Patients often report difficulty thinking or concentrating, feeling confused or tired, or having problems with memory — leaving them overwhelmed when they try to accomplish tasks at work or home that were easy before their diagnosis.
“It is very bothersome because what people are finding is they can't keep up,” Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told TODAY.
Cases of brain fog have become “much more pervasive” in her practice in the last six months, she said. But the problem can strike anyone, even without an underlying condition, Naidoo writes in her book, “This Is Your Brain on Food.”
As a prescribing psychiatrist, nutritionist and trained chef, she advises patients on how to change their diet to improve their mental health, including easing brain fog. It works because the gut and the brain are uniquely connected — joined by the vagus nerve, which carries signals between them, Naidoo said.
When food interacts with the gut during the digestive process, it will impact the gut brain-connection.
Eating fast food and other pro-inflammatory options, for example, feeds the “bad microbes” in the microbiome, allowing them to take over and set a person up for inflammation, which in turn can impact how he or she is thinking and feeling, she noted.
“What I want people with long COVID symptoms who have brain fog to feel is that they should adjust their diet and nutrition to see if it can potentially help,” Naidoo advised.
“There's definitely hope… it's putting together a plan, taking those steps slowly and steadily, and making it part of your lifestyle every day so that you're eating better and healthy ingredients.”
Consider these options:
Foods rich in luteolin:
They include fresh peppermint, sage, thyme, hot and sweet peppers, radicchio, celery seeds, parsley and artichokes. Dried Mexican oregano, which is slightly different from regular oregano, is one of the best sources.
Research shows luteolin, a flavonoid, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, has numerous properties that decrease brain fog, Naidoo writes in her book.
This means eating lots of fruits, vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and plant-based sources such as flaxseed. Nuts and olive oil play a role, too. Colorful veggies are especially good because they have strong anti-inflammatory nutrients, as well as antioxidants and polyphenols.
“Inflammation is being thought of as the basis of many mental health conditions these days, and that’s where food also becomes important,” Naidoo said.
Vitamin C and folic acid:
Both have been found to be low in people with chronic fatigue syndrome, so she asks patients with brain fog to include them in their diet. There’s plenty of vitamin C in citrus fruits, kiwi fruit and red bell peppers. Folate is found in dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, salad greens and kale.
They provide good bacteria that can help with digestion. Go for fermented foods with live cultures such as kimchi, sauerkraut and plain unsweetened yogurt.
Coffee and green tea:
Studies have shown modest coffee consumption — one to two small or medium cups of coffee per day — can help stave off some brain fog, Naidoo said. Coffee is rich in polyphenols and antioxidants. Green tea is also very helpful for focus and clarity, she added.
Think of creating a 'brain fog-combating plate' at every meal:
Rather than focusing on one food, try to combine several of these options every time you eat. Have a leafy green salad with lots of colorful veggies and a salad dressing that contains parsley and thyme, or lemon and fresh peppermint. Enjoy salmon with a squeeze of lemon juice. Snack on kiwi fruit.
The goal is to be consistent and think of it as a comprehensive plan you’re going to act on every day. If you make a less healthy choice on a given day, self-correct at the next meal, Naidoo advised. People usually feel better within two weeks to a month of starting a consistent plan, she added.
Be careful about gluten and alcohol:
Naidoo is a fan of everything in moderation and she didn’t want to demonize ingredients that most everyone consumes. That said, she advised people to experiment with how gluten and alcohol impact their brain fog. When it comes to gluten, it can be a matter of limiting it rather than giving it up completely. The source makes a difference, Naidoo said. Eating highly-processed, preservative-filled sliced bread from the supermarket may affect a person differently than a freshly baked loaf of sourdough bread from the local bakery.
If a glass of wine makes brain fog worse, it may be worth going dry for a couple of weeks to see how that changes things.
Bottom line: "Dietary interventions are extremely helpful," Naidoo said. "But it's not one single thing and it's not fast and immediate."