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Inflammation: The Root Cause of Brain Fog?

Updated: May 25, 2023

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Have you ever felt that you just couldn't think? Your projects at work are suffering because you can't concentrate. Your personal relationships are struggling because you can't seem to remember special dates.

And you've lost your car keys and cell phone more times than you can count.

You feel mentally exhausted and no amount of coffee seems to change that.

You may even feel like you're losing your mind.

Most of us have had this happen to us at sometime in our lives and found it to be a minor inconvenience but when you find that your quality of life is suffering due to a lack of mental clarity then you may have brain fog.

What is Brain Fog?

model of a head with the brain exposed

Brain fog is a condition in which you lack focus, concentration, mental clarity, have difficulty remembering, and have an overall inability to think clearly and reason. You may even have trouble making important decisions.

Brain fog, while not a concrete diagnosis, can and does occur in conjunction with a host of disorders like systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE or lupus, multiple sclerosis or MS, and Alzheimer's.

Brain fog has also been linked to depression, iron deficiency anemia, and even stress.

While brain fog is certainly distressing in itself, it's actually just a symptom of an underlying condition: inflammation.

Inflammation and the Root Cause of Brain Fog

When you think of inflammation what first comes to mind?

A puffy red bee sting? An angry swollen arthritic joint? Pain?

The classic clinical signs of inflammation first defined by first century Roman physician Celsus and now drilled into all new med school students include tumor, rubor, calor, and dolor. In plain English: swelling, redness, heat, and pain.

While this process is true of local inflammation, the body's chemical reaction occurring in the surrounding tissues when injured or infected, things look a bit different when you go deeper into the body.

In fact, inflammation, when viewed from within the brain, shows itself as brain fog. Could chronic inflammation on a large scale throughout the body be the root cause of brain fog?

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A study done using a group of 20 healthy male volunteers showed that inflammation, which was caused by injecting a salmonella typhoid vaccine, affected the brain's ability to stay alert.

Interleukin-6 or IL-6 is an inflammatory cytokine, a molecule secreted by cells of the immune system that affects how cells communicate with one another.

Research show’s that IL-6 is an important player in controlling the extent of the inflammatory response [2]. Essentially IL-6 acts as the kindling to fuel the fire of inflammation.

Since IL-6 is a chief player in creating and controlling inflammation, you would think that it was a bad thing, right?

Not quite.

IL-6 and the resulting inflammation is actually beneficial over a short period of time. Inflammation helps to resolve infection and help the immune system.

The problem with inflammation is when it becomes chronic.

How does chronic inflammation lead to brain fog?

Long term inflammation usually causes tissue damage by way of activating the brain's immune system which affects the way that brain cells can communicate with one another. Chronic inflammation may even cause changes to the brain itself.

a model of half of a human brain

One interesting study of individuals who had parents diagnosed with bipolar disorder showed that higher levels of IL-6 and inflammation led to less gray matter volume in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex [3].

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a part of the brain thought to be associated with emotions, autonomic functions like heart rate, memory, and reward related functions [4].

Less brain volume caused by increased inflammation could be a driving force in not only the development of brain fog but also the severity.

As we get older, the picture gets even bleaker. Whether due to a decrease in the production of hormones that inhibit IL-6 or the body just increasing IL-6 production, our bodies create more IL-6 which inflames the brain even more [5].

Increased inflammation leads to increased brain fog which increases stress which then further increases inflammation resulting in more brain fog.

It's a vicious cycle.

So if you're suffering from brain fog, what can you do?

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Eating a healthy diet of whole foods with a focus on lean protein and fresh vegetables and fruits and decreasing or eliminating gluten and grains for a time can go a long way in helping to put out the fire of inflammation. Check out my post on what to eat and avoid to decrease brain fog for more ideas.

Also ensuring that you're getting enough sleep is essential since sleep loss causes an increase inflammation.

8 hours a day is ideal for the vast majority of adults but you may have to adjust the amount of sleep needed to fit your individual needs.

Incorporating a stress reduction technique into your daily routine is paramount to banishing brain fog. I like to pray and give my stress and daily worries to God. It really is freeing for me to let go of a situation in which I have no control.

This practice helps to reduce my stress greatly.

While that technique works extremely well for me, you can find a stress reduction technique that works for you. Deep controlled breathing or a momentary visualization plan, in which you envision yourself in your ideal situation, might work best for you.

Supplements to Reduce Brain Fog

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Some supplements that help to greatly reduce inflammation include omega 3 fatty acids, curcumin (found in the spice turmeric), spirulina, E. senticosus also called Siberian ginseng, and M. citrifolia or noni leaf extract.

Always talk to your licensed naturopathic doctor before taking any supplements to ensure that they are safe

for you and won't interact with any medications you're currently taking.

With a holistic approach involving diet and lifestyle changes, you can beat brain fog and get your life back again!

Your turn!

Have you ever experienced brain fog? What worked for you and what didn't? Let me know in the comments.

Dr. Candace Mathers, naturopathic doctor in Chicago suburbs, Candace Mathers podcast

I'm Dr. Candace Mathers, boy mom, girl mom, Down syndrome mom and naturopathic doctor. Life Blossom Wellness will be releasing a NEW book about how to boost the immune system and fight against respiratory viral illnesses naturally.

Sign up for our email list to get more information and be the first to get the book when it comes out!


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