomes exhausted and the brain can’t function to its full potential.
  • Other common medical conditions that may cause brain fog include anemia, migraines, dehydration, and hypothyroidism.

If you have been diagnosed with one of these conditions, be sure to check with your medical provider on the best method to treat your brain fog.

Medication Or Medical Treatments That Can Lead To Brain Fog

Pharmaceutical medication can also cause brain fog, whether it is over-the-counter or prescribed. Contact your medical provider if you experience mental fatigue after taking medication. Major medical treatments like chemotherapy or recovery after surgery can result in brain fog. Its length can vary depending on the treatment and your recovery protocol.

The Fatigue Pregnancy Brain

The infamous “pregnancy brain” is a common cousin of brain fog in many women. Pregnancy brain shows up as forgetfulness and challenges with clear thinking. 

Pregnancy brain can happen when massive increases in progesterone and estrogen during pregnancy affect neurons in the brain. Lack of sleep and a major refocusing of mental effort towards baby care also cause the mind to shift towards other topics, resulting in brain fog symptoms.

Lifestyle Factors That Promote Brain Fog

Even if your mental fatigue isn’t the result of an underlying physical change or a medical condition, your lifestyle choices may be causing it:

  • Chronic stress overloads the body with cortisol. This weakens the immune system, increases blood pressure, and can cause mental fatigue and forgetfulness. Your brain can’t focus when it’s too stressed… Nor can it stop.
  • Lack of sleep is another common culprit. Most adults need 7 – 9 hours of good sleep (more on that below). If you’re getting less, tiredness may be causing your brain fog.
  • Diets high in processed foods, low in vitamin B-12, or packed with foods that cause inflammation can all cause brain fog.

How To Get Rid Of Brain Fog

Before we dive into ways to overcome brain fog, remember to speak to a medical professional about your brain fog if the symptoms are severe or if you get brain fog frequently. It can be a symptom of an underlying health condition.

Otherwise, read on to learn simple ways to clear the mist clouding your mind. Natural remedies and lifestyle shifts can go a long way to preventing and clearing brain fog.

1. Get Enough Good Quality Sleep

Mental and physical exhaustion can result in everyday brain fog. The CDC recommends that adults get 7 – 8 hours of sleep per night, but between work, family, and school it can be challenging to get 8 hours of quality sleep. The body needs that much time for us to feel rested because we move through multiple sleep cycles.

Healthy sleep habits—like a consistent bedtime, limiting evening screen time, reducing light exposure before bed, and setting a strict wake-up time—improve the quality of sleep over time. Limiting naps to less than 30 minutes and reducing alcohol consumption before bed are a must, too. For more ideas dive into our healthy evening routine article. You can also browse through our free collection of sleep meditation practices and relaxing music that help to calm the mind and relax the body in preparation for restorative sleep.

a course to decrease brain fog

2. Manage Stress

It’s no secret that today’s always-on lifestyle causes us to feel stressed out. You might want to read more about the effects constantly being too busy has on our health and wellbeing. Cutting down on stress will give your mind, body, and brain time to rest and recharge.

At Insight Timer, one of our favorite methods to reduce stress is mindfulness techniques. Scientific research shows that mindfulness can help diverse populations of folks deal with clinical and non-clinical mental problems, including stress.

Mindfulness meditation can help reduce stress (and thus brain fog) by bringing us to the present moment. It teaches how to observe the fluctuations of the mind without emotionally engaging in them, which can help to step back from powerful emotions like anxiety and stress. It teaches how to observe the world “as it is”, resulting in a calmer, less reactive headspace overall—and a less foggy one.

To help you de-stress, clear and energize your mind we put together this playlist of meditations that are also available for free on the Insight Timer app:

  1. Mental Oxygen just-a-minute 1:22
  2. Meditation for a Tired Body & Mind Matthew Young 17:49
  3. Calm The Scattered Mind Spencer Burnside 13:54
  4. Morning Meditation For Energy And Clarity Manoj Dias 15:18
  5. Start Your Day With Clarity, Vigor & Grace Shakti Sutriasa 11:37
  6. Sharp and Focused Mind Julie Smith 18:39
  7. Breath Practice For Focus And Productivity Brooke Blocker 8:33

3. Eat Healthy Fats & Brain-Building Foods

The brain requires a supply of amino acids and essential fatty acids in order to produce the chemicals that make us think. 

Complete proteins like meat, dairy products, and fish provide an ample supply of essential amino acids to keep the brain creating the hormones that result in a positive mindset.  That said, be balanced about it. Eating too many red meats and high-fat dairy increases the level of saturated fat in the body, which researchers have found to reduce memory and cognitive ability over time.

Healthy fats that contain omega-3 fatty acids are an excellent addition to a diet to reduce brain fog. They play a role in the blood-brain barrier and in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. You can find omega-3s in supplements, olive oil, avocado oil, and walnut oil.

Finally, make sure to eat foods that reduce inflammation to improve the brain’s ability to clear the fog. Vegetables and fruits that contain free radical-fighting antioxidants are a good place to start. These include leafy green veggies, berries, and spices like turmeric. 

Make sure to get tested by a medical professional if you have recurring brain fog that may be the result of a food allergy or sensitivity. They will be able to diagnose and recommend a proper protocol.

4. Consider Supplements

Brain fog can be a result of low levels of Vitamin B-12 or Magnesium. Vitamin B-12 deficiency is common in vegetarians and vegans as dairy is the primary source of B-12 in omnivore diets. One of the best sources of vegan B-12 is nutirional yeast or your favorite B-12 supplement.

Magnesium is a second deficiency that can cause brain disorders. It helps the neuron cells transmit messages to the body. Researchers have demonstrated that Magnesium can protect cognitive functions in Alzheimer’s patients, for example. Adding a supplement to your diet may help reduce brain fog.

5. Get Enough Exercise

Exercise stimulates the body to produce hormones that improve brain health, mood, and energy. It can help improve cognitive function, memory, and even mental processing speed, especially in older populations.

The good news is that you can start simple and slow with exercise. If you have been interested in starting to practice yoga at home, check out these tips. It’s not about becoming a marathon runner overnight. Over-exercising can increase exhaustion and brain fog. Starting to exercise is best when it’s sustainable and do-able with your lifestyle.

Exercise provides a great “brain break” when you’ve been sitting all day, whether driving or at work. I’ve found that my brain provides me with better ideas when I take a break and go for a stroll to the coffee shop. 

Take a look at your day. Add in a stretch or a walk outside where you can. These will go a long way in reducing mental fatigue.

6. Experience The Great Outdoors

The last method to reduce everyday brain fog is to experience the great outdoors. Green spaces have been associated with better physical and mental health. Schoolchildren’s brains develop better when they’re exposed to green spaces, so it makes sense that adults would feel better, too.

Grounding yourself to the earth with meditation can bring you to peace in a green space. Centering yourself in nature’s bounty is a sure-fire way to give your brain the rest it deserves.

Read more: Mindfulness coach Stephanie Nash shares her ritual of camping and seeking solitude in nature. Get inspired to go outdoors by her beautiful story.

Meditation. Free.