Memory loss and disorientation are two of the most challenging symptoms of fibromyalgia. Suddenly not knowing where you are can lead to embarrassment or even panic. Here are 6 expert-recommended tips for preventing fibro fog…
We all sometimes forget grocery items or loved ones’ birthdays, but for people with fibromyalgia, memory lapses happen more frequently and can be more severe.
The chronic pain disorder triggers a sudden forgetfulness known as “fibro fog” or “brain fog.” It changes cognitive functioning and leads to memory loss or other thought-processing problems, says fibromyalgia expert Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., author of several books on fibromyalgia, including The Fatigue and Fibromylalgia Solution (Avery).
The cause of fibro fog isn’t known, but it’s linked to imbalances in the central nervous system, according to the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association.
Fibromyalgia symptoms can also cause episodic disorientation – 30-90 seconds of not knowing where you are or where you’re going, says Dr. Teitelbaum. That happens in a third of women with fibromyalgia, often when they’re turning onto a freeway exit or shopping at the grocery store, he says.
Such cognitive problems may make fibromyalgia patients fear they’re developing Alzheimer’s disease, but the two aren’t related, Dr. Teitelbaum says.
“Fibro brain fog can make you lose your keys,” he explains. “Alzheimer’s makes you forget how to use a key.”
But you can ease symptoms of brain fog. Here are 6 tips from fibromyalgia experts.
1. Fibro fog lifter: Get enough sleep.
Fibro patients often start the day exhausted. They struggle to fall and stay asleep and often suffer from a variety of sleep disorders.
Daily fatigue triggers cognitive problems, says Roland Staud, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Florida’s rheumatology department. So the more sleep-deprived you are, the more fibromyalgia fog symptoms you’ll suffer.
Try it: Treatment depends on the cause of your sleep issues. So work with your doctor to find out what’s keeping you awake, advises Dr. Teitelbaum.
For example, if it’s restless leg syndrome (RLS), a common fibromyalgia symptom, your doctor may prescribe dopamine agonists, anti-anxiety drugs or anticonvulsants. If you’re wired from anxiety or depression, your physician may prescribe sleep aids or antidepressants.
Keeping healthy sleep habits can also help you rest better. Dr. Teitelbaum offers these tips:
- Put the bedroom clock out of arm’s reach and facing away from you so you can’t see it.
- Take a hot bath before bed.
- Don’t drink alcohol near bedtime.
- Skip caffeine after 4 p.m.
- Get more sleep tips for people with fibromyalgia in Losing Sleep Over Fibromyalgia?
Ribose, a natural simple sugar, plays a key role in metabolism.“Anything that improves energy production in the cells helps brain cells,” Dr. Teitelbaum says.
Specifically, ribose is a component of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), considered the body’s energy molecule. ATP helps the body use key nutrients, such as vitamin B1, that are necessary for proper brain function, he says.
Ribose improved mental clarity an average of 30% in 203 patients after three weeks of use, according to a 2012 study published in The Open Pain Journal. It also increased energy an average of 61%, says Dr. Teitelbaum, one of the study’s lead researchers.
Participants also reported a 37% increase in overall wellbeing, a 29% improvement in sleep, and 15% decrease in pain.
Try it: Take 5 grams (g) of ribose three times a day (15 grams total) for three weeks.
Then drop it to 5 g twice a day, “although you may find that 3 g twice a day is enough to prevent mental cloudiness,” Dr. Teitelbaum says.
Besides ribose, other supplements can help ease fibromyalgia symptoms.
3. Fibro fog lifter: Exercise.
Working out can physically grow your brain. Exercise increases the right and left sides of the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory, according to a 2011 University of Illinois study.
“The increased blood flow that occurs when our heart pumps faster enhances concentration, learning and memory,” says Marie Pasinski, M.D., staff neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, faculty member at Harvard Medical School and author of Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You(Hyperion).
Try it: Start slow, suggests the Mayo Clinic — perhaps just 10 minutes of walking a day, gradually working up to 30 or 60 minutes.
Also try low-impact aerobic activities — swimming, biking, or water aerobics. It may be helpful to work with a physical therapist with experience in training fibromyalgia patients.
Stay active throughout the day too.
“Revving up your heart rate by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking faster or standing during phone calls improves mental clarity,” Dr. Pasinski says.
And cut back on TV time. It drains you of energy and makes you even more tired and foggy, Dr. Pasinski says.
“Excessive TV watching is associated with depression, lower cognitive function and a decline in overall physical health,” she says.
4. Fibro fog lifter: Change your routine.
A new daily routine challenges both your mind and body.
“When stuck in a rut, we’re constantly treading the same brain pathways,” Dr. Pasinski says. “Engaging in a new activity literally wakes up our brains.”
That’s because the brain has to lay new neural pathways to process fresh information.
Try it: Trade the treadmill for a stationary bike, shop at a different store, take an alternate route home or try a new recipe.
And go outside your social comfort zone, Dr. Pasinski advises.
The next time you’re in the supermarket checkout line, start chatting with a stranger. Meeting new people and engaging in conversation forces your brain to pay attention.
Our modern lives – with computers, TV, texting, tweeting, emails and cell phone calls all going at once – can overstimulate the brain and increase stress levels.“Our brains can only hold one thought at a time,” Dr. Pasinski says. Constant interruptions disrupt our ability to focus, concentrate and retain information.
Try it: Nature has a calming effect. So walk in the park, take the scenic route, stop to watch the sunset or just gaze at evening stars.
Spending time in green spaces lessens brain fatigue, according to a 2013 study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers compared brain wave patterns of participants who took a 25-minute walk through urban areas, versus another group who strolled through a leafy park. They found that the city walkers became frustrated, while the park walkers were mentally quieter and meditative.
“The beauty of nature will give your prefrontal cortex – the area of your brain that helps you focus – an opportunity to recharge,” Dr. Pasinski says.
Relaxing activities such as yoga, tai chi, qigong and meditation can improve problems with sleep, fatigue, poor memory and anxiety – all of which are linked to brain fog, according to many studies.
For example, 20 volunteers with fibromyalgia saw improvements in sleep, pain, and physical and mental functioning after practicing qigong for eight weeks, according to a 2013 Canadian study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
And those who practiced the most had the best outcomes, the researchers said.
Try it: Sign up for classes at your local gym or YWCA or rent instructional DVDs from the library.
If possible, practice outside, advises Dr. Teitelbaum. “The combination of exercise with sunshine and fresh air can help reduce brain fog.”
These 5-minute meditations may help too.