A Letter To Anyone Who Struggles With Brain Fog: Guest Blog

 In Lifestyle Practices, Understanding Lyme

~Sophia Cowley

I’ll be honest. I have not wanted to write for a while. Like countless others who live with a chronic illness of any sort, I have been struggling to find my footing in a rather thick “fog,” which makes it very difficult to concentrate and, consequently, to write. One of the hardest hurdles to overcome has been the nearly constant sense of apathy I experience toward almost everything and everyone.

But things are changing. If nothing else, I would be thrilled to provide any form of hope to those suffering from an illness (or illnesses) that causes brain fog, depression, or dissociation/depersonalization of any kind.depressed-girl

My Effexor Journey

From the beginning, I have held the belief that Western Medicine throws pills at people as a pathetic solution to a problem that they simply do not know how to solve. (By “people,” I really mean women, who typically have a higher rate of chronic illness compared to men.)

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that these drugs, like Effexor and Cymbalta, can help people. But I also believe there is a whole mess of misinformation out there about depression, due to the unethical sponsorship of medical studies by large drug corporations like Pfizer. (The pharmaceutical industry spends more money on drug “research” than does the U.S. National Institute of Health.)

To give you an idea, for a period of about six to nine months, I was on 150mg of Effexor. While the drugs kept me functioning like a person, allowing me to move my arms and legs and make words come out of my mouth, I never felt real. I never felt human. What I felt like was a zombie, someone programmed to sleep, eat, shit, and repeat. I was plagued by apathy and felt lethargic and un-whole. I had full-blown relationships I can hardly remember. But then again, this wasn’t entirely Effexor’s fault.

Of course, I recognize that the aforementioned “brain fog” can be a result of many things: inflammation, chronic illness, depression, post-traumatic symptoms, just to name a few. Brain fog can be caused by medication; many anti-depressants (like Effexor) and anti-anxiety medications can create a dreamy-like condition in patients.

I believe that what we call “brain fog” is really a physiological response to stress and/or trauma and can coincide with pre-existing medical conditions like chronic Lyme, chronic fatigue and depression, among others. When the body experiences this kind of stress, you can wind up with an inflamed brain. Combine these factors with the pressures of adulthood, familial and relationship stress, as well any generalized anxiety or panic disorders, and you’re looking at a potential brain fog cocktail.

What Causes Brain Inflammation?

One word: cytokines. These signaling cells are excreted by macrophages (white blood cells responsible for engulfing debris and detecting whether they are familiar or foreign to the body). When the body feels under threat, whether by infection, foreign microbes or substances like sugar, the macrophages produce cytokines. The cytokine’s job is to digest the pathogen and then present its antigen to T-helper cells. This leads to the production of antibodies, which subsequently attach to the antigens of pathogens through a process called phagocytosis.

fogThere are two main types of cytokines: pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory. We need a balance of both to keep the immune and nervous systems running smoothly. Some inflammatory cytokines include: tumor necrosis factor (or TNF’s) and interlukin-1 (IL-1), IL-12, and IL-18. TNF’s are the cytokines responsible for maladies like rheumatoid arthritis, a common disorder seen in Lyme patients. While medications known as “TNF-inhibitors” or “anti-TNF’s” exist, they have potentially dangerous side effects and only target the joints, gastrointestinal tract, and skin (locations where TNF’s thrive). Therefore they are ineffective in treating an inflamed brain.

According to an article published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “it is biologically plausible that inflammatory cytokines serve as mediators of both environmental and genetic factors that may trigger the development of depressive disorders.” Therefore, it is crucial that we pay close attention to cytokine production—and inflammation—when assessing treatment for chronic depression, whether compounded with another medical condition or not.

“All Disease Begins In The Gut.”

Over 2000 years ago, Hippocrates proclaimed, “all disease begins in the gut.” Today, gut health is being linked to brain functioning more and more; we now know that the gut-brain axis is a two-way street, meaning that what you digest directly affects your brain and how you think and feel subsequently affects your digestive functioning.

This phenomenon can be seen in Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Leaky Gut, for example. The more pathogens and chemicals we ingest, whether from adulterated food or our surrounding environment, the more “permeable” our intestines become, causing all kinds of undue stress on our system.

Hormones also play a large role in the gut-brain axis. In fact, health professionals and scientists now call the gut an endocrine organ in and of itself; it produces all three types of estrogens, as well as progesterone, dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. So in order to balance our hormones, and to ultimately better our mental and physical health, we must heal the gut and tackle inflammation.

So How Do We Fix It?

Most of us already know about the inflammatory nature of foods containing gluten and sugar, but what can we do aside from avoiding such substances? For one, we can consume anti-inflammatory foods like ginger, turmeric (best heated with coconut milk, a great night time treat!) as well as foods high in Omega-3’s, like chia seeds, flax and coconut oil.

The best thing you can do to “heal and seal” your gut is to eat fresh, organic, non-GMO foods, and be sure to take a good probiotic several times a day. (I like Ther-biotic Complete by Klaire Labs.) Unless completely medically necessary, stay away from antibiotics, especially in the long term.

Avoid food sensitivity triggers like conventional dairy (loaded with antibiotics and other medications fed to cows to fend off potential disease) as well as gluten and sugar. Eat plenty of vegetables and easily digested protein, like chicken broth or bone broth. Extra points for eating root vegetables (like carrots) with a little dirt on them! Those soil-based probiotics can go a long way in boosting immunity.

Along with proper diet, daily exercise, as well as meditation and/or yoga, can seriously boost your mood and immune system. Probably most important piece, although often hardest of all, is to find joy in everyday life. (This is the area I most often struggle with! When your body is always telling you to hibernate and stay away from people, it can be difficult to bite the bullet and say “yes” to things.)  But all of these efforts are sure to pay off in the long run.


The inflamed brain is a depressed brain. Take care of your body and your mind will follow suit. Whether you struggle with occasional memory and cognitive issues or you live with moderate to severe dissociation, healing the gut and treating the brain with lots of TLC can keep the healing process moving smoothly.

~Sophia Cowley

Bio: Sophia Cowley is a young writer, yogi, feminist and film enthusiast from NY. She is a contributing writer to the online film magazine, Film Inquiry, and is also a freelance blogger. Sophia lives with chronic Lyme and is always working toward optimal health and wellness.

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  • Crys

    I know for me, the gut is a huge issue. I typically have constipation, and I’m not digesting things properly.

    I didn’t realize that cytokines could be both noninflammatory and inflammatory. It sounds like, if I understand correctly, that they’re linked to the fight or flight system.

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