Brain Healthy Foods to Add to Your Diet

Safe to say we’re all feeling more than a touch overwhelmed with the situation of the globe right now. And it can contribute to some fuzzy-brain moments, says Jessica Caldwell, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and the director of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic. “It’s tempting to imagine that brain fog won’t develop until you’re much older, but I see it in so many patients at every age—and stress is a proven trigger,” she says.

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Take Delia Lewis*, a marketing strategist from Manalapan Township, NJ. Three months into the COVID-19 epidemic, Delia started feeling a little foggier than usual. She’d sit down at her computer in her new home office and begin doom-scrolling instead of answering emails. Tasks she used to fly through in 10 minutes started taking an hour. On talks with her manager, she had to type rapidly while they talked so she could remember her to-do’s. “Usually I can keep all the balls in the air,” adds Delia. “Now I’m like, ‘What did you want me to do?’ ”

Stress is probably a key influence behind that foggy feeling, researchers say: In reality, being frazzled causes toxins that can build up in your brain and damage your capacity to focus, concentrate, and remember many things, according to Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “We all do activities that wear out the brain, and then we wonder why we’re not as clearheaded as we used to be,” she says. “When our body are exhausted, we realize that we need to relax. But when our brains are fatigued, we prefer to trudge through.” Yet the more you ignore brain fog, the more it builds up—and the more likely it is that you’ll keep experiencing unproductive days and many “it’s on the tip of my tongue” moments.

On the flip side, if you start employing basic methods that will give your grey matter a rest, you’ll start feeling clearer—quickly. “Science has shown the astonishing truth that you can actually do more to make your brain healthy than any other component of your body,” adds Chapman. Here’s how.

What is brain fog?

When Delia started feeling a little less sharp and a lot more distracted than normal, she chalked it up to Zoom meeting weariness, not being able to blow off steam at the gym, and the sudden lack of socializing with friends. She felt some additional sleep and a little time would help her adjust to our collective new normal. But as her symptoms persisted, she saw her doctor, who informed her she was likely dealing with brain fog—not a medical diagnosis precisely, but a term many people use when they feel absentminded or not as sharp as they used to be or have problems focusing. Other signs include being more forgetful than usual or sluggish when you’re attempting to remember things—almost as if you can feel your brain chugging but not blazing on all cylinders, adds Caldwell.

There’s actually a physiological explanation why it’s so common, adds Gayatri Devi, M.D., a clinical professor of neurology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and an attending physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Of the millions of neurons in your brain, just 10,000 to 20,000 generate a neuropeptide called orexin, which research shows is one of numerous circuits that keep us awake and attentive. “It’s astonishing that our alertness and arousal is controlled by such a small number of nerve cells—and easy to see how this section of the brain system might be readily impacted,” adds Dr. Devi. The good news is that our brains are hard-wired to be vigilant. That’s what allows us react so fast to our environment. Yet the fact that such clarity is our brain’s go-to mode helps explain why brain fog may feel so disorienting—and unpleasant.

“When my brain fog is bad, I feel absolutely overwhelmed lot sooner than I usually would,” says Lila Jones*, a health coordinator for a nonprofit who has been battling with brain fog for a few years. “Everything just gets harder—driving is more stressful, multitasking at work is practically impossible, and I’m not as with it in conversation. It just seems like my brain is in molasses, which is no fun.”

What is the causes of brain fog?

There are a lot of reasons your mind may seem hazy, explains Chapman. When Delia’s brain fog settled in and nothing she tried—extra sleep, meditation, even a week off from work—seemed to help, she got a little nervous: “I started wondering whether I was actually sick.”

Though brain fog isn’t on the official list of symptoms of COVID-19, Delia’s doc made sure to rule it out, as some infections—including the novel coronavirus—can present with brain fog. “It’s especially frequent in diseases that affect the upper respiratory system, because diminished oxygen delivery to the brain and fever can lead to mental impairment,” Dr. Devi explains. “While brain fog isn’t a common sign of COVID, it can happen—and we’re seeing it as an ongoing complication for people who are recovering.”

The most likely causes of brain fog, it turns out, are problems that many of us are dealing with right now (or will at some point), including:


The human body is exceptional at adapting in the face of tension. When we believe that we’re in danger, the brain releases a cascade of neurochemicals and hormones to help us mobilize (hello, fight-or-flight mode!). But this combination is only designed to pump through our bodies for a certain time, Caldwell explains, and these compounds fatigue our brains when they linger around longer than they should. “That’s why there’s a feedback loop built into the system,” she explains, “where your brain finally gets a message that says, Let’s shut this stress hormone release down—there’s no acute threat anymore.”

One region of the brain that gets this cutoff signal is the hippocampus, which is responsible for taking in new information and integrating it into long-term memory storage. Unfortunately, when stress becomes chronic (say, when you’re attempting to work from home, homeschool your kids, and manage the world during a global health epidemic), the brain stays in defence mode and doesn’t get the message to switch off that stress hormone cascade. The result: The hippocampus is tired out, and over time its cells start to die, this vital portion of the brain begins to shrink, and brain fog can set in.

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Not enough sleep

This is one of the greatest factors behind brain fog simply because it makes you feel less aware. Not getting enough zzz’s also means you miss out on critical brain cleansing that happens when you’re napping soundly, adds Caldwell.

For example, research in the journal Science found that the ebb and flow of blood and electrical activity that takes place during sleep actually stimulates cleansing waves of blood and cerebrospinal fluid—prompting scientists to call sleep the brain’s “rinse cycle.” “Sleep is when your brain analyzes new knowledge and consolidates it, helping you develop more stable, long-term memory,” Caldwell adds. “It’s a period when superfluous junk is removed from the brain.” (Bonus: This cycle also clears amyloid, the material associated in Alzheimer’s, from the brain, research shows.)


Yes, mood swings and night sweats typically show up during perimenopause, but Dr. Devi thinks brain fog is a crucial symptom that’s too often disregarded. “I’ve actually seen people misdiagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease when truly it was menopause-related brain fog,” she explains.

Before this hormonal change, estrogen gives the female brain a substantial edge in a number of ways. Remember the hippocampus, the portion of the brain vital for memory and speech? It’s also home to a bevvy of estrogen receptors.When estrogen takes a drop during perimenopause, those sites don’t get what they’ve long counted on, and as a result, the brain needs to adjust, which might seem like brain fog, adds Caldwell.

Medication side effects

A range of medications can produce brain fog, from migraine and antiseizure meds to over-the-counter drugs for sleep or allergy. Add alcohol to any of these drugs—even a mild single glass of wine every night—and you can feel much less coherent, adds Caldwell.

Medical conditions

There are times when brain fog might be the result of a health concern such as a head injury, thyroid difficulties, or the early stages of multiple sclerosis. These cases are far more unusual, but it’s crucial to pay attention to indicators that your clouded thinking might be due to anything more significant. (See “When Is Brain Fog a Sign of Something Serious?” below.)

How to treat and prevent brain fog?

When you’re in the midst of brain fog, you can tell yourself it’ll go away on its own. “It’s so important not to just say, Oh, well, I’m a little fuzzy today—tomorrow will be better,” says Chapman. “The brain is a wonderful machine that will rebound, but the question is, will it return to the same level? It’s necessary to do something proactively to help.” Try these tips:

Take control of  your stress reaction

“It’s easy to get into a mindset in which everything is terrible and it feels like there’s nothing you can do about stress,” says Caldwell. “But if you truly look at what’s making you feel the most nervous, you may notice things you can take off your plate or different strategies to cope.” Even merely realizing what’s stressing you out will help you refine the way you manage with the harsh stuff life will surely throw at you. Even better, it’ll help your brain turn off the cascade of stress hormones that tires out your hippocampus.

Nail your sleep regimen

“Too many of us conceive of our brain as a motor that can be switched on and off, but the brain is more like a plant that’s growing and changing all the time,” explains Dr. Devi. “And nothing is more graceful than or as strong than sleep to nourish that plant and keep it healthy.” While a night or two of poor zzz’s won’t have a major impact, regular sleep difficulty is worth tackling.You can train yourself back into a good sleep routine.”

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Move your body

What’s excellent for your heart (read: exercise!) is good for your brain. That’s because upward of 40% of blood from your heart ends up going to your noggin, adds Dr. Devi. “It’s proof of how much energy your brain demands, and how much it relies on your heart to get that energy.” If your heart isn’t pumping blood effectively, your brain won’t get the oxygen-rich blood it requires to support memory function and attentiveness. Plus, exercising enhances your mood and reduces stress. “If you can do one thing to gain several benefits when it comes to avoiding or curing brain fog, exercise is a terrific choice,” adds Caldwell.

Check in with your brain

Try an exercise Chapman prescribes to all her patients, which she calls “five by five”: Set an alarm to go off at five intervals during the day and spend five minutes halting all mental activity (don’t even meditate!) and just being in the moment. You might close your eyes and take a snooze or sit outside and stare at trees. Go on a walk (without listening to a podcast!) and zone out. “Just five minutes with no substantial input is the greatest way to reset your brain,” adds Chapman.

Stop multi-tasking

It may make you feel very busy, but multitasking actually irritates your brain, ultimately slowing it down, explains Chapman. Instead of attempting to juggle numerous tasks at once, focus on one goal at a time—and make it attainable in a 30-minute piece of time.

Overthink one thing per day

“Thinking deeply is like push-ups for your brain,” Chapman explains. When you read an interesting item online, spend 15 minutes thinking about it and how you might apply it to your life. If you and your partner watch a movie, speak about its message and how it links with your life rather than just rehashing the plot. Chapman’s research has discovered that when people engage in deeper levels of thinking, they enhance the speed of connectivity across the brain’s central executive network, which is where decision-making, planning, goal-setting, and clear thinking happen, by 30%. “That’s like restoring almost two decades of brain function,” says Chapman.

Excite your brain

Your brain genuinely hates the same old ideas and ways of doing things. That means the greatest way to give your grey matter an injection of enthusiasm is to innovate, explains Chapman: “This triggers the brain to create norepinephrine, a brain chemical that makes us excited to learn.” Even simple things can assist. At work, attempt an alternative technique to a task you’ve done a thousand times. In your downtime, take a fresh route to the grocery store or listen to different music as you walk around your neighbourhood.

Delia Lewis joined the confined crowds in starting to bake banana bread when her brain fog got particularly bad, and she says spending time in the kitchen offered her a startling injection of joy—and an opportunity to divert her attention away from the anxiety and stress.

“Baking has become a time to give my brain a break,” she explains. “Plus, it has the added perk of letting me feel like I’ve accomplished something on days I don’t get enough done on the work front.” And that has helped her feel sharper all around.

When is brain fog an indication of something serious?

If you’re experiencing any of these four symptoms, see your doctor to get a sense of what might be causing them:

  • You have felt foggy for months and nothing (more sleep, less stress) makes it go away.
  • Your brain fog prompts you to make big mistakes at work, with your finances, or in other ways that have significant negative impacts.
  • You have other symptoms in addition to brain fog, like a change in balance or new pain.
  • You don’t remember conversations you’ve had with family and friends (though they say you were perfectly coherent).

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