Can anxiety cause brain fog? 8 lifestyle shifts to help you find relief (even if you don't have tons of time, patience, or willpower)

Can anxiety cause brain fog? 8 lifestyle shifts to help you find relief (even if you don't have tons of time, patience, or willpower)

Do you ever feel like your motivation and mental clarity are inaccessible? If so, you're not alone. Nearly everyone has felt brain fog: cloudiness, lack of concentration, and mental  fatigue.

Brain fog symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Fatigue or tiredness, despite adequate rest
  • Lack of mental clarity or sharpness
  • Slower processing speed of information
  • Difficulty finding the right words or expressing thoughts
  • Trouble with decision-making or problem-solving
  • Sensory overload or feeling overwhelmed by stimuli
  • Mood swings or irritability

Beyond the frustrations of brain fog, it can also trigger stress, anxiety, and other mental health symptoms. Brain fog can bring fear about what the fogginess might mean for your health, motivation levels, or work performance. Anxious, ruminative thoughts about brain fog can themselves feel tiring, amplifying your exhaustion and fogginess in a self-reinforcing loop.

As a result, anxiety and brain fog can fade into one another, creating a chicken-and-egg situation that begs the question.

Can anxiety cause brain fog? Or is it the other way around? 

We can trace the connection between brain fog and anxiety to the impacts of chronic stress on our bodies. When we face small and infrequent doses of stress, we return to balance quickly and without lingering effects. But when we're chronically stressed or have an anxiety disorder, we can become accustomed to low-level yet ongoing tension [1].

Chronic stress causes nervous system imbalance . An imbalanced nervous system is less flexible and less responsive: in this state, we can't appropriately shift between sympathetic and parasympathetic states based on environmental or internal bodily cues, possibly leading to cognitive impairment and sleep disorders. [1]. Practically, this can look like feeling free-floating tension even when there's nothing scary in our immediate circumstances. Or it can show up as brain fog: struggles with concentration, mental cloudiness, fatigue, and more.

When our sympathetic nervous system over-dominates the parasympathetic, we become hyper-fixated on protecting our survival at the expense of essential kinds of maintenance: proper digestion, sleep, and focus [2]. These changes occur because of the ways chronic stress alters brain function. Stress turns on primitive brain areas associated with threat detection (like the amygdala ) while degrading the influence of our higher learning centers (like the prefrontal cortex ), resulting in sleep deprivation, memory loss, and other cognitive symptoms [3].

Regarding the link between brain fog and anxiety, research published in Frontiers in Psychology explores how stress disrupts cognitive processes such as working memory and problem-solving. Processing stressful thoughts crowd out other functions, leading to hazy, laborious thinking [4].

So, in addition to the ordinary challenges of accessing and maintaining focus, anxious thoughts put extra labor on the brain and body, increasing our physical and emotional tension and making focus even more taxing.

Clearing brain fog and anxiety naturally 

Identifying and correcting the root causes of your brain fog and anxiety can help you reverse them at their source. Conversely, if you only focus on mitigating your immediate mental fog symptoms, you can sometimes amplify the underlying problem, ultimately making resolution harder to reach. 

For example, if you’re feeling fatigued and foggy, you might drink caffeine to power through your 3 pm meeting. In the short term, this might work, but it might also make matters worse, causing jitters, physical agitation, and other unpleasant sensations. 

The following strategies can help you get to the core of your anxiety and brain fog so you find relief faster. 

1. Investigate your gut health

The gut and brain are interconnected. As a result, gut microbiome imbalances can put your nervous system on high alert, contributing to cognitive disturbances in your brain cells like brain fog, anxiety, and/or depression [5]. The gut-brain link explains why people with brain fog often simultaneously face acid reflux, nausea, sugar cravings, and similar symptoms.

One common type of gut-brain imbalance that contributes to anxiety or brain fog is small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO occurs when bacteria originating in the large intestine travel into the small intestine, where they find greater access to food [6].

In the large intestine, they emit gasses, causing burping, bloating, constipation, and other digestive issues. These gasses can enter the bloodstream, leading to brain fog, joint pain, and anxiety [6].

Studies show that when individuals with intestinal issues adopted a low FODMAP diet, their digestive and brain-fog-related symptoms improved [7].

The FODMAP diet is an elimination diet. The term "FODMAP" is an acronym referring to fermented foods that can cause problems for people diagnosed with SIBO, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or anyone facing chronic digestive issues.

The diet restricts certain carbohydrates that ordinarily feed pathogenic bacteria. When you stop feeding these bacteria, they starve, and as a result, you have less brain fog and related issues [8].

While FODMAP foods aren't inherently unhealthy, if you're having digestive problems combined with mental fogginess, fatigue, and similar issues, the low FODMAP diet can be a short-term tool that helps you identify and eliminate the foods that may be contributing to your symptoms.

2. Ask whether you’re missing vital nutrients

Vitamin and nutrient deficiencies can also trigger brain fog and anxiety. Even if you follow a healthy diet, modern farming practices have changed the nature of the soil, which means our vegetables don't have the same mineral content they had a few generations ago.

While this doesn't make getting nutrients from food impossible, it requires more diligence and active effort (and in some cases, supplementation).

Vitamin testing panels can help you identify whether the following deficiencies could be contributing to your brain fog or anxiety:

  • Vitamin D: This critical vitamin influences everything from bone health to brain function to mood regulation [9]. Studies have pointed to links between low vitamin D levels and depression, which often includes brain fog as a symptom [10]. The best sources of vitamin D are fatty fish (mackerel, salmon, and trout), but you can also supplement with vitamin D. Testing your levels beforehand will ensure you're supplementing optimally. Getting enough sun exposure is also vital for keeping vitamin D levels high.
  • Vitamin B complexes: Vitamin B deficiencies can lead to focus and memory issues [11]. Vitamin B-12, for instance, plays a central role in central nervous system function, influencing mood and other cognitive processes [12]. Similarly, researchers have found that folate (Vitamin B-9) deficiencies can contribute to focus and memory difficulties [13] Foods high in Vitamin B-12 are protein-rich foods like eggs, beans, lentils, meats, nuts, and seeds [ source ]. You can find folate in asparagus, beets, and leafy greens .
  • Iron: We can also trace brain fog and other cognitive performance issues to iron deficiencies. One study found that children with iron deficiencies had lower scores on cognitive function tests, likely thanks to iron's role in brain development [14]. Foods like beef, sardines, lentils, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts can support your iron levels.

3. Quench your thirst

Research has pointed to direct links between our cognitive function and hydration levels. A study published in Nutrients looked at the way water restriction impacted cognitive performance, finding that it significantly impaired participants' episodic memory, fatigue levels, and mood [15].

Though our thirst generally indicates when we should drink water, it's common to be chronically dehydrated without realizing it. Sometimes, by the time you're thirsty, dehydration has already set in.

There are no one-size-fits-all water recommendations for everyone because our needs change based on the weather, the amount of exercise we do, and other factors. However the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that men drink 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of water per day while urging women to drink 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) [16].

Be extra mindful of your hydration levels if you’re:

  • Living in a hot climate or high altitude;
  • Drinking high amounts of caffeine;
  • Exercising regularly and vigorously.

4. Prioritize creative hobbies

If you have a lot of responsibilities, you might think of your hobbies as rewards you enjoy after you've burned through everything on your to-do list. But this can be counterproductive: If your life becomes all work and no play, you risk draining your mental energy, setting yourself up for low energy and exhaustion.

Instead, if you prioritize 45 minutes to an hour of a creative hobby—playing piano, gardening, or something else—you'll give yourself the replenishment that keeps you relaxed yet mentally agile, improving your brain health.

Research points to how creative activities can help you recover from work-related stress and arrive at new and innovative solutions to problems. Research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found associations between creative activity, recovery opportunities, and work performance [17]. Engaging in creative activities gave participants opportunities to recover from stress. These recovery periods helped generate feelings of relaxation and mastery, giving rise to innovative solutions for their work-related tasks.

In other words, prioritizing a creative hobby during leisure hours can help replenish you in ways that watching TV or scrolling social media may not. This replenishment can help you weave new modes of thinking into your work, making you more likely to arrive at creative solutions.

Even if you can only fit 15 minutes of a creative hobby into your day, it can still serve as an oasis that can support you through work tensions or life's inevitable ups and downs.

5. Maintain a consistent sleep rhythm

Sleep plays a massive role in your mood and cognitive function. Physiological changes that take place during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep influence your daytime emotional regulation and working memory [18]. As a result, interruptions in your REM sleep could contribute to mood troubles or focus issues.

Deep (slow-wave) sleep also impacts your daytime cognitive function: The brain consolidates memories formed during the day into long-term storage. Deep sleep also supports declarative and procedural memory (recalling information and learning new skills, respectively) [19]. As a result, a lack of deep sleep can lead to drops in attention and alertness levels.

The most far-reaching yet straightforward way to improve your sleep quality is to go to bed and wake up at consistent times. When your bed and wake-up times become consistent, you align your body's clocks, stabilizing your circadian rhythm and preventing sleep deprivation. This practice will increase your chances of improving your sleep quality and efficiency.

Though this recommendation is simple, it isn't always easy. For support in developing sleep consistency , consider using the Apollo Wearable. The Apollo trains your body to respond better to stress. By supporting your body's stress resilience, it also works to balance your circadian rhythm, so you can fall asleep easily and wake up when you want with less effort or grogginess.

6. Stabilize your blood sugar

Eating processed or refined sugars can send you on a blood sugar roller coaster that causes anxiety and brain fog.

Eating sugar spikes your blood sugar, triggering the release of insulin, which works to bring your sugar levels back down. But if you eat high amounts of sugar, your body may not be able to produce enough insulin to keep up. High blood sugar levels interfere with cognitive function, causing brain fog and difficulty concentrating [20].

One approach for avoiding sharp blood sugar spikes is to focus on healthy fats, especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids: mackerel (and other fatty fish), chia seeds, walnuts, and eggs. Medical experts usually recommend at least 250 to 500 mg of EPA and DHA per day. According to the American Heart Association, you can find this by eating fish twice a week [21], or by supplementing with high-quality fish or cod liver oil.

7. Re-engineer your breathing through meditation

Our breath is a leverage point that can help us intervene in what would otherwise be solely unconscious processes. When you're feeling stressed, your breathing rate automatically reflects your mental state, becoming faster and shallower. If left unchanged, this creates a negative feedback loop, where anxious thoughts provoke shallow breathing, and your shallow breathing intensifies your sense of panic.

To reverse this process, consider committing to a daily breathwork practice with mindful meditation. These can be practices you do as part of a daily morning routine, or they can be tools you rely on when you're feeling tense. 

Either way, remember this: the more regularly you practice breath work, the more effective it will become. When you practice consistently, you'll get to the point where you spend the same amount of time on the exercises while their benefits become more perceptible.

Try alternate nostril breathing

The breathing exercises found in meditation techniques can help us recenter ourselves and clear brain fog. A breath control practice from the Pranayama tradition, alternate nostril breathing can settle your mind when you want to relax or focus. Research by the International Journal of Yoga found that participants who practiced alternate nostril breathing for 30 minutes, five times per week (over 12 weeks) had reduced perceived stress and improved heart rate and blood pressure parameters [22].

There are many variations of alternate nostril breathing. It may help to try multiple approaches to see what works best for you. Here's one approach:

  • In a comfortable seated position, raise your right hand. Bend your index and middle fingers toward the palm so that you can close your right nostril with your thumb.
  • With your thumb against your right nostril, inhale through your left nostril.
  • Move your hand so your ring and little finger rest against your left nostril as you release the thumb and exhale through the right nostril.
  • Inhale through the right nostril, then put your thumb back on your right nostril, exhaling through the left.
  • Repeat for up to five minutes.

8. Embrace the power of reframing

While direct methods of calming down the nervous system can be powerful, the ways we think about and conceptualize our emotions also construct how we feel.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology pointed to the value of re-appraising anxiety as excitement (rather than "fighting" anxiety or re-framing it as calmness) [23].

As the author explained, when we feel tense, our first instinct is to calm ourselves down. But as we know, this isn't easy because calmness and anxiety differ dramatically in the types of physical arousal they create.

But if you frame anxiety as excitement, you can take advantage of the fact that excitement and anxiety are "arousal congruent": they're nearly physiologically identical. It's only the stories we tell ourselves that make the difference.

The author measured physical changes when participants practiced saying "I'm excited" or received instructions to "get excited" while taking classically nerve-wracking actions like singing, speaking, or solving math equations in public.

By telling themselves they were excited, they reported greater subjective feelings of excitement, which improved their performance compared to when they re-framed their emotions as calmness (or when they didn't re-frame their emotions at all) [24]. By re-framing their anxiety as excitement, they adopted "opportunity mindsets," as the author put it, rather than threat-focused mindsets.

Connect with the deeper messages behind brain fog and anxiety

Anxiety, brain fog, and other symptoms are ultimately signs of intelligence. They are messengers that help us understand ourselves and what is (and isn't working) about our current habits.

If you can illuminate the root causes of brain fog, anxiety, or whatever you're dealing with, you can see your struggle as an invitation to intentionally re-calibrate.

When you seek to understand and correct the underlying sources of your symptoms, as distressing as they sometimes can be, you move in the direction of lifestyle shifts that ultimately help you restore balance. This balance helps you align with the best version of yourself, one who can live with vitality, focus, and presence.

Sources :

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