by Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, MD
Many things can interrupt focus or impair the ability to concentrate and as we get older, we become even more easily distracted. That’s why it’s important to address the factors that disrupt focus now. Taking action on any of the following factors can help you pay better attention to everything you do.
Consider your environment: Temperature is important — it can be distracting if your space is too warm or cold. Choose a quiet spot, and make sure you sit upright and feel at ease, but not so comfy that you begin to drift off.
Go to sleep: it’s impossible to be focused if you are fatigued or burning the candle at both ends. Get at least 7 hours a night, and nap only when you absolutely must.
Avoid getting hungry: eat regular meals, with at least two wholesome snacks in between. Hunger is distracting and signals that your brain isn’t getting the energy it needs to fuel focus and concentration. Don’t eat heavy or overly rich foods — they can have a sedating effect.
Best foods for foods for focus— these choices are known to improve or support focus and concentration.
- Leafy green vegetables like spinach can accelerate signals between neurons to make your brain more responsive.
- Omega 3 rich foods like salmon, walnuts and pumpkin seeds are excellent for brain health and focusing ability.
- Eggs — yolk and white together — contain brain-supporting choline, and phenylalanine that your body uses to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. Eggs are also an excellent source the omega-3 DHA.
- Avocados contain monounsaturated fats that support healthy blood flow.
- Whole grains help improve blood flow, regulate glucose (steady glucose levels make it much easier to concentrate) and decrease the risk of plaque building up in the brain.
- Blueberries can improve learning while protecting the brain from free radicals.
Try targeted supplementation: your brain needs certain nutrients to function and those should be provided consistently, in forms that are well absorbed. Because of recent research, doctors and scientists are “cautiously optimistic” that vitamin, mineral, and herb combinations have a positive, supportive impact on the brain.
Key nutrients and foods for focus
- Vitamin B3 or niacin — required to maintain the continual supply of glucose that your brain uses for energy. Without it you’re likely to struggle with poor concentration, confusion and memory loss. Get at least 20mg a day.
- Vitamin B6 — needed to produce neurotransmitters and to prevent confusion and lack of concentration. Again, get at least 20mg a day.
- Vitamin B12 — B12 is a key ingredient for having a healthy myelin sheath around the nerves. B12 deficiency is fairly common — it affects at least 15% of adults over 60 — and it’s avoidable. Aim for 1000mcg per day.
- Vitamin B5 or pantothenic acid — needed for oxidative metabolism (the first part of the metabolic process) of glucose and fats, and to synthesize fats, cholesterol, melatonin and acetylcholine. Opt for at least 20mg per day.
- Vitamin C — this powerful antioxidant helps make the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which works on the part of your brain where attention is controlled.
- Curcumin — this special polyphenol from turmeric has been used for generations to “effectively manage stress in China,” according to the US government’s National Center for Biotechnology Information. Newer studies suggest curcumin can enhance the birth of new brain cells, which is essential for optimal learning, and promote connections to other brain cells while protecting them from damage. Even small amounts of dietary turmeric are linked to lower rates of dementia. As a potent antioxidant, curcumin tamps down the inflammation that contributes to dementia. Since curcumin is hard for the body to absorb, laboratories can use black pepper to enhance its absorption and bioavailability by as much as 2000%, making it easy to get the amount you need every day. Take as much as 450mg of curcumin every day.
- Quercetin — another ingredient with strong antioxidant properties, quercetin is a flavonoid, or a kind of plant pigment that helps give fruits and vegetables their vivid color. Research shows that it can help with free radicals and inflammation.
Stay hydrated: Being thirsty is very distracting but dehydration also causes fatigue that interferes directly with focus. Drink water at regular intervals every day, as much as half your weight in ounces.
Have a little caffeine: Get a temporary boost to focus and concentration with caffeine from coffee, tea or a square of dark chocolate, but don’t go overboard.
Chew gum: This old-school habit can temporarily enhance alertness and possibly even extend your attention at the end stages of longer tasks. Chewing gum is also associated with reducing chronic stress, another helpful element for focus.
Soothe emotional stress — though it seems counterintuitive, simply paying more attention to what is happening to you during a stressful period helps you deal with that stress. Being aware of your stress level in a particular situation is the start of mindfulness, and take note: it’s the absolute opposite of multi-tasking, which you actually want to avoid.
Go outside — studies have shown that people can concentrate better after communing with nature or even just looking at pictures of nature, according to research studies. Natural experience — even if it’s just a walk in the park — can calm all the stimuli that grab your involuntary attention. Nature let’s your focused mind rest and rejuvenate.
Meditate and be mindful — while meditation and concentration are different, they can work as a team. Several studies show that meditating for 20 minutes a day improves both concentration and attention span. If meditating and mindfulness are new to you, this description from Harvard Medical School’s HEALTHbeat newsletter explains it well: “Mindfulness really does not have to be more complicated than learning to pay attention to what is going on around you — the idea is to focus your attention on what is happening in the present and to accept it without judgment.” The simplest way to begin meditating is to start notice your breathing — becoming “mindful” of it — over the course of a minute or two. Next session, focus more intently on your breathing for 5-10 minutes twice a day — in the morning and before bed. When you get distracted, bring your consciousness back to your inhales and exhales. I recommend the website Headspace for patients, friends and family who are beginning meditators.
Take control of your ability to focus
If focusing has become more difficult for you, do something about it now before it gets worse. Take control of your focusing environment by using some of the suggestions above. You can also try the following techniques that you may have learned as a student. They really help:
- Work in “chunks.” Split your work into parcels and enjoy a timeout between each chunk.
- Take a break. Staying on the same task or topic for too long fatigues the brain, just as too much exercise exhausts the body.
- Set a goal. Establish an endpoint for your task and reward yourself when you reach it with a refreshing drink, a social phone call, or a walk outside. For longer jobs, plan them out in phases and take little breaks between each stage — just enough time to rest without breaking your momentum.
Another approach to take when you can’t concentrate is to listen to your brain and your body and take a rest or switch to a different activity briefly. After all, everybody needs to hit the reset button now and then. But if being able to focus feels impossible for you, it’s time to make some of these changes. It will make a big difference in your quality of life now and in the future.
You can have clear focus and good concentration when you give your brain what it needs to perform those functions. Learn more now — with a bonus — you can enhance and improve your memory at the same time.
Nazario, B. Brain Foods That Help You Concentrate. WEB MD website. http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/slideshow-brain-foods-that-help-you-concentrate. Accessed November 1, 2014
Vitamin B6 Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements website. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB6-HealthProfessional/. Accessed November 1, 2014
Drake V. Micronutrients and cognitive function. Linus Pauling Institute. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/ss11/cognitive.html Accessed November 1, 2014
Xu Y, et al. Curcumin reverses impaired hippocampal neurogenesis and increases serotonin receptor 1A mRNA and brain-derived neurotrophic factor expression in chronically stressed rats. 8 Aug 2007. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17617388 Accessed November 1, 2014.
Ramsey, D Eat More Curry for a Brain Boost? 3 January, 2013. Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-farmacy/201301/eat-more-curry-brain-boost Accessed November 1, 2014
Focus more to ease stress. 6 December 2011. Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/focus-more-to-ease-stress Accessed November 1, 2014