You’ve felt tiredness before – but nothing a cup of coffee couldn’t fix. This is different.
Lately, you’ve felt more fatigued than ever. You wake up unexpectedly at night, gasping for breath. You groan each morning your alarm wakes you, unrefreshed. You can’t concentrate at work. Worse still, it feels like your brain’s wrapped in cotton wool, and your family notice that you’re forgetting simple things. You’re shattered by the end of the day, but still unable to rest properly at night.
Does this sound familiar?
Your experience is common, but it’s not simple tiredness. The combination of fatigue and poor thinking power makes up a symptom known as brain fog.
Brain fog often creeps up on my patients, and it can be misdiagnosed as a symptom of depression, or under the umbrella of general stress. While it’s true that brain fog can be a factor in these illnesses, my years of experience in treating patients with sleep disorders have shown me that brain fog is commonly caused by poor quality sleep – something many think they know, but there’s more to it than simply getting 8 hours a night. Brain fog is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong.
The Mechanics of Sleep on the Brain
When you sleep you are not only resting your body and mental facilities, but allowing your brain to perform specific tasks that it can’t manage while you’re awake. I compare these processes to the automatic updates and internal housekeeping your computer does at night or while on standby.
Autophagy, the recycling of cellular components, can occur in your brain while you are awake, but evidence shows that you need a good circadian rhythm to ensure the process goes well. While you sleep, your levels of somatotropin (a vital growth hormone) are at their highest, and the growth hormone gets to work repairing and creating new brain cells.
As you sleep, your brain cleans itself using the glymphatic system, an exciting and important recent scientific discovery which will revolutionize the way scientists look at neurodegenerative conditions. The glymphatic system contains lymphatic fluid – much like the lymphatic system – but it also contains cerebrospinal fluid, and it acts as a waste drainage system throughout your central nervous system. The pathway maintains the flow of fluids throughout your brain, pumped through by your heartbeat.
The glymphatic system washes away a protein aggregate called amyloid beta, often associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But glymphatic drainage can only happen when you enter deep sleep.
The space in between your brain cells is called the extracellular space. While you sleep the space expands allowing calcium and magnesium to flow through, which helps flush out other debris from your brain. Like running the dishwasher at night, the glymphatic system flushes out build up which keeps your brain clean and clear.
The part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex is responsible for your decision making and cognitive function. But during sleep, this section of your brain – located at the front on the left – involves itself in the retention of new information you’ve learnt, and interplays with your hippocampus to solidify your memories.
Now that you know deep sleep is needed for your brain to clean out toxic build up, isn’t it easy to see how this might contribute to brain fog? Maybe it’s not the amount of sleep you’re getting, but the quality.
What Is Brain Fog a Symptom Of?
Brain fog is often caused by an airway disorder such as sleep apnea is a common occurrence I see in many of my patients. You may not think a dentist wants to hear about your sleeping habits, but the AirwayCentric® approach to dentistry means I ask my patients many lifestyle questions.
- Wake up with a headache?
- Wake up feeling tired?
- Clench or grind your teeth at night?
- Awaken gasping for air in the middle of the night?
- Wake up frequently to urinate in the middle of the night?
- Have diabetes?
- Struggle with being overweight or obese?
- Have high blood pressure?
- Feel sleepy during the day?
- Have cardiovascular disease?
- Struggle with alertness while driving?
- Crave sugary foods?
- Crave caffeine?
- Allergy issues sinus problems ear infections?
- Find you have difficulty concentrating?
- Struggle with brain fog?
- Often skip the gym because you’re too tired?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you may have an undiagnosed or uncorrected airway issue that means your brain can’t run its night time maintenance.
No wonder you feel exhausted, and no wonder it’s hard to think – the impact of sleep deprivation is no joke.
Unfortunately, if you have an undercorrected airway issue, your brain is not receiving enough oxygen at night. While you may not notice this, unconsciously your brain is all too aware that it is not getting enough oxygen or that flow is limited , and it activates a crisis mode – moving you from a deep sleep into a light sleep.
The chemical signals that arise from this crisis point trigger your stress response throughout the rest of the body. In other words, your brain believes it is threatened, and triggers the fight or flight response, often waking you up for seemingly no reason. The constant state of red alert then hinders your brain’s capacity to clean house.
What Brain Diseases Can Disordered Night-Time Breathing Cause?
An untreated airway issue may at first only seem to affect your health in the short term – particularly your level of alertness, and your morale at the gym. However, disordered night-time breathing can progress into tougher, more serious conditions, such as heart disease.
Untreated airway issues can cause the following health issues in the brain:
- Alzheimer’s Disease – Alzheimer’s and sleep apnea are intricately linked. If you carry the genetic marker APOE4 nd struggle with sleep apnea, this increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Brain damage – lack of oxygen can cause damage to your gray matter. Rest easy – the damage is usually reversible with treatment.
- Learning difficulties – Not getting enough deep REM sleep can affect your ability to pick up new knowledge and abilities. REM sleep plays an essential role in the acquisition of new languages and allowing knowledge to ‘sink in’.
- Psychiatric disorders and PTSD – studies have shown a high prevalence of these mental health disorders in patients with sleep apnea.
- Depression and anxiety – The high number of sleep disorders patients with mood disorders is not surprising when you understand the adrenaline response your brain triggers every time it fears it is losing oxygen. Brain fog can certainly provoke low thoughts and feelings in my patients.
While I am concentrating on the effects on the brain and the cause of your brain fog in this article, please heed the words of researchers in Finland who declared that sleep disordered breathing is “not only a problem of the upper airway but is a systemic condition with endocrine and metabolic interactions”. Other parts of your body are affected by your disordered sleep breathing, but brain fog is such a clear and noticeable symptom, and often the most immediately dangerous if you operate a car or heavy machinery.
What Can I Do About My Disordered Breathing?
Fortunately there are a few simple steps to take in order to fix your disordered breathing and alleviate your symptoms of brain fog. AirwayCentric® sleep disordered breathing treatment is effective. I am confident that it is possible for you to get your old life back, and that you can have the energy to enjoy your hobbies and interests again.
I recommend the following steps:
- Undergo a sleep study – Many modern sleep studies can be done in the privacy of your own home.
- Change in diet – I always recommend that my patients alter their diet. Try reducing your intake of sugar and overly processed foods to begin with.
- Use a CPAP machine short-term – A CPAP machine is helpful as it quickly shows that you’re on the right path if there is an improvement in your sleep. But I liken a CPAP machine to a band aid – and it’s an inconvenient, noisy, bulky band aid at that!
- Find a Airway Health dental practitioner in order to access AirwayCentric® care. The AirwayCentric® approach was developed by myself and Dr. Howard Hindin, and involves treating our patients as a whole, not just focusing on their mouths.
We believe that maximizing your airway is the key to your health, and we use specialized dental appliances to keep your airway open, keeping you healthy.
If you’d like to learn more about our AirwayCentric® approach, pick up a copy of GASP!: Airway Health – The Hidden Path To Wellness by Dr. Michael Gelb and Dr. Howard Hindin. If you’re struggling with brain fog in the New York area and suspect disordered breathing is to blame, fill out our contact form, or call to make an appointment with Dr. Gelb on (212) 752-1662.