When Lynn Enright started experiencing symptoms of brain fog, she put it down to a number of factors – turning 40, going through IVF, becoming a mother, changing jobs, moving house – but is it possible to reverse the effects or combat the symptoms? Here she speaks to neuroscientist Dr Sabina Brennan to find out more …
The other evening, as I began to make dinner while chatting to my toddler daughter about her day, and asking my husband if he had seen that email from the estate agent, I mislaid the garlic press.
I looked in the drawers, even the ones it was unlikely to be in, and in the dishwasher, and in the sink.
“Have you seen the garlic press?” I asked my husband, and then he too looked in the drawers, and in the dishwasher, and in the sink.
“I definitely had it last night,” I said.
“I’m pretty sure I put it away this morning,” my husband said.
“I’ll just slice the garlic,” I said, resigned. And when I went to reach for the knife, I realised that the garlic press was in my hand.
Things like that happen to me a lot lately… I forget what I was saying or I can’t remember the name of an old neighbour. I often find it hard to concentrate and I sometimes need to read instructions twice before I feel like I understand.
I hold down a job, I bring up a child, I read the books for my book club and I just about keep on top of the various financial and practical aspects of the household, so, you know, I’m basically fine – but I’m definitely a little foggier than I used to be. And so are many of us, it would seem.
Even in my slightly hazy state, I can clearly see that use of the term “brain fog” has become more frequent in recent years. In late 2023, data from the US showed that there has been a significant increase in younger people reporting cognitive issues, a rise that is being linked to Covid-19. Researchers can’t say why exactly – scientists around the world continue to grapple with how the virus impacts our brains – but since the pandemic, the number of working-age adults reporting “serious difficulty” thinking has risen by one million in the US alone.
Since the pandemic hit in 2020, I’ve had Covid twice. I’ve also been through several boring, stultifying lockdowns, glued to my phone, starved of social interaction; done four rounds of IVF, involving syringes full of synthetic hormones; been pregnant and become a mother; hit 40; changed jobs; and moved house. So, it’s hard to know on what exactly I can blame my fogginess – but there are several possible culprits.
“You have multiple factors for brain fog,” confirms neuroscientist Dr Sabina Brennan when I outline my experiences over the last few years. “To me, it’s absolutely no surprise that you would experience brain fog.”
Dr Brennan, who published a book called Beating Brain Fog: Your 30-Day Plan to Think Faster, Sharper, Better during the pandemic, acknowledges that the term “brain fog” is a “general term that refers to a collection of symptoms”.
The state we call brain fog can, she explains, affect attention, memory, learning, processing speed (the speed at which the brain takes in, understands and responds to information), language, spatial navigation (how clumsy you are) and executive function (making decisions, planning, organising, regulating your behaviour). Brain fog is not a disorder or a diagnosis; it’s a sign or a symptom – and Dr Brennan says thinking of it like a cough can be a useful way to understand it. A cough can have a clear cause – you might have a respiratory infection or an allergy – but if it persists, that’s a sign that something may be amiss and you should go to the doctor and investigate it. Likewise, you might experience a day of clumsiness and forgetfulness after a bad night’s sleep, but if you have ongoing fogginess, especially in conjunction with other symptoms, it’s worth getting checked out.
Like a cough, brain fog might arise for myriad reasons. Hormonal changes, depression, chemotherapy and certain medications (even over-the-counter ones), autoimmune disorders and stress can all lead to brain fog, and it’s common with viral infections like Covid-19. Interestingly, Dr Brennan points out that brain fog is usually associated with conditions more likely to affect women but due to the fact that Covid-19 affects men and women equally, the pandemic “shone a light on brain fog and how debilitating it can be”.
“If you maintain an active lifestyle and exercise regularly, if you keep engaged by learning new information, if you continue to have plenty of fulfilling social interactions, you can help to protect your brain.”
The kind of brain fog I experience seems unlikely to be connected to any serious ailment, especially as I have no other physical symptoms, and I’ve assumed it’s just a symptom of hitting middle age amid the general chaos of the 2020s.
Getting older impacts the brain, with our brains tending to shrink from the age of 30 onwards. “You start to lose brain volume, you start to lose brain cells, and it happens at different rates in different areas of your brain,” explains Dr Brennan.
However, this is not an inevitable process and recent research shows that adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle can have significant benefits. “When maintaining brain health, it’s not so much the age that is relevant; it’s the life choices that you make from those ages and the actions that you engage in,” she says.
If you maintain an active lifestyle and exercise regularly, if you keep engaged by learning new information, if you continue to have plenty of fulfilling social interactions, you can help to protect your brain. (Of course, if you suspect that you or a loved one has symptoms of dementia – confusion, problems recalling recent events, mood changes – you should see your GP straight away.)
As most of us get older, our lifestyles change – so when it comes to brain fog, it’s hard to tell: is it age, or is it the responsibilities and life changes that come with age?
Dr Brennan points out that menopause is often a time during which women experience bouts of brain fog: there are major hormonal changes occurring, and there might be other contributing illnesses like autoimmune conditions that tend to affect women as they get older. Then, of course, there are the stresses and strains many people face, like looking after kids and ageing parents, while still being in the workplace.
There are plenty of times when I feel completely free of fogginess, and it’s often when I am in a state of “flow”, the terms psychologists use to describe the situation where a person is immersed in a task or activity with an energised focus. You could be gardening, cooking, writing, painting, depending on your interests and what has the potential to captivate you.
As the journalist Jennifer Senior points out in her book, All Joy And No Fun: The Modern Paradox Of Parenting, the chances of entering a state of flow when looking after a small child are slim, and actually it’s much more likely that you end up feeling frazzled a lot of the time. Similarly, the opportunity for flow is often less present the more senior you become in your job. When I was a young journalist, I could spend hours focused on one article, writing with no distractions. Generally, as you move up the career ladder, you will be jumping from task to task – managing less experienced colleagues, attending meetings, looking after budgets – which can lead to a sense of feeling overwhelmed.
Dr Brennan advises that I should prioritise opportunities to enter flow if I want to tackle my fogginess. The other measures that are generally recommended for treating brain fog (if it’s a symptom of a more serious condition, then that should be treated too, of course) are associated with overall health and longevity. Engage in regular physical activity, aim to get enough sleep, work on managing stress, maintain social interactions and eat a healthy diet that includes adequate amounts of iron, omega-3 and vitamin B12, the experts advise.
So, this evening, I’m going to make a concerted effort to tackle my brain fog. I’m going to go for a quick jog with a friend before I pick up my daughter from the childminder (exercise; social interaction; managing stress). Then, when I come home, I’m going to make a seafood stew (providing omega-3 and other nutrients; plus I’ll hopefully enter a flow state while cooking, if my husband agrees to toddler duty during that time). It all sounds manageable enough – as long as I don’t mislay the garlic press…