Brain Fog Isn't In Your Head: Here's What You Need To Know

Photo: Joshua Rawson Harris

Brain problems are an ever-increasing epidemic in our society. In fact, you can probably name at least one person in your life, if not yourself, who is currently struggling with anxiety, depression, brain fog, or even a condition like Alzheimer’s disease. With at least 20 percent of the population dealing with a diagnosable mental disorder, it’s beyond crucial to uncover the real reason behind our brain problems.

As a functional medicine practitioner, my job is to clinically investigate and treat the underlying cause of chronic health problems to actually heal the body and not just manage symptoms. One of the biggest players in the "brain fog" many of us experience is the health of the gut. So let's jump in:

The gut-brain connection.

Research has often referred to your gut as your "second brain," and it's for good reason. When you're growing in your mother’s womb, your gut and brain are actually forming from the same fetal tissue and will continue their special bond throughout your entire life. So when we want to heal the brain, we need to look at the other end of what is known as the gut-brain axis for clues.

By now, most of us are familiar with leaky gut syndrome, which happens when your gut lining is compromised and can cause a whole slew of digestive issues. Occludin and Zonulin are two proteins that govern gut permeability as well as protect the blood-brain barrier. When they are elevated, antibodies to these proteins can indicate damage to not only your gut but your brain as well. The gut-brain connection becomes all too real here by turning leaky gut into "leaky brain." Pleasant name, isn't it?

It’s not uncommon that I see a patient come in for brain fog or depression and after running labs find that they also have leaky gut syndrome. It just goes to show that you do not have to have digestive symptoms in order to have digestive problems.

Your brain on inflammation.

To make matters worse, with increased permeability comes increased inflammation in the gut. And while some inflammation in the body is necessary to fight off infections, ongoing chronic inflammation spells trouble for your health. In fact, a whole area of medical research known as "the cytokine model of cognitive function" is dedicated to studying just how much inflammation, specifically inflammation of the brain, is correlated with depression, anxiety, and brain fog.

Inflammation doesn’t do your blood-brain barrier any favors either. The molecule microRNA-155 is elevated with increased inflammation and can create gaps in the blood-brain barrier, letting bacteria and other toxins slip through. Your brain’s immune system ends up working in overdrive to fight off these invaders and ends up creating more inflammation in your brain to try to protect it. It’s because of this inflammatory oxidative stress in the hypothalamus of the brain that you forget where you left your keys and struggle to get through the day.

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Hormones and brain fog.

Another contributor to brain fog that often goes overlooked is an imbalance in hormones, specifically cortisol. Your brain-adrenal (HPA) axis controls the secretion this major stress hormone through a specific chain of command. Your hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which then instructs the pituitary gland to release the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which is responsible for telling your adrenal cortex to release cortisol. When there is a dysfunction of your brain’s communication with your adrenals, it leads to what is known as adrenal fatigue and puts stress on your immune system. In that case, we end up seeing brain fog as being both the cause and effect of adrenal fatigue due to the brain-hormone connection.

1. Heal your gut.

It takes anywhere from 12 to 24 months to fully repair a leaky gut. Begin your healing journey by bringing in food medicines like bone broth, which works to build up damaged gut lining along with probiotic-rich fermented foods like sauerkraut and kefir.

2. Bring in healing herbs.

What can’t adaptogens help with? These plants bring balance to every system in your body, and your brain is no exception. Holy basil is one of my favorites for brain fog as it works to increase cognitive function as well as regulate cortisol levels. I also love lion's mane mushrooms because of their uber-powerful neuroprotective benefits. This mushroom contains nerve growth factors (NGFs) that can regenerate and protect brain tissues. Studies have shown that supplementation improves cognitive function.

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3. Book a sauna session.

Infrared light is a great tool for bringing down inflammation levels. Sitting in a far infrared sauna for at least 30 minutes a few times a week is a relaxing way to reduce inflammation and de-stress.

4. Boost your sunshine vitamin.

When your brain is deficient in vitamin D, it can contribute to brain fog and decreased memory. Sunshine is the most bioavailable source, but if you can’t get outside, turn to food to get this essential nutrient. Take advantage of the high levels found in salmon, mackerel, and tuna, and combine them with foods packed with fat-soluble vitamins A, K2, and E, which make vitamin D more bioavailable.

5. Detox regularly.

There are so many different ways to avoid toxins in your everyday life, and they can all help mitigate what's passing through a damaged blood-brain barrier as you heal.

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6. Don't skimp on sleep.

Despite living in a culture that doesn't value sleep as much as it should, we need sleep to feel our best—especially when it comes to mental clarity. And it makes sense that a lack of sleep leaves you in a fog since it increases the oxidative stress in your brain’s hypothalamus.

7. Reduce inflammation.

So much can be actively done to soothe inflammation back to normal levels such as incorporating turmeric and swapping out inflammatory foods for more nutritious substitutes. Intermittent fasting is another tool I often recommend to give your gut a break.

Need relief ASAP? Here's what functional medicine experts do when they have brain fog.

William Cole, D.C.

Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional medicine expert, graduated from Southern California University of Health Sciences as a doctor of chiropractic. His extensive postdoctorate education and training is in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. Dr. Cole consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors and customizing health programs for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders and brain problems. Visit www.drwillcole.com for free e-books, recipes, and webcam evaluation.
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William Cole, D.C.

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