Written by Alaina Alexander on
June 23, 2021
Written by Alaina Alexander on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

It’s not uncommon to experience brain fog. We will discuss 7 reasons you may be experiencing it and how to address them. Brain fog is a feeling of mental cloudiness or haziness that can make concentration difficult. You just feel foggy. It has many causes but some common ones are stress, lack of sleep, allergies, and illness. The good news is that there are steps you can take to help manage your symptoms!

What is brain fog?

Brain fog isn’t a medical condition on its own. It is a vague term that refers to an overall feeling of mental cloudiness. You are fuzzy-headed and forgetful, as though your brain has turned into cotton wool. You may feel confused and disorganized, find it hard to focus or find the right words. It describes many brain-related symptoms and cognitive impairments: memory loss, confusion, concentration problems, and inability to make decisions or think clearly.

It is the feeling of being mentally tired. You can find yourself unable to concentrate and having difficulty thinking. Brain fog makes it difficult to keep thoughts in your head or plan ahead very far. Brain fog usually sets in gradually over time, but it may be caused by rapid lifestyle changes or physical stressors such as an injury. The condition may be temporary, or it can last for years.

Brain fog can be very frustrating because you feel your mind isn’t working well. You’re not able to do anything; you feel lost in the fog.

What are brain fog symptoms?

An artistic representation of brain fog.

Brain fog symptoms can vary in their presentation, with some people describing them in different ways than others. But overall, the main symptom is difficulty concentrating and focusing on the tasks at hand. Your brain jumps from thought to thought and loses track of what you were working on. It’s hard to stay focused on anything for more than a few minutes. You may be easily distracted, have trouble finding words and solving problems.

Brain fog can also cause you to feel forgetful and disoriented. You may have short-term memory problems and not remember what you were just working on. Or it could be trouble bringing up old memories, like the make and model of your first car or the name of your first girlfriend.

Foggy thinking can lead to trouble problem-solving. Slow processing, so it takes forever to think things through. Diminished visual-spatial skills made you feel out of place and spaced out. Time can seem to be moving too slowly or quickly. Objects can seem closer or farther away than they actually are.

It’s also common for people with brain fog to have difficulty multitasking. When you are having trouble getting one task done, juggling many can seem impossible.

Brain fog symptoms can range in severity from mild to severe and may wax and wane over time. They can also range in different timeframes in regards to how long it may last. Some people only experience them on occasion while others live with them day in and day out.

It can all be quite frustrating.

What are the reasons you may have brain fog?

Reasons you may have brain fog include:

1) Stress

A huge factor in brain fog is stress. It can come from many sources, and the effects of stress on your life can be devastating. Excessive mental work, emotional distress, physical injury, and financial trouble are a few.

It’s not uncommon for people who are experiencing stress to have foggy brains. Stress overburdens your mind, and all that weight leads to cognitive fatigue. You may struggle with concentrating, remembering things, and reasoning, or making decisions.

Stress can affect people from all walks of life and across different age groups. Over 70% of Americans experience physical and psychological symptoms caused by stress on a regular basis. Work and money are hands down the biggest stressors. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse. 2 out of 3 American adults reported increased stress over the course of the pandemic.

Stress causes brain fog by releasing adrenaline and cortisol. These are the “fight or flight” hormones. When a stressful event is over, these hormones decrease, and everything should go back to normal. But nowadays, many feel always under attack, dealing with stress day in and day out. That fight-or-flight response stays turned on, disrupting many processes in the body.

That’s when high cortisol from chronic stress can lead to structural changes in the brain. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning, starts to waste away. The amygdala increases in size, so your brain is more receptive to stress, like a runaway train effect.

It’s not always easy to reduce your stress levels. Stress is a part of life. When it becomes unmanageable, you can take steps to cope with the symptoms or find help.

Try mindfulness techniques like meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi, or guided imagery. Remove what stress you can from your life, find a workspace that is free of background noise and clutter. Set clear boundaries with people about your time and needs. Use a coping mechanism, like the ones mentioned above, or talk therapy. Sometimes you just need to air it out by talking to someone about your problems. Often times it’s easier said than done, but there is hope.

2) Lack of Sleep and Exercise

A man experiencing brain fog due to lack of sleep.

While you are sleeping, your brain clears out toxins that cause foggy thinking. It also has time to repair itself at night, so it will be better able to function when you wake up in the morning.

How you store memories involves sleep. While you sleep, your brain replays experiences to save them into long-term memory. Like when you watch a video clip again. So when you don’t get enough, your memory can be foggy.

Continued lack of sleep also causes brain fog due to high cortisol levels the way stress does. And in severe cases, you may experience hair loss as the sleep hormone melatonin is important for hair growth. If you have a sleep disorder, be sure to get medical attention to support your mental clarity and overall health.

One way to get better quality sleep is to make sure the room is dark. Light is such an important factor in the circadian rhythm, our natural cycle of sleep and wakefulness. When there is less light, our brain ramps up the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, so we can sleep sound and repair. But when we are exposed to light at night, it tells the brain it is morning and interrupts our sleep-wake cycle.

Turn off sources of blue light such as your computer and phone, or invest in blackout curtains. Avoid alcohol or heavy meals before bed. Also, your mattress and pillow should be comfortable, so pain and stiffness don’t lead to poor sleep quality.

Lack of exercise can be a problem too. Your heart rate and blood flow increase during cardiovascular exercise. This means more oxygen and nutrients can reach your brain, keeping it healthy. The increased blood flow can also help produce new brain cells. So, exercise actually boosts cognitive function, even decades later.

Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week. Take a brisk walk. Go swimming, or tray water aerobics. Aerobic exercise, in particular, can improve your thinking skills.

3) Diet

A poor diet can be a cause of brain fog due to a lack of nutrients and vitamin deficiencies. B vitamins, iron, and magnesium have an important role in producing and using energy. And vitamin C is part of the process of burning fat for fuel.

This is especially true for those who suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, where they have a severe calorie restriction and don’t eat the proper diet.

Certain foods, like sugar and processed carbohydrates, can affect the balance of bacteria within our gut. They promote the growth of bad bacteria and yeast, leading to brain inflammation. Keep your mind clear by eating foods like salmon and eggs, with walnuts, spinach, and kale. A probiotic supplement with a good range of healthy bacteria may improve cognitive symptoms. Instead of refined carbohydrates, go for whole grains and vegetables high in fiber that feed these gut bacteria.

Having trouble getting important vitamins and minerals in your diet? Add vitamin supplements to help prevent memory loss and cognitive dysfunction. You can add vitamin supplements to help prevent memory loss and cognitive dysfunction. Take omega-3 supplements like fish oil capsules to promote healthy nerve function, as well as keep your mood elevated!

Along with the food you eat, your water intake is important for brain function. When dehydrated, more fluid leaves your bloodstream than normal. There isn’t as much blood flow to carry oxygen and nutrients into the brain. All the cells in the body, including the brain, also need water to carry out essential functions. When dehydrated, our brain has to work harder than normal to complete tasks, leading to cognitive dysfunction.

It is a good idea to drink at least eight glasses of water every day so your cells can function properly. Avoid alcohol and caffeine. They are known to dehydrate the body, interrupting sleep and affecting the central nervous system.

Be aware a lack of water might not just cause brain fog. It may increase your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease or a more serious type of dementia. Dehydration may lead to the misfolding of proteins associated with these conditions.

4) Allergies

Asthma and allergies can trigger brain fog due to high levels of histamine. Histamine drives up inflammation in the body. And inflammation in the brain affects your cognitive performance and leads to fatigue.

This process gets started when your immune system reacts to dangerous invaders. It fights bacteria and viruses by releasing disease-fighting cells. But sometimes, your immune system can get confused and attack normal foods and parts of your environment like dust. This is what we call an allergy. The disease-fighting cells create antibodies to attach to the allergen, trying to clear it from your body. That’s when histamine is released, and the cycle of runaway inflammation can happen.

So what can you do? The first method is avoiding exposure to things you are allergic to. If you are allergic to grass, stay inside when the neighbor is mowing the lawn. Get a good allergen filter for your air conditioning unit.

If you know brain fog hits after eating wheat bread, try lettuce wrapping your sandwich instead. One way to test if food is a trigger for you is by avoiding it for a month and see if your cognitive function improves. When you try it again, do the stuffy head and fatigue come back?

If so, consult with a nutritionist or health care provider knowledgeable about food sensitivities and brain fog. They can help you come up with a meal plan or the right balance of supplements and medication.

It’s not always possible to completely avoid allergens, though. And many allergy medications are a temporary fix that, when relied on too long, can lead right back to common symptoms of brain fog. Balancing the immune system so it no longer over-reacts would be ideal. Studies have shown probiotics have great potential to help the immune system become more balanced.

5) Hormones

Hormones such as estrogen and progesterone are found in your brain at higher levels than in your bloodstream. It’s no wonder imbalances in them can cause cognitive side effects.

Estrogen helps protect the brain from damage when it is at risks, such as during a stroke or traumatic injury. When estrogen levels are too low, the brain is more vulnerable to injury.

Normal aging leads to a decrease in estrogen. Though we know estrogen as the female sex hormone, it is also important for men. One of its primary purposes is regulating brain functions like learning and memory. Estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone also all play a role in blood flow in the brain.

Hormonal changes during puberty, menopause, and pregnancy can all throw off balance and lead to brain fog. During menopause, hot flashes or night sweats also disrupt sleep and cause dehydration.

Keeping these hormones at appropriate levels can help maintain your memory and avoid fuzzy thinking. All these hormones work together to ensure your brain stays clear. When anyone is out of balance, it may impact mental function.

To treat hormonal brain fog, doctors may prescribe hormone therapy or anti-depressants. There are also over-the-counter supplements you can use to support hormone balance, such as natural progesterone cream. A good multivitamin and mineral supplement can give you the necessary ingredients for your body to produce hormones.

Some important vitamins and minerals for hormone balance are:

  1. Magnesium
  2. Zinc
  3. Vitamin B12
  4. Vitamin D3
  5. Omega 3s

Liver health is crucial to hormone balance too. Your liver detoxes the body of excess hormones and hormone-disrupting chemicals. These toxins that interfere with our hormone balance are xenoestrogens. They are found in plastic water bottles, makeup, sunscreen, and skincare products. They are also in our food due to the use of certain pesticides and herbicides.

Normally our bodies would process the toxins by turning to our liver. But due to nutrition choices, increased stress levels, or alcohol and caffeine use, our livers are often struggling to keep up these days.

6) Medical Conditions

Many different medical conditions lead to brain fog. Some of these are more serious than others and need immediate help to fix the problem. Brain fog may not always go away on its own with steps to clean up your diet, get good sleep, and destress.

If you have any of the conditions below, it is important to see a doctor have your brain fog medically reviewed. They can help determine the right treatment and get on the road to recovery.

Stroke

Stokes disrupt the brain’s blood supply, leading to decreased oxygen levels in the area of the brain. That means symptoms like dizziness, confusion, trouble concentrating on tasks, and more signs of cognitive impairment. This happens when a blood clot or substance like plaque blocks the flow of blood through a major artery, clogging it up.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis or emphysema, hinders airflow in the lungs, so less oxygen reaches the brain.

Cancer

Cancer can be a shocking diagnosis causing brain fog from related anxiety and depression. Some cancers produce memory-affecting chemicals. Some begin in or spread to the brain. Or simply cancer-related fatigue can be the culprit.

Thyroid Disease

The thyroid gland in the neck produces hormones to regulate metabolism, heart rate, and weight gain or loss. If it’s not working right, you might have brain fog as one of many symptoms.

While up to 20 million Americans have thyroid disease, over half may be unaware. Thyroid disorders often go undiagnosed because there may be no symptoms at first. And then, they mimic other conditions such as fatigue or depression.

Diabetes

Glucometer to test blood for diabetes, which also causes brain fog.

High blood sugar levels can cause brain fog. Hyperglycemia is the term for high blood sugar. It disrupts nerve impulses in your body, including those to your brain. Symptoms include headache, dizziness, and sleepiness. Or a feeling of being drunk which may lead to confusion and difficulty concentrating. Diabetes also causes brain fog by causing damage to your brain cells and nerve fibers.

Neurological Diseases

Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, Lewy Body Dementia, and other neurological diseases can cause brain fog. These diseases damage the brain affecting how nerve cells communicate.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread by ticks. If left untreated, the bacteria can infect your joints, heart, and nervous system. It can cause swelling in the brain and spinal cord, leading to symptoms like headaches and memory loss. Lyme Disease is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in the early stages. Its symptoms can mimic other illnesses.

Anxiety Disorders

Mental health conditions are a common brain fog source. Brain fog is especially common with chronic anxiety disorders. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic attacks take up mental resources. It takes more energy to focus on something other than the all-consuming anxiety. It’s hard to stay on task when anxious thoughts are constantly breaking in. When you are trying to focus, and negative thoughts keep rearing their heads.

Autoimmune Conditions

Many autoimmune diseases may be the source. Chronic inflammation occurs when your immune system continually attacks your own body. Some examples are Hashimoto’s disease which causes the thyroid to produce too much or not enough hormones. Multiple Sclerosis, where the immune system malfunctions and attacks myelin. The fatty substance that covers and protects your nerves. And systemic lupus erythematosus, where the immune system attacks the nucleic material of your cells and, in some people, the cell membranes.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

We still do not know that much about the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome. Theories vary from viral infection to psychological stress. It may also be related to an autoimmune disease or a combination of factors. One clear thing about this condition is the fatigue is persistent and lasts over six months.

Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome include fatigue that is not improved with sleep, exhaustion upon physical or mental exertion, and impaired memory.

COVID-19

COVID-19 can cause brain fog due to damage to organs like the lungs or heart and being unable to exercise. It may cause inflammation in blood vessels. All this leads to mental fatigue because there is less oxygen and blood flow available.

7) Medication

Certain medications may make brain fog worse due to side effects like sleep deprivation, hormone imbalances, and fatigue. They can be over-the-counter or prescribed by your doctor.

Medications that act directly on the brain, such as sleeping pills, anxiety meds, and some antipsychotics, can trigger brain fog. So can antihistamines, seizure medications, pain pills, and certain drugs used for high blood pressure.

Here are some categories of medicines that may lead to or worsen brain fog:

Pain Medicines

Pain medicines can depress your thinking abilities. But so can untreated pain, so finding the right balance for you is key. In particular, opiates can affect your ability to remember to carry out intended actions in the future.

Here are some commonly prescribed opiates to look out for:

  1. Hydrocodone (Norco, Vicodin)
  2. Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
  3. Morphine (Astramorph, Avinza)
  4. Fentanyl (Duragesic)
  5. Tramadol (Ultram, ConZip)

Opiates stop pain signals by binding to receptors and limiting the flow of nerve impulses.

This can change the way receptors in the brain react and how you emotionally react to your situation. Using these drugs can interfere with short-term and long-term memory, especially when taken for a long time.

Sedatives

There are two categories of sedatives that can cause brain fog. These are benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepine sedatives.

Here are some commonly prescribed benzodiazepines:

  1. Xanax (alprazolam)
  2. Klonopin (clonazepam)
  3. Valium (diazepam)
  4. Ativan (lorazepam)
  5. Restoril (temazepam)

Benzodiazepines increase the effects of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This slows down the activity of brain cells to calm anxiety and help you go to sleep. They can reduce stress and its physical and emotional side effects. But that also means using them can lead to brain fog as brain function slows down.

Here are some non-benzodiazepine sedatives to look out for:

  1. zolpidem (Ambien)
  2. eszopiclone (Lunesta)
  3. zaleplon (Sonata)

They have a different shape than benzodiazepines but act like them and carry similar benefits, side effects, and risks. They affect the neurotransmitter GABA and can cause brain fog when used long-term or too often.

Sedatives are often taken as a sleep aid to make it easier to fall asleep or as calming support for anxiety. But brain fog is more common in people who have been taking these drugs for at least three months. So you may want to use them rarely and seek out natural ways to address anxiety and sleep issues, rather than relying on the long term.

Antipsychotics

These drugs treat mental health conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder but may worsen brain fog symptoms in some people. This is because antipsychotics block dopamine receptors. Which are the ones responsible for motivation or mood regulation.

Here are some antipsychotics in this group:

  1. risperidone (Risperdal)
  2. quetiapine (Seroquel)
  3. olanzapine (Zyprexa)
  4. aripiprazole (Abilify)

And older antipsychotics also affect receptors for acetylcholine. And that affects memory leading to cognitive impairment over the long term.

Anti-Seizure Medicines

Since seizure medicines lower the ability of nerve cells in the brain to get excited, they may also affect normal brain function. This means cognitive issues such as problems thinking, focusing, or finding the right words are possible side effects.

Some common anti-seizure medicines are:

  1. valproic acid (Depakene, Depakote)
  2. lamotrigine (Lamictal)
  3. topiramate (Topamax)
  4. levetiracetam (Keppra)
  5. gabapentin (Neurontin, Gralise)
  6. pregabalin (Lyrica)

Be sure to notify your doctor if you are having side effects such as memory loss and a hard time concentrating on daily tasks. You may be able to find a better balance of medicine and natural supplements for you. If you need an anti-seizure medicine, Keppra may be less likely to interfere with thinking than others.

Antidepressants

Antidepressants can help with depression but may make brain fog symptoms worse in other ways. Besides affecting serotonin, antidepressants may cause hormonal imbalances. Which in turn might result in mental fatigue.

Tricyclic Antidepressants

  1. amitriptyline (Elavil)
  2. desipramine (Norpramin)
  3. nortriptyline (Aventyl, Pamelor)

Amitriptyline and nortriptyline are members of a group of medicines called tricyclic antidepressants. They may work by increasing chemicals called serotonin and/or norepinephrine in the brain. The goal is to improve your mood. But they may also change the way your nerves receive signals.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

  1. Prozac
  2. Lexapro
  3. Celexa
  4. Paxil
  5. Zoloft

This type of antidepressant works by slowing or preventing neurons from taking serotonin back up. So more of it is available for a longer time. Although these antidepressants usually help with brain fog, some can make it worse. It depends on factors like your unique body chemistry. We do not know everything about how these medicines work, but recent studies show SSRIs very quickly start to change brain connectivity. And how different parts of the brain connect and interact is crucial to how it functions.

Corticosteroids

Doctors prescribe corticosteroid medications for autoimmune conditions or asthma. But they can worsen brain fog by causing sleep deprivation and hormone imbalances.

Here are some corticosteroid medications you may be familiar with:

  1. hydrocortisone
  2. methylprednisolone (Medrol)
  3. prednisolone

They may also worsen brain fog by reducing blood flow to areas of the brain involved in cognitive function. This can lead to difficulty concentrating and memory issues. Particularly after using these medications for a long time.

Blood Pressure Pills

Beta-blockers are medicines used to treat high blood pressure, migraines, and other issues with the heart. They work by blocking the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and epinephrine from binding to receptors. They may cause mental fatigue and dizziness by slowing down things your body does on its own, like your heartbeat and breathing rate. Also, beta-blockers lower melatonin which may mean more brain fog due to trouble sleeping.

Here is a list of these types of medicines:

  1. atenolol (Tenormin)
  2. carvedilol (Coreg)
  3. metoprolol (Lopressor, Toprol)
  4. propranolol (Inderal)
  5. sotalol (Betapace)
  6. timolol (Timoptic)

Beta-blockers such as propranolol are even studied for use in trauma recovery since they block memory recall and processing.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are used for allergies and allergic rhinitis. Allergies themselves cause brain fog due to high levels of histamine. Some allergy medicines do so for the opposite reason, low levels of histamine. This is because histamine regulates your sleep and wakefulness cycle. Antihistamines block histamine receptors. The drowsiness you get with low histamine can also aggravate brain fog. Older antihistamines also block acetylcholine receptors which can cause memory problems.

Here are examples of these antihistamines:

  1. diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  2. chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton)
  3. brompheniramine (Dimetane)

The antihistamines listed above may produce these side effects in some people. They should be used with caution for prolonged periods of time. It’s best to consult your physician if you have any questions about a medication before taking the drug or while on it.

Heartburn Medicine

Like antihistamines, heartburn medicines work by blocking histamine receptors. The difference is which ones, in this case, those that trigger the production of stomach acid. Many of them do not get in the brain the way antihistamines do. But one in particular called cimetidine (Tagamet) can have similar cognitive side effects.

Bladder Control Medicines

You might use these medications when you have an overactive bladder and to reduce urges to pee that come on so fast you aren’t able to get to a toilet in time. They are called anticholinergic medications. That’s because they block acetylcholine, which controls many functions in the body.

In the bladder, anticholinergics can stop muscle contractions that control the flow of urine. In the brain, they lower activity in areas related to memory and learning. That can mean more brain fog.

Here are some examples of these medicines:

  1. oxybutynin (Ditropan)
  2. tolterodine (Detrol, Detrusitol)
  3. darifenacin (Enablex)
  4. solifenacin (Vesicare)
  5. trospium (Sanctura)

The longer you use these drugs and the more often you take them, the greater your risk of memory loss. A 2006 study found that the bladder control medicine Oxybutynin ER had a large effect on memory. It was as big as 10 years of cognitive aging. The lead author of the study even said, “we transformed these people from functioning like 67-year-olds to 77-year-olds.”

Cancer Medication

Cancer survivors often call the form of brain fog related to cancer treatment “chemo brain.”

Chemotherapy is the most common cause. But other treatments involving radiation, hormonal therapy, or surgery are also connected. These treatments can lead to temporary changes or long-lasting problems that appear later.

Cancer itself may cause brain fog. Or other related problems like infection lowered blood counts, issues with sleeping, or just the stress of it all can do it.

Medication Summary

Many of these drugs affect chemical messengers that are also involved in your brain’s ability to think and understand. So they can interfere with both short-term and long-term memory, especially when used for long periods of time.

The experts that put together the National Academy of Medicine report on Cognitive Aging agrees. One of the three main things you can do to protect your cognitive health is managing your medications.

And because you’ve taken them for years without noticing any problems doesn’t mean they aren’t impacting you. Younger brains are more resilient and able to bounce back quicker. As you age, the side effects can become more noticeable.

If you’re taking medication and have a lack of brainpower, talk to your doctor about whether there’s an alternative with fewer side effects. You may be able to find a combination of natural supplements or prescription drugs that help without causing other problems.

If you take medication and your thinking isn’t as clear as it should be, or you can’t remember things, call your doctor.

What might help clear the fog?

The best way to get rid of brain fog and improve symptoms is by treating the underlying root cause. Which usually means changing your diet, getting enough sleep, or taking care of any other medical issue that may be causing you stress.

Adopt healthier eating habits by choosing fresh, unprocessed foods. Get plenty of leafy greens and dark berries. Eat fish high in omega 3s like salmon. Go for whole grains like quinoa and brown rice. Avoid sugar as much as possible. The same goes for caffeine and alcohol.

In the event you can’t get all the necessary vitamins and minerals from your diet, get a good multivitamin, B complex, and/or trace mineral drops. Take probiotics or a supplement with prebiotic fiber to support your gut health.

If you suspect stress is why you have brain fog, try a new method of stress relief like yoga or meditation. Use talk therapy to let out your problems with a good therapist or coach that can guide you.

Be sure to get enough sleep, making sure the room is comfortable and dark at night so you can rest and repair.

When to get brain fog treatment?

Brain fog treatment depends on what type of hormone imbalance or medical diagnosis you have. Consult your doctor about the best treatment options for you. Sometimes medication and other treatments are necessary.

There are so many causes of brain fog– but most aren’t life-threatening, and they can typically be fixed by making some changes in lifestyle habits. Talking with a doctor who can provide medical advice may be necessary if brain fog is coming from a more serious underlying health concern.

References

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Daily Life

https://www.tuw.edu/health/how-stress-affects-the-brain/

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-sleep-clears-brain

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