Is It Old Age or Brain Fog?


It’s a term used often in the autoimmune community, brain fog. But what is it? According to Dr. Lawrence Wilson: “Brain fog may be described as feelings of mental confusion or lack of mental clarity.  It is called brain fog because it can feel like a cloud that reduces your ability to think clearly.  It can cause a person to become forgetful, detached and often discouraged and depressed.  It usually is present most of the time, meaning it does not come and go, although it may become better or worse depending on what a person eats, or one’s state of rest and hydration.”

Ok, so let’s recap. Brain fog = forgetfulness and reduced ability to think clearly. I’d like to state for the record that I’m a mother of three. Some days I don’t know my ass from my elbow. I can’t keep track of who has what activity or appointment, let alone things I need to do for my clients.

I tried to think about it as a whole and figure out whether it’s just something that comes with age and being overwhelmed with my own To-Do List. I think I’d have to admit that my crazy schedule certainly plays a part in my personal brain fog. The difference for me is noticeable when I am in the middle of a rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia flare.

During a flare exhaustion is just as difficult a symptom as the pain. With the exhaustion definitely comes brain fog. I do lose the ability to think clearly and organize things when my body is hurting and I’m exhausted.

So, based on this, I’m going with I’m not THAT old, and despite my crazy life, I do also have the symptom of brain fog, especially during a flare. I suppose that my insomnia also factors into the mix. It’s hard to think straight when you haven’t had any sleep.

I think what bugs me is brain fog is one more thing that is subjective and can cause the rolling of eyes. Even at the beginning of this blog, I was going through the possibilities in my own life that could be causing brain fog–aside from my autoimmune issues.

  • Crazy, hectic schedule
  • Kids
  • Job stress
  • Lack of sleep

What parent doesn’t have most, if not all of those things? It’s easy to shrug off this symptom because it’s not tangible like a certain area of pain. I hate symptoms like that because they add to the stigma that goes along with some autoimmune diseases.

Heck, I’ve heard fibromyalgia is what they diagnose when nothing else is wrong with you and there is no real reason for what you’re feeling. I’ve heard chronic fatigue syndrome is for tired soccer moms that have run out of steam. I’m sure if you’re reading this blog and you have an autoimmune disease like CFS or fibro, you’ve heard things like this.

It all goes back to the beginning — it’s all in your head! Well, it’s not. And along with the pain and exhaustion, there IS such thing as brain fog. You heard it here, and I’m standing by it.


Sleep Issues Linked with Chronic Pain

Valerian root photo by oKikos

Valerian root photo by oKikos

Shocker, right? it’s kind of a catch-22. I can’t sleep because I’m in pain, and the fact that I’m not sleeping adds to my pain. I can’t win. According to a study on Arthritis & Rheumatology, researchers found that non-restorative sleep, a type of sleep where a person wakes up feeling unrested no matter how many hours they slept, “was the strongest predictor of new onset WP [widespread pain].”

So this study begs the question, are sleep issues causing widespread pain like that experienced in fibromyalgia? I could go either way with this one. On one hand, when I am exhausted and have insomnia, inevitably I feel terrible in the morning. The thing is, with me, I don’t remember I time when I slept well. From the time I was a young teenager I had trouble falling asleep. The chronic pain came many years later.

We all know sleep is beneficial to your overall health. Getting a good night’s sleep aids in memory recall, as well as mental alertness. When I person has periods no insomnia it can lead to lethargy, irritability, and an increased risk of certain diseases. So let’s get this straight…when you don’t get enough sleep, you become irritable — another shocker.

So what do those of us with sleep issues and autoimmune diseases do? For many of us, pain is adding to sleep issues. My doctor prescribed a muscle relaxer for me to take at night (Flexeril). I also have Xanax to relax. I can tell you that neither one of them help me get to sleep. The Xanax worked for a while, but I think you build up a tolerance to it.

About 9 million U.S. adults use prescription sleep aids to ensure quality rest, according to a recent CDC study. But experts caution that sleeping pills aren’t always effective or safe, and many think their use should be limited.

Tips for Falling Asleep without Medication

Put away the electronics.

I’m guilty of this, and in fact it’s going to be a hard habit to break. When I can’t sleep I am online reading, writing, researching, or just playing stupid online games (Damn, Candy Crush!). It’s best if you put your phone to bed in another room, and turn the laptop off about 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep. The other tough one for me is to shut the television off. Watching TV and playing on the computer actually stimulate the brain. You may start out thinking “oh I’ll just put on this episode of CSI until I fall asleep. Then what happens? Of course you need to know the ending, and if you’re like me, you will finish watching it.

Don’t laugh but I watched someone one of the morning news shows who said that wearing a pair of orange colored glasses an hour before bed with help the body produce it’s own melatonin. Wouldn’t that just freak my family out if I put on some orange goggles at 9pm. I can hear the screams and laughter already!

Limit Your Intake of Caffeine

As someone who suffers from migraines, I only have caffeine when I am suffering with a migraine headache. Otherwise I’ve eliminated it from my diet. I have never been a coffee drinker, but I know plenty of people that don’t even want to be spoken to before their first cup of coffee. Far be it for me to tell them to give that up. There are benefits in limiting you caffeine intake to the morning or early afternoon. Skip the caffeine full soda with dinner as caffeine in the evening can definitely mess with your sleep. Caffeine stimulated the nervous system. Maybe you’ve even tried one of those energy drinks full of caffeine to get you through an afternoon or work or classes. While it’s true that caffeine affects some people more than others, a good rule of them is not to drink anything with caffeine after 3pm.

A Hot Shower

I always thought there was nothing more relaxing than a hot bath (and I still find it relaxing), but research shows that when you come out of a warm shower into a cooler bedroom, your body temperature will drop. That drop in temperature signals your body that it’s time to rest, slowing down essential metabolic functions including heart rate, breathing, and digestion. The problem with the bath, for me, is that I like it super hot to help with muscle stiffness and pain. This can actually backfire on the relaxation end and make you feel more energetic.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Developed in 1915, this technique will never get old. “Progressive muscle relaxation is a relaxation in exercise where you systematically tense and then relax all the muscle groups of your body,” according to the clinical director of UPenn Medicine’s Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program Phil Gehrman, Ph.D., told Everyday Health.

The exercise generally starts with you lying down and taking a few deep breaths. First tense your toes and hold then in that tensed position for a few moments, then relax the toes. You will feel a greater awareness of the muscles in you toes as you release the tension. Continue this working up your body with the calves, thighs, buttocks, abdominals, hands, arms, and even your face. Plan to take a full 5-10 minutes to complete the progressive muscle relaxation technique.

I’ll be honest and tell you that even though this is a very effective technique, when I was pregnant, my husband, who played college football, tried to talk me through a progressive relaxation session to help me sleep. He said they used it to clear their minds before a football game. Just a small note that I found it easier to talk myself through it. Listening to my husband trying to sound soothing and calm made me laugh so hard that tears were coming down my face. The harder I tried to relax, the more I’d laugh at him, which he didn’t appreciate (but it was hysterical)

Similar, to progressive muscle relaxation, meditation works by bringing awareness to the stress in your body and letting it go.  Focus on your breathing, feeling your belly rise and fall with each breath. As your worries and issues from the day come to mind, let them go and come back to your breathing. It helps me to focus on a two-syllable word like serene or tranquil so I can breathe in during the first syllable and breath out during the second.

There are many online tips for meditation. This is one I like from the Huffington Post.

Consider a Supplement
While natural supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, they can be effective in helping you fall asleep. The most popular supplement is Melatonin, which can be an extremely effect sleep aid. One thing to note about melatonin, is that instead of taking it right before bed, try taking it an hour or two before bedtime. During this time the body creates it’s own melatonin as you wind down from the day. Adding the supplement will help keep that circadian rhythm.

Another herbal supplement option is valerian root. A few small studies have given inconclusive results, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements of the National Institutes of Health. That being said, there are a lot of people online that swear by valerian root.

Don’t forget there is also Sleepy Time tea, and other brand that help promote a good night’s sleep with herbs like valerian root in it. I’m not sure the teas work for me, but I really enjoy the taste of it, and I figure it can’t hurt.

Feedback Welcome

Let me know if any of these tips work for you. I’m always looking for new ways to fall asleep with medication, so please feel free to comment on this post with your ideas or email me to I’m off to try the progressive relaxation sans the husband. Perhaps it won’t be as funny this time around.

Here’s to a good night’s sleep to all!