8 min Read
Why Can’t I Concentrate and Focus?
If you’re wondering why you can’t concentrate long enough to complete your daily tasks, your nutrition could be the reason.
We’ve all been there; you know you shouldn’t, but you’re multitasking, trying to juggle a million and one things. Before you know it the working day is almost over and you’ve not checked much off your to-do list but you’ve been frantically busy. Whether you’re a time poor parent trying to juggle a work, family, life balance, an entrepreneur or leader managing a team and building a business from the ground up, the struggle is real for us all, especially during lockdown when our home and work life have blended into a rather chaotic world of juggling tasks.
The inability to concentrate is something that affects almost everyone at some point in their life. The key to staying focused is understanding the reasons behind not being able to concentrate which can help you address the root cause of the problem and, quite literally, nip it from the bud!
Essential Nutrients and Foods for Concentration and Focus
What you eat has a huge role to play in terms of how focused you are on tasks throughout the day, memory improvement and addressing poor concentration.
Here are some key foods to include in your diet to stay sharp.
Foods including oily fish, walnuts and flaxseeds are rich in omega 3 fatty acids which can help promote brain function.
Omega 3 fatty acids are found liberally in brain cells as they help with intracellular brain communication (in simpler words they help our brain cells talk to each other effectively)!
A randomised control trial of 485 adults with age-related cognitive decline tested omega 3 supplementation over a 24 week period. After 24 weeks, those taking DHA omega 3 performed better on memory and learning tests1.
You can find omega 3 in both marine and plant sources. Marine sources of omega 3 fatty acids are the most highly bioavailable sources of omega 3. If you are not following a plant based diet, you should aim to consume 2-3 portions of oily fish per week where possible. Alternative vegan sources of omega 3 are walnuts, flaxseeds and edamame beans.
B Vitamins are an umbrella term given to a group of 8 water soluble vitamins. Three B vitamins, in particular, are often linked with brain health and focus: B6, B9 (folate), and B12.
Vitamin B6 is directly linked to the synthesis of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and melatonin which all have a direct effect on mood and concentration2. Rich food sources of vitamin B6 include avocado, chicken and bananas.
Folate plays a role in cognition in a number of different ways - most importantly folate is needed for the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to your brain3. Wholegrains, spinach and oranges are all great sources of this vitamin.
Vitamin B12 deficiency has been associated with memory loss. This is a particularly important nutrient to pay attention to if you are following a plant based diet as vitamin B12 can only be found in animal products.
B12 is essential for nerve tissue transmission - it plays an important role in the maintenance of the sheaths that cover and protect the nerves of the central and the peripheral nervous system, ensuring fast and effective nerve-impulse transmission. In a study of 121 adults, B12 status was associated with global cognitive function and with total brain volume4.
Did you know that your brain can only use glucose (simple sugars) as an energy source? This is why carbohydrates are essential for focus and concentration. Despite the fact that the human brain accounts for only 2% of the body's weight, the brain consumes 20% of carbohydrates energy.
Magnesium is involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body, so it is not surprising that magnesium is required for optimal focus and concentration. Magnesium acts as the gatekeeper for the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, which are found on your nerve cells and aid brain development, memory and learning5.
Magnesium is also required for optimal sleep quality (and we know enough sleep is needed so you can concentrate the next day)6. Make sure you are consuming enough magnesium by regularly including dark chocolate, almonds and chickpeas into your diet.
Zinc regulates communication between brain cells via several cytokines. The highest levels of zinc are found in the hippocampus in synaptic vesicles, boutons, and mossy fibers. In simpler terms, these are parts of neurons which store various neurotransmitters to be released into brain cells.
Zinc is also found in large concentrations in the choroid layer of the retina which is an extension of the brain7.
Shellfish, spinach and sesame seeds are all excellent sources of zinc.
Worried that caffeine is the devil? Worry not.
Caffeine in moderation is actually a great mental stimulant and helps to boost focus and concentration. The great thing is that it acts quite quickly so it is great when you need an instant pick me up.
Caffeine acts as a psychostimulant and exerts numerous effects on the brain. These include stimulant effects on motor behavior, modulation of mood states and levels of anxiety, effects on vigilance and sleep, on information processing and performance8. It’s important to only drink caffeinated drinks in moderation, ensuring they contain natural sources of caffeine and are not artificially processed and high in sugar. Ideally stick to a maximum of 3-4 cups per day.
What’s the Deal with Nootropics?
Nootropics is an umbrella term given to drugs, supplements or food products which work to support or boost brain function, memory, focus, or creativity.
They are extremely popular with biohackers and entrepreneurs looking to optimise their daily productivity but anyone can take them to enhance their concentration.
Ginkgo biloba is one of the most commonly used supplements to help with brain function and focus. In an assessment meta‐analysis of forty clinical studies, it was reported that Ginkgo was able to improve the twelve different symptoms comprising ‘cerebral insufficiency’9.
The positive effects of ginkgo on brain function and focus is largely down to its link to improving overall blood flow, in particular blood flow to the brain.
Remember what we said about caffeine? Guarana is naturally an excellent source of caffeine and therefore a nootropic. A study on twenty healthy adult volunteers found that a multivitamin and mineral treatment with additional guarana showed a positive tonic effect towards greater steady-state visually evoked potential (SSVEP) after just a single treatment, consistent with the caffeine content of this treatment. SSVEP is a measure of functional brain activity10.
Rhodiola rosea is a herb that's popular for its "adaptogenic" properties, it originates from the wild arctic regions of Europe. A randomised control trial of 26 male subjects assessed the effect of 600mg of Rhodiola Rosea extract on mental and physical performance over a period of 4 weeks. Results showed that the herb shortened overall reaction time and total response time. Moreover, greater relative increase in the number of correct responses was observed in the group taking the supplement as opposed to the placebo11.
Due to these positive effects, rhodiola rosea is commonly referred to as a powerful nootropic herb.
In addition to your nutrition, there are lifestyle changes you can weave into your daily schedule to increase your levels of focus and concentration, which can very quickly become daily habits..
Helpful Tips to Improve Concentration and Focus
- Improve your Sleep Routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday.
- Listening to Music.
- Take Regular Breaks.
- Make a daily To-Do List of a maximum of 5 Tasks (and do the hardest first).
- Eliminate Distractions such as technology. Set your phone to silent and turn off all notifications.
Do I Need Medications to concentrate?
You may have heard of prescription medications such as Modafinil and Adderall. The truth is unless a healthcare professional has specifically advised you to use them under a prescription regimen, you don’t need those to be able to function and concentrate properly. We strongly discourage using any medication without the advice of your GP or doctor - instead try adopting some of the tips we discussed to help you focus and concentrate naturally.
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2.Sakakeeny, L., Roubenoff, R., Obin, M., Fontes, J. D., Benjamin, E. J., Bujanover, Y., ... & Selhub, J. (2012). Plasma pyridoxal-5-phosphate is inversely associated with systemic markers of inflammation in a population of US adults. The Journal of nutrition, 142(7), 1280-1285.
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4.Tangney, C. C., Aggarwal, N. T., Li, H., Wilson, R. S., DeCarli, C., Evans, D. A., & Morris, M. C. (2011). Vitamin B12, cognition, and brain MRI measures: a cross-sectional examination. Neurology, 77(13), 1276-1282.
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6.Abbasi, B., Kimiagar, M., Sadeghniiat, K., Shirazi, M. M., Hedayati, M., & Rashidkhani, B. (2012). The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of research in medical sciences : the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, 17(12), 1161–1169.
7.Pfeiffer, C. C., & Braverman, E. R. (1982). Zinc, the brain and behavior. Biological psychiatry, 17(4), 513–532.
8.Nehlig, A., Armspach, J. P., & Namer, I. J. (2010). SPECT assessment of brain activation induced by caffeine: no effect on areas involved in dependence. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 12(2), 255–263.
9.CURTIS‐PRIOR, P. E. T. E. R., VERE, D., & FRAY, P. (1999). Therapeutic value of Ginkgo biloba in reducing symptoms of decline in mental function. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, 51(5), 535-541.
10.White, D. J., Camfield, D. A., Maggini, S., Pipingas, A., Silberstein, R., Stough, C., & Scholey, A. (2017). The effect of a single dose of multivitamin and mineral combinations with and without guaraná on functional brain activity during a continuous performance task. Nutritional neuroscience, 20(1), 8-22.
11.Jówko, E., Sadowski, J., Długołęcka, B., Gierczuk, D., Opaszowski, B., & Cieśliński, I. (2018). Effects of Rhodiola rosea supplementation on mental performance, physical capacity, and oxidative stress biomarkers in healthy men. Journal of sport and health science, 7(4), 473-480.