Can thyroid problems cause brain fog? Absolutely. In fact, thyroid brain fog is a common symptom of hypothyroidism and may even be one of the first clues that your thyroid isn’t functioning as it should be. If this is the case, you’re not alone.
According to the American Thyroid Association, an estimated 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease. In addition, one woman in eight will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime, and women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems.
Brain fog may occur with hypothyroidism because the brain requires adequate levels of thyroid hormone to function properly.
What is thyroid brain fog?
According to the National Academy of Hypothyroidism, the thyroid is a small gland located in the front of the neck. It controls the body’s production, regulation, and distribution of thyroid hormones, which regulate the body’s metabolic rate as well as heart and digestive function, muscle control, brain development, mood, and bone maintenance. In other words, your thyroid influences nearly every function within your body.
Brain fog and thyroid problems often go hand in hand because thyroid function has a strong connection with metabolism. When your metabolism fluctuates, you may feel slow, lethargic, and lacking in energy. When your energy level drops below a certain point, your brain is one of the first organs to feel the adverse effects. People with hypothyroidism (reduced thyroid function, also known as an under-active thyroid) often experience hypothyroid brain fog. (Other symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, weight gain, depression, dry skin, cold intolerance, muscle cramps, and constipation.)
“ATP [adenosine triphosphate] is a molecule that plays a key role in metabolism,” explains Barry Sears, PhD, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation. “In hypothyroidism, ATP production is decreased. Because the brain is the highest energy consumer per gram of weight in the body, it is most affected by an overall decrease in ATP production.”
Thyroid Brain Fog Symptoms
Common thyroid brain fog symptoms include difficulty focusing and concentrating, and taking more time than usual to process or react to information. “You may feel unmotivated, forgetful, or spacey,” says Mary Shomon, Thyroid Refresh advisory board member. “Your memory for names, numbers, and directions could be unpredictable. You may even mix up words or have trouble recalling a common word.”
Patients with low thyroid brain fog often feel like they can’t focus or concentrate to the point where everything feels blurry — as if they are in a fog. “In addition to being frustrating, this can lead to sadness and depression, as well as worry and anxiety,” says Urszula Klich, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and president of the Southeast Biofeedback and Clinical Neuroscience Association. “People start focusing on their forgetfulness and errors, and worry about being able to be effective at home and work.”
Brain fog is also a common symptom of Hashimoto’s disease, additionally known as chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, which is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is a condition in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. This causes inflammation, which often leads to an underactive thyroid gland. Women are much more likely to get Hashimoto’s disease than men, and the condition occurs most commonly during middle age.
What does it feel like?
Are you still wondering, “What does brain fog feel like?”
“Imagine calling your child by the wrong name, forgetting your phone number or ZIP code, or realizing you have no idea where you are going while driving,” says Shomon. “These frightening memory lapses are common in people with thyroid problems. Thyroid patients call it brain fog, and doctors call it cognitive impairment — either way, it’s an all-too-common thyroid symptom.”
Underactive thyroid brain fog feels similar to hypoglycemia, says Sears. “It’s marked by confusion, an inability to concentrate, and a decreased focus on performing simple tasks.”
Brain fog makes navigating life extremely frustrating and understanding common situations impossible. For some patients, it is so severe that they are unable to participate in everyday conversation. It’s important to get medical advice if you think you have hypothyroidism and start thyroid brain fog treatment as soon as possible.
What are treatment options?
Because the symptoms of hypothyroidism are often nonspecific and easily missed, and brain fog is often attributed to aging, stress, menopause, or some other cause, people with thyroid issues often go under the radar. (Up to 60 percent of people with thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.) Patients can only get a diagnosis of underactive thyroid by having a doctor look at symptoms in their totality and carry out the necessary tests..
Treatment starts with an appointment with your physician for a thorough checkup and to determine whether you have hypothyroidism. “Your doctor should take your medical history, examine your thyroid, and order a complete thyroid blood test panel,” advises Shomon. “If your doctor diagnoses you with hypothyroidism, treatment with a prescription thyroid drug may quickly and easily resolve your brain fog.”
If you are already being treated for hypothyroidism but still have brain fog, you may need more aggressive thyroid treatment. Shomon suggests talking to your doctor about increasing your thyroid medication or adding a medication like Cytomel to your standard levothyroxine (e.g., Synthroid or Levoxyl) treatment. “You may need to switch to a natural desiccated thyroid drug like Armour or Nature-thyroid to resolve your brain fog,” she says.
If you think you have brain fog from medication (taken for a thyroid issue or other health issue), talk to your doctor about alternatives.
What can you do to treat thyroid brain fog naturally?
“As well as thyroid medication, stabilization of blood sugar through a balanced diet also helps produce more ATP in the brain,” says Sears. “Ultimately, people with thyroid and brain fog issues should understand that it is a real metabolic event that can be treated with the appropriate hormones and dietary changes.”
Often, inflammation starts in the gut, the home of most of the body’s immune system. Improving gut health is one way to improve the efficacy of the immune system, which can have a positive effect on brain and thyroid function.
Reducing or eliminating inflammatory foods and substances like processed meat, alcohol, caffeine, refined carbohydrates, and artificial trans fats may help improve gut function, and reduce gastrointestinal stress. Adding a probiotic to your diet can also improve gut function by encouraging the production of good bacteria.
As well as getting proper medical care for thyroid brain fog, Klich offers the following tips for taking care of your body and mind to help improve your brain function:
- Be sure to get restful sleep and exercise.
- Think of accepting help from others as a gift to yourself. Not accepting help may mean not getting your needs met, leading to more loss (and denying others the joy and benefits of giving).
- Improve communication skills to reserve your much-needed cognitive energy in the long run. For example, setting healthy boundaries for what you can commit to can help you reserve cognitive energy.
- People with hypothyroidism find themselves feeling drained in many ways and are often “sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.” This is normal, but watch out for negative thinking. It is easy to turn frustration related to altered abilities into negative expectations about yourself that you begin to believe. Saying things like, “I should not be this upset,” or, “I’m mad at myself for being tired,” or, “I’ve got to get a handle on myself,” simply leads to increased feelings of inadequacy.
- Stress has been shown to limit our executive functioning and decrease our cognitive abilities, which results in difficulty with memory, attention, and concentration. Make stress relief part of your everyday life, whether it takes the form of yoga, meditation, running, reading, taking a long bath, or listening to podcasts.
Klich also suggests these quick strategies for coping with cognitive challenges to make everyday tasks a little easier:
- Set up some type of organization system that works for you.
- Use Sticky Notes as reminders, and keep them with you at all times.
- Always keep keys, glasses, watches, and your purse/wallet in the same spot.
- Make good use of your computer, electronic devices, and smartphones.
- Plan mental tasks when you have the most energy in the day.
- Reduce distractions (such as noise from the TV) when you’re trying to concentrate.
- Write things down in an organized way.
- Do one thing at a time.
- Talk honestly with friends and family about your difficulties because communication can reduce stress and increase your ability to cope.
Finally, if you find that your thyroid brain fog is interfering significantly with your decision-making, sleep quality, work, relationships, or quality of life, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your doctor, talk to a counselor, or seek other guidance.