6 Ways to Beat Winter Brain Fog, According to Doctors
Stay sharper this winter with these six simple tips.
We all know the feeling of brain fog, when your mind feels hazy, slow, a bit forgetful, and just slightly off its game. These types of cognitive complaints are not usually concerning, says Clifford Segil, DO, a neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. However, they can disrupt your day-to-day living—and they're most likely to do so right now, as we enter the cold and dark winter months, research shows.
A 2018 study determined that cognitive faculties tend to peak during the summer and fall, then decline in the winter and early spring. "There was a robust association between season and cognition," the study states. In fact, seasonal changes were "equivalent in cognitive effect to 4.8 years' difference in age," making the subjects more likely to meet "criteria for mild cognitive impairment or dementia" during winter, compared to summer.
The good news? There are several ways to beat your winter brain fog if it's getting in the way of your life. Read on to learn the six ways to feel better fast and stay sharp long-term, according to doctors.
Here's when to see a doctor.
As Segil explains, "'Brain fog' is not a medical term and its definition will not be found in any medical text." However, that doesn't mean it can't point to a serious underlying health problem.
He says that patients who complain of being "slow or not sharp" for any prolonged period of time should visit their doctor to be evaluated for metabolic causes. "Often these can be heralding conditions like diabetes or hypothyroidism and less likely anemia," he tells Best Life.
Segil adds that you should see a neurologist if you present any more specific cognitive symptoms in addition to your "brain fog." These might include shaking episodes or focal weakness, which could suggest a deeper structural problem in the brain.
But medical issues aside, there are some tips to get rid of winter brain fog.
According to the Alzheimer's Research & Prevention Foundation (ARPF), regular physical exercise can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease by up to 50 percent. However, it can also be beneficial for people experiencing minor, seasonal changes in cognition.
"The target is to exercise 30 to 45 minutes per day, four to five days per week," says Verna R. Porter, MD, a board-certified neurologist and director of the Dementia, Alzheimer's Disease and Neurocognitive Disorders at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California.
Porter says that exercise may slow existing cognitive deterioration by stabilizing older brain connections, known as synapses, and helping to make new connections possible. She recommends a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training, including cycling, walking, swimming, and resistance training.
One contributing factor to winter brain fog is that many people tend to be less social during the cold winter months.
"Maintaining a strong network of family and friends is very important," explains Porter. "Social connections may also be enhanced through volunteer organizations, joining various clubs or social group, taking group classes (e.g. in a gym or a community college) or getting out into the community (e.g. going to the movies, the park, museums, and other public places)."
In the bigger picture, staying socially engaged may help protect against Alzheimer's disease and dementia in later life, Porter adds.
Maintaining a healthy diet can also drastically reduce your symptoms of winter brain fog, Porter says. She recommends trying the MIND diet, which is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease.
This particular diet has 15 dietary components, including 10 that are specifically beneficial to your brain health. Those include green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and resveratrol.
"A growing body of research has implicated a strong link between metabolic disorders (e.g. diabetes) and impaired nerve signaling in the brain. Better eating habits may help by reducing inflammation in the brain, which in turn helps to protect the brain," Porter tells Best Life.
Pushing through your winter brain fog to stay mentally stimulated is another way to beat your symptoms.
"Consider taking a class or volunteering to keep your brain fit while staying socially engaged… Study a foreign language, practice a musical instrument, learn to paint or sew, or read the newspaper or a good book," Porter suggests. The doctor adds that "education at any age may protect against cognitive decline."
Get quality sleep.
Another reason for your increased brain fog in the winter months is that fewer daylight hours can influence your body's natural production of melatonin, a hormone that helps set your circadian rhythm. This can leave you feeling tired and groggy—especially if you're not sleeping well at night.
"Poor sleep may lead to slowed thinking and may also cause poor mood," says Porter. She adds that more serious cognitive problems such as Alzheimer's disease have long been linked with insomnia and other sleep-related disturbances.
Manage your stress.
When you're feeling stressed out, it can be hard to focus on other things—and as we all know, plenty of people experience peak stress around the winter holidays.
Stress can also have longer-term implications for your cognitive health. "Chronic or persistent stress can actually lead to nerve cell decline and even death, which may manifest as atrophy (shrinkage in size) of important memory areas in the brain," Porter says. "Nerve cell dysfunction and degeneration in turn increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia."
The neurologist recommends engaging in relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, prayer, meditation, or yoga, noting that these "may diminish the damaging effects of stress on the brain."
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- Source: PLOS Medicine
- Source: ARPF, Exercise and Brain Aerobics
- Source: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, MIND Diet