The alarm is going off. You get dressed, grab your coffee and go to work. But by lunchtime, you start to feel disorganized. You reread emails because you lack focus and mental clarity.
There’s nothing worse than brain fog. In addition to stress and lack of sleep, it can be caused by the immune system triggering an inflammatory response in the brain. This can lead to symptoms such as poor concentration and memory, or difficulty making decisions.
As a neuroscientist, I study the causes of brain fog and forgetfulness. To avoid them, here are four things I never do:
1. I never let my body tense up for too long.
Even if you think you are relaxed, your body may be physically tense (e.g. stiff neck, back or shoulder pain). This can be due to stress from things like unfinished tasks or approaching deadlines.
So when I notice that my body is tense, I immediately do an exercise called “box breathing”:
- Inhale through your nose as you slowly count down to four seconds.
- Hold your breath for four seconds.
- Exhale through your nose and let all the air out of your lungs as you slowly count down to four seconds.
- Hold your breath for four seconds.
- Repeat for at least four rounds.
Box breathing is a simple way to help calm your brain. Studies also show that it can lower levels of cortisol, the chemical produced when the body is under stress.
2. I never use screens an hour before bed.
As tempting as it may be to scroll through Instagram or watch TV before bed, these activities can be too stimulating for the brain.
Instead, I try to read a book before turning off the lights. If that doesn’t help me sleep, I do a “relaxation body scan,” squeezing and releasing the muscles—starting at my toes and all the way up to my head.
Ideally, we need about eight hours of sleep per night. More than that can lead to a depressed mood, and less than that doesn’t give the brain enough time to rest and reset.
3. I never load glucose.
If your gut isn’t healthy, your brainpower can falter too. l strengthen my gut-brain axis by eating a diet rich in hydrating foods, healthy fats, and digestible protein.
Most important of all, I try to avoid sugar. Your brain uses glucose (sugar) for fuel, but refined carbohydrates like high fructose corn syrup in soda are not good sources of fuel. Your brain gets a burst of too much glucose, then too little.
This can lead to irritability, fatigue, mental confusion and impaired judgment.
I also eat foods rich in magnesium — whole grains, leafy greens, dried beans, and legumes — to help regulate my mood and sleep cycle. And I make sure to have my last caffeinated drink of the day before 10 a.m
4. I never go a day without meditating.
I meditate for at least 12 minutes a day.
Doing this at night can help reduce brain fog the following day:
- Remove all distractions from your room.
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
- Take a deep breath.
- Quietly observe your thoughts.
- Whatever thoughts come up, just acknowledge them and bring your attention back to your breathing.
If you don’t like to meditate, you can do a mindful activity like cooking or taking a quiet walk.
I also recommend coming up with a mantra to say in the morning, such as, “Brain fog is a state of mind. I’m going to bed early tonight and tomorrow will be fine.”
Speaking your goals out loud to yourself can help you start to change your habits more consciously. And because of that repetition, your brain and body will follow.
Dr Tara Swart Bieber is a neuroscientist, physician, and associate professor at MIT Sloan. She is the author of “The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain,” and hosts the podcast Reinvent yourself with Dr. Tara. She works with leaders to help them achieve mental resilience and optimal brain performance, improving their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions, and retain information. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
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