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Confusion, forgetfulness, lack of focus, and mental clarity—Google “brain fog,” and you might be tempted to diagnose yourself with a disease. But before you start sending panicked texts to Mom, consider that brain fog—while very common—is not normal.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS, explains in her podcast “Nutrition Diva that brain fog isa term that I’m starting to see more and more frequently. It’s used as a sort of catchall to describe a wide range of symptoms.” Clouding of consciousness” is the medical term used to describe a long list of signals:

  • Low energy
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Headaches
  • Forgetfulness
  • Low motivation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion

Each one of these symptoms could have a plethora of causes. For instance, Reinagel explains that having trouble concentrating “could be due to low blood sugar. Or it might be that you have twelve tabs open on your browser and your phone buzzes or beeps every thirty seconds.” Or, “You might feel fatigued because you have iron deficiency anemia, for example. Or, you might have a problem with your thyroid. Or, you might feel fatigued because you’re not getting enough sleep at night.” If you’re having trouble going to sleep at night, caffeine overdose or late-night technology addictions could be the culprit.

These symptoms—while not necessarily serious in the short-term—are invasive and should be addressed, especially if they’re persistent. “Brain fog” isn’t something you should feel the need to push through for days or weeks on end. It's a sign that something isn't right. Consider these four very common reasons you might have a case of mental cloudiness here and there.

Your Diet Needs Improving

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows us to add more than three thousand additives to our food. Whenever you eat processed, fast, or packaged foods, you're not sure what the ingredients are. Two common food additives—sweeteners and monosodium glutamate (MSG)—are neurotoxins that can cause brain fog, headaches, mood swings, dizziness, anxiety, and depression. While the Internet might be full of bloggers who swear by supplements or eliminating foods like gluten or dairy, your solution probably doesn’t need to be so extreme—you might just need to cut processed foods, and replace them with real food.

If you're looking for a mental boost, it turns out that foods high in luteolin, a powerful antioxidant, can make a big difference in adding mental clarity to your life. Fortunately, you needn't search further than your pantry. Lutenoid is found in basic staples, including herbs such as parsley, thyme, rosemary, and oregano; herbal teas such as dandelion, chamomile, and peppermint; and veggies such as celery, broccoli, green pepper, and carrots. Plus, it’s in one of the most common cooking essentials: olive oil.

You’re Not Practicing Good Sleep Hygiene

I had a friend who was paid by a university to not sleep for several days while they researched the effects. His stories were hilarious (he started seeing things and talking funny), but also a bit disturbing. Sleep is critical to our executive cognitive functioning (like memory and processing information). If we start to cut corners—even just a bit here and there—our stress and anxiety levels build, and our body can lose the ability to flush out toxins and learn new tasks. Harvard Health Publications reports, “Going without sleep for forty-eight hours harms thinking skills as much as a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1 percent, which is above the legal limit for driving in every state.”

Considering that one in three adults aren’t getting enough sleep, it’s a pervasive problem that fuels many of our societal ills, from depression to car accidents. If you’re not getting enough shuteye, make it a priority.

You’re Taking On Too Much

Ah, anxiety. The information overload that our brains experience on a daily basis is mind-boggling, especially when you juxtapose it with our ancestors' slow-paced lifestyle. Simply put: our minds and bodies are not meant to multitask this extremely. And it's not doing us any favors since we switch from one brain activity to the next without much focus.

“That switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing,” shares Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University in Quartz. So slow down, take life one task at a time, and realize that not every beep or message needs to be answered right this instant.

You’re Dehydrated

You might not realize how integral drinking the recommended daily amount of water is to your cognitive performance. Recent studies show mild dehydration—classified as more than 1% loss of body weight due to water loss—can cause our brains to rapidly slow down, feel foggy, tired, and cranky, all because there is less blood flow to the brain. The effects of worse dehydration are more extreme, and include impaired reaction time, visual memory and visual learning. Ensuring you're properly hydrated might require a habit overhaul, so check out these helpful tips to get your daily H2O.

If you don’t feel like your best self, your body is trying to tell you something needs to change. However, if you are sleeping enough, eating healthy, drinking water, and you’ve limited your multitasking tendencies, it might be time to schedule an appointment with your doctor about brain fog. He or she can help you identity if it’s another cause, such as a food allergy, vitamin deficiency, or hormonal imbalance.

And the next time Mom pesters you about how well you’re eating, sleeping, drinking, and living, thank her for us, will you? She always did know best.

Photo Credit: Horn Photography