Cognitive fog – known in popular parlance as “brain fog” – refers to a (sometimes devastating) inability to think clearly, particularly in the domains of processing speed, memory, and attention.
As a result, brain fog may negatively impact the individual’s performance at work, school, or just going about mundane daily activities.
As many as 600 million people worldwide are estimated to experience some degree of brain fog. COVID-19 has dramatically increased the prevalence of brain fog in the population, as it is one of the more common lasting symptoms of “long COVID.”
Along with the rise in brain fog rates comes a greater need for effective and safe treatment options.
Let’s discuss the causes of brain fog, its connection to inflammation, the failure of modern medicine to effectively and safely treat brain fog, and the potential therapeutic role that CBD might play as an alternative, natural treatment.
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What causes brain fog?
There are several potential causes of brain fog. These can include:
- Viral infection (such as COVID-19)
- Hormonal changes (including, in particular, menopause, one of the most common culprits of brain fog in older women)
- Emotional/social stressors
- Chemotherapy (a common cancer treatment)
- Poor sleep quality/length
- Diets full of processed foods and common allergens
- Diabetes (and other forms of metabolic dysfunction)
- Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and similar neurodegenerative conditions
- Autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis, lupus, arthritis, etc.)
- Ischemia (impaired blood flow to the brain)
- Hypoxia (low oxygen levels)
- Chronic brain inflammation due to illness or injury (neuroinflammation)
In many cases, the cause may be a multi-pronged combination of the above.
The inflammation-brain fog connection
Research shows that chronic low-level inflammation in the brain (called “neuroinflammation”) is closely linked to brain fog. Therefore, any successful strategy to combat brain fog must address inflammation.
Modern living – which often entails a deadly cocktail of pro-inflammatory diets packed with processed sugar and food additives, exposure to environmental toxins and chemicals, poor sleep, and unchecked stress – results in chronic inflammation:
“Although intermittent increases in inflammation are critical for survival during physical injury and infection, recent research has revealed that certain social, environmental and lifestyle factors can promote systemic chronic inflammation (SCI).”
Chronic inflammation, in turn, drives the disease process for every major illness, including those that affect the brain:
“[Chronic inflammation] lead[s] to several diseases that collectively represent the leading causes of disability and mortality worldwide, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes mellitus, chronic kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders.”
A class of drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs are commonly prescribed to manage chronic inflammation.
While NSAIDs may be beneficial for some patients in terms of alleviating the impacts of inflammation-driven brain fog, they also come with significant negative side effects.
In fact, new research published in May 2022 in Science Translational Medicine shows that, paradoxically, “using anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids to treat pain may increase the risk of developing chronic pain”:
“‘For many decades it’s been standard medical practice to treat pain with anti-inflammatory drugs. But we found that this short-term fix could lead to longer-term problems,’ says Jeffrey Mogil, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at McGill University and E. P. Taylor Chair in Pain Studies.”
Documented, long-term side effects of NSAIDs include:
- Kidney damage
- Worsening asthma symptoms
- Gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding
- Increased risk of bruising
- Stomach irritation/ulcers
- Heightened stroke, blood clot, and heart attack risk
These risks multiply if you consume alcohol regularly, smoke, or have a history of chronic heart, kidney, or liver disease.
In totality, the hazards of anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals may, in fact, outweigh any benefits they provide in terms of anti-inflammation activity and, theoretically, relief from brain fog.
CBD to the rescue? The effects of supplementation on brain fog
Cannabidiol (CBD), one of the main cannabinoids that occur naturally in the cannabis plant, acts on the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) to stimulate an array of beneficial physiological mechanisms.
Through this interaction with the ECS, CBD supplementation can alleviate inflammation:
“Clinical studies have confirmed that CBD reduces the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, inhibits T cell proliferation, induces T cell apoptosis and reduces migration and adhesion of immune cells.”
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These anti-inflammatory mechanisms may explain, in whole or in part, why clinical trials have shown that CBD improves cognition and brain function in several ways with applications for several types of conditions:
- Improved spatial memory in mice*
- Reversed object and social recognition memory deficits in mice*
- Improved brain pathology in mice with liver failure*
- Novel proposed therapy for impaired cognition in Alzheimer’s patients. (Researchers believe this may work by CBD’s modulation of gene expression associated with the degenerative disease.)
- Potentially improves cognition in schizophrenic patients
(*Some of the studies cited above were performed on mouse models and might not necessarily translate to humans. However, researchers use rats and mice in clinical investigations because they largely share human physiology – and, therefore, many therapeutics proven to work in rodents also work in humans.)
In addition to the wealth of studies cited above, research shows that CBD may compensate for THC-induced cognitive deficits in regular cannabis users – so if you enjoy using THC-rich cannabis recreationally, CBD supplementation might be effective for offsetting any short-term memory deficits or other unwanted effects associated with chronic use.
Aside from potentially improving cognition and lifting brain fog, CBD exerted neuroprotective effects in piglets exposed to hypoxia-ischemia (restricted blood flow and low oxygen). What that indicates is CBD’s potential protection from everyday stressors that might cause brain damage and contribute to the development of neurodegenerative conditions that cause cognitive decline.
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Simple diagnostics tests that might indicate brain fog
Brain fog symptoms and causes are often subjective and difficult to pin down clinically.
Nonetheless, if you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from brain fog, there are a handful of diagnostic tests that can help rule in or rule out the condition.
Blood tests to assist in the diagnosis of brain fog might show undiagnosed conditions that contribute to poor cognitive health, including poor liver or thyroid function or irregular glucose levels.
Imaging tests might be able to shine some light on any physiological causes of brain fog. These include:
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- computerized tomography (CT) scans
If the suspected cause of your brain fog is a food allergy, consider using a food diary to track your dietary intake with the goal of identifying any offending food items that trigger brain fog.
For a more radical approach, you might opt for an elimination. Learn more about how to optimally design an elimination diet to treat brain fog.
Contact Sympleaf to learn more about CBD and its potential mental health benefits
You’ve got CBD questions; we’ve got answers. Contact Sympleaf for authoritative, science-based information about what CBD can do for you.
If you’ve never dabbled in this amazing cannabis compound before, learn about what to expect when first trying CBD.