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Brain Fog and chronic illnesses

Research has shown that between 25 and 40% of those who have a diagnosis of chronic conditions such as Lyme Disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and MS also suffer from ‘brain fog’, anecdotally though it is perceived that the figure is much higher.

Brain fog is the collective name for many symptoms of cognitive issues that accompany these chronic conditions however the official diagnosis is one of immune-mediated cognitive dysfunction. This is because there is a strong supposition that it is the direct result that ‘brain fog’ is the result of the activation of the immune system and is a symptom of the development of chronic infections and conditions.

The result of this immune response can be seen as being beneficial biologically to the body as the immune system is selecting to conserve energy and divert it to fight the illness. This however, is not helpful to individuals who need high level functions in the brain such as focusing, memory and motivation to get things done.

Everybody can have times when they are thinking with less clarity, or having memory lapses which can usually be explained by times of high levels of stress or tiredness. These higher levels of thinking and attention are only functional when we are safe and with our basic needs met. When we have stress, worries, tiredness, pain, illness and general unwellness they don’t work as well, or for as long. When these periods persist though and ‘brain fog’ becomes a daily issue this can be a source of frustration, concern and worry that this is going to become a permanent fixture in an individual’s life.

‘Brain fog’ is truly debilitating and can be one of the most distressing aspects of chronic illnesses as it directly affects day to day living, how individuals function in family units and within all aspects of life. There is no single magic pill that can be used to resolve ‘brain fog’ however it is advised that individuals review medication, lifestyle choices, mental health and overall how well the underlying condition is controlled.

Certain medications can contribute to the severity of cognitive dysfunction such as opiate based pain killers plus neuropathic drugs such as gabapentin, amitriptyline and pregabalin can have similar affects so speaking to doctors to alter or reduce the dosage may help. Reducing the prevalence of the illness or how active it is can improve mental clarity which in turn makes individuals feel better prepared for dealing with the disease.

Lifestyle choices such as reducing exposure to technology that is too stimulating, reducing caffeine and having regular sleep patterns are helpful in supporting the brain to rest. Physical activity is also good for those with chronic illnesses, however strenuous exercise may seem like a step too far. Regular practice of yoga or tai chi can be helpful in reducing stress, supporting sleep patterns and improving quality of life on the whole. Exercise has been shown in many randomised controlled trials to have significant benefits not only on pain management but also on cognitive functionality. Eating well is essential, avoiding high sugar, processed foods and having healthy proteins, vegetables and whole foods in general helps to promote better prognoses for chronic conditions.

Reviewing your lifestyle as a whole can be really useful in alleviating cognitive dysfunction. Creating routines using paper and pen can help to organise time better plus is an active reference of how much has been managed to be completed despite being so ill and unwell. This can be one of the most useful tools in valuing the self especially when identity has been swallowed up by having a disease or a condition. Individuals can feel more value by seeing just what has been achieved even when they can feel at their lowest ebb.

Focusing on wellness, setting routines and having good restful sleep can all support having less ‘brain fog’ and more clarity. Accepting that this is a symptom of chronic illness and conditions there can then be more of a focus on how to work with it, when is it worst? when is it best? Importantly it needs to be believed that this is not the entirety of an individual it is just part of who they are in that moment.

Please find below a helpful exercise that looks to support celebrating successes however small you may think they are.

Every day or as many days as you can in the week answer the following questions…

  1. What three things have I done today that I am proud of?
  2. What three things have I done that have kept me alive?
  3. What three things have I done today that will make tomorrow better?

Dr Rachel is a neuro-psychologist specialising in trauma recovery and wellbeing in those with chronic or neurological conditions. She is available for consultations at the NTA Clinic in Hampshire and also via Skype / Facetime / Phone.

More info at: www.ntahealth/dr-rachel/ NTA Health 2019

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