While it’s not a full-fledged medical diagnosis, brain fog refers to a variety of issues with memory, attention, and concentration, says neurologist Faye Begeti, MD, PhD—for example, having trouble staying on top of a newly busy calendar or experiencing fatigue after a series of virtual meetings. “Such problems can be seen in a variety of medical conditions, but for the majority of people who aren’t suffering from a physical or mental illness, brain fog may be a result of the increased stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, as well as issues with sleep and disruption to our routines,” says Dr. Begeti.
Essentially, the part of the brain called the hypothalamus responds to stress by signaling the production of cortisol. And this hormone has a particularly potent effect on the prefrontal cortex (which plays a role in attention and problem-solving), the hippocampus (which mediates our memory), and the amygdala (which helps us process emotions), says Dr. Begeti.
“Any disruption in our routine puts pressure on the prefrontal cortex, meaning that additional planning and attentional demands can make us feel overwhelmed.” —neurologist Faye Begeti, MD, PhD
And just because many of us are coming out of quarantine and easing into an updated version of pre-pandemic normalcy doesn't mean the fog is cleared. “Any disruption in our routine puts pressure on the prefrontal cortex,” Dr. Begeti says, “meaning that additional planning and attentional demands can make us feel overwhelmed, resulting in the symptoms that we call brain fog, too.”
Thankfully, there are easy ways to get rid of that fog. If you were one of the many who incorporated a daily walk into your quarantine routine, you already know that stepping outside even for a short period of time packs powerful mental health benefits. And given the research that exists surrounding taking that walk in nature, experts say the perks can extend to clearing brain fog post-quarantine. That's why hiking is a free, easy, and all-natural way to feel refreshed and clear-headed.
“In many ways, nature acts as the conductor of your brain’s symphony, with neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin representing each section,” says Field Trip Health psychotherapist Mike Dow, PsyD, author of The Brain Fog Fix. “If busy city life is like that symphony playing a quick staccato, nature can help it play a more soothing lullaby.”
Below, Dr. Dow, Dr. Begeti, and lifelong hiker Wesley Trimble, who is the creative director at The American Hiking Society, break down the varied mental-health benefits of hiking in nature.
Here are 5 mental-health benefits of hiking that provide evidence for its ability to clear brain fog:
1. The natural light helps align your internal clock.
Our circadian rhythm, or internal 24-hour body clock, is what helps us to fall asleep easily at night and wake up just as easily in the morning. But its effect on our overall mood and brain functioning is just as potent.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, spikes in the morning with the influx of light (called the cortisol awakening response), and typically dips at night as light decreases. “Indoor light isn't all that effective in helping to align this rhythm, but natural light is,” says Dr. Dow, meaning that time spent in a sunny place outdoors can help alleviate irregularities in this cortisol cycle. “This improves overall sleep quality, and also prevents plaque from fogging the brain,” adds Dr. Dow. Not to mention, bright sunlight can help increase production of serotonin, one of the feel-good hormones, boosting the potential for mental clarity even further.
2. The exposure to new shapes has a calming effect.
While any change of scenery can be a welcome brain boost—as opposed to the monotony of doing the same thing in the same place each day—the visuals that nature provides may bring on a particularly helpful, mind-clearing state when you’re in need of it.
“Cities are made up of sharp angles from things like buildings, which the subconscious can perceive as danger, spiking adrenaline and cortisol levels,” says Dr. Dow. “Walking in nature exposes you to fractals, the soothing shapes that make up the universe (like seashells, snowflakes, and trees), allowing your serotonin levels to climb naturally.” While that contrast may be especially pronounced for city dwellers, no matter where you live, the shapes of nature can bring these mind-soothing benefits.
3. Nature’s stimuli can help boost creativity.
In most built environments, we only use a handful of materials and experience the same sensations repeatedly, says Trimble. “When we’re in nature, it really is an all-encompassing sensory experience. You feel different materials under your feet, you hear the sounds of birds or insects or rustling tree branches, and you get to smell any number of different things,” he adds.
Trimble cites tapping into these different senses as a mechanism for getting the creative juices flowing—an assertion backed by research. A 2012 study found that four days immersed in nature increased performance on a creative problem-solving task by 50 percent in a group of 56 female hikers.
4. Hiking involves exercising, which has its own positive brain effects.
“Any kind of physical activity releases endorphins, which can have a mood-boosting effect and improve sleep quality,” says Dr. Begeti. “That also replenishes areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, which have roles in attention and memory, respectively.”
And the benefits extend to a period of time after exercise, too, which is why you might feel even more on top of the world after wrapping up a hike, for example. “A chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is released and serves as fertilizer for our brain cells, helping them thrive,” says Dr. Begeti. “It also supports the hippocampus, which is the memory center.”
When you take that exercise into nature, the mental-health benefits grow even more. A 2015 study found that among 60 people who took a 50-minute walk, either in nature or in an urban setting, the nature walkers experienced less anxiety and rumination and better working memory performance on a psychological assessment than their city-walking counterparts. And those results were mimicked in another 2015 study of 38 participants, half of whom went on a 90-minute walk in nature with the other half taking the walk in an urban setting—the nature walkers showed less rumination as well as less activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain linked to depression.
5. Hiking allows for more mindfulness and a broader perspective.
Being in nature helps you to be fully present in the moment, says Trimble, even if just by pulling you away from the constant buzz of devices—which can lead to better emotional resilience and less reactivity. “As the rhythmic pace of a walk up a mountain allows you to mindfully enter the here and now, you’re allowing nature to conduct that symphony of brain chemicals, so the feel-good neurotransmitters naturally rise while stress hormones fall,” says Dr. Dow.
To experience that shift, you’ll likely need more than just 15 minutes outside, which is where a lengthier hike of, say, 90 minutes can do the trick. “We know the benefits are dose-dependent,” says Dr. Dow. “Having a long, unstructured, and meditative period of time in nature can better rebalance your neurotransmitter levels as you move from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ mode.”
The positive brain effects of that quiet ‘being’ state have been documented in studies on forest bathing, the Japanese process of spending prolonged time among trees. Slowing down to perceive the sensory details of everything around you while you’re on a hike—from the leaves beneath your feet to the whistle of the wind—can help recenter your mind, too, says Trimble: “The average human pace was about three miles per hour for many years and only recently, in the last few hundred years, have we developed all these technologies that allow us to move faster,” says Trimble. “But returning to nature for a long time can bring your body and mind back to a slower, more natural rhythm.”
There’s a deep sense of interconnectedness in nature, too, that can translate to our brain functioning with enough time. “When you become part of your natural surroundings, it allows your mind to make new connections—in the same way that everything is connected in nature,” says Trimble. “It’s why the act of wandering can help you get over writer’s block or develop a solution to something that was too fuzzy to solve when you were sitting in front of your computer.”
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