Got brain fog? Do you find yourself easily distracted or taking much longer to do things that normally wouldn’t take you that long? Have you ever walked into a room, and asked yourself, “Wait, why did I come in here? What was I looking for?”
It’s pretty normal to experience this phenomenon every now and then. But did you know your gut can play a HUGE role in your brain fog? Looking into this complex connection between your brain and gut microbiome can help us to understand WHY your brain fog symptoms are occurring in the first place!
Your Second Brain (Psst... It's Your Gut!)
Our entire enteric nervous system (aka our gut nervous system) consists of two thin layers containing 100-500 million nerve cells (which easily surpasses the amount of nerves that are in our spine). These cells line the entirety of our GI tract, starting at our mouth and traveling all the way down into our rectum. There is quite a lot of cross discussion that happens between our gut and our brain, and one of the major highways that these conversations occur is via our Vagus Nerve.
For example, when you wake up in the morning and feel hungry, that is your Vagus Nerve sending a molecule (in this case, a hormone called ghrelin) all the way up to your brain. Ghrelin, just like it sounds, is a hungry gremlin that lives in our gut, and it tells us “It’s time to start looking for food!” On the flip side, after you eat a large meal and feel so stuffed that you need to unbutton your pants, that is your vagus nerve sending leptin up to your brain, and telling it that “We can’t put anymore food in our body at this point in time! We need to take a break.”
The Vagus Nerve has a lot to say! It provides insight into what inflammation levels look like, what hunger and satiety look like, and how well we are able to produce ATP, which is the main energy molecule from our food. Our Vagus Nerve primarily sends about 80-90% of information from the gut to the brain, and 10-20% from the brain to the gut.
The Blood-Brain Barrier
Our gut produces more than 30 different neurotransmitters which impact our mood, cognition, and memory. If there are imbalances here, brain fog can occur! Hormones produced in the gut have the ability to cross the Blood-Brain Barrier (BBB), which is a sealed off mechanism that keeps our brain safe. The brain is our most prized organ, so your body is going to do everything it can to keep it from harm’s way. For the vagus nerve and the gut to send information up through the BBB, it tells us that the relationship between the gut and the brain is hugely important.
The HPA Axis
The other important aspect to think about when we are talking about the brain axis, is our Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis. The hypothalamus and the pituitary are two parts of the brain which send signals to our adrenal glands. Our adrenal glands produce a variety of hormones, including cortisol, which has the ability to impact our sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) responses.
Our microbiome (the bacteria that live in our gut) can also regulate our HPA Axis. When our HPA axis becomes overstimulated, it can impact that microbiome and lead to increased gut permeability or leaky gut. We can improve our HPA function by balancing our gut and improving our microbiome state, and if we can calm our nervous system and regulate our HPA Axis, we can improve gut health and manage brain fog symptoms!
What is Brain Fog?
According to the Merriam Webster definition, “brain fog is categorized as a temporary state of diminished mental capacity marked by an inability to concentrate, think, or reason clearly.” People usually describe it as a grouping of neurological symptoms including poor focus, low cognition, poor memory, difficulty problem solving, and lack of clarity.
These are things I see all the time in my office! It’s pretty normal to have brain fog every now and then. The main issue is figuring out where it’s really coming from, and addressing it at that level. That means we’re really looking at a multitude of angles to figure out what is imbalanced: “Do we have a neurotransmitter imbalance? A hormone imbalance? Is there an underlying gut issue?” All of these imbalances can impact our mental clarity, cognition, and our overall enteric nervous system.
For example, dysbiosis is an imbalance of our microbiome. We should have good bacteria and fungal varieties in our GI tract (and we have less desirable bacterial varieties in our gut as well). When we have an overabundance of bad bacteria, that’s when dysbiosis happens. Dysbiosis produces a lot of inflammation and can increase that intestinal permeability, which effectively allows for lots of metabolites to enter into our circulatory system, and thus activates our immune system. Our microbiome has the ability to modulate our immune system during infection, inflammation, and autoimmunity. When we have imbalances in our gut, and we’re seeing that immune dysfunction, it’s not uncommon to see our brain cognition decline as well.
What Can You Do To Help Brain Fog?
Don't Sleep on Sleep.
Lack of sleep is not a badge of honor. A lot of Americans will boast that they get 4 hours of sleep a night. I strongly encourage you to aim for 8-9 hours a night! Lack of sleep will not serve you well, and can be a primary contributor to brain fog. Even when daylight savings occurs every fall, when we fall back and lose an hour of sleep, this results in a 24% increase in ER visits that following Monday for symptoms and signs of heart attack. Sleep is SO important for you and for all functions in your body to run smoothly.
Get Moving and Grooving.
Research conducted in British Columbia found that the hippocampus will actually increase in size when we’re doing aerobic exercise and breaking a sweat. That hippocampus is important in providing mental clarity. Exercise improves blood flow and digestion, which is necessary for improving our gut health and microbiome, and therefore reducing the effects of brain fog! When in doubt, exercise it out.
Eat Your Greens.
The Standard American Diet is pretty high in animal and fat protein, as well as ultra-processed carbs, and is unfortunately very low in fiber, fruits, veggies, and whole foods. When we are consuming ultra-processed foods, we are eating foods that contain preservatives, dyes, and all sorts of additives that give it a long shelf life. Preservatives are inherently antimicrobial, which disrupt our gut microbiome and can create gut dysbiosis.
Consider adding in more fiber, variety, fermented foods, and whole foods to your diet! All of these can help to optimally improve our gut health and produce a stronger, more diverse microbiome. Additionally, probiotics can bring a great boost of good bacteria to your microbiome
All of those chemical messengers whose neurotransmitters and hormones go up and down that vagus nerve and through our enteric nervous system into our actual brain, require water for everything to move around in. If our hydration status is really poor, that aqueous solution is impacted to some extent, and those chemical messengers can’t work as efficiently.
Our quality of water matters as well! Consuming water that is full of pollutants or stripped of nutrients and minerals (like reverse osmosis water) impacts both our microbiome and cognitive health. So aim to drink your body’s weight in ounces, and reach for water that is rich with minerals.
Review Your Medications and Antibiotics.
Medications and antibiotics can be tricky. Sometimes they’re absolutely needed, and sometimes it’s worth exploring other choices out there. Antibiotics can have a lasting impact on the microbiota composition, can alter the blood brain barrier, and can change how our frontal cortex will work. Some medications, like Proton Pump Inhibitors, are problematic for gut health and brain fog because they impact the pH of our digestive system and impact the environment in which our microbiome lives.
OTC medication, such as Tylenol and ibuprofen, can also cause brain fog. It’s important we solve the issues of why you are reaching for the ibuprofen or Tylenol. No one should be in pain, but maybe there are other solutions that you are unaware of that can help fix your pain so that you don’t need to be reliant on painkillers.
We often live such busy lives and can be oblivious to what our stress really looks like. The first step is to identify what our stressors are, so we can actually do something about it! From there, we can look at balancing that cortisol, supporting your adrenal glands, and employing strategies like yoga, acupuncture, hydrotherapy, and breathing techniques to bring you into that rest and digest mode.
Bring Balance Back to Your Body!
My #1 piece of advice is to find a good team! You want people on your team, even if it’s family members and a medical professional, to make sure that you have accountability and to make sure that you get all the answers you are seeking. It’s important to choose your health care team wisely. Choose someone who really dives into your timeline, investigates the “what’s, where’s, when’s, why’s, and how’s,” and tailors the next steps (such as labs, imaging, or specialty testing) to you specifically.
Choose someone who is well-versed and understands the intricacies of the brain-gut connection, and choose someone who is able to help navigate any other health concerns you may have in addition to your brain fog. Find a doctor who will help you to navigate treatment strategies that work for your lifestyle. If you’re looking to relieve your brain fog symptoms, consider becoming a patient with us!