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. In short: I’ve got a serious case of brain fog. 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 on account of brain fog or an afternoon slump. You know the feeling: around 2 p.m., 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 common, 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 while defeating the patriarchy. The last thing we need to distract us from reaching our goals is an afternoon slump, right?
What is “Brain Fog?”
We throw around the term “brain fog” as a reason to have that 2 p.m. coffee or to explain an occasional lack of focus, but mental fatigue can show up in a lot of different ways. It might feel like an inability to concentrate on conversations or having to reread sentences over and over because they’re just not clicking. Maybe it’s scrolling through social media because you can’t focus on work tasks, or the feeling that your head is in the clouds. Small decisions might feel difficult to make and you may rely on coffee or snacks to keep you focused.
While brain fog is common and something we’ve all likely experienced (Mondays, am I right?), it’s actually a symptom of something else, whether it’s something going on in your body or a symptom of not getting enough sleep. “Brain fog can be a symptom of a nutrient deficiency, sleep disorder, hormonal changes, bacterial overgrowth, depression, or even a thyroid condition,” wrote Dr. Jeffrey Egler M.D. for Parsley Health. These are just a few examples of what could cause brain fog, so talk to your doctor if you regularly experience brain fog in order to identify the root cause of the issue, which could be anything from diet to stress levels. In the meantime, there are a few general lifestyle changes that might help improve overall concentration, productivity, and energy.
9 Natural Ways to Prevent Brain Fog
1. Get enough (good!) sleep
The amount (and quality) of your sleep can contribute to brain fog in multiple ways. “Poor sleep hygiene like an irregular sleep and wake time, getting less than 7-8 hours of sleep a night, or blue light exposure before bed disrupts your natural circadian rhythm, which contributes to brain fog,” Dr. Egler explained to Parsley Health. Even the little things like hitting snooze or going to bed at different times every night can cause grogginess throughout the day, so sleep hygiene is incredibly important.
Make sure to get at least seven hours of sleep a night, but aim for 8-9 hours when possible for optimal brain function. Even if you think you’re sleeping through the night, your body might not be going through full REM cycles, so track your sleep patterns with an app like Sleep Cycle to make sure you’re getting enough good quality sleep, and check out these products to help you get the most from your sleep.
2. Try adaptogens
If stress is contributing to brain fog (it is one of the most common causes!), work on getting rid of stress using therapy, meditation, breaks, etc. But while you’re working on stress reduction, adaptogens may help reduce the way that stress affects the body. 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.
“When you take adaptogens, you’re training your body to handle the effects of stress,” explained Dr. Brenda Powell, the co-medical director of the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. Adaptogens are not stimulants (like caffeine), so you will not feel immediate effects. Instead, talk to your doctor about taking them consistently for a few months to see if they can help with brain fog or mental fatigue. Add powdered adaptogens like ashwagandha or cordyceps to coffees, smoothies, teas, or even baked goods.
3. Take more work breaks
Sometimes, brain fog is a symptom of lifestyle instead of physical conditions. If you’re suffering through an afternoon slump due to a lack of motivation, it might be because you haven’t done enough that makes you feel excited. To help, think about your favorite part of the workday or something that gets you excited. Is it brainstorming new ideas or problem-solving with coworkers? If you can, schedule your favorite items on the to-do list for the mid-afternoon when that slump typically hits. Also, try taking a break from work and get your creative juices flowing with doodling, cooking, or scrapbooking. Bottom line: take a break from whatever tasks could be causing exhaustion and stimulate other parts of the mind (like creativity or communication) to help with the mental fatigue.
4. Do a mini-meditation
If you start to feel groggy or tired in the middle of the day, consider resetting and refocusing through meditating. By now, you probably know that meditation has a long list of benefits, from stress reduction to improving attention span. While the benefits themselves are enough to improve the symptoms of brain fog, you can also think of meditation as a mini reset for your brain during those moments when you feel a fog coming on. One study even found that short meditation breaks helped children with attention, self-control, and participation in school. Not sure where to begin? An app like Headspace walks you through guided meditations, and Happy Not Perfect uses visuals and activities to help you meditate based on your current mood. Next time that afternoon slump starts to hit, reach for your meditation app instead of a coffee.
5. Talk to your doctor about vitamin levels
Another common cause of brain fog comes from what we’re lacking in our diets, so talk to your doctor about checking vitamin levels and supplementing or adjusting your diet accordingly. For example, low levels of some B vitamins can cause dizziness, a decrease in brain function, and even memory loss. Why? Some studies suggest that adequate levels of vitamin B6 play a significant role in brain glucose function and boosting mood, while vitamin B12 affects overall cognitive function.
If you’re low in any vitamins, your doctor might suggest supplementing or eating more foods rich in that vitamin. PSA: While there are some vitamins generally associated with brain health, it’s important to get your levels checked and talk to your doctor before trying anything out yourself. Vitamin and supplement needs vary from person to person, so the key is getting answers on what is right for you.
6. Eat whole foods
My motto is that food is medicine, and we can often find ways to improve our overall wellness and energy by looking into our diets. While you may have heard a lot of buzz about “brain foods,” the most important strategy is to make sure your diet is full of healthy, whole foods from the earth. Green, leafy vegetables, berries, and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (like walnuts, chia seeds, and salmon) could be particularly good for brain health, but the key is feeding your body with foods that make it feel good. In general, make sure you’re getting enough nutrients for energy and overall health. Eat a balanced diet of healthy fats, proteins, and carbohydrates from the earth (AKA less processed foods), and get a variety of nutrients by eating a wide range of fruits and veggies.
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 Real Housewives are calling your name). But (no surprise) exercising is so good for you, it’s well worth saying “see ya later!” to your couch in an effort to help with brain fog and that ongoing afternoon slump. Not only can regular exercise help the brain to improve memory, concentration, and thinking skills, but moving the body can have immediate effects on your brain through the release of endorphins, which increases energy and boosts mood. Bottom line: regular exercise might help prevent brain fog in the long run (pun intended), but if you do feel an energy slump coming on, take a walk around the block or go through some yoga stretches.
8. Go outside
A Standford-led study in 2015 found that people who spent time walking outside for 90 minutes a day had significant decreases in cortisol levels. Translation? The great outdoors can help the way your body deals with stress, potentially preventing stress from turning into mental fatigue. Being outside can also improve short-term memory and boost attention, so if you’re preparing for a big presentation or major exam that requires your focus, don’t skip your daily run or a walk around the block just because you feel pressed for time–the brain benefits are well worth it. Vitamin D also can have a huge effect on brain health, so soak up some sun on your lunch break (but don’t forget your SPF!) for an instant mental reset that will help you feel energized for the rest of the day.
9. Experiment with essential oils
By now, you’ve probably heard the benefits of essential oils range from beating breakouts to helping you fall asleep, but did you know they can also be used to increase focus and energy too? Aromatherapy has way more benefits than just relaxation. For example, peppermint oil might help prevent fatigue and rosemary oil can help improve focus and memory. Practice aromatherapy by diffusing oil throughout the day (a diffuser is one of my at-home office must-haves), diluting it to use on the skin (mix it with another oil like coconut and don’t try if you have sensitive skin or allergies), or taking a deep breath to inhale the scent. It turns out your sniffer is pretty powerful for improving focus and beating that brain fog.
Please consult a doctor before beginning any treatments. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.