Brain fog (also called fibro fog or cognitive dysfunction) is one of the most common complaints of people with fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS). For many, it can be severe and can have just as big an impact on their lives as pain or fatigue. In fact, some people say brain fog is more of a disability than their physical symptoms.
What Causes Brain Fog?
We don't yet know exactly what causes cognitive dysfunction in these conditions, but we have a lot of theories about possible contributing factors, including:
- Lack of restorative sleep
- Abnormal cranial blood flow or volume
- Brain abnormalities
- Premature brain aging
- Mental distraction due to pain
In FMS, brain fog generally is worse when pain is worse. In both FMS and ME/CFS, it can be exacerbated when you're anxious, rushed, or dealing with sensory overload.
Depression, which is common in FMS and ME/CFS, also is associated with cognitive dysfunction. Some studies, however, show that the severity of brain fog is not correlated with depression symptoms.
A lot of common medications for FMS and ME/CFS can contribute to brain fog as well.
Brain Fog Symptoms
Symptoms of brain fog can range from mild to severe. They frequently vary from day to day, and not everyone has all of them. Symptoms include:
- Word use & recall: Difficulty recalling known words, use of incorrect words, slow recall of names.
- Short-term memory problems: Forgetfulness, inability to remember what's read or heard.
- Directional disorientation: Not recognizing familiar surroundings, easily becoming lost, having trouble recalling where things are.
- Multitasking difficulties: Inability to pay attention to more than one thing, forgetfulness of original task when distracted.
- Confusion & trouble concentrating Trouble processing information, easily distracted.
- Math/number difficulties: Difficulty performing simple math, remembering sequences, transposing numbers, trouble remembering numbers.
Some people may also have other types of cognitive dysfunction.
Brain Fog & Learning Disorders
So far, we don't have evidence that our brain fog comes from known learning disorders. However, our problems are similar to those associated with disorders such as dyslexia (reading problems), dysphasia (speaking problems) and dyscalculia (math/time/spatial problems).
Treating Brain Fog
However, not everyone can find effective treatments, which leaves many of us trying to manage brain fog.
Supplements are a common choice. While we don't have a lot of evidence to support their effectiveness, some doctors and people with these conditions say they've seen supplements help with cognitive function. Common brain-fog supplements include:
Some doctors recommend dietary changes to include "brain friendly" foods, some of which are natural sources of the supplements listed above. Some of these foods are:
- Fish (Omega-3)
- Canola or walnut oil (Omega-3)
- Eggs (Choline)
- Fruits & vegetables
Some FMS research shows that moderate exercise can help improve cognitive function as well. Exercise is difficult for us, so be sure to read Getting Started With Exercise.
Researchers are learning more about the brain and how it works, and new information could help us understand brain fog. Research on aging brains and some degenerative brain conditions shows that cognitive training can slow, stop or sometimes reverse cognitive dysfunction.
Some doctors use cognitive training programs, which often include software that you use at home. Video game companies and websites offer games they claim can improve cognitive function, and while specific games haven't been evaluated for this ability, some evidence does suggest that virtual reality games improve memory and critical-thinking skills.
Because this is an emerging area of science, we're likely to learn more about cognition and cognitive training in the next few years.
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