Brain fog: what is it and what can we do about it?


***Brain fog, a type of cognitive dysfunction, is one of the most common complaints of people with chronic illness.***

It can be severe and can have just as big an impact on our lives as pain or fatigue. Sometimes, I think brain fog can be more of a disability than some of the other symptoms of my own illness. However, that judgment comes more on good days than those days when I’m doubled up in pain or overwhelmed with fatigue.

The impact of brain fog on our lives can range from mild to severe. It varies from day to day. But just what is brain fog?  Sometimes our descriptions can be quite subjective and from personal experience, they can vary from individual to individual.  So, not everyone describes it the same way. 

out of order

What is brain fog?

  • How we use words: Brain fog causes difficulty recalling known words, the use of incorrect words, and the slow recall of names. These symptoms can change how we interact socially, can make speaking and writing frustratingly difficult, and just make daily life harder to navigate.
  • Short-term memory: Brain fog causes forgetfulness and the inability to remember what’s read or heard. This can be manifested in some common ways such as forgetting what you sat down at the computer to do, losing your place in that book you are reading, or causing relationship problems when we forget what that most important person told us ten minutes ago.
  • No sense of direction: Brain fog causes us to not recognize familiar surroundings, to easily become lost when walking or driving, and to have trouble finding things that likely have been put in places we thought would help us remember.
  • Difficulty multitasking: Brain fog significantly interferes with multitasking which before our illness may have been one thing that separated us from the crowd. It causes us to have the inability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time and it can cause us to forget what we are doing when we are only momentarily distracted.
  • Lack of concentration and focus: Brain fog causes us to have trouble processing information and makes us easily distracted. It causes us to have great difficulty in completing simple daily tasks.  Paying the monthly bills, that used to take a couple of hours, can now take days, simply because we can’t keep our focus.
  • Trouble with numbers: Brain fog makes it hard to perform simple math, it makes remembering number sequences almost impossible, makes us transpose numbers, and causes us to forget important telephone numbers, pin numbers, or even dates of birth.

cleaning out brain fog

What can we do about it?

***Treat the underlying problems.***

The two most common problems in our illnesses that make brain fog worse are: sleep disorders and pain. So, to help us deal with brain fog, we also must deal with the trouble we have sleeping and our pain

For sleep, there are a number of things we can do.

  • First, we can go to a sleep specialist who may order a sleep study so that they may more objectively identify what might be preventing us from sleeping at night. Many people with chronic illness also have a severe sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. Treating this problem may help us have a better night’s sleep.
  • Second, we need to be sure that we choose the right sleeping position and have the right mattress and pillows to allow our bodies the most comfort. If we are in the wrong position at night, we only worsen our pain.
  • Third, we can work with our physician to try different medicines that might help us sleep. Sometimes a mild anti-depressant will help us but often it will take a trial of a number of possibilities before we find one that will provide relief for our unique needs.
  • Fourth, learn and use various relaxation techniques to help us fall asleep. Don’t get discouraged when you first fail at a relaxation strategy. There are many options. And keep trying. Sometimes it takes a lot of trial and error before we find something that works for us.

***For pain, there are also several possibilities:***

  • First, find and use appropriately medication that works for you.  I also recommend eliminating medicines that you find just aren’t helping.  Sometimes we find ourselves just layering on more and more medicine.  All this ends up doing is intensifying our brain fog.  And, some medicines just create more fog than they ever do in managing our pain.
  • Second, find someone or something that makes you smile and laugh.  Happiness and joy have scientifically been proven to help relieve pain.  I think when I am happy I am at least temporarily distracted from my pain.  At the very least, it doesn’t hurt as much.
  • Third, distract yourself.  I find when I am writing my blog or reading a book, I don’t hurt as much.  And once I become active in this way, my cognitive dysfunctions seem to lessen.
  • Fourth, relax.  Those same techniques that might help us sleep at night might also help us deal with pain during the day.  Find what works for you and do it over and over and over.  It takes practice to get it right  Once you do get it right, you will be glad that you kept working at it and didn’t give up!
  • And fifth, find a sleep position that helps reduce pain.  Whether we sleep on our back, our side or our stomach can dictate how much pain we have depending on the physical problems we have.  Letting our spine find a more natural position with position and pillows can help us manage our pain significantly.

***If we have trouble treating the underlying problem, there are still ways we can try to manage brain fog:***

  • Nutritional supplements have been shown to help. Among the safest are B vitamins and omega-3 (as in fish oil). Another natural supplement that can help in many ways is natural organic apple cider vinegar.
  • Diet also helps. Diet includes things other than what food we eat and how many calories we ingest. For example, if we have problems with digestion and acid reflux, we might want to eat several smaller meals throughout the day rather than two or three large meals. Eating smaller meals also makes it easier to choose more nutritional food options and can keep us from overeating by never allowing us to get “too hungry”.  Include foods that help reduce pain and inflammation.  “Brain friendly foods” include: fish (omega-3), eggs (choline), fruits, vegetables, and carbohydrates.

***For suggestions, see my blog:***

  • Stay active. Don’t isolate yourself in your bed with the covers pulled up over your head. Get up, get dressed, and do something that you are able to do. Exercise only up to your limits and be careful not to overdo it; which will only make pain, fatigue and brain fog much worse.
  • Cognitive training is also a possibility. Research has shown that cognitive training can slow, stop or sometimes reverse cognitive dysfunction. While most of this research has been on “aging” brains, it likely also applies to brains that have been prematurely aged by chronic disease. There are video games and websites that offer options that might help. Choose those that provide games to improve memory and critical thinking as they have been shown to be most effective. And, if you choose cognitive training, be sure that you stick with it. It is something that you must do every day for it to be effective.
  • Reading can be a tool to get us out of the fog. While the effects of brain fog sometimes make reading more difficult, I believe that, in the long run, it helps me stay more alert. I may end up re-reading some passages but I think it is exercising our brains in a multitude of different ways.
  • The same goes for being online. Don’t be passive but be active when you are online. Interact with comments. Read the posts on pages you follow. It’s a way to challenge your brain when you are alone and have no other interaction to stimulate yourself.
  • And, most important, don’t just sit and watch television or a movie. While I think it’s okay to watch a little TV and I think it’s a great thing if we can get out of the house and go to a movie at a theatre, watching hours of TV or one movie after another on your TV at home only contributes to more brain fog. It doesn’t exercise our brains in the way reading or cognitive training will do.  And it has been shown to lower cognitive function.  We certainly don’t need that!

About mcreyscope

Retired / disabled survivor of Stage IV melanoma and paraneoplastic syndrome. Now in a fight with terminal treatment resistant Stage IV Prostate Cancer.
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