What is Brain Fog?The term “brain fog” is used to describe a collection of cognitive conditions, including memory problems, a lack of mental clarity, and an inability to focus. Sometimes described as mental fatigue or brain fatigue, brain fog itself is not a medical condition, but a symptom of another condition.
Researchers define brain fog as “a constellation of symptoms that include reduced cognition, inability to concentrate and multitask, as well as loss of short- and long-term memory.”
While everyone has moments of mental confusion, when they become more severe and frequent, they can become debilitating and make even simple daily tasks challenging.
Certain medical conditions that are associated with fatigue, inflammation, and blood sugar imbalances — such as hypothyroidism — often present with symptoms of brain fog. Other medical conditions that commonly result in brain fog symptoms include fibromyalgia, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.
Lifestyle factors that can result in brain fog include sleep deprivation, stress, diet, dehydration, and medication use. Changes in hormones can also be a direct contributor to brain fog.
In my experience with working with chronic disease patients, I have learned that brain fog is a common symptom for many people. There are four related factors that are the main drivers of brain fog for people: insufficient thyroid hormone, inflammation, blood sugar imbalances, and gut permeability.
Insufficient Thyroid HormoneResearch has shown that thyroid gland dysfunction (marked by changes in thyroid hormone concentration) can adversely impact cognitive functions, which helps to explain why so many people with chronic diseases are affected by symptoms of brain fog.
Thyroid hormones (including T3 and T4) impact nearly every aspect of the brain, including neurogenesis (the production of neurons). A decrease in thyroid hormone will naturally impact brain function.
The standard of care for insufficient thyroid hormone is to utilize a synthetic thyroid hormone replacement medication. Unfortunately, simply adding a synthetic thyroid medication to the mix will not result in full recovery for most chronic disease patients. While this medication can be helpful for many people and their symptoms, it does not address the underlying root causes of the condition and may also mask the underlying inflammation that can perpetuate the immune system imbalance and lead to other chronic conditions.
Therefore, many people continue to struggle with thyroid symptoms, including brain fog, even after they’ve started taking medication.
InflammationChronic disease states lead to inflammation and damage of the cells that produce hormones.
The body then becomes stuck in a chronic state of immune system overload, adrenal hormone abnormalities, gut dysbiosis, impaired digestion, impaired detoxification, and thyroid hormone release abnormalities.
All those conditions fuel inflammation, which not only impacts your thyroid, but also your brain. This cycle is self-sustaining and will continue to cause more symptoms… until an external factor intervenes and breaks the cycle.
Once inflammation kicks in, it can run rampant, creating oxidative stress (an overload of free radicals — unstable atoms that harm your body and brain). When chronic inflammation is present, oxidative stress is present much of the time, too.
Oxidative stress results from an imbalance in damaging free radicals and the body’s antioxidant defenses. Along with contributing to numerous health conditions, including cancer and dementia, oxidative stress can manifest in more acute situations, like brain fog, when your brain lacks the antioxidant defense.
Inflammation and oxidative stress impact your brain in numerous ways beyond brain fog. For instance, inflammation triggers your brain to convert the amino acid tryptophan into anxiety-provoking chemicals rather than serotonin and melatonin. When you’re not making enough of these neurotransmitters, your mood and your sleep suffer.
Blood Sugar ImbalancesA third factor linking brain fog to chronic disease is blood sugar imbalances, which are common in those with chronic health conditions. When we consume large amounts of sugar — often in the form of high carbohydrate foods such as desserts, grains, and starchy vegetables — the pancreas has to release larger amounts of the hormone insulin to bring the levels of sugar in the blood back down to a normal level. These surges in insulin can cause blood sugar to drop too low, and lead to lowered levels of glucose (a simple sugar the body uses for fuel) in the brain. This reduces cognitive function by essentially “starving” the brain of its source of energy.
Additionally, chronically high levels of insulin cause systemic and brain inflammation, leading to brain tissue damage and poor mental function.
Intestinal PermeabilityMany times, symptoms of chronic disease, including brain fog, originate in your gut. That makes sense when you realize that every autoimmune condition is associated with intestinal permeability.
More commonly called leaky gut, intestinal permeability occurs when the tight junctions within your gut that normally keep food particles confined, become loose. Food particles and toxins can escape the intestines and enter the bloodstream, creating an inflammatory reaction as these foreign invaders put your immune system into overdrive.
When your gut is inflamed, most likely your brain is, too.
Many factors contribute to leaky gut; however, one of the most common causes is food sensitivities. The most common food sensitivities we see in people with Hashimoto’s are gluten and dairy, though a person can become sensitive to any food. Grains, soy and sugar are also major culprits.
What’s interesting is that gluten intolerance seems to affect systems and tissues predominantly outside of the gastrointestinal tract, and there is an emerging body of evidence that links gluten sensitivity to neurological and behavioral changes.
I have seen dramatic symptom improvement and remission repeatedly in people with Hashimoto’s, who have eliminated triggers like gluten and healed their intestinal permeability.
Additionally, intestinal permeability can contribute to or exacerbate other gut conditions, including overgrowth of the opportunistic yeast Candida albicans. Yeast overgrowth is very common with Hashimoto’s and contributes to many symptoms, including brain fog.
Many of the potential causes of brain fog can, themselves, be caused by poor gut health, including stress, sleep quality, blood sugar imbalances, gluten intolerance, and insufficient thyroid hormone levels.
Addressing gut health and getting to the root cause of brain fog is often the best way to restore mental clarity.
The Gut and Brain Health ConnectionThere is such a strong connection between the brain and the gut, that some people refer to the gut as our “second brain.” We call this connection the brain-gut axis. And, just like your gut maintains a protective barrier that prevents unwanted substances from crossing through, your brain has a blood-brain barrier.
In fact, leaky gut goes together with leaky brain. These same particles that are not intended to slip through the gut, can make their way through the blood brain barrier. To compensate, your microglia (the brain’s “cleanup crew” cells) hop into action.
As immune-supporting cells, microglia work to defend your central nervous system (CNS) by scavenging things like damaged cells, but also foreign invaders that slip through the blood-brain barrier.
Microglia are extremely sensitive to potential CNS threats, and they wage an all-out assault at whatever they deem a potential problem. You want these cells to be alert, but calm, until a real threat occurs with your brain.
Typically, thyroid hormones step in and help keep those microglia calm. When you have low amounts of these thyroid hormones, however, they can’t always keep microglia in check, creating or exacerbating brain inflammation. The inflammatory response that is inherent with chronic disease also contributes to this brain inflammation.
In other words, your brain suffers a double whammy: you don’t have enough thyroid hormones to keep those overzealous microglia in check, plus you have the inflammation present with chronic disease, which spills over into other organs, including your brain.
Tomorrow we will Find out what we can do to Address the Underlying Cause of Brain Fog!!