We all know the feeling. It’s 3pm (or 3am), the edges have blurred, nothing is really registering, and it would be a challenge to tell someone your name—much less answer the question your boss just levied at you. It is not a hangover, you’re not under the weather or dealing with low blood sugar, and you actually got eight hours of sleep last night. So what gives? Chances are, you’re dealing with a minor bout of brain fog, a relatively common feeling that folks experience, sometimes without a clear catalyst.
“Brain fog is a term used to describe a feeling of not being able to think as sharply and clearly as you’re used to,” says Samantha Cassetty, RD. “Sometimes people say they feel fuzzy or cloudy, and it can be associated with peri-menopause and menopause.” That said, Cassetty adds that brain fog often exists in the absence of any known cause.
“Brain fog is not a medical condition, but rather a symptom,” says Keri Gans, RDN, in agreement. “There may be many factors, such as lack of sleep, too much sleep, depression, certain medications or illness, dehydration, or diet.”
While it can be difficult to control many of these factors, there are certain foods that may amplify some of the symptoms associated with brain fog. We chatted with both Cassetty and Gans to learn more about the foods that may be making us a little more drowsy and a little less sharp—i.e. somewhere generally south of our usual mental clarity and focus A-game.
3 foods that contribute to brain fog, according to RDs
1. Heavily processed foods, including processed meat and sugary beverages
“In general, heavily-processed foods that are high in refined grains, added sugars, and sodium are likely culprits of brain fog,” says Cassetty. “Processed meats and artificial sweeteners may also be linked to brain fog.” These categories can indeed be applied to that sweet late-afternoon latte you were hoping would give you a mental boost.
Cassetty notes that when folks swap out heavily-processed foods for whole or minimally-processed plant foods, some will experience better mental clarity and energy. “Sometimes people don’t even realize how foggy they feel until they start feeling sharper by making some lifestyle adjustments,” she notes.
When it comes to choosing a snack that will help you focus, Maya Feller, MS, RD, recommends balancing fresh produce with lean protein or fat, and drinking plenty of water. “I encourage afternoon snacks that provide sustained energy, rather than heavily processed, sugary ones that give a boost followed by a crash,” she previously told Well+Good. Her number-one tip: “Combine nutrient-rich fruits or veggies that give quick energy and hydration with a lean protein or fat for staying power.”
Yes, sometimes, the culprit of your foggy feeling is indeed none other than alcohol. As such, experts recommend being careful about over-imbibing on a daily basis. “It is a good idea to stay within the alcohol limits of no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men,” Cassetty recommends. While occasional celebrating is only natural, excessive consumption of alcohol is dangerous and linked to increased risk of chronic illness, liver disease, and insomnia, among many other serious health concerns.
If you’re in search of a beverage that will give your brain health a boost, try this delicious (and energizing) herbal tea made with cacao, rosemary, and other nootropics. According to herbalist Rachelle Robinett, nootropics are a great way to get a boost of energy and clarity. Since these herbs don’t have caffeine, you can sip the tea in the evening in place of your nightcap—plus they may help you feel “more balanced, which ultimately results in better energy,” she says.
Find the recipe and all of its brain-boosting benefits here:
3. A lack of fruits and vegetables
If you’re looking to cut processed foods, an easy way to do so is to opt toward fruits and vegetables in their purest form. “Fill half your plate with vegetables or fruits or a mix of the two,” Cassetty recommends. “If you’re not anywhere close to eating this way, don’t worry. Work your way up, starting with one meal or one snack. Numerous studies suggest that this eating pattern can sharpen thinking and improve memory and cognitive skills.”
Feller agrees, saying that two great brain-boosting snacks are veggies and a protein-packed dip (like hummus) or fruit. “Fruit’s a great choice in the afternoon as long as you balance it out with protein and fat, like a serving of nuts and one ounce of cheese.” You can also up your fruit intake by pairing dried fruit like raisins with nuts for a heart-healthy trail mix.
RD tips and foods for preventing brain fog
In addition to keeping an eye on processed foods, alcohol, and a lack of fresh produce in your diet, there are other ways to reduce brain fog, experts say. “Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory-rich plant foods can reduce oxidative stress and inflammation that may induce the feeling of brain fog,” Cassetty notes. That means that instead of a piece of white toast, opt for whole-grain toast. Try to eat brown rice or quinoa in place of white rice, and switch from sugary cereals to whole-grain, low-sugar versions. The addition of fiber in these lesser-refined foods will help your blood sugar levels stay stable, which also helps with focus and mental clarity.
Moreover, it’s worth paying attention to the source of fat in your diet. Replace saturated fats with better-for-you unsaturated options like extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil when possible, and snack on avocados, walnuts, and chia seeds.
Gans and Cassetty both also strongly emphasizes the importance of brain-boosting behaviors, including resting, being active, and managing stress. “Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night,” Gans says. Cassetty agrees, saying that “exercise, sleep, and finding healthy ways to cope with stress are all beneficial to your brain health and can help you prevent brain fog.”
All of this aside, it’s worth noting that brain fog can also be caused by more serious medical conditions. If you are experiencing severe or frequent brain fog, speak to a health professional immediately. And remember that all foods in moderation are more than okay, experts agree—the most important takeaway here is to adjust your habits in a way that ultimately feels beneficial and fitting for your lifestyle (and your noggin).
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