By Sarah Klein
It starts with something you can brush off: the standard where in this enormous mall parking lot did I leave the car? Happens to everyone, no big deal, a brain fart. Until you realize it wasn't just today at the mall; you've somehow spent most of your week feeling as if you've made major decisions behind a smokescreen. As if those brain farts were fogging up the place.
"Brain fog is an inability to really punch through."
"It's a vague sense of what you're trying to retrieve, but you can't focus in on it," she says, "and the effort to harness the thought can be as draining as physical activity."Mady Hornig, MD, associate professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center
Remember how impossibly exhausting it was to run your board meeting the last time you came to work sick (please, please, stop doing that, by the way)? Brain fog is a lot like that, except it persists. A fog can linger for several days, sometimes even weeks.
Its impermanence is the big difference between what we know as brain fog and actual dementia, says rheumatologist Robert Lahita, MD, Ph.D., chairman of medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and professor of medicine at Rutgers in New Jersey. Brain fog might cause you to forget where you parked that car at the mall, but dementia might make it impossible to get there in the first place, he says.
There's not a lot of scientific evidence to explain what's going on when the clouds roll in. Researchers haven't really found a way to measure or test for brain fog like they have dementia. "Everybody knows what it is," "but at the same time, it is so unknown."Robert Lahita, MD, Ph.D., rheumatologist
If you're sure you've been getting enough sleep—because who isn't in a daze when sleep-deprived; in fact, check out these 10 things happening to your body when you don't get enough sleep—it's probably a good idea to bring up brain fog with your doctor if you start to feel seriously off.
"If you're not feeling like your normal self, that might suggest something's going on."Kelly Ryan, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan
Especially if it lasts for a week or two, Lahita says. At the very least, your doctor can perform tests to reassure you it's not dementia.
People facing a wide variety of diagnoses describe foggy days, as do people who don't seem to have anything physically wrong. Here are a few things brain fog might be telling you:
And here you thought only your hormones would change! A series of hazy days in the mental forecast could be a sign menopause is near. Midlife brain fog is very real: A University of Rochester and University of Illinois study showed women between the ages of 40 and 60 have trouble staying focused on tricky tasks and stumble with something called working memory, which helps you do things like adding up a bunch of numbers in your head.
Hormones shape the brain, Lahita says, so it would make sense for vacillating estrogen levels to cause shifts in cognition, too. Which likely sounds familiar to anyone who not-so-fondly recalls "pregnancy brain." In one small study, researchers found having a bun in the oven makes what's called spatial memory, which helps you do things like remembering where your glasses are (hint: probably on your head), a challenge, possibly because of the impact high levels of hormones have on neurons in the memory-focused part of the brain called the hippocampus.
Ryan's recent research found that the fuzzy thinking cited by people with depression or bipolar disorder actually shows up on brain scans. In the study, women with these conditions struggled more with a cognitive test than healthy women. The same area of the brain was active in all the women (since it's known to pitch in when you're taking a test), but women with depression or bipolar disorder had unusual amounts of activity (either too much or too little) going on in that region, she says. Not only does that mean bipolar disorder and depression may not be as different as science once thought, she says, but also
"at a neurobiological level, it could be that the brain works differently" in mental health patients.Kelly Ryan
With the assistance of certain meds or therapies, you might be able to address some of this difficulty focusing or concentrating, Ryan says, although some people with depression or bipolar do still report they don't feel as sharp even when their mood feels stable, she says.
Freaking out about your brain fog won't do you any good, considering worrying could be what got you here in the first place. When life gives you lemons—you're going through a divorce, you've lost a dear friend—it will probably also give you confusion and forgetfulness, simply because of the mental energy it takes to crank out the lemonade.
"Stress impairs performance, physically and mentally."Robert Lahita
At the very least, know what really sets you off, whether it's the overflowing laundry hamper or your oversharing co-worker, because zeroing in on what triggers stress could help you curb the fog, Hornig says.
"Identify potential patterns, then eliminate certain factors causing issues to feel more stressful."Mady Hornig
If that sounds daunting itself, talking it through with a therapist might help you put the pieces together.
From the autoimmune to the neurological, brain fog crops up in people with a wide range of diseases, like fibromyalgia, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and more. If you've been battling prolonged brain fog and it's not related to your sleep schedule or your last feeding frenzy, talk to your doctor about what other symptoms you might have overlooked, like joint or muscle pain, numbness or tingling, headaches, and loss of coordination.