What is ‘brain fog,’ and why are COVID-19 long-haulers more susceptible?

(Video by Simon Williams/Cronkite News in collaboration with ABC15 Arizona)

PHOENIX – Experts describe “brain fog” as a cognitive dysfunction when your brain isn’t performing in top shape.

Although everyone is susceptible to occasional brain fog, experts say some of the worst cases have been identified in the group known as COVID-19 long-haulers – patients who had the disease and recovered but still can’t “get going” as they did before falling ill.

In February, the National Institutes of Health opened a multifaceted study into “long COVID” and its effects in the United States. Researchers hope to answer such questions as why symptoms are worse and last longer for some patients than others, and whether the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 triggers other disorders of the brain and heart.

Two studies in England and Italy showed long-haulers did experience brain fog more commonly than non-COVID-19 patients during the pandemic. Long-haulers coping with brain fog improved over the course of the study.

Dr. Carmine Pariante, a professor of biological psychiatry at King’s College London, told The Guardian brain fog is the “cognitive equivalent of feeling emotionally distressed; it’s almost the way the brain expresses sadness, beyond the emotion” as a response to stress.

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Although studies are in their initial stages, researchers don’t think brain fog stems from just one source. A predominant factor, though, is a lack of variety in our daily routine. CNBC reports that brain fog could be “a sign of something underlying, such as a health problem or the consequence of lifestyle choice.”

Doing a lot of the same things every day makes it hard for the brain to differentiate tasks, researchers say, so it essentially goes into an autopilot.

If you spend a lot of time in front of a computer for virtual meetings or classes, you’re conditioning yourself to those settings. And when the Zoom connection is bad or the audio is choppy, your brain works even harder trying to identify it, giving you less space to understand and remember.

Dr. Janice Johnston of Redirect Health in metro Phoenix told ABC15 that people can combat brain fog by doing three things:

1. Exercise aerobically. It releases a protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” that makes it easier for cells to connect and grow.

2. Eat a Mediterranean diet of fruits, veggies, nuts, beans and whole grains to improve heart health, and avoid recreational drugs and alcohol. The World Health Organization, Mayo Clinic and other health professionals laud the benefits of a Mediterranean diet.

3. Use cognitive stimulants, such as board games and puzzles, to work the cerebral cortex. When socializing, try something different, perhaps a new outdoor activity. The variety fires new synapses within the brain and improves mood.

(Video by Simon Williams/Cronkite News in collaboration with ABC15 Arizona)

Cronkite News has partnered with ABC15 Arizona to expand the station’s Health Insider series, which provides expert advice and insights into health topics. Cronkite News is experimenting with storytelling tools and techniques to help explain the issues.

Simon Williams si-mon wil-lee-ams (he/him)
News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Simon Williams expects to graduate in May 2022 with a degree in sports journalism and a minor in religious studies. Williams, who has experience in play-by-play broadcasting, live event production, digital media and strategic communications, is working in the D.C. Bureau.