by Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, MD
Our ability to focus and concentrate lets us accomplish amazing things — when it’s working well. Distractions are the main reason we lose focus, but often these aren’t as obvious as you might imagine. Instead you may feel scattered or “fuzzy,” or blame yourself for not having more control.
As we get older, focus and concentration can change, as can memory and other cognitive functions, but this is not inevitable. In fact, some studies with older people show no decline in decision-making capabilities, and the capacity for strategic learning — using specific methods to understand something — can get even better with age. People in their 70s can be “more conscientious and vigilant, without being hyper-vigilant” than those in their 50s.
If you have poor focus, you may feel as if you simply have to try harder but this strategy probably won’t help. Instead, you can have better focus by taking action to promote improvements in the specific brain functions that drive concentration and awareness. By creating the conditions that make it easier to concentrate and complete your work, you can feel sharper and more focused especially when you have a specific task to accomplish.
Look through these factors that affect focus — for better or worse — and take note of how many apply to you. Starting at any of these points can be your first step toward having better focus and concentration for everything you do.
Factors that impair focus
Poor diet and nutrition
Weight loss diets are notoriously bad for focus and concentration. Low-fat diets can ruin focus because the brain needs certain essential fatty acids. But not getting enough protein is bad too. The amino acids in protein are crucial for creating key brain chemicals used for focus. Processed foods lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes that destroy focus. And if you don’t get essential vitamins (particularly B vitamins and vitamin D) and minerals, including adequate iron, your ability to concentrate will suffer, and it will worsen over time.
Hunger is a distraction we’ve all had. Many studies show the negative effects that hunger has on school-aged children and young adults. Hunger is tied directly to low blood sugar which quickly leads to fatigue and low energy levels — and all wreak havoc on your ability to focus.
Loss of focus is a definite side effect of not drinking enough water and studies prove it. Dehydration can also lead to other symptoms that in turn reduce focus, including headache symptoms, fatigue and low mood. Even having just 1% lower than optimal hydration can cause lack of focus.
Normal hormonal fluctuations and shifts, like those during pregnancy or menopause, can affect how well women concentrate. This is so common during the midlife transition that loss of concentration is considered a symptom of menopause by many healthcare practitioners.
Lack of sleep
This is a big one because if you don’t get enough sleep — even for just one night— your thought processes can slow down, you’re less alert than normal and your ability to concentrate suffers. You can become so confused that you can’t perform tasks requiring complex thought. It’s also hard to remember and learn new things if you’re sleepy and that also affects focus negatively. Inadequate sleep also cuts into working memory, an important part of focusing. It makes you less vigilant and reduces both your accuracy and speed on mental tasks. If your sleep problems become chronic and long-term — something so many people struggle with — your reduced ability to focus can become your new normal, which can negatively affect your employment, relationships and personal growth.
Stress is inevitable but it can have dire consequences on focus and concentration if it becomes chronic. Ongoing stress churns up deep internal distress that short-circuits important cognitive functions. But emotional stress can be just as bad. Job worries, relationship issues and health concerns can make it hard to concentrate, though lots of people don’t notice this happening until they become totally overwhelmed. When you become mentally exhausted, you eventually will have difficulties with concentration and attention. If you have to reread things a lot because you can’t focus, your work may not get done, and of course, that alone causes even more stress.
Medical, emotional and psychological problems
Any serious issue that affects your health, mental or physical, can hurt your focus, including sleep apnea, toxicity from heavy metals, traumatic brain injury, stroke, ADHD, learning disabilities, visual disorders, dementia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and emotional trauma.
Lack of physical activity
If you don’t exercise, you won’t know how deeply your ability to focus is affected until you actually get moving. As an example of how the brain benefits from exercise, one study showed that three months of aerobic exercise was linked to the creation of new neurons, and broader and deeper interconnections between them. These types of neuronal improvements can increase and strengthen concentration.
Is it too loud or too quiet when you’re trying to concentrate? Is your environment filled with distractions like ringing phones, humming light fixtures, rattling heater vents, or visual disruptions? Maybe it’s too hot — or too cold. How about your comfort level (chair, desk height, lighting)? Are people always interrupting you? All of these elements can affect focus.
Quality of information
It’s very hard to harness your focus if you don’t have the right information to work with. An incomplete email, a misleading phone message or a skipped step along the way can muddle your focus as you try to make sense of the inadequate information.
Factors that improve focus
You can improve your ability to focus exponentially by shifting your diet toward eating healthy foods from the Mediterranean-style of eating. Consistently eating foods that support healthy brain function increases concentration and can even help you have more patience with distractions. In addition to moderate amounts of lean protein, fill your plate with lots of vegetables and fruit. Add whole grains and use olive oil to cook instead of butter. Eat a good breakfast to send a message to your body that it’s going to get the fuel it needs — you will be less stressed physically and better able to remain focused.
Targeted supplemental nutrition
Research has already identified many of the important nutrients and ingredients that directly fuel brain functions like focus and concentration. The range of B vitamins, and particularly B6, B9 and B12, are absolutely essential for good focus. Vitamin D is also key nutrient, and choline has great science behind it for brain health. The latest discovery with solid research supporting it is curcumin, a plant ingredient derived from turmeric that has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Antioxidant ingredients like quercetin can also help with inflammation.
Plenty of water
Having enough water in your system throughout the day is one of the most basic steps you can take to help ensure good focus. Thirst isn’t the best measure of fluid status so lack of focus can be an important early indicator of dehydration. Dr. Sharon Stills, ND, has a great way to know how much water is right for you: drink half your weight in ounces every day.
It’s important to set yourself up for good focus by choosing and adapting your surroundings as needed. Find the best place in your home to concentrate, or move to the library or a coffee shop if that fits your style better. Too much silence can drive a lot of people crazy — think solitary confinement. And if it is too quiet, you’ll hear every little distracting sound, so aim for a little background noise. Conversely, if you’re fighting too much noise, try noise-cancelling headphones or create white noise with a fan. Listening to non-distracting music can help — try classical or gentle electronic tunes.
Good sleep every night
Just as important as the food you eat, is sleep — both are basic components of good brain function. Get seven hours of sleep per night, or up to 9 hours on occasion. For most of us, anything less than 7 hours eats into a specific stage known as delta, or slow-wave sleep, which will make it hard to focus when we’re awake. If you feel drowsy at the wrong times it may mean you’re not getting enough sleep. Take naps only when necessary, especially if you have trouble getting to sleep at night. If you haven’t slept well for a long period, use the weekend to catch up by heading to bed earlier and letting yourself wake up naturally. If you continue to have challenges with sleep, speak with your doctor.
Exercise can do wonderful things for focus: just one session can improve mental focus and cognitive performance for any task you’re trying to complete. One study showed that even if people have attention deficits, they can sharpen their focus with physical activity because it releases brain chemicals associated with learning and memory. Aerobic exercise can improve functioning in the brain areas related to attention. Need to concentrate immediately? A short, intense session of running in place speeds circulation to the brain and improves focus fast. And for a good focus workout, learn a new sport that depends on hand-eye coordination, like tennis.
You can limit the effects of stress on your ability to focus by simply taking a break at midday and doing absolutely nothing for a solid five minutes. Taking a break physically disrupts the pattern of stress-building and can help you recover your focus, or prevent it from being lost.
Pay attention to your breathing throughout the day. Do you subconsciously hold your breath, especially when focusing intensely on a detailed project or fine-motor work? Is your normal breathing pattern shallow and irregular? You can feed your brain more oxygen with regular breathing that’s steady and complete, with full inhales and exhales. Make even more powerful changes to your focus with deep belly breathing: place one hand on your stomach and inhale for three full seconds and feel your belly expand, and then exhale for three seconds pushing the air out with your stomach muscles, feeling your belly drop. At first, perform this exercise for just 60 seconds total. When you’re ready, keep going for another minute or two — or even longer if you like. Add meditation to your deep breathing practice — even for just 30 seconds — to re-focus your brain in the face of distractions.
You can have better focus and concentration naturally by targeting the specific mechanisms responsible for these key brain functions. Take action today and learn more now.
Chapman, S. Healthy Brain, Healthy Decisions. 17 January, 2013. University of Texas Dallas Center for Brain Health website. Available at: http://www.utdallas.edu/news/2013/1/17-21611_Study-Finds-That-Age-Does-Not-Impair-Decision-Maki_article-wide.html. Accessed October 1, 2014.
Alhola P. et al. Sleep deprivation: Impact of cognitive performance. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. Oct 2007; 3(5): 553-567.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2656292/. Accessed October 1, 2014.
Why lack of sleep is bad for your health. National Health Service, UK. http://www.nhs.uk/livewell/tiredness-and-fatigue/pages/lack-of-sleep-health-risks.aspx. Accessed October 1, 2014.
Dealing with the symptoms of menopause. Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Dealing_with_the_symptoms_of_menopause.htm. Accessed October 1, 2014.
Survey: Three Out Of Five U.S. Teachers See Hunger in Classroom. NEA Health Information Network. http://www.neahin.org/about/news/survey-three-out-of-five.html. Accessed October 1, 2014.