As we move away from long summer nights, more relaxed schedules, and summer vacations we enter into the start of a new school year with lots of unknowns, increasingly busy schedules, and for some juggling working from home. For some people, this stress is being added to health, family, and financial stress. With so many new and unfamiliar situations and many of us feeling overwhelmed with our overfilling plates it makes sense that we are finding it difficult to focus and keep track of things.
Stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, and lack of exercise all can have an impact on our ability to concentrate and for many individuals, these are the very things that are becoming more difficult to manage amidst an ongoing public health crisis and while also adapting to our new normal.
What we put in our bodies can impact our cognitive function, positively or negatively. A few ways your diet can impact your concentration levels include:
Lack of nutrients. Certain nutrients such as iron, omega-3 fatty acids, choline, and B vitamins play a role in brain health and cognition. Making sure you are eating a varied diet with a good balance of all of the food groups is the best way to ensure your body is receiving adequate vitamins and minerals. Cutting out protein may lead to inadequate intake of iron or choline, cutting too low in fat could lead to inadequate vitamin E and omega-3’s, and avoiding carbs could lead to a lack of fiber and vitamin C. Severely cutting calories and underlying eating disorders can also lead to impaired concentration and difficulty switching from one task to another.
Blood sugar swings. The brain is very sensitive to the amount of sugar, or glucose, it receives. One sign of high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, is difficulty concentrating. High blood sugar can damage the small blood vessels in the brain over time which can impact memory and focus due to poor circulation. Insulin helps the sugar from foods to enter our cells to be used as fuel or energy. When sugar cannot enter the cells it accumulates in our bloodstream, depriving the brain of the fuel it needs to function at its best. Alternatively, low blood sugar can cause brain fog due to a lack of glucose being supplied to the brain for energy.
Food and sleep. A good night’s sleep helps neurons to repair themselves and promotes the formation of neural connections vital for memory and concentration. What and how we eat can help us get the shut-eye necessary for our brain to be functioning at its best. Eating right before bed, drinking excessive amounts of caffeine or alcohol, and over- and undereating can all lead to disruptions to our sleep.
Portion distortion. Many people have become out of tune with what a healthy portion of food is. This may be due to large portions served by restaurants or advertised in commercials. Portions can also be skewed by fad diets and years of not listening to your body's internal hunger and fullness cues. Having too large of portions can lead to problems such as weight gain and health problems but also can cause difficulty concentrating. After finishing an oversized meal, our body focuses on digesting and leads to a cascade of events in the body such as the release of hormones, a rise in blood sugars, elevated heart rate, and increased blood flow to the digestive tract. This all can lead to a decrease in blood flow to the brain and an increase in drowsiness and lack of focus.
Eating a diet similar to the Mediterranean diet is thought to help with cognition and concentration but certain foods stand out as superfoods that may help improve brain functioning due to their unique nutritional components. Let’s breakdown 8 foods that may boost concentration:
This brain-shaped nut is one of the best foods for increasing memory and concentration. Walnuts are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and are a natural source of melatonin. Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential fatty acid, which must be supplied by the diet because the body lacks the enzymes to make it on its own. Walnuts contain 2.6 grams of these essential fatty acids which have been shown to enhance brain development as well as may lower LDL, or bad, cholesterol when replacing saturated and trans fats in the diet. With improved cholesterol and better blood flow, the brain receives the fuel and nutrients it needs to function at its best. Vitamin E in walnuts is beneficial as well. Studies have shown that vitamin E helps to slow cognitive decline and that consuming more nuts may be related to better overall cognitive as we age.
2. Kidney Beans
A variety of beans are good for our health due to high amounts of fiber, plant-based protein, and antioxidants. Kidney beans also offer an excellent source of iron. A one-cup serving provides 8 mg of iron. Iron plays an important role in brain health because it helps transport oxygen through the body, including the brain (we will discuss iron’s important role in concentration a little further down on the list). Kidney beans are high in soluble fiber which helps with blood sugar control. This type of fiber can help with slowing down the release of glucose into the bloodstream, lower cholesterol, and also helps to fill us up which may help control portion sizes and thus reducing the total amount of calories and carbohydrates we eat. Keeping blood sugars more stable and avoiding swings too far up or down can help us avoid brain fog.
Egg yolks are the most concentrated source of choline in the diet. Choline has been shown to help improve brain function and concentration. It helps the body make acetylcholine which is a neurotransmitter needed for memory storage. One study found that low plasma free choline concentration was associated with poor cognitive performance. With 147 mg of choline per egg, adding more eggs (with the yolks) to the diet is a good way to increase this mineral to help with that “What was I doing?” feeling. Another food high in choline is number 2 on this list…beans! For added brain benefit choose eggs that contain omega-3 fatty acids. Farmers who add omega-3’s to the chicken feed naturally boost the omega-3 content in the egg.
Images of Popeye and his bulky muscles after gulping down a can of spinach always pop in my head when I think of this powerful leafy green. Spinach is known for being high in iron, with 3.2 mg for ½ cup of boiled spinach. It surprises many people to learn that spinach has more iron than 3 oz. of ground beef, which has 2.4 mg. However, plant-based sources of iron are in the form of non-heme iron which is harder for our bodies to absorb. Whereas the heme iron from animal sources is much more easily absorbed. Consuming a source of vitamin C along with foods high in iron helps the body to absorb the iron. According to the WHO, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and one-half of anemia cases are due to iron-deficiency. Why is this important to focus and concentration, you ask? Well, iron carries oxygen to every cell of the body for energy production and if the body is running too low on iron it can lead to poor memory and the inability to concentrate. Iron deficiency can be due to a variety of issues but most often is related to either poor dietary intake, blood loss (either from ulcers, hemorrhoids, or menstruation), and excessive intake of antacids. Gastric acid in the stomach helps the body to absorb non-heme (plant-based sources) of iron, so if you are someone that frequently takes antacids for heartburn you may want to discuss this with your health care provider. Raw spinach contains oxalic acid which naturally binds with iron, making it harder for the body to absorb, however, cooking spinach unlocks these inhibitors making the iron more available to your body. To enhance the iron power of your spinach, you can enjoy it cooked or add some additional vitamin C in the form of oranges, green and red peppers, strawberries, or other vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables. Seems like Popeye was onto something eating his cooked spinach!
5. Tart Cherries
For some of you, it may have been a long time since you’ve had to take an exam or prepare for a presentation, but you may remember the advice to get a good night’s sleep or maybe you’ve advised your children or grandchildren to turn in early before a big day. Sleep is something that some people take for granted and others wish for but struggle to get enough of. It is estimated that at least 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders, and it should be mentioned that this statistic is from before we were faced with a worldwide pandemic and the resulting drastic changes to our daily lives. Many people turn to natural remedies to help them sleep and this may include melatonin supplements. Tart cherries are a superfood for concentration because it is a natural form of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate circadian rhythm and may help individuals with certain sleep disorders. Other foods with naturally occurring melatonin include oatmeal and walnuts. Look for Richmond, Montmorency, and English Morello cherries at the grocery store or 100% tart cherry juice. In one study, people who drank 2 one-cup servings of tart cherry juice per day were found to have more total sleep time and higher sleep efficiency.
Are you unable to start your day until you finish your morning cup of coffee? There may be a benefit to this habit for your brain. The caffeine in coffee is a natural stimulant that has been proven to help improve thinking, short-term memory, and learning. Coffee is the main source of caffeine in the United States. If you enjoy coffee, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans define a moderate amount of caffeine as 400 mg which is equivalent to 3-5 cups of home-brewed coffee per day. To limit added sugars and calories, drink it black or use low-fat, fat-free, or unsweetened almond milk in place of creamers. Creamers tend to be high in saturated fats and added sugars.
Fatty fish has been promoted for quite some time as a good choice for brain health. It is recommended to aim for 2 servings of fish a week. Salmon contains 2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids and 96 mg of memory-boosting choline. 60% of the brain is made of fat and half of that is omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have found that regular intake of baked or broiled fish is related to larger concentrations of gray matter in the brain. This is important because gray matter controls memory and decision making. If you’re not a fish-lover or struggle to meet the 2 serving per week recommendation, choosing walnuts, flaxseeds, and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids is recommended.
8. Green Tea
The antioxidant content plus the caffeine in green tea provides many benefits for thinking and concentration. Green tea contains L-theanine which is an amino acid that increases the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter that can help produce a calming effect. When our minds are frazzled and we are feeling stressed it is much harder to concentrate. The stress-relieving effects of L-theanine have grown in popularity over the years which is helpful because finding products with green tea is easier to come by. Drinking green tea and adding matcha to your diet may help you take advantage of the relaxing effects without becoming drowsy.
While there are no magic foods and it’s important to look at the big picture of what may be impacting your ability to think clearly and perform your best. Adding healthy, nutrient-rich foods to your diet definitely won’t do any harm. The great author Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Concentration is the secret of strength.” And at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating we believe that strength comes from a healthy body and mind. Hopefully, with a focus on taking care of yourself inside and out, you can tap into that strength to help you be the best you can be, no matter what the rest of 2020 brings!