What Is Brain Fog? 6 Signs That Your Forgetfulness May Actually Be A Medical Condition, According To Experts
Everyone has days where they feel like their head is in the clouds. Just this morning, I walked into my kitchen while getting ready, only to completely forget why I was there. On other days, this foggy headed feeling shows up in an inability to focus on a task, even if I know it's something I need to accomplish. Clearly, I'm not alone. According to a study at UCLA, one in seven adults under the age of 40 report forgetfulness due to their poor short-term memory. Commonly referred to as brain fog, the feeling can be caused by any number of things. In most cases, it's just a sign that you need to be getting more or better sleep. For others, brain fog is related to their anxiety, depression, or the medications they take to alleviate these conditions.
In up to 3 percent of adults, however, chronic brain fog can be a sign of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Women are most likely to be affected by chronic fatigue, comprising about 75 percent of all chronic fatigue patients, according to Dr. Fred Friedberg, a CFS researcher and professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University's School of Medicine. "The worst thing about CFS is that you just can't function like you normally would," Dr. Friedberg tells Bustle.
Chronic fatigue is a long term illness that last anywhere from months to years. The symptoms can come and go and may come on quickly or very slowly start to appear. The syndrome most commonly appears in patients in their 20s or 30s, although it is possible to show up in people older or, in rare cases, younger than that. Very little is known about CFS: There is no test to clearly diagnose it, researchers are unable to find its exact cause, and there is no cure. However, a diagnosis means that doctors can begin treating its symptoms and helping alleviate the foggy brain and exhaustion that comes with chronic fatigue syndrome.
If this sounds sort of like you, and your brain fog has begun to impact your day-to-day life, check out these six signs that your brain fog could be linked to chronic fatigue syndrome. Even if there's no cure for chronic fatigue, this could be helpful information to bring a medical professional to help create a plan to make you feel your best.
1. You Keep Losing Your Train Of Thought
One of the most telltale symptoms of chronic fatigue is cognitive difficulty. Dr. Friedberg says this could show up in the form of "losing a word that's very familiar" or "having a sequence of things [you] want to do and then forgetting the sequence." This isn't just going into the next room only to forget why you went in there in the first place — this is chronically not being able to follow through on an initial thought. CFS makes your brain feel scattered and routine seem unfamiliar at times.
2. You Feel More Tired Than Usual
If you've been feeling wiped after your typical daily activities, this may be another reason to talk to your doctor. In extreme cases, Dr. Friedberg says someone with CFS "might walk around the block and then need to be in bed for a couple of days afterward." This can manifest as an inability to think clearly as a result.
3. You've Been Under A Lot Of Stress Lately
There are various environmental factors that can exacerbate the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, including stress, as is the case with many illnesses. According to the American Psychological Association, stress weakens the body's immune system, which makes it less able to work to keep you healthy. This means that when you're under more stress, your brain could get foggier and exhausted more easily.
4. You Have Flu-Like Symptoms
CFS can feel like having mono that you never recovered from, Dr. Friedberg explains. Oftentimes, the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome — exhaustion, forgetfulness, difficulty sleeping, aches, and sore throat — are mistaken for the flu. The key difference is that chronic fatigue is not caused by a virus like a stomach bug is. For this reason, "if you experience any unexplained break in your health, you need to go to a doctor," he says.
5. Your Haziness Is Getting In The Way Of Your Daily Life
Even if you're taking it easy physically, things like work or classes can make you feel extra foggy as well. With CFS, you have an "inability to do your normal activities because even normal mental exertion depletes your energy very quickly." Dr. Friedberg says.
6. You Can't Focus On The Task At Hand
"Difficulty concentrating and distractibility [are part of] the constellation of cognitive symptoms that accompany the illness," Dr. Friedberg says. And it's not that people with chronic fatigue don't want to get stuff done, it's that sometimes they can't. If you ask a person with chronic fatigue what they'd like to do tomorrow, Dr. Friedberg explains, "They will give you a list of 27 things they want to do. The motivation is there, but the ability is not." If you've been feeling more scatterbrained than usual and unable to focus, that's information you want to bring to your doctor.
If your brain fog is starting to get in the way of your daily life, you should schedule a check up with your doc. Unfortunately, there is no known cure to CFS, but researchers are working to learn more about the syndrome and its causes. In the meantime, your doctor can help you find strategies to cope with its side effects. Some patients find that managing their activity levels can be helpful, and others use prescription stimulant medications to help with their memory and concentration issues. Every case is different, Dr. Friedberg says, but with the help of your doctor, you can create a personalized plan to feel your best.