How to sharpen your mind and clear brain fog

Written by Dr Lynda Shaw Wednesday 07 July 2021
‘Brain fog’ can hamper our ability to think, perform and communicate – here’s how to overcome it
Person with cloud instead of a head

Many of us have been talking about brain fog of late, whether that is because of ageing, feeling burnout, recovering from illness, or juggling too many balls in the air during this incredibly difficult last year. But what is brain fog, how does it relate to memory, and what exactly can we do about it?

It’s more than just not feeling ‘with it’

Brain fog can range from mild to severe and is associated with poor memory, not being able to focus clearly, not being able to retrieve information, and a lack of clear thinking. It can negatively affect all aspects of our lives. Brain fog can be most apparent when we struggle with our memory and our ability to acquire, store, maintain and reclaim information that we have previously experienced or learned.

A review by Theoharides et al (2015) discusses evidence that suggests stress, exposure to certain toxins and medical health problems causes inflammation of certain molecules in the brain that can contribute to brain fog. Even lack of sleep and nutritional deficiencies can add to the problem. So, what can we do to help ourselves?

How to clear brain fog, sharpen our thinking and improve our memory

  • Make sleep your top priority. On average, a person goes through three to five REM (rapid eye movement) cycles per night. This is when we dream and is vital for mental and emotional regulation. It is important to maintain a regular and healthy sleeping pattern in order to prevent or clear brain fog and to be at your sharpest and allow your brain to do all its sorting and coding.
  • Exercise to get the oxygen flowing. Exercising increases oxygen and blood flow, so incorporate 30 minutes of exercise into your daily routine to help clear out the cobwebs especially if you can get outside.
  • Don’t overload. Take time to properly focus on activities and avoid trying to do too many things at once. The misguided notion of multitasking has been linked to poorer episodic memory, along with a reduction in efficiency, performance and focus. Slow down and do one thing at a time.
  • Brain fog could be hormonal. Low levels of hormones, particularly oestrogen, have been linked to changes in memory and difficulties with thinking or processing information. These disturbances most frequently occur during the menopause.
  • Check medications. Some over-the-counter medications can cause brain fog, so check the label for side effects. Chemotherapy can prevent the production of oestrogen, which may explain changes in memory otherwise known as ‘chemo brain’, which is another type of brain fog.
    Consult a medical professional if you think depression, sleep disorders, anxiety or medication you are taking could be contributing to the brain fog.
  • Reduce stress. Most importantly, if you are feeling overwhelmed, remember to be kind to yourself. Have downtime, work out what you need to feel better that can be realistically achieved. Surround yourself with positive people.

Once the fog has cleared, improve your memory by:

  • Activating as many senses as you can. Sensory memories are fleeting, and we are not often aware of them. But stimulating the senses can help us feel better, which encourages us to continue that activity thus bringing it into our conscious awareness, enjoying the process and developing long-term memories.
  • Using mnemonic tools such as using as a phrase, acronym, song, rhyme or image to help remember a list of facts in a certain order.
    Learning something new that you enjoy. Novelty is a sure-fire way to get our attention. So think of something you haven’t done before, try it and, if you enjoy it, keep going. The neural plasticity of the brain is incredible and you will lay down new connections and pathways and have fun at the same time.
  • Attaching meaning to what you want to remember. If you are bad with names or dates, attach a meaning by associating it with something familiar. This link provides a stronger association in your brain, increasing the likelihood of you remembering it next time.
  • Repetition. Intentionally repeating something that you would like to recall in the future is one of the oldest tricks in the book – but it works. Repetition will encode information beyond your sensory and short-term memory, into your long-term memory.


CMI’s Knowledge & Insights hub contains huge amounts of practical advice and guidance on the challenges facing managers and leaders in a Covid age.

Dr Lynda Shaw is a neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist.

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