After a year of stay-at-home orders, unparalleled anxieties, loss at a global scale, economic downturns, new ways to work, new ways to school, and now—maybe, finally—some new glimmers of hope, it’s no surprise at all that many of our brains are… to put it lightly: tired.

Experts describe the way many of our brains feel these days with the term “brain fog,” and it’s a term that’s definitely clicked.

So what exactly is brain fog?

Brain fog isn’t a medical diagnosis, and it typically describes a temporary feeling—though it can extend into long periods of time.

Symptoms of brain fog include:

  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Headaches
  • Forgetfulness or confusion
  • Low motivation or hopelessness
  • Mild depression or anxiety
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep

What causes brain fog?

This won’t be too surprising, but the most typical cause of brain fog is a lack of sleep. If you’re not getting your solid 7-9 hours each night, you’re more likely to deal with brain fog. Sleep is vital for thinking clearly and feeling active, and even more in children and teenagers,.

If you know your sleep habits aren’t to blame, your diet could be the culprit. Your brain fog might be letting you know you’re dealing with some deficiencies, such as a lack of some major vitamins or nutrients. Brain fog can also be a side effect of too much sugar, caffeine, or alcohol in your diet.

If your sleep and diet aren’t to blame, you could be dehydrated. Try adding a few more glasses of water to your day and see if it boosts your brain power.

When these common causes aren’t to blame for your brain blues, look to your hormones. Think of brain fog as just another way of talking about inflammation affecting your cognitive health, and this inflammation is caused by changes to your levels of dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol. Cortisol is in charge of keeping you awake and thinking. It’s your body’s “fight or flight” hormone. Dopamine and serotonin, on the other hand, keep you calm and capable of joy. Your body’s parasympathetic nervous system relies on a complex balance of these hormones, as they work to keep each other in check at all times.

If your hormones are thrown out of wack, your brain could very easily start to feel foggy. It’s easy for your system to get thrown off-balance too. A low-carb intake could cause your serotonin to drop, or a high stress event might spike your cortisol.

How can you deal with brain fog?

Because brain fog isn’t a medical diagnosis, but rather a grouping of symptoms, you can address the symptoms through some adjustments to habits in your life.

  1. Introduce gut-healing foods to your diet

    Bring in food medicine like bone broth and probiotic-filled fermented foods like sauerkraut or kombucha to provide your microbiome with good bacteria.

  2. Boost your vitamin D

    A deficiency in vitamin D could contribute to decreased memory and brain fog. Sunshine is your best source of vitamin D, but if going outdoors isn’t an option, turn to foods like salmon, tuna, and mackerel.

  3. Get more aerobic exercise in

    If you’re not already, make sure you’re doing aerobic exercises as often as possible. Aerobic exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which promotes brain and nerve cell health.

  4. Cut back on alcohol and sugar

    Alcohol stresses your brain out, and some studies suggest it can damage your blood-brain barrier. Steer clear of sugary snacks too, as they’re well known to zap your brain of its energy.

  5. Sleep, sleep, sleep

    Of course, it’s easier said than done but it really is the best medicine. Practice mindfulness techniques and meditation throughout the day so that you can get achieve better sleep at night, and clear that brain fog right up.