As I’m writing this, it’s currently Monday afternoon, and the effects of my double-shot Starbucks have worn off, leaving me feeling tired, unfocused, and a tad unmotivated. A couple of late nights and bad meals over the weekend are hitting hard, making this feel like the Mondayest Monday ever. Sound familiar?
All of us experience the occasional lack of energy or motivation on account of what can only be described as brain fog or an afternoon slump. It’s when 2 pm rolls around, and you just need another cup of coffee to keep going, or you have trouble focusing and checking items off your to-do list becomes harder and harder. Even though brain fog is perfectly normal, it doesn’t mean we should have to put up with it. We’re #bosses taking over the world, one raise at a time, and simultaneously fighting for equal rights and defeating the patriarchy. The last thing we need to distract us from reaching our goals is an afternoon slump.
What is “Brain Fog?”
We throw around the term “brain fog” as a reason to have that 2 pm coffee or to explain an occasional lack of motivation. But “brain fog” is more than just a passing feeling in the afternoon or early morning — it’s an actual medical condition that can start as early as your late teens. The term is actually referring to changes in brain function over time. Symptoms can include fatigue, confusion, lack of concentration, sleeping issues, forgetfulness, and headaches.
Many factors from lifestyle to your diet can cause brain fog, and hormones also have a big connection to our brains (I’m sure you’ve heard of “pregnancy brain”), meaning your mental clarity can change depending on days of your cycle or stress levels. If you feel like you suffer from consistent brain fog, talk to your doctor (as it could be a hormonal imbalance or an infection), but a few natural lifestyle changes can help prevent an afternoon slump or the occasional lack of energy.
10 Natural Ways to Prevent Brain Fog
1. Get enough (good!) sleep
Make sure to get at least seven hours of sleep a night, but aim for eight to nine hours when you can for optimal brain function. Even if you think you’re sleeping through the night, your body might not be going through full REM cycles, preventing your brain from regenerating itself for the next day. Track your sleep patterns with an app like Sleep Cycle to make sure you’re not only getting enough sleep but enough good quality sleep.
2. Add adaptogens to your coffee (or smoothie!)
You might have heard the wellness buzzword from your favorite blogger or on your Instagram feed, but the miraculous effects of adaptogens prove a staying power stronger than the typical trend. These non-toxic roots, mushrooms, and herbs help the body reduce stress and boost mental focus and clarity. Try adaptogens like ashwagandha for easing anxiety and assisting overall brain function or cordyceps which can be used as an alternative to coffee for its energy boosting benefits and ability to improve stamina. You can also try popular mixes intended specifically for brain boosts.
Powdered adaptogens can be added to coffees, smoothies, teas, or even baked goods. The best way to incorporate these powerful herbs and mushrooms is to add them to a part of your daily routine that you already have. If you’re a coffee drinker, add a powdered form to your morning latte, or incorporate it into your breakfast smoothie. You can also add adaptogens to baked goods or foods like yogurt. Adaptogens are not stimulants, so you will not feel immediate effects — take them consistently for about 3 months.
3. Do something creative
If you’re suffering through an afternoon slump or lack of motivation, it might very well be that you haven’t been doing enough activities that make you feel excited. What’s your favorite part of your workday? Is it brainstorming new ideas? Problem-solving with coworkers? It may sound counterintuitive, but if you can, schedule your favorite items on the to-do list for the mid-afternoon when that slump typically hits. Or take a break from work and get your creative juices flowing with whatever appeals to you, whether it’s doodling or pinning to your Pinterest board. Activating other parts of your brain can boost energy, and doing something creative acts like meditation to rewire your brain for focus.
4. Avoid foods that can affect mental clarity
If you feel consistent brain fog and have a lot of milk, cheese, and yogurt in your diet, your lack of focus could be in part from a dairy sensitivity. Hate to be the bearer of bad news (I love a good cheddar as much as the next girl!), but if the body sees the proteins in dairy as a threat (as what happens if your body is sensitive to the food group), it produces antibodies to chase them out, causing brain fog. Try to replace with almond milk or non-dairy cheese, and see if it changes your brain function.
Artificial ingredients like MSG and artificial sweeteners also affect mental clarity because they mess with your brain’s neurotransmitters. Avoid MSG and artificial sweeteners by sticking to whole foods, and try natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup. Now, for the worst news of all — you should also try to limit caffeine. You might reach for a cup of coffee when you need more energy but after an increase of caffeinated energy comes a crash, making you feel sluggish and tired. Having caffeine too late in the day (typically after 3 pm but it depends on your bedtime) can also mess with sleep cycles. Try to stick to one cup of coffee a day before mid-afternoon to prevent crashes and sleep problems.
5. Do a mini-meditation
If you start to feel groggy or tired in the middle of the day, consider walking yourself through a mini-meditation. Meditation has actually been proven to chemically rewire the brain, and even just a few days of consistent meditation can improve overall concentration and memory. Studies have also shown that short meditation breaks can help children in school, so tap into science and use meditation to your advantage. An app like Headspace walks you through short, audio guided meditations, and Happy Not Perfect uses visuals and activities to bring the brain into meditation based on your current mood. Next time that afternoon slump starts to hit, reach for your phone instead of a coffee.
6. Take a B-Complex vitamin
Ask your doctor to check your levels of Vitamin B, especially if you have a limited intake of meat and dairy. If you’re low or slightly deficient in this crucial vitamin, it can cause dizziness, decrease in brain function, and even memory loss. Studies find that vitamin B6 plays a significant role in brain glucose function and boosts mood, while vitamin B12 (found in meat and dairy products) affects overall cognitive function.
7. Eat the right way
Food is medicine. If you’re experiencing any physical issue, including brain fog, look to your diet to make sure you’re getting enough of the good stuff. Foods high in antioxidants (like berries, leafy greens, beans, and artichokes), as well as omega-3 fatty acids (like walnuts, eggs, chia seeds, and salmon), are particularly good for brain health and improving concentration. But, making sure you’re getting enough nutrients, in general, is crucial to the overall function of every part of your body, including your brain. Eat a balanced diet of healthy fats, proteins, and carbs, and eat multiple variations of fresh produce with every meal.
I get it — after a long, busy day at work, nothing feels harder than putting on your running shoes and getting your exhausted butt to the gym, especially when your couch and a new episode of The Bachelorette are calling your name. But exercising provides benefits for your brain so good that it’s worth powering through (and saying “see ya later!” to your couch). Not only does regular exercise change the brain to improve memory, concentration, and thinking skills, but getting your body moving has immediate effects on your brain through the release of endorphins, which increases energy and boosts mood. Consistent exercise will help prevent brain fog, but if you do feel that afternoon tiredness coming on, take a walk around the block or go through some yoga stretches.
9. Go outside
A recent study found that people who spent time walking outside for 90 minutes a day had significant decreases in depression and cortisol levels. Being outside has also been proven to improve short-term memory and boost focus. If you’re preparing for a big presentation or exam and really need to focus, consider taking a quick walk around the block to help memorize your material. Vitamin D also has a huge effect on the brain, potentially being the key to memory function, so soaking up some sun, even for 30 minutes on your lunch break, can boost brain health (but don’t forget your sunscreen!).
10. Experiment with essential oils
By now you’ve probably heard the benefits of essential oils range from beating breakouts to helping indigestion, but did you know they can also be used to increase focus and energy? Nutmeg oil helps you focus by igniting chemicals in your brain that make you alert and focused. Some reports say it also helps symptoms of poor memory, fatigue, and depression. Peppermint Oil can also boost energy and wake you up if you’re feeling tired. Try diffusing one of these oils throughout the day, or rub onto wrists and temples for an immediate brain boost.