Louis Arge
Published on

On brain fog (it's much worse than you think)

i came across this tweet on my timeline:

A tweet saying: "experiencing brain fog? perhaps you don’t want to do the thing you’re trying to force yourself to do"

to me, that sounds something like: experiencing Alzheimer's disease? maybe your relatives are just really forgettable people!

these kinds of takes are very common, and they have to stop. brain fog is not burnout nor depression, and it's an insensitive thing to say.

so, i decided to write a little post about what brain fog is, my own experience with it, what we owe people with brain fog, and everything i know to help you cure yours. it has three parts:

  1. Brain fog is not mental health
  2. Brain fogged people are vulnerable populations. Giving bad advice & neglecting their symptoms is really harmful
  3. How do I cure myself?

Part 1: Brain fog is not mental health

for 9 out of 10 people i know with "brain fog", it's fundamentally neurological (analogous to dementia), not psychological (like burnout or depression would be). same is the case for me.

people with brain fog are usually pretty clear about experiencing:

  • low mental energy
  • extremely poor memory (i used to code with a sticker that would say exactly what i was trying to do, because i tended to forget in < 5 minutes)
  • bad word recall, inability to finish thoughts & sentences
  • poor concentration
  • confusion, loosing track of conversations

it often comes on randomly, and is largely independent of their mood, sleep quality, and other factors that'd affect a healthy person's cognition.

nonetheless, people who don't have brain fog tend to assume it's psychological, even when you explain that it doesn't feel that way. my suspicion is that most people's world models don't allow for young people experiencing cognitive decline. this makes it feel very isolating to have brain fog, because nobody believes you as your brain is falling apart.

but if you truly listened to people on r/BrainFog describe their symptoms (while not knowing their often youthful age), you would guess it's early Alzheimer's before you'd guess it's burnout. let's be very clear. even the subreddit makes very explicit reference to cognitive impairment. "brain fog" means something very specific.

Brainfog is a form of cognitive impairment which itself is a symptom of one or more conditions, ranging from a mild, to debilitating severity. This subreddit exists to serve as a community support group to keep eachother strong on the journey through discovery (of cause) to recovery, as well as to serve as a congregation of community brainstorming & useful resources. We welcome brainfog of any kind and severity here. Feel free to come and introduce yourself!

when i was struggling with brain fog, i was asking pretty much everyone for help (doctor, family, friends, boss) and almost nobody was willing to entertain the idea it was neurological. all the advice i got was "change your environment, talk to a therapist". in fact, when i insisted i "simply couldn't think, but was otherwise happy", multiple people (doctor, family) assumed i was lying & somehow secretly depressed. it was a somewhat traumatic experience.

after over a year of struggle, it turned out i have a gluten intolerance that drops my IQ by 40 points. woop, who would have thought 🙃

i don't have a high school diploma (which i don't regret, tbh). but i think i would if i hadn't had brain fog. i am an intelligent and motivated person, it would have been a pretty easy task.

in my 1.5 years of brain fog i threw away 2 bikes (i've never lost bikes before or after), watched my grades plummet from straight As, to "Cs & Ds are fine I guess", dropped out of high school, could often not finish sentences i started, lost focus after 2-3 hours of coding (while healthy, i can usually work for 10+ hours), and just generally watched my brain fall apart. really bad memory, low energy, no associative thinking.

"what are you thinking about, Louis? nothing. nothing at all."

it was devastating. i had become such an ambitious person, and i had been planning for a life that sorely depended on my IQ & energy. then, all of it was taken away. after i quit gluten and became myself again, it took some years for my confidence to recover. honestly, it's still recovering.

but experiencing cognitive decline has also made me humble in many ways i'm grateful for. i know how many resources my brain thankfully has, and i know that they won't last. i know my health is good, and i know it won't always be. i think a lot of young people don't realize this.

i'm committed to setting my future self & future family up to have enough resources (financially, socially, spiritually) for when things take a turn south.

Part 2: Brain fogged people are vulnerable populations. Giving bad advice & neglecting their symptoms is really harmful

anyway, back to the point! why is it bad to imply brain fog could be burnout? because brain fogged people aren't thinking very clearly about their own issues. this is why it's such a hellhole to be stuck in.

imagine you have a complex & rare health problem, and you must solve it with an IQ of 70 & no help from medical professionals. GO!

if you tell a brain fogged person the problem is actually [XYZ] enough times, they'll believe it's actually [XYZ]. if you've watched Making A Murderer on Netflix, it's the same effect. unintelligent people are severely disadvantaged in taking agency for their own well-being. having high IQ is great for your health.

i totally understand where these "you're just burned out" takes are coming from, and it's a very pure place. burnout or bad circumstances are probably devastating too. i just think, if you don't have first hand experience with brain fog, you can end up doing more harm than good by directing the attention to these issues.

there's a selection effect where the sorts of people who are capable of writing viral tweets are NOT the sorts of people who have severe brain fog. because, brain fog destroys your creative writing skills. so you see a vast overrepresentation of the "ahahahah so brainfogged lol, my job is LAME" people, and almost no representation of the "hey, my life is ruined & i have absolutely no control over it" people.

Part 3: How do I cure myself?

this part is for you, if you're actually struggling with brain fog. let's get specific & actionable.

i don't want this to turn into a literature review or medical advice, so i'm mostly drawing on anecdotes. BUT! most people i know with brain fog have one of the following:

  • thyroid issues (hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism)
  • lyme's disease
  • food sensitivities. gluten (found in wheat, rye, barley) is probably the most common. other notable ones are: lactose (dairy), soy, legumes, nightshades, FODMAPs. don't dismiss food sensitivities even if you have no digestive issues! they sometimes present as brain fog with no other symptoms.
  • long covid / chronic fatigue syndrome

if i were starting from scratch, i would try things in this order (all else equal):

  1. get tested for thyroid issues & lyme's disease - call your doctor RIGHT NOW or SET AN ALARM to do it tomorrow morning.
  2. go on a 3 week elimination diet (see below)
  3. contact a functional medicine practitioner (an MD not covered by insurance) if you can afford it

wait really? i can be gluten intolerant & the only symptom is brain fog?

yes. absolutely. celiac disease is the most well-known (and arguably most severe) type of gluten sensitivity, and here's what Johns Hopkins writes about it:

Celiac disease affects people in different ways. Some have symptoms as children. Others have symptoms only as adults. Some people have diarrhea and belly (abdominal) pain. Others may feel moody or depressed

and that's just celiac disease! there are less understood types of gluten intolerance, collectively referred to as "non-celiac gluten sensitivity". they are estimated to affect anywhere between 0.5% and 13% of the population. both celiac disease and NCGS can present atypically - that is, without the gastrointestinal symptoms you'd usually associate with food sensitivities. and they're both well known to cause neurological symptoms such as: numbness, tingling, loss of balance, fatigue, and cognitive decline ("brain fog").

i know much less about other food sensitivities, but i suspect the landscape is similar.

how would i know if i have a food sensitivity?

excluding allergies, celiac disease, and lactose intolerance, most food sensitivities do not have good tests. the only way to be sure is to do a multi-week elimination diet. this might seem daunting at first, but it's important to remember it's only gonna be a few weeks of focused effort, and that those few weeks might turn out to be the most important thing you ever did.

the basic formula for an elimination diet is:

  1. note down your symptoms before starting
  2. go on the most extreme elimination diet you can muster for 2-3 weeks.
    • at the very least: cut out gluten, lactose, processed sugar, alcohol, nightshades, and legumes
    • the very best diet: grass-fed beef + berries + water
  3. reintroduce your favorite foods (one by one), until your symptoms come back - and you have your culprit!

remember: the initial elimination diet is not meant to last. it's gonna suck, but it's simply meant to diagnose whether or not you have a food sensitivity. if it becomes clear that you do: hurray 🎉 your life is only getting better from now on.

what you then need to do, is reintroduce food groups until your symptoms come back. for me i added back: dairy, chocolate, sugar, rice, potatoes, and vegetables. that all went great. then i had a pancake, lost half my vocabulary 3 hours later, and went to bed at 7pm. the next morning i concluded i was gluten intolerant.

if you want a more comprehensive guide to elimination diets, this one seems good.

don't quote me on the numbers here, but it seems like 9/10 times someone says they have "brain fog" they're referring to cognitive decline, yet 9/10 times normies assume they mean lack of motivation.

"the mind is not the brain" has become common knowledge, but it's inverse is just as true ("the brain is not the mind"). some problems are really just brain problems, and no amount of therapy & travelling the world will solve them. we fetishize mental health to the detriment of our physical health.

tl;dr: "brain fog" means cognitive decline. attempts to change your environment or improve your mental health will not have any effect. get your thyroid hormone checked first, then Lyme's disease, then try a complete elimination diet for 3 weeks. if none of that showed any results, i don't know what to tell you, but i sincerely hope you figure it out ❤️

obligatory disclaimer: i am not a doctor, this is not medical advice. please consult your doctor before doing anything at all, in life, whatsoever.

best of luck! 🍀