Here’s what we know about the connection between the two — and some ways to help combat this frustrating symptom.
Brain fog is a common symptom of depression. As the name suggests, brain fog can make your brain feel “foggy,” “fuzzy,” or “cloudy.” This impacts how your brain functions and how you function. Brain fog affects your ability to think, focus, and remember things — at both the most basic levels and with more complex processing.
Brain fog isn’t a medical condition in and of itself. Rather, it’s a symptom of other medical conditions, including depression. In medical circles, brain fog is also referred to as “cognitive dysfunction.”
If you’re dealing with brain fog, know that you’re not alone: many people with depression report experiencing this and other cognitive symptoms. Although medical research into brain fog and pharmaceutical treatment is underdeveloped, there are forms of treatment that you can try, medical or otherwise, to find relief from symptoms.
Brain fog symptoms can vary from person to person, ranging from relatively mild to more severe. Many people experience a combination of cognitive symptoms. Symptoms can change depending on lots of different factors, like how much sleep you’ve gotten, the food you’ve eaten, or exercise.
Brain fog may feel constant for some people, while for others it might sometimes feel like the fog has lifted.
The overarching sign of brain fog is a general lack of mental clarity. People who experience brain fog can have difficulty with things like:
As brain fog becomes more severe, it can impact your day-to-day, affecting your performance at work or school, your ability to interact in social situations, and your overall quality of life. Tasks that may have been simple prior to the onset of brain fog symptoms may become difficult or even feel impossible, which can be particularly frustrating.
Even though many people with depression report experiencing brain fog, research on cognitive symptoms of depression is nowhere near as extensive as research on mood symptoms. However, current medical understanding suggests that depression and brain fog are linked and that depression can cause brain fog.
Outside of medical and scientific research, it’s equally important to note that anecdotal and experiential reporting from people with depression also point to a link between depression and brain fog.
A 2010 study that followed people with depression for 3 years notes that cognitive problems were a dominant symptom experienced by participants. During depressive episodes, cognitive symptoms were present 85–94% of the time. During periods of remission between acute episodes, these symptoms were present 39–44% of the time.
A 2015 systematic review found brain fog and other cognitive symptoms to be among the most common lasting effects of depression, persisting in some people even during or following treatment. The review also notes that the medical community is becoming increasingly aware that depression is often accompanied by a significant decline in cognitive function, aka brain fog.
Put concretely, these studies indicate that, in general:
In other words, signs point to a link between depression and brain fog.
Aside from depression, brain fog may also be caused by conditions such as:
Currently, pharmaceutical treatment for depression is largely focused on mood symptoms. Pharmaceutical treatment for brain fog and other cognitive symptoms of depression, on the other hand, is an underdeveloped area.
Given that a vast number of people with depression experience brain fog, more research needs to be done into the efficacy of medication for treating this symptom. As it stands, research is incomplete, and study results are sometimes contradictory.
That being said, there are studies that have influenced the use of medication in brain fog treatment.
A 2010 study, as well as the previous 2015 systematic review, suggest that antidepressants may help reduce the effects of brain fog and improve cognitive function. Some antidepressants may be able to target symptoms like lapses in memory and recall, difficulty planning ahead, concentrating, completing tasks, and following instructions.
According to a 2009 study, treating brain fog with antidepressant SNRIs (serotonergic-noradrenergic reuptake inhibitors) may be more effective than treatment with antidepressant SSRIs (serotonin-reuptake inhibitors).
While research still needs to be developed, here are a few medications that studies suggest may offer some level of relief from brain fog:
Treatment for brain fog and other cognitive symptoms of depression often falls outside of the realm of over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medication.
Talk therapy, for example, can help retrain your brain in areas affected by brain fog. A therapist can help you develop strategies to improve focus, suggest exercises for your brain like brain puzzles and teasers, and help you keep track of and deal with triggers that may bring on brain fog symptoms.
Lifestyle changes may help improve brain fog, as well. Here are some areas where you can try making some changes:
Many people with depression experience brain fog, a cognitive symptom that can make it hard to function, concentrate, and remember things.
If you find yourself experiencing symptoms that may be related to brain fog, consider talking about them with your healthcare professional. Whether a general practitioner, therapist, or other specialist, your doctor (or doctors) can develop a plan to help improve your symptoms.
With treatment, like possible antidepressant medications, talk therapy, and lifestyle changes, you may be able to find relief from the effects of brain fog.
Medically reviewed on June 20, 2023
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