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Diet and Brain Fog: What to Eat and What to Avoid

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

So you've been feeling a little "foggy" lately? Maybe you've forgotten where you put your keys again or can't remember when exactly that work project is due? Maybe your brain fog is so bad that you don't even know what day of the week it is!

If so, then it's time to take a look at what your eating because while diet is extremely important for overall health, its also a contributing factor to your brain fog.

So how does diet either improve or exacerbate brain fog?

You've heard the saying you are what you eat right? Well nothing could be more true when it comes to brain fog.

The foods that you eat don't just nourish you or give you pleasure, they have a powerful physiological effect on your body and mind. In fact, the hormones produced by your body in response to food or lack thereof have a powerful effect on your brain.

For example, gherlin is a hormone secreted by your empty stomach that tells your brain it's time to eat. It not only causes you to feel hungry,  it also promotes nerve cell changes in the brain that are positively associated with an increase in learning and memory formation.

Am I saying that you should stop eating completely to beat brain fog? Of course not, although the benefits of caloric restriction and fasting have been well documented ranging from a reduction in free radicals in the body, lowered cholesterol and triglycerides, and loss of body fat to an improvement in the function of the cells that create energy in your body [1].

But since this lesson is about food and brain fog, I'll leave fasting for another time.

Are there really foods that help improve brain fog?


But it would be amiss if I didn't mention the foods that contribute to brain fog.

Just as food can heal, it can also harm.

There are a number of foods that are negatively associated with brain fog. In this post, I'll cover the big 3:wheat and gluten products, dairy, and artificial sweeteners. But keep in mind that there are many other foods and chemicals that contribute to brain fog. Your naturopathic doctor will be a great resource in finding out your specific food triggers through a diet diary and food sensitivity testing.

Foods to avoid that contribute to brain fog:

1. Wheat and gluten products. 

           While many people who don't suffer from celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity believe that going gluten free is a popular fad, those of us with gluten sensitivity can attest to the benefit we get from cutting gluten out of our diet.

While your primary care health provider might not recognize the harmful effects of gluten on your cognition, scientific research certainly has. 

People who react negatively to gluten but have not been diagnosed with celiac disease are said to have non celiac gluten sensitivity. Symptoms of non celiac gluten sensitivity include headache, abdominal pain, an imbalance in gut flora, constipation and/or diarrhea, and of course brain fog. 

In fact, gluten sensitivity has even been linked to recurrent miscarriages and skin disorders like psoriasis [2, 3].

There is a debate among two schools of thought when it comes to the reason so many people are reacting to gluten (seemingly) so suddenly. Some say that the wheat that we eat now is not the same that our ancestors ate, and that it had been bred to have more gluten which causes problems in the gastrointestinal tract.

This school of though focuses on the wheat and gluten protein itself.

Gluten is a mixture of two proteins (gliadin and glutenin) found in wheat. Gliadin helps bread rise during baking while glutenin is responsible for the chewy texture of many wheat products that you love.

Gluten has been found to increase a protein in the intestines called zonulin. High levels of zonulin can cause the cells of the intestinal barrier to open and let large food molecules and undigested proteins into the bloodstream.

While the body does allow for smaller digested food particles to get into the blood stream, high levels of zonulin amplify this process. When larger proteins get into the blood stream, this can cause havoc for the body leading to the anything from symptoms of non celiac gluten sensitivity to autoimmune disease and thyroid disorders.

Another school of thought tends to put more emphasis on what goes on the wheat instead of the wheat and gluten itself. Those who don't necessarily think that gluten is so bad believe that the reason people are reacting to wheat and gluten products is because of the high amounts of the weed killer glyphosate that are sprayed on nonorganic wheat products.

Glyphosate has been linked to everything from a runny nose and shortened pregnancy lengths to Parkinson type disease and cancer. There was even a high profile case in 2018 that resulted in a large settlement being awarded to a school groundskeeper who developed cancer after being exposed to Round Up weed killer which has glyphosate as a primary ingredient.

Personally, I think that both schools of thought have some validity which is why avoiding gluten is essential if you have brain fog. 

2. Dairy

         Everyone loves a nice hot slice of gooey cheesy pizza right? Well, your body may not love it. Many adults avoid dairy, especially milk, because of lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is a condition in which your body can't digest milk sugar and you get gas, bloating, and diarrhea as a result.

That doesn't happen when I eat dairy, you say. So should you be able to eat dairy anytime and not worry about your brain fog? 

Not at all.

If you find yourself feeling "foggy" after eating dairy, it's not the milk sugar in dairy products that your body is reacting to but the milk protein casein.

Casein is a protein found in dairy products that can often get tagged by your body as a bad guy that needs to be eliminated. This happens because it is thought that casein and gliadin have a similar structure. So if you're reacting to gluten, you might be reacting to casein as well.

In my experience, many people don't have to cut dairy out of their diets permanently, just long enough to heal the gut and reduce inflammation.

3. Artificial Sweeteners

           Have you ever tried to diet and replaced all of your excess sugars with artificial sweeteners like aspartame and then found yourself feeling more "out of it"? You may have even attributed your brain fog to the decreased amount of calories you were taking in.

If this has happened to you, you're not alone. Although aspartame is widely consumed as an FDA approved artificial sweetener, there has been some troubling research regarding it's consumption.

Aspartame has been linked to headaches, depression, spatial memory loss, and imbalance of gut flora [4, 5].

It has even been linked to elevated levels of the steroid stress hormone cortisol in the body.

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys. It is an extremely important hormone that plays a role in the fight-or-flight mechanism of the body. It also helps to reduce inflammation in the body and stimulate glucose production.

At normal physiological levels, cortisol is an extremely helpful hormone but at abnormal levels it can cause a problem.

Aspartame has been linked to high cortisol levels. The higher levels of cortisol you have the more chance that you will have brain fog because high levels of cortisol have been shown to damage brain cells.

Aspartame isn't the only artificial sweetener that has been linked to problematic changes in the body. Saccharine and sucralose have been linked to changes in the gut flora of the body and impaired blood sugar tolerance. 

Interestingly, some people seem to ingest large amounts of artificial sweeteners with no ill effects while others feel poorly immediately. Belief it or not, these results are actually reflected in research. So if you find yourself struggling with brain fog, try cutting out all artificial sweeteners for a week and record your response.

Now that you have an idea on what foods to avoid to get rid of brain fog, what should you eat instead? While choosing whole unprocessed vegetables and fruits along with lean protein is a great start, there are some nutrients that you should absolutely include to get rid of brain fog.

1. Choline

          Choline is an essential nutrient when it comes to brain health. Choline is neither a vitamin or a mineral although some like to group it in with the B vitamins due to their structural similarities. 

Choline is made by the body but it is essential to get it in your diet to prevent a deficiency.

Choline is used for many different functions in the body from DNA synthesis to maintaining liver health. The main function choline is used for in the body is to make phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelin, two of the major molecules vital for cell membranes. 

Choline is also used as a precursor to acetylcholine. If you remember from lesson 1, acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter responsible for muscle contractions and sleep. It is also essential for proper brain function and cognition.

So how much choline should you be getting in your diet daily?

For adult men it's recommended to get  550 mg/day. For adult women it's recommended to get 425 mg/day. Foods that contain choline include beef, chicken, eggs (especially the yolk), quinoa, broccoli, kidney beans, and shiitake mushrooms.

2. B vitamins especially folate, B6, and B12

            I could have a whole online nutrition course dedicated to B vitamins all by themselves since these nutrients are so essential to good cognition and overall health! Folate, B6, and B12 deficiency and insufficiency has been linked to cognitive impairment for a long time as well as poor health overall.

Folate is a naturally occurring B vitamin that is responsible for many functions in the body especially DNA synthesis and new cell proliferation.Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. 

So how does folate, B6, and B12 deficiency lead to brain fog?

If you're not getting enough of any of these nutrients, you could have high homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is a non protein amino acid that is synthesized from methionine, another amino acid. Homocysteine can act as a storage molecule for other amino acids like cysteine and even sulfur in the body. 

Homocysteine can't be ingested from your diet. 

High homocysteine levels have been linked to many different disorders like Crohn's Disease, colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Folate, B6, and B12 play a part in the methylation cycle of homocysteine to methionine. If you don't have enough of these nutrients, then homocysteine can be converted back to methionine as efficiently. Without optimal conversion of homocysteine to methionine, homocysteine levels tend to rise in the blood stream leading to cognitive impairment and, you guessed it, brain fog.

Foods that naturally contain folate include dark leafy green vegetables like spinach and mustard greens, kidney beans, black eyes peas, and oranges. 

Foods high in B6 include chick beans (garbanzo beans), tuna, salmon, potatoes, and bananas.

Foods high in B12 include clams, nutritional yeast, trout, salmon, and eggs. It's important to note that there is no appreciable source of vitamin B12 in plant foods so vegans should consider B12 supplementation.

3. Turmeric, specifically curcumin

             Turmeric has been enjoying a major spotlight these days and for good reason! With research suggesting that this flavorful spice, or rather the specific antioxidant that it contains (curcumin), is good for many different types of disease and disorders, it's hard to ignore it!

Curcumin is the bright yellow compound found in turmeric and it has a whole host of benefits, especially when it comes to brain fog. Curcumin has been shown to improve working memory and attention in short term doses and has even been shown to improve mood with increased calm, less fatigue, and increased contentedness with long term dosing [6].

So why is this yellow phenolic compound so good for your body and brain? 

It's because curcumin is a powerful antioxidant which prevents damage from free radicals. It also is a powerful anti-inflammatory which helps decrease inflammation in the body and subsequently the brain.

Clearly curcumin is a solid choice when it comes to getting rid of brain fog.

Although this post is more focused on food, sometimes it's best to get your curcumin through a trusted supplement since the bioavailability, or the amount of curcumin needed to produce the desired affect in the body, is low in turmeric. 

If you're not interested in taking a curcumin supplement, consider taking your turmeric with black pepper since it contains the alkaloid piperine which increases the bioavailability of curcumin. You can also try taking turmeric with a fat to increase the absorption rate.

These are just some of the many foods that you can eat to alleviate brain fog. For a more personalized approach book an appointment with your naturopathic physician and get started on the road to being brain fog free today!


Watermelon dress holding a piece of watermelon
I'm Dr. Candace Mathers, a naturopathic physician,helping you repair, restore, and renew your health and life to new heights! I'm a Christian, a mother, and lover of the outdoors.

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