Brain fog isn’t a medical term defined by science but the fact that most people know what it is without that definition shows great clarity. Feeling like your head is in a haze, you can’t think straight, you’re muddled—these are all common descriptions of brain fog. But what causes brain fog?
Tim Page-Bottorff, a Senior Safety Consultant with SafeStart, has a good idea of the cause. In addition to the travel Tim does for SafeStart, he’s also a Director at Large for the ASSP, an adjunct instructor at UC San Diego Extension, and the founder and principal of Total Safety Compliance. Here’s what he had to say about his experience with brain fog:
This is the busiest travel year I have had with SafeStart, so it’s a great baseline for sleep, food, and activity. I’ve been crippled with brain fog for the last 927 days. If you are wondering how such a random number like 927 days factors in, it stems back to when COVID-19 officially began in March 2020. I was consumed with the factors that accompany COVID—concern and care for the other humans in my life, anxiety, fear and how the pandemic influenced the way I slept (or frankly didn’t sleep). Couple that with the jet lag that comes with traveling through different time zones, and the other underlying ailments that are the result of travel and you’ll see how my haze got thicker and thicker.
Anyone who frequently travels has their own list of health concerns like sleep deprivation, heart health, blood pressure, food intake, anxiety, and circulation. But even for those who don’t travel, there are a number of causes that are linked to brain fog, most notably lack of sleep, stress, illness, medications, and diet.
Brain fog can be managed in the same way that human factors can. Instead of your employees roaming around in a fog, talk to them about the importance of the following solutions.
The National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night in order to be healthy. Given how busy people are, this seems like an unrealistic goal for many. And what about when you’re traveling? You’re at the mercy of the hotel. Tim suggests that there are things you can do to improve your stay.
You can make adjustments when checking into a hotel. I’ve found that sleeping on the first floor gives me better sleep than on higher levels. This data was surprising to me—I have tracked this by requesting the first floor every time I check in for the past few years. My sleep score in higher-level rooms is on average 63 and my sleep score average for first-floor rooms is 71.5. In addition to asking for a lower floor, I also prefer sleeping with non-feathered pillows. This is now a request you can make—if you have a preference, you will ultimately have more comfort and better sleep.
Making sleep an important part of your plan for the day is the key to ensuring you get your required amount of sleep, no matter where you are. Fatigue is an impairment—similar to being drunk—and the brain fog that accompanies fatigue is like a (lack of) sleep hangover. It’s important that your employees know about the dangers of fatigue. This free webinar outlines how to shift their risk perception of fatigue.
A good diet starts with water—it’s like the magic pill that everyone is looking for to cure all ailments. Got a headache? Drink more water. Got a backache? Drink more water. Want to stay healthy during the cold and flu season? Drink more water. Need help with digestion? Drink more water. Want help fighting off allergies? Drink more water. I think you can see the pattern here—water seems to be the solution for everything.
Since 60% of the human body is made up of water, people need to replenish the amount that is lost to perspiration throughout the day, but people often don’t recognize its importance. In fact, “Being dehydrated by just 2% impairs performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills, as well as assessment of the subjective state.” The same applies to the food that we put in our bodies. Tim goes on to say:
Drink water, almost excessively. Try to avoid any drinks that include sugar. With our travels, it is tough to make good food choices, but trust me when I say, sugar, carbs and heavy oils go straight to the liver and that metabolizes slowly and can become fat deposited in your liver. I had it happen to me and I heard my own doctor say, ‘You need to lose weight and cut out sugar and bad oils or you will have irreversible damage to your liver. It could lead to death.’ Bad oils can include vegetable oil, canola oil and seed oils—to replace these oils, use avocado oil or olive oil as much as you can.
Regular exercise is good for the brain. A study done at the University of British Columbia uncovered that “The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.” In other words, if anything can help clear out that brain fog, it’s exercise.
This is another thing that sounds good on paper but is often hard to execute regularly, especially if you’re traveling. One thing that can’t be sacrificed is stretching. On any work or travel day, regular stretching intervals are vital. Here’s what Tim had to say about exercise:
When you are on a long-haul flight, you need to consider moving every hour or at least as much as you can. Sitting for long periods of time actually adds to physical fatigue, but moving will help avoid muscle soreness when you land. When you move, be intentional in your movements and stretch the legs, back and arms. Here is a great stretching article that has helped me from Men’s Health magazine. One other note about stretching is that when you stretch, you have a better chance to increase circulation in your blood, increasing oxygen levels and resting blood pressure. Post-trip, I have found that a good 20-minute activity like a recumbent bike or doing Apple Fitness helps. It’s not an unreasonable amount of exercise but that 20 minutes a day definitely keeps my health in check and my head clear.
These three things are manageable solutions to brain fog. It can be hard to implement workplace solutions that tie in sometimes non-work related things like sleeping, eating and exercise. Still, proper communication with employees can ensure not only that their brain fog clears, but that they’re creating healthy habits to stave off other impairments as well.