How to fix forgetfulness and woolly thinking

Brennan says these lifestyle disruptions have had an impact on our brain. “Poor sleep, chronic stress, lack of mental stimulation – they are all underlying factors that contribute to brain fog. Poorly managed chronic stress impairs ability to think and remember, and it actually changes the structure and the function of your brain.”

In fact, chronic stress has been found to kill brain cells and even shrink the size of your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for memory, focus and learning.

The rise in cortisol chronic stress creates also impacts our sleep, which is vital for clear thinking. During the day when we take on information it’s stored in the hippocampus, a part of our brain that has a limited capacity; in our sleep, the hippocampus clears this information and files it in different parts of your brain so that memories are made. It’s also cross-referencing the new information with old memories. 

If you do not sleep well, new memories cannot be embedded and the hippocampus is not cleared, which means there is an impaired ability to take on new information the next day.

It seems our brains are simply exhausted from the work they have had to do over the past two years. Pre-pandemic about 40 per cent of our behaviours were habitual and done on auto-pilot – we got up at the same time most days, went to the same place of work, had lunch in the same cafe. This habitual behaviour frees up a lot of energy for our brain to tackle specific problems and engage in tasks.

What did become routine for many of us (certainly for me) in the past two years was alcohol, sugary snacks and Netflix. Alcohol has a terrible impact on our mind, says Goodwin: “Anything other than moderate drinking is definitely going to play a role in brain fog for a number of reasons.”  

Brain fog has also been linked to a sugary diet, which causes energy highs and energy crashes. Another factor is our increased reliance on technology – it has accelerated since 2020 as we lived on Zoom by day and Netflix at night, with endless news scrolling in between. 

This is not healthy. Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus, makes the case that the reason many of us cannot concentrate any more – the average student now focuses on any one task for just 65 seconds – is because of tech hijacking our attention. We break off regularly from what we’re doing to check our phones. OK,  it’s just a few seconds’ break, but studies show that once you are interrupted it takes on average 23 minutes to get back to the same levels of focus you had before you were disturbed.

“The brain is not capable of multi-tasking, despite what we’re led to believe,” says Brennan. “What the brain is actually doing when we multi-task is switching from one task to another and that comes at a cost. If you multi-task, you will make more errors.”

In some cases (mine), there’s hormones thrown into the mix. A drop-off in oestrogen, which women will experience in their 40s and 50s, has a big effect on thinking because women have oestrogen receptors in various parts of their brain that are involved in thinking, learning, memory, planning and organising.

“When you have fluctuations in your oestrogen levels, you will have changes in your thinking,” says Brennan. “Women going through menopause can be terrified they’re getting dementia.”

The good news, however, is that for the vast majority, this brain fog is reversible with lifestyle changes.  

So what should we do to get our brains pinging again? According to Goodwin, exercise is one of the most important things we can do for brain health. Not only does it increase neuroplasticity – the brain’s adaptability to experience and change – but it increases the number of mitochondria in our brain, which are the little battery power packs of the body – if you exercise you increase the number of mitochondria. 

“Calorie restriction and fasting have also been found to improve the numbers and the productivity of the mitochondria,” says Goodwin. “Avoiding sugar rushes is also important. Mitochondria are very sensitive to the amount of sugar being fed to them – it changes their structure and function.”

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