Can Food Help with COVID-19 Brain Fog?

Brain fog is one of the most misunderstood long-COVID symptoms. Does eating specific foods help relieve the symptoms?

Having trouble remembering things from just one a week ago, ever since you had COVID-19? Or maybe you feel like you can't concentrate and get tasks done? If so, you're not alone. According to a 2022 study published in JAMA Network Open, almost half of more than 16,000 participants have reported brain fog or memory loss after being infected with COVID-19. But what exactly is COVID-19-related brain fog, and can food help get rid of it?

Symptoms of COVID-19 Brain Fog

Brain fog ("cognitive deficits" in the research world) is an umbrella term for many changes that impact one's thinking, processing, memory, ability to concentrate or executive functioning—skills such as planning, organizing, problem-solving and multitasking. Brain fog is one of the most common side effects for those who've had COVID-19, and it seems it's slow to resolve. So slow, in fact, that when researchers of a 2022 analysis published in The Lancet Psychiatry reviewed medical records for over 1.25 million people who had previously been infected with COVID-19, many adults still reported some brain fog symptoms two years later.

What Causes COVID-19 Brain Fog?

Brain fog can be caused by ongoing stress, lack of sleep, dehydration, overhydration, medication and even poor gut health. Still, it typically resolves once the trigger or condition goes away or improves, but brain fog related to COVID-19 seems slightly different. Researchers tend to agree that there could be two primary causes. According to a 2022 report published in the Journal of Health Service Psychology, some experts believe that the first is that COVID-19 causes structural changes in the brain. These aren't thought to be caused directly by the actual virus but by the indirect effects of having had the virus, such as a period with less circulating oxygen, inflammation and even PTSD. The second cause is inflammatory effects (from the cytokine storm) that don't automatically disappear once you start feeling better. Rather, the body is left to contend with an inflammatory mess in the body, and this doesn't exclude the brain.

a collage of a silhouette of a person with a broccoli brain and COVID molecules floating around
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Can Diet Help with COVID-19 Brain Fog?

Brain fog is just one of many long COVID-19 symptoms, a new research area since it wasn't prompted until 2020, so there's not much definitive evidence about diet. However, we can combine what is known with current research on diet's role in overall brain health, memory and neuroinflammation. And there are lots of similarities:

  1. COVID-19 is associated with some of the same nutrient deficiencies that research associates with declines in cognitive function, memory loss and risk for degenerative brain conditions.
  2. COVID-19 creates massive inflammation, and research suggests that certain foods, nutrients and eating habits can have both positive and negative impacts on inflammation in the body, including neuroinflammation.
  3. COVID-19 may cause structural changes in the brain. Research suggests that certain nutrients and dietary patterns might promote neurogenesis and recovery following structural changes to the brain from illness and trauma, per a 2022 article published in JAMA Network.

Using this knowledge, here are eating habits, foods and nutrients with great potential to help COVID-related brain fog. And since they also promote overall health in the brain and body, there's really nothing to lose by trying these strategies!

1. Adopt Anti-Inflammatory Eating Habits

Now's the time to adopt the basic principles of an anti-inflammatory diet, the first of which is to focus on nutrient-dense foods and less on ultraprocessed foods. This will help you increase beneficial nutrients and compounds in your diet. Along with this, eat lots of colorful fruits and vegetables.

Berries, broccoli, bell peppers, oranges and leafy greens are potent sources of vitamin C and polyphenols that the body needs more of during recovery, per a 2022 article published in Nutrients. Both compounds work to neutralize higher levels of free radicals generated by leftover COVID-19 inflammation. Plus, vitamin C is also central to restoring immune system regulation.

2. Minimize Refined Carbs, Added Sugar and Saturated Fat

While it's important to focus on anti-inflammatory foods, it's equally important to minimize your intake of ingredients or components in food that create or aggravate existing inflammation. Regular intake of refined carbohydrates, foods and drinks with added sugars, and animal proteins high in saturated fat may have pro-inflammatory effects and contribute to neuroinflammation. Minimizing foods made with refined grains and added sugars and balancing lean protein foods with some plant-based options is beneficial for calming existing inflammation and preventing new inflammation.

3. Consume Probiotic-Rich Foods

While more research is needed to learn how COVID-19 infections impact gut microbes, we do know that 70% to 80% of the immune system is housed in the gut, and the gut-brain axis has a bidirectional relationship where each area can influence the health of the other, per a 2020 article published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation. This means promoting gut health supports brain health. Try to incorporate probiotic-rich foods and beverages like kombucha, yogurt, sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, kimchi and miso daily. Don't worry too much about prebiotics. If you've upped your produce intake as suggested above, you're likely getting plenty of those!

4. Choose the Right Kind of Fats

According to a 2018 article published in the Current Neuropharmacology, fat comprises over 50% of brain matter, so consuming certain dietary fats plays a role in maintaining the brain's structural integrity and positively benefits overall brain health and cognition.

Extra-virgin olive oil is ideal for everyday use as a healthy source of monounsaturated fatty acids. Olive oil also contains polyphenols, including a compound called oleocanthal, that exert anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. The other important fats to emphasize are omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA, found in fatty fish like salmon and in plant foods like olive oil, walnuts and chia seeds. Adequate intake of these omega-3s is associated with overall brain health and improved cognition, memory and focus, yet many people get way less than needed.

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, many people have experienced lingering effects, known as long COVID, after being infected with COVID-19. One of those symptoms is brain fog, which impacts your memory, concentration and more. While more research is needed to identify specific foods that can help with COVID-19 brain fog, well-studied nutrients like vitamin C, polyphenols and omega-3s can help.

A few other things that you might want to consider are to make sure you're consuming adequate vitamin D or to ask your health care provider if they advise a supplement, since D has a neuroprotective effect and helps to regulate the immune system. Lastly, don't overdo it with alcohol and make sure you stay adequately hydrated.

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