The alarm goes off. You get dressed, have your coffee and go to work. But at lunchtime, you start to feel disorganized. You re-read emails because you lack focus and mental clarity.
There is nothing worse than brain fog. Along with stress and lack of sleep, it can be caused by the immune system creating an inflammatory response in the brain. This can lead to symptoms such as poor concentration and memory, or difficulty making decisions.
As a neuroscientist, I study the causes of brain fog and forgetfulness. To avoid them, here are four things I never do:
1. I never let my body tense up for too long.
Even if you think you are relaxed, your body may be physically tense (eg stiff neck, back or shoulder pain). It can be the result of stress caused by things like unfinished tasks or impending deadlines.
So when I notice that my body is tense, I immediately do an exercise called “breathing box”:
- Inhale through your nose, counting slowly for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for four seconds.
- Exhale through your nose, releasing all the air from your lungs, counting slowly to four seconds.
- Hold your breath for four seconds.
- Repeat for at least four rounds.
Box breathing is a simple way to help calm your brain. Studies also show that it can reduce levels of cortisol, which is the chemical produced when the body is stressed.
2. I never use screens an hour before bedtime.
As tempting as it may be to scroll through Instagram or watch TV before bed, these activities can be too stimulating for the brain.
Instead, I try to read a book before turning off the lights. If that doesn’t help me sleep, I do a “relaxation body scan”, squeezing and relaxing the muscles – starting with my toes and working up to my head.
Ideally, we need around eight hours of sleep per night. More than that can lead to a depressed mood, and less than that doesn’t give the brain enough time to rest and reset.
3. I never fill up on glucose.
If your gut isn’t healthy, your brain can also fail. I strengthen my gut-brain axis by maintaining a diet rich in hydrating foods, healthy fats and digestible proteins.
More importantly, I try to avoid sugar. Your brain uses glucose (sugar) for fuel, but refined carbohydrates like high fructose corn syrup found in sodas are not good sources of fuel. Your brain gets a puff of too much glucose, then too little.
This can lead to irritability, fatigue, mental confusion and impaired judgement.
I also eat magnesium-rich foods — whole grains, leafy greens, dried beans, and legumes — to help regulate my mood and sleep cycle. And I make sure I have my last caffeinated drink of the day before 10:00 a.m.
4. I never go a day without meditating.
I meditate at least 12 minutes a day.
Doing this at night can help alleviate brain fog the next day:
- Remove all distractions from your bedroom.
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
- Take deep breaths.
- Quietly observe your thoughts.
- Whatever thoughts come up, just acknowledge them to focus on your breathing.
If you don’t like to meditate, you can do a mindful activity like cooking or going for a quiet walk.
I also recommend finding a mantra you can say in the morning, like, “Brain fog is a state of mind. I’m going to bed early tonight and I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
By articulating your goals out loud, you can begin to change your habits in a more intentional way. And through that repetition, your brain and your body will begin to follow suit.
Dr. Tara Swart Bieber is a neuroscientist, physician, and senior lecturer at MIT Sloan. She is the author of “The source: the secrets of the universe, the science of the brain” and hosts the podcast Reinvent yourself with Dr. Tara. She works with leaders to help them achieve optimal mental resilience and brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information. Follow her on Twitter and instagram.