3 Ways to Help Counteract Cancer-Related Brain Fog

You have more options that just resting, eating well, and using a calendar. Here's what the research is finding.

By: Christine McDevitt, MS, OTR/L

Woman with cancer-related brain fog looking at her phone
Image by antonynjoro from Pixabay

If you’re going through cancer treatment and feel like you’re literally losing your mind, you’re not alone. It’s not uncommon for people undergoing cancer treatment to notice changes in their thinking abilities. The medical term for these changes is cancer-related cognitive impairment. It’s also known as chemo brain or cancer-related brain fog.

Symptoms of cancer-related cognitive impairment include problems with memory, attention, ability to process information easily and quickly, and executive functions. (Executive functions are higher level thinking skills that include problem solving, multi-tasking, planning, organizing, impulse control, and being able to tune out distractions when you need to focus.)

There isn’t much research on treatments for cancer-related brain fog, and there are no approved medications to treat it. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do, though.

Of course, good sleep and nutrition are essential to keeping your mind sharp, and there are many ways to compensate for memory or attention problems. However, research also suggests that there are other non-medical options that have the potential to help counteract cancer-related cognitive changes.

Here is what the research says about three of those options and some things to consider when deciding if they might be right for you.

1. Acupuncture may increase brain cell growth and decrease brain cell damage during cancer treatment.

In a study that looked at breast cancer patients with cancer-related cognitive impairment, researchers found an increase in the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in participants who were treated with acupuncture compared to those who weren’t.

BDNF is a protein required for your body to produce new brain cells. It has particular influence in the part of the brain called the hippocampus which is involved with memory.

Researchers in another study looked at the effects of acupuncture on patients who had cancer-related cognitive impairment from gynecological cancer. The findings suggested acupuncture may prevent demyelination (damage to the protective coating of nerve cells) in the brain during chemotherapy.

Both studies found that participants with cancer-related brain fog significantly improved their scores on cognitive tests after being treated with acupuncture protocols compared with control groups who didn’t receive acupuncture.

Things to consider:

  • Acupuncture (and acupressure) also have been shown to be beneficial in relieving chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, cancer-related pain, and cancer-related fatigue. If you’re having these side effects in addition to cognitive changes, acupuncture or acupressure may bring multi-symptom relief.
  • Acupuncture and acupressure generally have very few side effects. The most common are minor and may include bleeding (from acupuncture needle insertion), bruising, or soreness.
  • If you’re on a blood thinner or have a bleeding problem, acupuncture may not be for you. Check with your doctor to make sure there aren’t any concerns before starting acupuncture treatments.

2. Exercise may improve memory, executive functions, and processing speed in people with cancer-related brain fog.

The fact is that exercise in general is good for your brain whether you have cancer or not. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and has been shown to improve cognitive functioning in healthy adults.

Woman exercising with arms overhead. Exercise can help cancer-related brain fog.
Image by Gesina from Pixabay

The question that researchers are still trying to answer, however, is what type of exercise works best to counteract cancer-related cognitive changes.

One study found that resistance training in women with breast cancer resulted in higher cognitive test scores for executive functions (i.e., higher-level thinking skills) compared to a control group.

Another study of breast cancer survivors found that a total of 2.5 hours of weekly exercise at a moderate intensity had a significant effect on processing speed.

(Processing speed is how quickly your brain can take in information and make sense of it so you can react or respond. Processing speed affects executive functions.)

Research also found that women with breast cancer who participated in a Hatha yoga intervention twice weekly for 12 weeks had an average of 23% lower report of cognitive problems three months after the completion of the study compared to a group that was wait-listed for the intervention. The researchers controlled for other factors including depression, anxiety, sleep quality, and fatigue to ensure they didn’t affect the study’s results.

Things to consider:

  • If you’re rolling your eyes at the thought of exercise, keep this in mind: when you’re dealing with brain fog, improved processing speed can be a game changer. It’s the difference between being able to follow dinner conversations easily and getting lost in the middle because you can’t keep up with what people are saying.
  • If you’ve recently had surgery or if you have a port for chemotherapy, don’t start exercising until your doctor removes any movement or lifting restrictions you may have had. This is especially important before starting resistance training.
  • When it comes to exercise and cancer, pacing yourself is key. You may not be able to tolerate much physical activity at times. It’s okay to lower the intensity if needed. Just do what you can.
  • If you’re considering a yoga class, find out how intense the class is before joining. Hatha yoga is slower and gentler. You may want to avoid classes where poses change frequently if it’s hard for you to keep up in fast-paced situations.
  • Always check with your doctor before starting or returning to any exercise routine.

3. Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT tapping) can lower feelings of distress that contribute to cancer-related brain fog.

Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) or “tapping” is a mind-body technique that combines exposure to a thought, feeling, or memory with stimulation of specific acupuncture points on the body. Research on EFT has found it effective in helping reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD as well as chronic pain.

Research suggests that psychological variables can contribute to cancer-related cognitive impairment, and there are correlations between high levels of psychological distress in people with cancer and lower performance on cognitive function tests.

A study examined whether an 8-week intervention using EFT could help improve cancer-related cognitive impairment in 121 adults ranging from 28 to 78 years old. Most of the study participants were under the age of 65.

Tapping on side of hand point; Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT tapping) helps cancer-related brain fog.

At the start of the study, 100% of the participants scored within the range of cancer-related cognitive impairment on a self-reported measure. After 8 weeks, only 40.8% of the EFT intervention group still scored in the cognitively impaired range compared to 87.3% in the group that hadn’t learned EFT.

Things to consider:

  • EFT tapping can be easily learned and applied to a wide range of issues that cause distress. Keeping distress low on a regular basis can help offset its effects on mental sharpness.
  • The only type of EFT that has been validated by researchers is known as Clinical EFT. There are many variations of Emotional Freedom Techniques that have not been studied in clinical trials. It’s important to be aware of this distinction if you choose to explore EFT on your own through a book, app, or videos.
  • Consulting with a certified Clinical EFT practitioner is the safest way to address more complex situations or traumatic issues.
  • If you have serious mental health concerns, check with your mental health provider first to make sure EFT is appropriate for you.

The bottom line

While there are no definitive treatments or quick fixes for cancer-related brain fog, research is beginning to shed light on possible options that are safe for most people to use. Just remember it’s always recommended to check with your doctor before adding anything new to your health routine.

Wondering if EFT or acupressure might be right for you? Schedule a free consultation today so you can get your questions answered. No pressure, no obligation, no strings attached.