You may think that brain fog — that mentally fuzzy, hazy feeling you get on top of forgetting things — is something that only happens as you age. But subjective memory impairment (SMI), as it’s clinically referred to, can happen at any age. In fact, a UCLA study published in PLOS One found that 14% of young adults between the ages of 18-39 and 21% of adults between the ages 40-59 reported instances of SMI, feeling a decline in both memory and cognitive thinking.
Persistent SMI can be caused by an underlying medical issue (particularly as we get older), not to mention the fact that risk factors like smoking, depression, and metabolic issues like diabetes and hypertension can exacerbate those symptoms. But for the average healthy Spartan who doesn’t have any health issues brain fog can still occur for a number of reasons.
Learning how to clear brain fog can help you operate (and think) at your best capacity. Here, experts explain why brain fog happens, and how you can keep it from impacting your training and overall health.
Brain Fog: Why You Have It and How to Clear It
Cause No. 1: You’re Doing Too Much Multi-Tasking
Are you thinking about your next strength training set during your cardio? Or are you cranking out miles on the treadmill while you go over an upcoming meeting you have at work after your lunch break? Thinking or doing several things at once may seem efficient, but it may also wind up messing with your mind and the ability to think clearly.
“For non-specific cognitive complaints like focusing, word-finding problems, memory loss, or plain old confusion, multi-tasking is often one of the factors,” Clifford Segil, DO, a neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, says.
Though it can be difficult, try to stay focused on the task at hand (i.e. crushing those HIIT intervals and then drafting that work email in your head) to stay focused and improve your productivity, both with your training and your day-to-day life. You’re also likely to prevent injury by eliminating multi-tasking, as this will make you more mindful during your workout and lead to proper form that then helps to protect your muscles and joints.
Cause No. 2: You Might Be Overtraining
“One of the most common reasons behind brain fog is dehydration,” Alex Tauberg, DC, CSCS, a board-certified sports chiropractor and owner of The Pittsburgh Chiropractor in Pittsburgh, PA, says. “But brain fog can also indicate the onset of overtraining syndrome.”
When this happens, your body can’t keep up with the recovery it needs in response to the stress it’s being put through by physical exercise. Other symptoms of overtraining include things like decreased athletic performance while training or racing, chronic injury, extreme fatigue, irritability, insomnia, and an increased perceived effort. (For instance, every rep or run feels way more difficult than it should.)
“Overtraining syndrome can not only derail your progress (and in serious cases cause other health issues) the brain fog that happens on top of these symptoms will make it that more difficult to train,” Tauberg says.
Consider Evaluating Your Lifestyle Inside and Outside of the Gym
There are a few things that you can do to make sure you’re not going overboard with your own fitness plan. Keep a training log to record not only your workout frequency, but things like how you felt both during and after each workout. This will help monitor your overall performance, and point out any red flags that may mean you need to dial it back a bit. Build in at least one rest day a week (and preferably two) to let your body recover properly. This doesn’t mean you have to lounge on the couch all day, but you do need to switch up your training and focus on stretching and conditioning those muscles.
“Increased life stress, poor sleep, alcohol, or CBD/THC use can all cause complaints of brain fog,” Segil says.
Related: Just How Bad Is Alcohol for Your Health?
In most cases, a little self-care goes a long way.
“Getting enough sleep, hydrating, and focusing on your nutrition can really help in clearing up brain fog,” Tauberg says.
If you check off all these boxes and still feel like your focus isn’t as razor sharp as it should be, make an appointment with your doctor, Segil says. They’ll be able to do a physical exam and run some blood tests to make sure there’s not a more serious, hidden medical condition behind your brain fog.