Mental Sluggishness – The Answer May Be More Complicated Than Pouring Another Cup Of Coffee

Everyone knows all too well that feeling when your brain just isn’t firing on all cylinders. Whether it’s during an all-too-long undergraduate lecture on “Exploring Culture through Film,” studying for yet another practical in grad school, or trying to wake yourself up enough to get moving on Monday morning for work, mental sluggishness has touched all of our lives in some way.

If you’re like me, you have developed the learned habit to combat this persistent mental fog with a nearly constant stream of caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, or whatever else you’ve found to give you a little pick-me-up. Like most things in life, however, there may be more to it than the short-term fix that pouring another cup of coffee provides.

Studies over the recent years have revealed that low-grade chronic inflammation plays a role in many of the chronic illnesses that our society deals with today. Inflammation has been linked to ailments such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and obesity just to name a few. New research (found here) suggests an additional link between low-grade inflammation and decreased cognitive readiness to perform and maintain a task.

Researchers used a vaccination to induce transient mild inflammation, while a saline injection was used as a placebo in the same subjects on a different day. They found that when the participants were injected with the vaccination to induce inflammation, the subjects’ ability to become and remain “alert” was negatively affected, while the saline injection had no effect on mental alertness.

Think back to those times in your life when you are feeling that “mental fog” at its peak. I know that one of the times I feel it the most is when I’m sick. This research suggests that this same feeling is likely present much more frequently, or even all the time, in patients dealing with chronic illnesses and other ailments related to low-grade inflammation.

While I am usually not having my patients perform mentally challenging math problems and calculations, I definitely expect them to process my feedback and make relatively quick performance adjustments in response to it.

Keeping this research in mind, it may be beneficial to slow that process down at times and allow for more repetition and clarification when needed to improve patient performance, compliance, and outcomes. Furthermore, this research supports the growing body of evidence to incorporate behaviors and activities that reduce the amount of chronic low-grade inflammation present throughout our bodies. Not only is it limiting our physical abilities and potential, but our mental performance as well.

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