What chemicals in the brain are responsible for a sense of mental clarity?
February 3, 2009 7:06 PM   Subscribe

What chemicals in the brain are responsible for a sense of mental clarity? More inside about why I'm interested...

I felt very tired and mentally foggy for 3 years. Finally, I went to endocrinologist, got many blood tests. Found very low Vitamin D and slightly low thyroid. 6 months later, all levels are on the very good side of normal. My physical energy is now excellent, but I still feel as if I'm chugging cough syrup all day -- drugged and foggy.

I feel progressively worse throughout the day, which makes me think I'm running out of (or accumulating) something. But what?

All suggestions for fixes welcome, though I should note that I've tried almost every dietary fix, better sleep, exercise, meditation-- you name it. This is why I gotten down to brass tacks and neurotransmitters in my question. Thanks, everybody!
posted by specialfriend to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Dopamine and norepinephrine levels drop throughout the day.

Try upping your protein content and it could up the production of dopamine and norepinephrine which cause alertness.

What's your diet like? Your average lunch? Maybe try to throw an apple into lunch and a protein shake?

/IANAD or anything close I just used to get really tired around 3pm.
posted by zephyr_words at 7:16 PM on February 3, 2009

About the only thing that's going to get you the kind of mental energy you want is stimulants. That's why so many adults use caffeine routinely.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:33 PM on February 3, 2009

Have you looked into Provigil? An interesting substance, there was a FPP about it recently.
posted by Mach5 at 7:45 PM on February 3, 2009

Well, caffeine and Modafinil/Provigil. It's entire thing is that is raises the fog without making you jittery and bouncy, but I've never tried it and have heard mixed things, including some people who can't live without it, and other's who it wore off for.
posted by disillusioned at 7:47 PM on February 3, 2009

Try eggs.
posted by sweetkid at 7:49 PM on February 3, 2009

About the only thing that's going to get you the kind of mental energy you want is stimulants. That's why so many adults use caffeine routinely.

I should have mentioned this in my question: I used to love caffeine and consume it every day. Since I've been feeling fogged, caffeine has a strange effect on me -- it makes more more tired and foggy, rather than clearer.
posted by specialfriend at 8:07 PM on February 3, 2009

Is just thinking so much about this making the problem worse? How about some meditation/breathing exercises/yoga?

I was under the impression that "clarity" was related to a particular brain region (neurons and all in that part) rather than some neurotransmitters per se. Maybe some neurology folks can shed some light on this and clarify (haha).
posted by xm at 8:26 PM on February 3, 2009

You've probably heard this, but do you have a working carbon monoxide meter at your home/workplace? As it's odorless, you could be inhaling it without realizing it. Also, if you work in a place with any sort of chemicals (even something as simple as soap for a mop), ask your boss for MSDS (material safety data sheet) sheets for the chemicals used in that environment. The sheets list the possible common effects of the substances, and they are legally required to be available to employees, and most of them are easily found online, too, if your boss only gives you the name of the chemical or product.

Anyway, I know you said you've tried everything, but how about you describe your diet and exercise routine more specifically? Did you use caffeine before this problem? Did you try cutting it out completely, since it might be causing you problems if it's making you feel strange? That should give the armchair House, MD's something to chew on.

Also, do you ever feel like you're about to fall asleep or doze off? Based on the wikipedia page for Provigil, that would make you a good candidate.

I felt really mentally foggy and almost drugged when I was deeply depressed a while back. Please don't take this the wrong way, but your problem might be psychosomatic. Have you tried therapy? Maybe it'd be worth the money to get evaluated for depression and get a professional opinion.

It might be chronic fatigue syndrome as well, although that would give you a diagnosis more than a specific treatment that would help you. However, having a name for your problem might be encouraging, and that might give you a boost psychologically.

Anyway, I think we all know that IANAD and I'm just throwing out my hunches. I really hope you get better. It sounds like an awful condition to live with for the long term.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:37 PM on February 3, 2009


interesting effect I've found when say, sleep-deprived:
Stimulants make me more tired.

From random theorising of others online, seems likely that the part of my brain that tells me I'm tired, is underactive too, so stimulants wake it up enough to tell me that I'm even tireder than I thought I was.
Vast quantities of sleep later - Stimulants work like they're supposed too.

Get a couple of 12-15 hour nights, and exercise, and then see how you feel?

It could be handy to keep in mind in that, if you've been trying various life-style/dietary changes, you might not have been getting enough feedback from your head/body to realise when something was actually *helping*.
posted by Elysum at 10:24 PM on February 3, 2009

You mentioned you went to a endoc, and now your hormone levels are different. How? Are you on synthroid for your thyroid? What (besides more sun) are you using to get more Vit D? Could either of those be related to feeling foggy?
posted by hal_c_on at 11:36 PM on February 3, 2009

Have you had a sleep study to get evaluated for sleep apnea? (Yes, even young, thin, non-snorers can be afflicted.)
posted by trevyn at 1:46 AM on February 4, 2009

Ah! A question I can answer.

Bear in mind, though, that I am an undergraduate neuroscience student, and it'll be a few years until I get my PhD.

There are a few chemicals responsible for mental clarity, which is, bear in mind, alterable by mood. In terms of 'clarity' itself, which is better explained by focus and concentration and alertness, here is a list of chemicals.


Go to your GP, and get more protein and exercise. Don't use caffeine or Provigil, it will fuck you up unless your doctor tells you to do so. (If you use caffeine, use one energy drink a day, and I specifically say energy drink because even if it's more sugary, you'll get marginally more nutrients than coffee.)
posted by kldickson at 5:00 AM on February 4, 2009

I think you're approaching this the wrong way. Can you really approach mental health in this way? I'm doubtful because I know the brain is a pretty complex organ and not something that's completely understood.

Anyways, I very much doubt there's something wrong with your brain. According to my basic understanding, the brain (and our bodies in general) either encourages production of chemicals or discourages production of chemicals primarily in response to environmental factors, aka lifestyle. I hate to jump on this bandwagon, because I usually don't, but how about therapy? You didn't mention you had tried that.

IANANeuroscientist, but I'm not totally ignorant either.
posted by symbollocks at 7:09 AM on February 4, 2009

I should have mentioned this in my question: I used to love caffeine and consume it every day. Since I've been feeling fogged, caffeine has a strange effect on me -- it makes more more tired and foggy, rather than clearer.

Caffeine can often seem paradoxical, in the sense that when you consume it, it is, in the chemical process that it undergoes, dehydrating your body. If you consume caffeine, but do not increase your fluid intake, you will become dehydrated, and thus tired.

Try drinking more fluids with your cup of coffee (or Wake-Ups). This has worked for me.
posted by tybeet at 7:17 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Caffeine is a very mild diuretic when consumed in small amounts (like less than ~250mg/day). You'll have a net gain of water from drinking plain coffee. If you develop a tolerance for caffeine you'll also increase your resistance to the diuretic effect.

Some further reading: Link, link, link.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 12:32 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yoga may be helpful for stress-relief, in addition to exercise. Throwing extra medicine at the problem, especially since you seem to be on medications for your other problems already, is unlikely to be terribly useful unless you're under a doctor's supervision.

IANAD, but MWIANGS (my wife is a neuroscience grad student).
(wife-jack: Go talk to your doctors. I would at least talk to your GP and your endo about this, since the GP knows you and the endo knows what's going on with your hormones. Plus, fatigue is one of the side effects of synthroid, if that's the thyroid medicine you are on.

Brainwise, "mental clarity" is one of those things that seems really easy to pinpoint but probably has several different neural substrates: I'm not a particularly cognitively-oriented brain geek, but I'd guess the feeling of clarity arises from a combination of activity in prefrontal cortex, amygdala, basal ganglia, and other midbrain/hindbrain regions -- basically, stuff dealing with attention, motivation, and sleep/homeostasis. So in order to really experience mental clarity, you have to a) have the ability and motivation to direct focus to whatever cognitive task is at hand, and b) not be so tired and/or physically wrecked that you can't pay attention.

Exercise is good and has several beneficial effects on the nervous system: in addition to the other effects of exercise that have been enumerated above, exercise increases the level of BDNF (a peptide that protects neurons from death as well as increasing their excitability), and will improve your blood oxygenation levels. So keep exercising even if it doesn't really feel like it's helping your mental state. Especially since thyroid meds can also mess with your heart and bone density, and you want to keep your heart and bones functioning well.

The bad part is that changes to cognitive functioning from exercise/meditation/what have you will probably take several weeks or months to show up. You basically are retraining your body and brain to function properly, and it can't happen overnight -- if you're only giving your mind a week or two of whatever new thing you're throwing at it before giving up, you aren't going to see any improvement and you might actually see a decline, from always changing your routines (this is stressful to your brain and body, and the brain just falls apart under stress).

Also, a lot of medicines that up neurotransmitter levels tend to also have side effects adversely affecting cognitive function. You could try a stimulant, but it might make you more foggy. You could try an antidepressant, but it could make you foggier or actually sleepy, depending on which one you were on. So I would make sure that you've given at least four to six weeks grace period to your exercise/meditation/etc. fixes before giving up on that as an avenue to feeling clearer, and be careful about what medicines you take if you decide to go that route. Just because your GP or endo gives it to you doesn't mean it's necessarily the best choice for you.)
posted by FlyingMonkey at 5:18 PM on February 7, 2009

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