Is it Brain Fog or Adult ADHD: Signs and Symptoms

October 18, 2021

Is it Brain Fog or Adult ADHD: Signs and Symptoms

In this article:

  • What is brain fog?
  • Diagnosing adult ADHD: Signs and symptoms
  • Adult ADHD vs. brain fog: Which one is it?!
  • Tips and treatment options for ADHD and/or brain fog

What is brain fog?

Brain fog is not a scientific or clearly defined term, but the term "brain fog" is fairly accurate in and of itself. Brain fog seems to impair brain functioning; you have trouble focusing or staying on task, feel dull and hazy, and may struggle with memory. The symptoms of brain fog often overlap with sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT), ADHD, or concentration deficit disorder (CDD).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people became aware of brain fog both as a symptom of the virus and a side effect of living through the constant disruptions and uncertainty of the post-pandemic world. Colloquially, many people say they are struggling with brain fog and don't feel like their most productive and mentally sharp selves. While there are no statistics on the prevalence of brain fog specifically, the CDC stated that more than 16 million people in the United States are living with some form of cognitive impairment or dysfunction.

Brain fog can be caused by a number of different things such as stress, not getting enough sleep, medications, hormones, vitamin deficiencies, and health conditions such as anemia, depression, autoimmune diseases, hypothyroidism, migraines, and dehydration. Treating brain fog can be tricky due to its ambiguous potential causes.

Diagnosing Adult ADHD: Signs and Symptoms

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is erroneously believed to only affect children. Due to children's fluctuating energy levels, they can often get misdiagnosed with ADHD. There is also confusion about the ADHD symptoms, which can lead to further misdiagnoses or never being properly diagnosed at all.

ADHD is one of the most common mental disorders affecting both children and adults. According to the American Psychiatry Association, about 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD. The commonly-known symptoms of ADHD are inattention, short attention spans, high activity levels, and difficulty remaining still. Many of these "symptoms" are also common behavior patterns for children, thus early diagnosis or misdiagnosis is common at this age. Those who do not display these symptoms, or don't display these symptoms as frequently or strongly as other students, may never be diagnosed. However, there are actually three distinct types of ADHD with unique symptoms:

  • Inattentive type: 
    • Does not have strong attention to detail or makes careless mistakes.
    • Does not appear to be listening when spoken to.
    • Frequent daydreaming.
    • Does not complete or stay focused on one task, chore, or assignment to the end.
    • Has problems organizing tasks, managing tasks, and meeting deadlines.
    • Avoids or dislikes tasks that require sustained mental effort.
    • Often loses things easily.
    • Is easily distracted.
    • Struggles or forgets to do daily tasks.
  • Hyperactive/impulsive type:
    • Constantly fidgets, taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat.
    • Runs and plays when inappropriate, such as during class, while shopping, etc.
    • Unable to play quietly.
    • High energy.
    • Has a hard time staying quiet or not talking.
    • Struggles with impulsivity and interrupts by speaking or acting out of turn, often before the other person's sentence, task, or question is finished.
    • Has difficulty waiting for his or her turn.
  • Combined type: 
    • A mix of the symptoms of hyperactive and inattentive types.

Although ADHD can alter brain function, its symptoms do not correlate with lower cognitive function or intelligence.

Adult ADHD vs. Brain Fog: Which one is it?!

Because ADHD also inhibits the neurotransmitter dopamine, it can cause you to feel sleepy, apathetic, and foggy, many of the symptoms associated with brain fog and CDD. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to distinguish between the two conditions. Researcher Russel A. Barkley suspects that up to 54 percent of those diagnosed with ADHD, predominantly the Inattentive Type, may also have CDD. Currently, there is no single medical, physical, or genetic test that can accurately diagnose ADHD among children or adults. According to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), just one visit with a doctor or mental health care professional is not enough for an accurate diagnosis. However, diagnosis can be done by checking your symptoms against ADHD symptom checklists, standardized behavior rating scales, a detailed history of past and current functioning, and information obtained from family members or significant others who know the person well.

If you are struggling with brain health, mental clarity, and feelings of fogginess, seek medical advice from a trusted healthcare professional. You may technically have both brain fog and ADHD but regardless of a diagnosis, there are treatment options to help.

Tips and Treatment Options for ADHD and/or Brain Fog

If you are diagnosed with ADHD, your doctor may recommend ADHD medications as part of your treatment plan. Depending on which type of ADHD you have, a stimulant or non-stimulant may be recommended to help you stay focused or get motivated to do a task. Common medications include Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin, Strattera, and Concerta. These medications do have associated side effects and should be monitored closely, so it is important not to self-diagnose or self-medicate.

If you haven't been diagnosed with ADHD and don't have an adult ADHD treatment plan from your doctor, there are still things you can do to beat brain fog and improve your productivity, sharpness, and overall cognitive function including:

  • Exercise daily.
  • Get a good amount of sleep, not too much and not too little. Seven to nine hours of quality sleep is recommended per night. If you are having trouble winding down before bed, try deep breathing and natural sleep-promoting supplements.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Take a multivitamin to reduce the risk of vitamin deficiencies.
  • Measure your iron levels to rule out anemia or an iron deficiency.
  • Take an antioxidant supplement such as glutathione to reduce oxidative stress on the brain.
  • Use caffeine in moderation. Caffeine can help to kickstart your day and provide an energy boost, but it can impair sleep. Save a healthy, lightly caffeinated beverage for the late afternoon or early evening in place of coffee.
  • When feeling stuck or groggy, do something pleasurable and mentally stimulating like watching a video, having a snack, or listening to music. Give yourself a limit of 10 or 15 minutes, then return to your task.
  • Get a change of scenery. Relocating to a more inspiring or stimulating environment may help you to break through the fog of mundaneness.
  • Keep a journal or to-do list. It's easy for tasks to get lost in your brain among your other responsibilities and projects. Getting everything down on paper may help you to stay on track and have a clear direction of what to do next.
  • Set time limits for your most important tasks. Procrastination and brain fog go hand in hand. If you're faced with a task that you have been putting off, eliminate distractions and set a strict time limit to sit, concentrate, and get everything done. Exceeding the time limit is okay, and may even help you to feel more productive or motivated to see it through.
  • Give yourself grace. SO many people are struggling with productivity, brain fog, lethargy, and feeling motivated right now. If you feel like you are slipping behind or having trouble breaking through the fog, remember it’s okay. Don't be afraid to reach out to a therapist to help manage any nagging thoughts or mental health issues that are adding undue stress to your day.

Summary Points

  • Brain fog seems to impair brain functioning; you have trouble focusing or staying on task, feel dull and hazy, and may struggle with memory
  • ADHD is one of the most common mental disorders affecting both children and adults
  • Because ADHD also inhibits the neurotransmitter dopamine, it can cause you to feel sleepy, apathetic, and foggy, many of the symptoms associated with brain fog and CDD
  • Depending on which type of ADHD you have, a stimulant or non-stimulant may be recommended to help you stay focused or get motivated to do a task
  • Take an antioxidant supplement such as glutathione to reduce oxidative stress on the brain




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