Brain fog is never fun to deal with. Often characterized by an inability to concentrate, slower reaction times and memory loss, brain fog can make you feel confused and frustrated—particularly if it happens day after day.
There are many potential causes of brain fog, from nutritional deficiencies to insomnia to menopause. But one underlying cause that’s not often talked about is thyroid malfunction. Yes—an overactive or underactive thyroid gland could actually impact your cognition.
What is the thyroid?
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck. This gland produces hormones that influence growth and development, as well as your metabolism, heartbeat, energy, mood and more. Unfortunately, the thyroid is prone to malfunctioning, resulting in too much or too little thyroid hormone being produced. Two common thyroid disorders are hyperthyroidism—causing an overactive thyroid—and hypothyroidism—causing an underactive thyroid.
Women are more likely to develop thyroid disorders than men—particularly as they age.
Most people with thyroid disorders first notice something is wrong because of physical changes like weight loss or weight gain, hair loss, fatigue and an irregular heartbeat. However, thyroid conditions can also affect the brain.
Thyroid hormones and cognition
The cognitive challenges thyroid disorders can cause often mimic the symptoms of mild dementia. For many people, this can be extremely frightening! Fortunately, if the thyroid disorder is properly diagnosed and treated, the cognitive symptoms are likely to subside.
The link between thyroid disorders and brain fog lies with the hormones your thyroid produces. Like the many other bodily systems influenced by the thyroid, your brain relies on the hormones the gland produces to function properly.
In hypothyroidism, your body’s metabolism slows significantly, reducing your energy levels. Because your brain requires so much energy to think quickly, recall memories and keep you focused, it can begin to slow down if there isn’t enough energy being produced.
In hyperthyroidism, your body “speeds up” due to excess thyroid hormone and an overactive metabolism. This process can make you feel jittery and restless, both physically and mentally, potentially reducing your ability to focus.
Interestingly, different thyroid problems can cause different symptoms of brain fog and cognitive impairment.
- Hyperthyroidism is more likely to result in difficult concentrating, slow reaction times and poor visual processing.
- Hypothyroidism, on the other hand, often causes memory trouble and an inability to focus. Minor changes in executive functioning, such as making decisions and planning, may also occur.
The fortunate part about thyroid-induced brain fog is that it doesn’t appear to have long-term effects on the brain if it’s treated. This means that people with hyper- or hypothyroidism are not necessarily at a greater risk for developing long-term cognition problems like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Studies show that brain fog linked to thyroid disorders is also likely to go away with proper treatment.
Treating thyroid-induced brain fog
The danger of thyroid-induced brain fog is that these problems often occur alongside other changes like menopause. This can lead women to attribute all their symptoms to their transition, rather than a completely treatable issue! It’s very important to take note of any symptoms that seem unusual or that appear to begin out of nowhere, so you can discuss them with your doctor. What you believe to be a menopausal problem could actually be a thyroid disorder.
If you suspect you might have a thyroid problem due to symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, weight changes, hair loss and more, speak with your doctor and have a thyroid test conducted. Abnormal hormones levels may indicate you have a thyroid disorder that needs to be treated.
Fortunately, once a diagnosis is reached, managing your condition is relatively easy.
- Medication: Most people with thyroid disorders will need to take thyroid medication to stabilize the hormone production occurring in the body. Because thyroid disorders can last a lifetime, you’ll need to monitor your medication’s effectiveness over time.
- Supplements: Some supplements may also help stabilize your endocrine system and promote healthy thyroid hormone production. You might be able to take thyroid supplements alone if your condition is minor or in tandem with medication. Always check with your doctor before taking any supplements.
- Diet: Diet can have a major influence on the health of your thyroid. While diet is often not enough to regulate your hormones if you have a thyroid disorder, it can help promote thyroid health and stability moving forward. Aim to incorporate nutrients like iodine, zinc and vitamin D.
- Healthy lifestyle: Healthy lifestyle habits, including regular exercise and proper sleep each night, contribute to the health of your thyroid and your cognition overall. People with thyroid problems often manage their conditions well after cutting out bad habits like smoking and drinking alcohol and focusing on total-body wellness.
The presence of brain fog doesn’t automatically indicate a thyroid disorder, but it might be an underlying cause you haven’t considered. If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of a thyroid issue, speak with your doctor right away and start feeling sharper.