Understanding Brain Fog
A new epidemic is sweeping the country—an epidemic of many names.
Some people call it brain fog. Some people call it depression. Some call it ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), scatterbrain, or an inability to focus. And some people simply say they just don’t feel like themselves—and haven’t for a long time.
We mental health professionals may refer to these vague conditions as “chronic cognitive and mood problems.” But the clinical jargon doesn’t begin to evoke the frustration, anxiety, and downright misery experienced by the millions of people whose brains are simply not working properly.
Depression. Anxiety. Sleeplessness. Forgetfulness. Confusion. Dementia. In so many ways, many of us are thinking and feeling worse than ever. Why?
The short answer is that our brains are simply not getting the support they need to produce the essential brain chemicals that keep us energized, calm, focused, and inspired. In fact, if you look at the way most of us live, it’s almost as though we have chosen a lifestyle deliberately intended to undermine our brain chemistry.
If you gorge yourself constantly on donuts, ice cream, bacon, and fried chicken, you will almost certainly gain weight. In the same way, if you eat the wrong foods, get insufficient exercise or sleep, overindulge in social media and TV, have too much stress and too little downtime, and cope with loneliness and lack of connection and meaning, you will almost certainly disrupt your brain chemistry. It really is that simple—and that painful.
It’s Not You—It’s Your Brain!
Starting with your brain chemistry is crucial, because when your serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol levels are not properly balanced, your brain simply does not work the way it’s supposed to. If your brain chemistry is amiss, all the “brain training,” psychotherapy, and positive thinking in the world won’t cure what ails you.
Attempting to think and feel great without the proper balance of brain chemicals is like trying to run a marathon with a broken leg. If you were in that condition, working out at the gym wouldn’t help. Willpower wouldn’t help. New running techniques or those crazy finger-shoes wouldn’t help, and neither would an Olympic-caliber coach or the most devoted running buddy in the world. All those things would help only if your leg were strong enough to walk on.
We will work to give your brain what it needs and remove any obstacles in its way. Because the remarkable thing about your brain is that it is designed to balance its own chemistry—if it gets the right nutrients and other support to do so.
Carbohydrates: Highs and Lows
Blood-sugar spikes can cause brain fog and even lead to dementia. Introduce a wide variety of foods into your diet that will give you steady, small amounts of complex carbohydrates—like transitioning from processed fruit juice to whole fruit or veggie juice. After jumping into the 7-Day Mood Revolution, you’ll soon make these healthier alternatives a normal part of your everyday diet . . . and you’ll feel much better as a consequence.
Protecting your blood sugar is as good for your brain as it is for your body. Here are some simple additions to your diet that can minimize blood-sugar spikes. You should be eating these foods regularly.
#1: Cinnamon. Sprinkle cinnamon in your coffee instead of a packet of sugar. By making this change, you’ll prevent a brain-fogging blood-sugar spike. Cinnamon also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, whereas sugar creates inflammation.
#2: Raw or slightly cooked vegetables. The more you cook a vegetable, the more you may compromise the blood sugar–blocking capabilities of the fiber it contains. This fiber can minimize some of the blood-sugar spikes created by carbs, especially when you eat the vegetable before the carb.
#3: Vinegar. Vinegar has been shown to keep blood-sugar levels in check by preventing some of the starch in bread or pasta from turning into sugar. You’ll effortlessly lower your blood sugar by switching from store-bought salad dressings that often contain sugar to a simple blend of vinegar and olive oil.
#4: Tea. Tea may reduce the amount of glucose absorbed by the intestine, which reduces blood-sugar spikes. So drink a glass of unsweetened, black iced tea at lunch. One study showed black tea did this better than other types of tea. White tea was second best at preventing blood-sugar spikes and also contains very little caffeine, which makes it a great choice to accompany dinner at night
#5: Red wine. As we’ll see later in this section, for those without a history of alcoholism or problem drinking, a glass of red wine with dinner may lessen blood-sugar spikes by preventing intestinal glucose absorption and reducing your liver’s production of glucose. One study found that red wine may be more effective at blocking glucose absorption than white wine.
Dietary Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The high-sugar, low-fiber processed carbohydrates that spike your blood sugar and set you up for brain fog and depression are just one piece of the nutritional puzzle. You must also take into account fats, which can leave you thinking and feeling a whole lot better—or worse.
Eating the healthiest fats—which include monounsaturated fats like olive oil and the anti-inflammatory, high omega-3 fat found in seafood—can play a big role in preserving the health of your brain. (They’re also particularly vital to developing brains. In 2014, the FDA revised its recommendation for pregnant women and young children, advising they eat between two and three servings of low-mercury seafood a week.) Everyone, regardless of age, should be eating healthy fats regularly. One study showed people who consumed the healthiest fats were 42 percent less likely to experience cognitive impairment
So toss out the old notion that fat is the enemy. It is actually one of the most important things you can eat to improve the health of your brain, and most of us should probably be eating more, not less, of the right kinds of fats. Unfortunately, it can be extremely difficult to figure out which are the good fats and which are the bad ones just from glancing at a food label. There tends to be some crucial information missing, like how much of the fat is anti-inflammatory omega-3s and how much is pro-inflammatory omega-6s. Let
Proteins: The Building Blocks of the Body—and Brain
While a diet high in protein can be part of a healthy diet, it’s important to eat high-quality protein if you want to improve mood. The tricky part is that omega-3 and omega-6 content isn’t listed on nutritional labels, and getting enough omega-3s is vital to reducing inflammation, anxiety, and depression. So while a grilled chicken breast that’s not organic may help you lose weight, it’s also high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s. Organic chicken breast, wild salmon, and walnuts are better choices that help you feel better while simultaneously preventing weight gain.
when it comes to spending a few more dollars on organic meat, think of it as a redistribution of your money. Do you save a few dollars at the grocery store and rack up medical bills when all your pro-inflammatory, high omega-6 foods lead to debilitating conditions? Or do you pay a bit more now and save big in the long run by having a healthy and productive life? Remember: you are what you eat. Also remember that consumer demand causes prices to drop across the board.
Too Many Meds
There’s no quick, one-size-fits-all solution to the problems that have so many of us turning to prescription medications on a far too regular basis, but we can make some lifestyle adjustments to steer us toward a better night’s sleep and away from depression, anxiety, and panic. Every recommendation in this book is geared toward long-term solutions that can leave us thinking and feeling better with minimal pharmaceutical interventions.
Anxiety, sadness, or addiction can be telling you that what you’re doing in your life isn’t working. It may be what you’re eating (or not eating), who you’re loving (or not loving), or how you’re dealing (or not dealing) with life’s problems. When you start listening to your emotions and taking the messages they’re communicating more seriously, you will start to manifest everyday miracles in your life.
You should also make an effort to reframe moderate amounts of so-called negative emotions like anxiety to realize how they can be helpful. Research shows that moderate anxiety can actually improve performance on tests, increasing concentration and forging new connections in the brain. These bouts of concentration can help prevent cognitive decline and dementia, and they can also increase your happiness by rewarding you with challenging work.
Taking On Toxins
Drinking water is essential for maintaining good health, but some water pollutants could be making you think and feel worse.
There are many possible perpetrators: manganese in drinking water, for example, has been linked to hyperactivity and lower math scores in children. While some communities filter manganese out, many don’t. To be on the safe side, invest in an inexpensive activated carbon filter water pitcher, which can remove 60 to 100 percent of manganese from your water.
Where you store your water might also be an issue. When buying plastic water bottles, look for BPA-free versions. Glass or stainless steel water bottles are an even safer bet, given recent evidence that even BPA-free plastics can contain dangerous toxins.
If you do buy water in disposable plastic bottles, don’t let them sit out in your car or garage, since heat makes the chemicals leach from the plastic. This is especially important for children’s developing brains, as they’re far more vulnerable to damage from toxins.
Light, Sleep, and Technology
Getting enough sleep won’t just improve your alertness levels. It will improve your mood, too. When you don’t sleep enough, your levels of stress hormones like cortisol go up. And when stress hormones go up, dopamine levels go down. Low dopamine levels will leave you feeling unhappy, unmotivated, and unfocused—a perfect recipe for depression. Chronically high cortisol levels have also been shown to prevent serotonin from binding in several areas of the brain, which also contributes to increased anxiety.
Too little sleep → more cortisol → more stress → low dopamine → chronic depression
Sleep also supports learning and neurogenesis, strengthening neural connections and consolidating memories that you encoded during the day, which allows short-term memories to become long-term ones.
So even if you’re one of those people who think they perform well with just five or six hours of sleep, you’re bypassing a crucial step in the fight against brain fog: activating your brain’s so-called wash cycle. A 2013 animal study showed that during sleep, channels between neurons expand up to 60 percent, which allows cerebrospinal fluid in. All that extra space between neurons is your brain getting ready to get hosed down: the cerebrospinal fluid flushes out the Alzheimer’s disease-causing plaques. This “wash cycle” is much more effective when you’re asleep, which means more “junk” gets cleared from your brain.
When you look at the effects of prayer and meditation on the brain in scans, you can see why spiritual practice is so vital to us. We have the most evolved brains on the planet, and we have a responsibility to take special care of those brains. Most animals don’t live as long as humans, nor do they get Alzheimer’s disease or have spiritual crises. For better or worse, our brains set us apart.
It’s been said that if the soul lived in a part of the brain, it would be in the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains that most separates us from animals. The prefrontal cortex is one of the most uniquely “human” parts of the brain, associated with connection to others and long-term planning (in opposition to other, more primitive parts of the brain concerned with reward and short-term pleasure). And, remarkably enough, the prefrontal cortex can be exercised and even physically thickened through spiritual practice.
When the prefrontal cortex is active, it’s associated with good mood. When it’s not, it’s associated with depression, anxiety, and addiction. Spiritual practice also positively affects other parts of the brain, like increasing activity in the anterior cingulate, which helps a person to feel more compassionate.
Both prayer and meditation can also decrease activity in the parietal lobe, a change that breaks down the boundaries people feel between themselves, the universe, nature, and God—talk about a stress reliever! This physiological mechanism also explains the sense of oneness that advanced prayer, meditation, and music trigger in people, and why some cultures have used psychedelics to achieve spiritual states. But it isn’t necessary to take peyote or magic mushrooms: this state can be achieved just by sitting quietly in a room or on a beach and feeling a state of connectedness to all people.