“People with brain fog feel like they’ve lost themselves”

Ms. Brennan, how does Brain Fog feel?

Various and multiple cognitive areas are affected by Brain Fog. Depending on what they are, it feels different. But a good analogy for someone who has never been affected by brain fog is jet lag. Those with jet lag feel sluggish, mentally exhausted, and can’t think as quickly as they normally would. Many people with brain fog are also physically exhausted.

But brain fog isn’t a disease, is it?

You can compare it to a persistent cough: this is not an illness or a diagnosis, but an indication that something is wrong. For example, a cough can be an asthma symptom. Brain fog, on the other hand, is an indication that the brain is not functioning properly. It is related to various diseases such as hormonal imbalances, nutritional deficiencies or numerous so-called lifestyle factors. This includes, for example, poor sleep, chronic stress, lack of exercise or too little mental stimulation.

dr Sabina Brennan is a neuroscientist and psychologist. She currently holds an Assistant Professorship in the Department of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin. She focuses on examining the risks of dementia.

You yourself also suffered from brain fog for a long time. How did you notice?

I’m actually known for my sharp memory. I used to be an actress and when I went to university I had no problem at all with exams because I just memorized essays beforehand. Then, during my PhD, I was exposed to extreme stress, I felt sick, in pain, and realized that I couldn’t remember things as well as I used to. At first I thought: “Well, you’re 42, you’re stressed, so it’s normal to forget something.” It took me a while to understand that my cognitive function was impaired.

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Brain fog can be minimized

What did that do to you?

I felt like I was losing my footing. That I’m not the person I actually know anymore. That’s what a lot of people who have brain fog say, by the way: They feel like they’ve lost themselves. I was always very proud of my good memory – and suddenly it was gone. I didn’t want anyone to know, after all I had received a scholarship to do my PhD. With my book, I also want to help people with this: Because if you understand what happens in the brain, it takes away a lot of fears. For example, some women who experience brain fog during menopause believe they are becoming demented.

What was the trigger for your brain fog?

As I said, I was working on my PhD. In addition, I had taken over the work of someone else, who only joined our project later. I had my teenagers to take care of, my home to take care of. So I worked a lot at night and slept little. I wasn’t eating properly either, and I wasn’t exercising like I used to. I also suffered from an autoimmune disease that causes a lot of pain – and that can also contribute to brain fog.

You no longer suffer from brain fog, how did you manage that?

I still get brain fog every now and then. But even if the cause is an underlying disease, the extent of brain fog can be minimized. For example, by taking care of nutrition, sleep, sport. Brain health should actually be a priority for everyone, not just those with brain fog. We brush our teeth twice a day because we need them to eat and to speak. But we need our brain for everything.

Brain health plays an important role

You speak of “minimize”. You can’t eliminate brain fog, can you?

We can build up cognitive reserves. By living a brain-healthy lifestyle, you can take advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity. For example, when you learn something new, neurons, new connections, grow in the brain. This allows your brain to cope with challenges – whether it’s injury, illness or aging. From around the age of 30, our brain begins to shrink due to the loss of cells and connections. For a long time it was thought that nothing could be done about it, it was just a matter of age. Now, research is showing us that you can maintain your brain size if you maintain an appropriate lifestyle. It even affects diseases like Alzheimer’s.

But what does that mean for someone who has been suffering from Long Covid for months? Is it really enough just to change your lifestyle?

In the case of Long Covid, that will have to be seen. But Covid isn’t the first infection to be linked to Brain Fog. These include, for example, numerous autoimmune diseases such as lupus or multiple sclerosis. One theory behind brain fog is that it is triggered by a very strong immune response. So the same could be the case with Long Covid as well. In the case of autoimmune diseases, for example, many people then have sleep disorders. So these are lifestyle factors that can be addressed—and known for certain to affect cognition. That’s not to say that people don’t experience brain fog anymore, that they don’t experience flare-ups anymore, but they do have clarity in between.

How do these surges come about?

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Often people neglect these factors. Many people with Brain Fog or Long Covid follow a certain pattern. You have bad days and good days. On the days when they are fine, they try to do everything. Which in turn becomes too much and overstrains them.

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