Although it may seem trivial to some, brain fog can have a really debilitating effect on employees in the workplace, as well as outside of work. While many companies focus on physical activity, they often don’t prioritise other fundamental parts of health, such as nutrition.
On average, employees consume a third of their daily calorie intake at work with breakfast, lunch and snacks often being consumed within the workplace. So, in order to support a healthy workplace environment, consideration should certainly be given to healthy eating.
When looking at brain fog it is important to:
- understand the key components of brain health
- identify the drivers of brain fog
- understand the physiological processes involved
and as a leader of a workforce,
- implement interventions to help support the optimal brain health of employees
The brain is complex, and several factors contribute to its health including:
- stress reduction
- gut health
Brain fog is fairly common and is associated with a wide range of potential triggers such as infections, poor sleep, depression, menopause, stress, poor blood sugar regulation and thyroid dysfunction, as well as digestive issues. Many of these drivers impact the brain by one of two ways (or both):
- Lack of available energy to the brain leading to reduced mitochondrial activity and hence cellular function and repair
- Damage to brain tissue mainly due to over-activation of the immune system, creating inflammation
Importantly, nutrition can have a fundamental impact on all of these drivers.
The value of good nutrition in relation to positive physical and mental health
While it is difficult to ensure employees are following an optimal diet for brain health, the workplace should be an environment which encourages good nutritional habits. Offering suitable nutritional choices whilst equipping employees with the knowledge and skills to make better choices can produce long-term benefits to health and productivity.
Nutrition is at the heart of health. In fact, suboptimal nutrition can contribute to most diseases we know. The human body requires a daily intake of nutrients to meet its needs, although many of us fall short of key nutrients today for many different reasons including our food choices. The term ‘nutrition gap’ therefore refers to the difference between the nutrients we are ingesting from an average diet and those deemed necessary for health. Healthy food is nutrient dense food rich in protein with vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and fibre. It should provide nutrients that the brain needs to function optimally.
A deficiency in important nutrients including vitamin D, the B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids can lead to issues with the brain, including brain fog.
For example, omega 3 is important as a large percentage of the brain is made of fat. DHA is taken up by the brain in preference to other fatty acids. In addition, a wide range of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables are membrane stabilising and protective to the brain too.
Insulin resistance and poor blood sugar control
The body, and especially the brain, functions best with blood glucose at an optimum level. Sugary and refined foods are nutrient-poor and have a significant effect on levels of blood sugar, increasing it rapidly. These foods provide energy that is delivered straight into the bloodstream making us feel energised, temporarily. However, when sugar levels drop again it can leave employees feeling tired, hungry, irritable, lacking concentration and ultimately experiencing ‘brain fog’. High blood sugar can have further detrimental effect on the brain through various processes. For example, glucose can attach to structures on cells, damaging them and triggering inflammation, which is linked to brain fog. The brain can also become insulin resistant twenty years before other tissues in the body – leading to the brain being ‘starved’ of fuel. Poor blood sugar control can a have a huge impact on employees’ concentration, mood, productivity, energy levels and even sleep (creating a vicious cycle as poor sleep can lead to carbohydrate-craving and poor food choices the next day).
Although fruit does contain sugar, it also provides lots of other important nutrients. Providing low sugar fruits (such as apples and berries), salads and veg, and combining these with protein sources such as nuts, seeds and houmous can help to stabilise and balance blood sugar levels throughout the day. These foods also provide fibre to slow the absorption of sugar. A rule of thumb is to eat carbohydrates with some protein and/or fat and include protein in every meal and snack.
Culture and education
As with many things, education is key and if employees have an understanding of nutrition (including balancing blood sugar levels) and how it relates to their physical and mental health, they can become empowered to make informed food choices. As part of our employee benefit package at Cytoplan, we offer a free health questionnaire which includes tailored nutritional advice and supplement recommendations. We also offer ongoing nutritional education for our employees which covers the fundamental pillars of health.
Changing the types of foods that are easily accessible is fundamental as there seem to be a number of barriers to making healthy choices within the workplace. For instance, one of the problems employees are often faced with is being surrounded by sugary foods that are hard to refuse. This may be due to tradition, rounds of tea/coffee with biscuits being offered liberally, treats brought back when staff return from a holiday, reward, or for staff birthdays. Bringing cakes and biscuits into the workplace can have a detrimental effect on keeping blood sugar levels balanced, even for the strong-willed! The presence of unhealthy food choices in the office drives employees to pick up unhealthy snacks that they may not normally eat. So many decisions about food are made on mindless autopilot, heavily influenced by social and environmental cues. Switching to healthier options in the workplace is ideal and this can be extended to meetings and events. Focusing on culture change in the workplace is therefore key.
Facilities to cook and store food is also important. Ensuring that staff areas have fridges, microwaves and seating areas so that meals can be stored and prepared easily, and employees can relax whilst eating.
Caffeine can be another problem in the workplace. The short-term dehydrating effects of caffeine are strongly linked to headaches and a reduction in mental performance. Providing water that is readily available and a range of herbal teas can help to decrease the reliance on sugary drinks or coffee.
Sleep serves a restorative function in the brain and is involved with memory retention. It is also important for mood and good mental health the next day. Conversely, poor sleep is associated with decreased cognitive and physical activity.
Melatonin, our sleep hormone, carries out many important functions in the body including:
- aiding the breakdown of beta-amyloid plaqueand preventing formation
- protecting brain mitochondria from free radicals
- inhibiting tau tangle formation
- helping to promote Brain Derived NeurotrophicFactor (BDNF) for the development of new healthy neurons
- antioxidant action
Important nutrients needed for melatonin production include iron, B6, B5 and folate. Tryptophan and magnesium-rich foods are also important, which includes nuts and seeds, protein sources such as eggs, turkey and chicken and certain fruits such as cherries and bananas. Cutting back on caffeine, especially after midday can also aid a good night’s sleep. Caffeine reduces the amount of slow-wave and REM sleep and tends to increase the number of awakenings too.
Some stress is undoubtedly a good thing, helping us to focus and concentrate. Too much however has a negative effect on wellbeing and can contribute to brain fog. Busy schedules, workload, and other stressors are some of the reasons why employees may find it difficult to maintain a healthy diet at work; partly because those suffering from stress are more likely to seek out sugary and unhealthy foods. When we are under stress, we produce cortisol which also raises our blood sugar, increases oxidative stress damage to neurons and can lead to brain fog.
Additionally, eating in front of a computer, in meetings or on the go means our body is in a state of stress and doesn’t prioritise digestion. This results in low levels of stomach acid, reduced production of digestive enzymes and hindered gastric motility. Caffeine, additives, poor diet, dehydration and poor sleep can also trigger the stress response. Balancing blood sugar levels throughout the day is important here to minimise stress on the body. Nutrients to support the stress response include magnesium, which can be found in a wide range of foods such as nuts and seeds and leafy greens. The B vitamins and vitamin C support the adrenal glands which produce our stress hormones. Vitamin C is abundant in fruits and vegetables so having access to these foods within the workplace is always ideal. Herbal teas such as chamomile and lemon balm are useful in times of stress. It is also important that staff have access to areas they can relax in whilst eating.
Exercise increases heart rate, pumping more oxygen to the brain, which as an organ of high metabolic rate needs a significant supply to function optimally. Focus and productivity are therefore increased after exercise. Exercise also helps us to de-stress and lifts our mood as it releases endorphins, helping us to relax and reduce stress. It is also one of the most effective ways to normalise insulin levels and support blood sugar control. Inspiring employees to get outside on their lunch breaks and take a walk or run should be actively encouraged in the workplace. Research suggests that mid-day exercise can increase mood, energy, and productivity.
There is a huge connection between the gut and our brain, known as the gut-brain axis. Poor gut health, which is influenced by many factors mentioned already (blood sugar imbalance, poor diet, stress and poor sleep) can lead to ‘leaky gut’ and hence many symptoms beyond the gut. A dysfunctional gut-brain axis allows pathogenic bacteria to up-regulate gut and systemic inflammation which may exacerbate neuroinflammation and brain dysfunction. Fibre-rich foods are important for good gut health and include fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. Fermented cultured foods can also help to increase the numbers of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
In a systematic review it was found that workplace nutrition and health intervention proved to be an effective way to enhance balanced nutrition behaviour and improve health status among employees.1
It is important for companies to focus on all the fundamental areas of health that may impact employee health and wellbeing in the workplace.
Nutrition is fundamental to an employee’s ability to function well and thrive, and the workplace should be an environment which encourages good nutritional habits.
- Providing wholefoods that are nutrient dense and promote blood sugar regulation is key – these should replace less healthier foods and should be available in areas that are convenient and easily accessible
- Provide fridges and storage for healthy food to be kept
- Provide microwaves, condiments and cutlery
- Ensure adequate hydration is promoted – water stations available in communal areas and access to a range of herbal teas
- Implement the ‘midday mile’ or a lunchtime walking group to encourage exercise as part of the working day
- Introduce wellbeing-based employee benefits such as gym membership discounts, cycle to work schemes and sit-stand desks
- Balancing blood sugar levels throughout the day is important
- Ensure food available is rich in nutrients to support the stress response
- Encourage breaks away from the desk
- Have an open-door policy for employees
- Holding workshops on mindfulness, stress management, yoga, meditation or other techniques can help to relieve stress
Education and culture
Equipping employees with the knowledge, education and skills can empower them to make informed food choices, which can have long-term benefits on health and productivity.
- Arrange and deliver talks/wellbeing workshops from nutrition and wellness experts – these can be delivered online, or ‘lunch and learn’ style
- Provide consultations with a nutritional therapist
- Promote a culture of social lunches – away from the desk
- Rachmah, Q., (2021). The effectiveness of nutrition and health intervention in workplace setting: a systematic review.Journal of public health research,11(1), 2312.
Amanda Williams, CEO of Cytoplan, has over 40 years of experience in the field of Nutrition, inspired by her parents' medical background and their pursuit of nutrition to improve health outcomes. She is driven by the belief that essential nutrients play a crucial role in preventing and addressing acute-recurrent and chronic diseases.