You’re feeling sluggish and you can’t remember the last time you focused for more than five minutes – but you went to bed early and haven’t had a drink all week. Stylist examines the rise of brain fog and how to wade through it…
Words: Moya Sarner
It’s 4pm and you’ve spent the last 10 minutes trying to read an email from your boss. Failing to get any further than the third sentence before losing the thread of what she’s saying, you sigh and pick up your phone. After scrolling through your texts for a few seconds, you glance back at your screen. Five documents sit open on your computer; each one ending on an unfinished sentence. Your eyes won’t focus, your head feels like it’s filled with cotton wool, and you’ve already forgotten the thing you were about to add to your to-do list.
Sound vaguely – hazily –familiar? Known within the science community as ‘cognitive fatigue’, until recently brain fog was associated with ageing. But recently it’s started to cloud the consciousness of younger generations too – and its reach is becoming worryingly widespread. Characterised by a frustrating sluggishness that leaves your synapses slowed-down and a neural lethargy that renders you unable to remember that word on the tip of your tongue, brain fog isn’t simply a catchier term for general fatigue or casual forgetfulness. Instead, specialists working at a new wave of ‘brain spas’ opening across Europe and the US believe the condition is the first warning sign of potential burnout (a full psychological or physical collapse brought on by extreme stress and anxiety). In fact, one fifth of millennials are already reporting symptoms of concentration-loss and memory problems – while a new study has shown that our capacity to focus has dropped from 12 seconds to 8.25 since the digital era exploded in 2000.
Unsurprisingly then, while some scientists speculate that cognitive decline could be caused by changes in the three main hormones that control mood, energy and focus (that’s dopamine, serotonin and cortisol), others believe it’s a symptom of our lifestyles sending us into a state of literal distraction. “If you can’t remember where you put your key, it’s unlikely to be a memory problem,” explains Dr Richard Sylvester, consultant neurologist at Homerton University Hospital in London. “It’s more likely to be that you were distracted when you put it down. Often people with brain fog will forget conversations, leave the fridge open or walk into a room and not know what they went in for. But what that signifies is more likely a problem with their attention span rather than their short-term memory. So while its effects are not to be underestimated, it’s reassuringly reversible.”
Reassuring maybe, but why has brain fog become such an accepted part of our lives? Physically, we’re in our prime – 47% of us report eating more healthily in the last year, we smoke far less than Baby Boomers, two thirds of us maintain that alcohol isn’t important to our social lives and more of millennials go to the gym than any other age group. And, as the popularity of sleep trackers and insomnia apps proves, we’re also obsessed with getting enough shut-eye. “But brain fog isn’t about physical fatigue,” clarifies Dr Sylvester. “Your brain is like a muscle – it can get tired just by being used. Constantly making decisions or putting it under mental strain is likely to cause cognitive dysfunction even if your body is well rested.”
And while we might not need experts to tell us our minds are overloaded, we would benefit from pausing (and putting down our phones) for a moment to let the fact sink in. Because a new slew of studies show that, as well as burnout, feeling overwhelmed can cause serious mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. “When your brain is suffused with the stress hormone, cortisol, your prefrontal cortex – that’s the part of your brain responsible for thinking – shuts down, leading to brain fog,” explains Jean Gomes, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. “You can’t string a sentence together, and you become paralysed with frustration.” Psychotherapist Dr Mike Dow, author of The Brain Fog Fix, agrees. “When your cortisol levels are off balance, you might feel so frayed that the smallest problem sets you off, or so unmotivated that you can barely drag yourself through the day, or both. It’s very worrying.”
Researchers from the American Psychological Association believe we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we’re a generation of multitaskers – despite all evidence showing that our brains simply aren’t capable of focusing on more than three tasks at once. In fact, they found that switching between activities actually makes us up to 40% less productive, while another study of 1,100 people by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London shows that ‘second-screening’ lowers your IQ more than smoking marijuana. In other words, all those hours spent hopping between work, WhatsApp, email and Instagram are forcing our brains to switch focus at an unsustainable speed – fogging up our thoughts in the process, and setting us up to become prime candidates for cognitive burnout.
Of course, it doesn’t help that we’re hormonally programmed to crave the very thing that clouds our cognizance in the first place. Despite the fact that multitasking has been proven to increase our levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, it also prompts the production of dopamine – the feel-good, ‘reward’ hormone. Completing even the smallest of tasks leads to an up-tick in dopamine, a hormone that serves to enhances our feeling of happiness. But then, as the euphoria fades, our response times slow; our over-stimulated synapses fire-off conflicting signals to our already over-wrought central nervous system, and our brains become tired and unfocused. “Your hormone levels are essential to thinking and feeling your best,” explains Dow. “If your brain chemistry is amiss, all the brain training, psychotherapy, and positive thinking in the world won’t cure what ails you.”
Fortunately, there are still small, do-able changes we can all make to clear away the neural nebula. Brain spas are one option. Perhaps the simplest is what we put in our bodies. Water is a key weapon for fighting brain fog – a recent study from the University of Barcelona shows being just 2% dehydrated can impair brain function. Similarly, it may be worth seeing a dietician. “The gut is home to over 100 million neurons and they communicate with your brain via hormones. A bowel problem will have an impact on your cognitive function – when people with previously undiagnosed celiac disease get help, they often report having a clearer head.”
Beyond nutrition, brain fog experts believe that breaking your day into 90-minute segments (known as ‘ultradian sprints’) will allow yourself to follow your brain’s natural energy levels and preserve clarity of thought. Gomes explains that not doing this comes with the risk of accumulating a cognitive deficit, which will only catch up with our concentration levels later in the afternoon. She recommends a 30-second ‘brain dump’ every hour and a half to write down all the thoughts that are flying through your mind. “I do this five times a day, whenever I feel myself getting distracted,” she says – adding that turning off the notifications on our social media apps helps our brains to focus on one task at a time, too.
“Think about the impact brain fog is having and take action,” says Alyssa Burns-Hill, a hormone health specialist. “If you were older and this was a permanent feature, it might be called dementia. It’s easy for us to brush away mental health issues but we can take action.”
And if you’re on your third attempt to finish this article without picking up your iPhone, the good news is that there are some more intensive solutions available to try too. We sent Stylist’s acting features director Lizzie Pook to try one out.
What really happens at a brain spa?
Enduring brain fog sufferer Lizzie Pook checks into the Cognitive Development Unit at Sha Wellness Clinic in Alicante, Spain to try and clear her head
“Do you ever feel like you have so much energy you can read other people’s minds?” says Professor Ribeiro, as I gaze at him with a puzzled expression. It’s not the mind-reading per se that has me stumped; it’s the idea of having such boundless energy that I might possibly have some spare to go around. The truth is, my brain often feels like mush, like my thoughts have to battle through tar. I think I’m an intelligent person, but most days I find myself at my desk staring unfocused into the distance; stumbling over simple maths at the supermarket or trying to remember why the hell I walked into the kitchen.
Hence, I’m at the Cognitive Development Unit at the Sha Wellness Clinic – a high-end ‘medical spa’ in southern Spain. The unit is aimed at those suffering from mild memory loss, executives who want to ‘stay in the zone’ and those who simply want to enhance their brain function. It offers 4-28 day retreats that marry the comfort of a luxury spa with neurological assessments, a brain-boosting detox menu, and intensive cognitive rehab. With the help of clinical neuropsychologist Professor Bruno Ribeiro Do Couto, I’m now on a mission to beat my own personal brain fog.
In his office, Ribeiro takes my medical history, and after I reel off the degenerative brain conditions in my family – Alzheimer’s and brain tumours on my paternal side, Parkinson’s on my maternal – he looks concerned. “I want to run some tests to see why your brain is so foggy,” he says, tapping at his computer keyboard. He sets me a series of on-screen exercises, designed to assess reaction times, long term recollection and attention span. Circles light up, which I have to tap quickly (result: 100%), numbers flash across the screen and I have to identify certain sequences and patterns (100%). Wow, I think. I am a genius. AND THEN. The final test examines my brain’s working memory. I stumble straight away. Six boxes quickly open and close to reveal matching icons and I must identify each identical pair. I am not good at it. After a frustrating few minutes, Ribeiro prints out my results. 20%. “That’s rather interesting for a person of your age,” says Ribeiro. “This is something I would normally see from someone whose brain is exceptionally tired and stressed. You need much more time than the average person to take in anything new. Your working memory is shot. You’re not at burnout yet. But you’re close.”
I feel stupid. Like there’s a metaphorical dunce’s hat sitting atop my head. I ask him why this has happened. “Do you have a history of reacting badly to stress?” he asks. Well, yes. I have a high-pressured job and occasionally, it can get on top of me. “What about your anxiety levels?” he asks, sketching out a graph. “Plot them here.” I reach across the desk and mark an X at the very top of the highest peak. “Thought as much,” he nods.
Ribeiro explains that my brain is not getting any downtime. It is overworked and my anxiety – specifically the tendency to worry about my family – is not helping. Whereas a healthy brain will have peaks and troughs of stress, when the stress of my job isn’t occupying my brain, my anxiety kicks in and keeps it whirring along at high intensity, leaving no time for recuperation. It’s not surprising, really, that my brain feels like a bowl of spaghetti.
The next day, I meet Ribeiro in Sha’s 3D cinema. I am hooked up to sensors on my forehead and ear, to track the electrical signals produced by the neurons in the cortex at the front of my brain as I watch a wildlife documentary. If my brain becomes stressed or I lose concentration, the movie will stop until I can physically make my brain relax again.
Ribeiro presses play. Vertigo-inducing vistas of glaciers appear on the screen and the movie stutters (I hate heights). There is a scene with penguins huddled together, shivering. The film stops. “But they look so cold!” I yell to Ribeiro at the back of the cinema. Next up is a mother polar bear and her two cubs, battling across snowy hills to find food. One cub squeaks: the film stops. Finally, we see a lone wolf hunting down and killing a baby caribou. The film stops and the screen goes blank. “Don’t worry,” says Ribeiro. “It does that for everybody. Unless you’re a psychopath...”
It’s all designed to help me train my brain to find a composed state in otherwise stressful conditions – in my case, instances of family stress – thus protecting it from burnout. Ribeiro also believes these brain-training techniques can delay the onset of neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and slow down their progress. In his opinion, otherwise healthy people can expect cognitive capacity to increase by 10-20%.
On my final day, I visit on-site medical specialist, Dr Maevskaya. I tell her about my chronic lack of energy and she orders me to lie down on the table. “Exactly as I thought,” she says, as she prods at my stomach. “Your gut is imbalanced. It is swollen and tender and will be having a major impact on what is happening in your head. You need colonic hydrotherapy, to flush out all the toxins,” she says firmly.
Which is exactly how I find myself in the foetal position on a spa table, about to have my large intestine flushed out. The process is slightly mortifying, but, the next morning I wake up feeling something I haven’t felt at 8am for a long time: happy. And energetic. And focused. I fly home and for the next couple of days I feel like my brain is firing sharply. I’m more talkative than normal and – best of all – I feel no anxiety whatsoever. It’s odd. A total breath of fresh air.
Then, I go to a wedding, get drunk and wake up with a huge hangover. The anxiety returns. After a day back at my computer the fog starts to set in again and I’m sure my working memory is still wallowing in the lower echelons. But still, I’m heartened. Now I know what to do. I have made it my mission to look after my gut, take supplements (omega 3, vitamin B12 and mitochondrial formula: doctor’s orders) and to practise a little mindfulness to guard my brain against anxious thoughts. I’m not there quite yet, but I know I have the tools to beat brain fog eventually. As for whether I’m a colonic convert? The jury is still out on that one.
Here are some tips from JP Flintoff from the School of Life on how to deal with Brain Fog and the first steps you can take to positive change. Together with Experian they have done extensive research into the barriers that hold us back from making this transition. You can read all about their findings and suggestions here: experian.co.uk/first-steps