Mental health has gained national awareness over the last few years as people struggle with conditions affecting brain health including anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, multiple sclerosis, and brain fog. These can all be attributed to many root causes and often are related to autoimmune diseases as well. As I discussed in an earlier blog, “How Addressing Brain Fog Healed My Anxiety, Depression, and Restored My Academic Performance,” I suffered from brain fog and had no idea why. It was not until I went to a functional medicine doctor myself that I understood the many factors involved in brain health and how multiple systems in the body are connected in ways that we can not imagine.
What is Brain Fog?
Brain fog can manifest in several ways, including forgetting words, trouble remembering small things, and the need to focus intently on tasks that were easy in the past. Brain fog affects your memory, mental endurance, and focus, leaving you in a mental haze that can go on for a long time. Brain fog can take a toll on both your personal life and the workplace. To truly understand the root causes of brain fog we need to dig deeper.
Brain Fog Symptoms
While brain fog is a symptom of another root cause – it may be helpful to understand that the symptoms below can be defined as brain fog.
- Trouble finding words
- Memory issues
- Fuzzy thinking
- Slower thinking
- Lack of concentration or focus
- Problem-solving issues
- Visual and spatial skills are diminished
- Difficulty processing information
- Confusion or disorientation
Root Causes of Brain Fog and Other Brain Function Disorders
Inflammation of the Brain
Your immune system uses inflammation to fight infection and disease in your body, however, if it goes into long-term overdrive, inflammation can become chronic. This can damage your body and drastically affect your health. Inflammation plays a role in brain and cognitive function, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, and mood.
Brain inflammation has been linked to brain fog, depression, anxiety, autism, PANS (pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome), PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections), Alzheimer’s, and dementia. Inflammation can also be caused by a variety of environmental factors including toxins, plastics, processed foods, GMOs, and lifestyles with high-stress levels – disrupting your cognitive pathways and causing atrophy.
The gut is critical for whole body health. It helps digest food, get rid of waste, detoxify, and protects you from infection. Therefore, we always analyze gut function when looking for the root cause of brain fog. If your body is struggling to digest and absorb the nutrients from your food, then your brain is starving for the nutrition it needs to perform. Chronic inflammation in the gut can lead to inflammation in the brain. If the immune system in your gastrointestinal tract is weak, you will be vulnerable to infections and dysbiosis (keep reading about dysbiosis below). Microbes make toxins which can harm the brain, making it difficult to think and focus. Finally, if you can’t detoxify harmful contaminants, those can accumulate and impair your brain function.
Gluten is a protein found in many grains, including wheat and barley. Whether you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, brain fog can set in after consuming foods containing gluten. Bread is an integral part of most diets around the world. In addition, gluten triggers an inflammatory response that can not only affect your brain, but the nerves in your gut. I will talk more about this in the gut-brain connection section. Testing for gluten intolerance or celiac disease can be a starting point and your functional medicine doctor can help you navigate these conditions.
Allergenic foods can cause brain fog. Some common food allergens are wheat, soy, eggs, corn, dairy, nuts, and citrus. Food sensitivities can stress the immune system and increase inflammation. They can cause fatigue, brain fog, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, skin symptoms, weight loss resistance, or sinus issues. Food sensitivities can be hidden and may take years to figure out, until you see a functional medicine doctor. Sometimes making simple changes to your diet can bring dramatic results for brain function.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Did you know that your gut is your second brain or the “brain” in your gut? Sounds strange, I know, but it is known as the gut-brain axis and plays a crucial role in our immune function and overall health and wellness. As scientists learn more about the connection between the gut and the brain – functional medicine becomes an important approach to resolving conditions that affect the gut-brain axis.
The gut and the brain have a special connection. They are both made of nerve tissue (or brain cells called neurons). They both have an associated immune system. They both operate, and have high levels, of mood chemicals called neurotransmitters. The gut microbiome influences these interactions. The gut microbiome consists of trillions of microorganisms, along with their genetic material. These microorganisms live in our intestinal tract and are responsible for helping to absorb and synthesize nutrients and play an important role in how we digest the food we eat. Also, these gut microbiota play roles in many other functions of the body, including metabolism, immune regulation, cognitive function, and mood.
The Gut-Brain Axis and Imbalanced Gut Microbiome
Also known as intestinal permeability, leaky gut is when the cells in your gut spread apart and “leak” larger molecules from the gut into the bloodstream, where they don’t belong. These large molecules can trigger inflammation throughout the body, including your brain. Since your gut is a major producer of the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin, a leaky gut can cause serotonin levels to drop and depress your mood. We often see food sensitivities in leaky gut and as leaky gut worsens, patients may start reacting to a long list of foods that are normally harmless. When the gut barrier is compromised, as it is in leaky, gut, autoimmunity begins. The immune system no longer has a trustworthy barrier to help protect the bloodstream from outside invaders and it launches immune attack, often targeting self tissues by mistake. Leaky gut is believed to be a major underlying cause of autoimmune diseases.
Your gut contains about 100 trillion microorganisms and 70% of your immune system as well as controls how much your body absorbs from food, including calories, protein, carbs, fats, and other nutrients. Studies show that 73% of IBS patients have intestinal dysbiosis which means that there is an overgrowth of bad bacteria, fungus, or that they don’t have enough good bacteria. Both brain fog and mental illness including depression and anxiety can be caused by gut dysbiosis as it disrupts the communication between the gut-brain axis. Bacteria, fungus, or parasites can lead to dysbiosis, resulting in inflammation in the gut and the brain.
SIBO – Small Intestinal Bacterial Growth
When gut bacteria that are supposed to only be in your large intestine –overgrow into the small intestine – this is known as SIBO or small intestinal bacterial growth. 84% of people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) also experience SIBO. SIBO can lead to brain fog, digestive pain, diarrhea, and malnutrition because these bacteria will interfere with absorption of nutrients, trigger the immune system, and create toxins.
Candida is a yeast that can harm the body when it grows out of control. Untreated, it can become a pathogenic fungus that can trigger brain fog, fatigue, digestive issues, rashes, thrush, vaginal yeast infections, and more. Inflammation caused by Candida can inhibit the communication between neurons. Candida albicans makes acetaldehyde, which is normally converted by the liver and is harmless. However, if there is too much acetaldehyde in the body, the liver cannot process it. When acetaldehyde is released into the bloodstream, it may cause a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, leading to brain fog and vertigo.
Hormonal changes can interfere with healthy brain function. Hormonal imbalances that we see in our practice every day are:
- Cortisol/Adrenal dysfunction
- Low DHEA
- Estrogen dominance and/or low progesterone
- Androgen imbalances, such as low testosterone or high dihydrotestosterone
- Insulin resistance
If you have any of these hormonal imbalances, then your brain cells are not able to work properly. Hormones are the chemical messengers that provide vital signals to tissues all over the body and instruct them how to perform. If your hormones are not finely balanced, they can cause symptoms like depression, anxiety, fatigue, and brain fog. Insulin resistance means that your cells are not responding to the signals from insulin and they may be starving for nutrition. Excess insulin or insulin surges due to blood sugar issues or insulin resistance, is inflammatory to the brain. Excessive hormones in general, such as in the case of estrogen dominance, can be inflammatory and damaging to brain cells. When in balance, hormones give you more energy, better memory, and mental clarity.
Other Common Triggers of Brain Fog
- Thyroid issues
- Viral infections
- Adrenal fatigue
- Histamine intolerance
- Methylation impairments
- Sleep issues
- Consumption of refined sugar
- Artificial sweeteners
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- Household products with toxins
- Heavy metals
The Functional Medicine Approach to Brain Fog
This gets tricky, as you can see, the root causes for brain fog are complicated and in-depth. As I described in an earlier blog, I was inspired to become a functional medicine doctor because I was finally treated by one. She worked with me to discover and address the root causes of my brain fog.
Functional medicine investigates the root causes of your symptoms and then treats your disease all while focusing on your biochemical individuality, metabolic balance, gut microbiome, genetic predisposition, diet and lifestyle choices, and external factors such as toxins and stress levels. A functional doctor will determine how your illness is affecting your health and then create a treatment plan tailored to your personal needs.
Natural approaches may include supplements to reduce inflammation, adaptogens, herbs, and other nutritional supplements, toxins that you should avoid, and lifestyle and dietary changes including elimination diets.
How Do Functional Medicine Doctors Discover the Root Cause of Brain Fog?
Your functional doctor will run a series of tests based on your health history to detect the underlying imbalances that are causing your brain fog. These can include a range of tests including:
- Comprehensive blood chemistry tests including metabolic panel and CBC with differentials
- Iron and anemia panel
- Hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and insulin
- Complete thyroid panel including Hashimoto’s antibodies (if indicated)
- Comprehensive digestive stool analysis with microbiome testing
- SIBO breath test
- Salivary cortisol and adrenal function
- Nutritional tests measuring vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy fats, or amino acids
- C-reactive protein (hs-CRP)
- Homocysteine and Methylation status
- Vitamin D
- Food sensitivity or food allergy
- Genetic tests
- Organic Acids Test (OATs)
What Your Brain is Telling You
Brain fog is a message from your brain; it’s a desperate call for healing and repair. Reduce inflammation in the brain by working with a functional medicine practitioner to address gut dysfunction, intestinal dysbiosis, food sensitivities, intestinal permeability, and/or hormonal imbalance.
If you are suffering from brain fog, I personally know how difficult your life can be and the decline in your health that it can cause. Schedule a complimentary 15-minute discovery consultation and we can get you on the road to healing and say goodbye to your brain fog.