Daydreaming out of the window with your mind all over the place, combined with an inability to concentrate properly on work, can send your brain drifting off into sleep mode. With many of us having jobs (or even ‘social’ life) centred around a computer screen, it is no wonder that we commonly have difficulties in concentrating, but thankfully there is a lot we can do nutritionally to keep our brains switched on and our attention focused.
Difficulty in concentrating is commonly associated with conditions such as ADHD in children; as adults, however, a tendency to become distracted at work is far from unusual. Lack of concentration can range from a mild inability to focus on one task for a long period of time, to being unable to get anything completed due to constant distractibility and switching between pc browsers and tasks. A lack of focus is often associated with other symptoms such as restlessness and fidgeting. An inability to focus and concentrate on a task can lead to limitations on academic achievements and reduced productivity at work.
The causes of lack of concentration may stem from an early age in some individuals. Dyslexia and dyspraxia, for example, are believed to be due to insufficient or incorrect development of motor neurons (cells that transmit messages through electrical and chemical signals) in the brain, with resulting reduced brain grey matter volume. (1) If neurons fail to form proper connections, they will be less effective at transmitting signals via neurotransmitters (brain chemical messengers). Even in adulthood, this connection between cells in the brain can become compromised, leading to difficulty in concentrating on a task.
The neurotransmitters such as dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin are the chemical messengers that allow us to be attentive, give us mental focus, ability to learn and improve our memory. With such powerful functions in the brain relating to neurotransmitters, this highlights how essential they are when it comes to concentration and focus at work. If we have low production of neurotransmitters or impaired functioning of these neurotransmitters leading to their lack of communication our brains are likely to struggle.
Of course, a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors play a part in the function of the brain. Whether or not you are predisposed to neurons in the brain functioning less than optimally, the environment and dietary changes that you have control over now may reflect your current state of brain health. Dietary factors do not necessarily cause lack of concentration, but lack of nutrition can certainly reduce synthesis and function of these important chemical messengers in the brain and affect your ability to stay alert.
In order to support your brain’s ability to focus and concentrate, you need to ensure that your diet provides the right amino acids – building blocks – to enable good production of neurotransmitters. Important vitamins and minerals required by enzymes to support this production are also necessary. Lastly, fatty acids support proper functioning of the brain chemical messengers.
Protein for brain chemical messengers
Amino acids, found in protein-rich foods, are the building blocks used to support the production of neurotransmitters; your levels of these brain chemical messengers will therefore be significantly affected by your dietary intake of protein. (2). To boost your levels of dopamine, to give you a better attention span, be sure to include lots of healthy sources of protein including meat, fish, cheese, yoghurt, eggs, pulses, nuts and seeds. It’s not difficult to include a source of protein with every meal, such as nuts with breakfast, eggs with lunch and meat or fish with dinner.
For general wellbeing in a healthy individual, approximately 0.8 g of protein per kg body weight is considered suitable (3); if you are striving for optimum protein intake to support brain health, levels do need to be slightly higher at around 1 – 1.5g per kg body weight. Requirements for protein are also increased to this level if you are physically very active. (4) This equates to at least 75g of protein per day for someone weighing 75kg as a healthy goal.
Nutrient dense foods for concentration
Zinc, magnesium and B vitamins are the key nutrients when it comes to neurotransmitter production. Without these vitamins and minerals, the enzymes used to convert amino acids to neurotransmitters may struggle. Give your body a helping hand by eating food rich in these nutrients and this should ramp up your neurotransmitter production, giving you more attentiveness. Zinc is found in foods such as meat, seeds and (ideally, 100% and sugar-free) cocoa powder. Magnesium-rich foods include nuts, seeds, pulses and green leafy vegetables, whilst good sources of B vitamins include fish, nuts and seeds.
Glycaemic index (GI) of foods
If you commonly experience short attention span and loss of concentration in the afternoon, a drop in blood glucose levels after eating lunch may be contributing to your symptoms. Foods such as sugar and white flour have a high glycaemic index (GI), which means they release glucose fast into your bloodstream, resulting in a surge of insulin to bring this level back down. As a result of the sudden insulin release, you may experience energy lows, and mood alterations, together with reduced concentration. Consumption of a high GI diet is associated with poorer cognitive performance (5), and eating lower GI foods at breakfast has actually been shown to improve cognitive performance. (6) Try not to skip meals if you are affected by concentration lows after long periods of time of fasting and, to prevent energy dips, which may be contributing to your lack of focus and concentration, consider eating lower GI foods including oats, vegetables and pulses, and foods containing fat and protein.
Omega-3 fatty acids for concentration
Omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA play a huge role in the functioning of the brain, including supporting the job of neurotransmitters to optimise delivery of those important chemical messages and allowing us to be responsive, alert and focused. For these processes to work efficiently, we require fluid cell membranes, which can be obtained by eating plenty of omega-3 rich foods.
Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are found in oily fish such as anchovies, salmon and mackerel. Not only does fish contain these beneficial fatty acids, but it is also nutrient-rich, supplying a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals such as zinc and vitamin B12. Aim for at least two portions of oily fish a week. To limit toxic exposure from methyl-mercury in fish, it is healthier to consume smaller fish, meaning if you are consuming 3-4 or more portions of oily fish, opt for fish lower down in the food chain. Good quality fish oil supplements have had these toxins removed and are ideal to give your body a high dose of EPA and DHA if your requirements are high. Oily fish consumption at a young age has been shown to improve cognitive outcomes, (7) whereas low fish consumption is associated with reduced cognitive performance as we age. (8)
For vegetarians, plant-based options are available, such as linseed and echium seed oil, both of which can be converted to omega-3 EPA and DHA in the body, although the process may be limited in some individuals. Echium seed oil is the ideal vegetarian source as it converts more easily in the body compared with linseed oil, which requires a longer and more complex conversion process. Try to include other brain-healthy fatty acids in your diet such as nuts and seeds, avocados, olives and coconut oil.
With a preoccupied mind and constant flow of coffee to try to stay alert, it is often easy to forget to properly hydrate with regular water intake. Keeping the brain hydrated is a must when it comes to improving your concentration and your ability to focus. Even very mild dehydration can cause confusion and distractibility.
Omega-3 EPA and DHA
Omega-3 fatty acids are well known for their brain-boosting effects, which is not surprising considering the high fat content of the brain and the elevated requirements of fatty acids for healthy brain functioning. Fluid cell membranes containing sufficient levels of fatty acids allows for efficient transition of neurotransmitters (the messengers), thereby supporting the ability to feel switched on, to concentrate on tasks, and to learn.
Omega-3 EPA and DHA can be obtained from oily fish, but since ideal levels are rarely met through diet alone, a concentrated supplement can support the healthy functioning of neurotransmitters, enabling proper communication between the cells, allowing you to stay alert and focus. Studies have shown excellent results when supplementing omega-EPA and DHA in relation to improving cognitive performance. (9) A deficiency of omega-3 EPA and DHA during adolescent years has been associated with task-dependent impairment in both cognitive and motivated behaviour, (10) therefore may impair the ability to focus, resulting in a distracted state of mind.
If your inability to concentrate properly is due to other factors such as stress, with other worries racing through your mind, antioxidants should be high on your list of nutrients to support your brain. During times of stress, requirements for antioxidants are very high, as they help to protect against possible raised levels of oxidative damage.
Vitamins E & C and selenium are key antioxidants to include when you have difficulties focusing due to stress, as these antioxidants are required increasingly by the adrenal glands, to regulate stress hormones. Antioxidants are also able to recycle each other in the body, which means that having several antioxidants, as nature intended, is often more effective than having one alone. If you are unable to get an optimum intake of antioxidants each day from foods such as berries and colourful vegetables, an antioxidant supplement is a great way to boost your levels for stress protection, enabling your brain to function at its best.
B vitamins are vital for energy production, therefore an adequate supply gives the brain a good start in being able to access energy to function properly. As stress increases, our requirements for B vitamins also increase, and as refined foods are often lacking in B vitamins, that common combination of a stressful lifestyle and eating processed foods can easily lead to a lack of energy. Low energy levels due to a B vitamin deficiency can also leave you feeling fatigued and even dizzy if haemoglobin (oxygen transport in red blood cells) production is affected as a result. A low level of haemoglobin can result in you feeling tired and inattentive – the exact opposite of what you need to feel when faced with a big workload.
B vitamins also work alongside zinc and magnesium to support the functioning of enzymes used to synthesise neurotransmitters; without these important nutrients, neurotransmitter production may struggle. These important brain nutrients also support fat metabolism processes in the body, again supporting neurotransmitter function by keeping cell membranes nice and fluid to be able to efficiently transmit messages of alertness.
If stress is affecting your ability to concentrate, or if you are lacking in foods containing B vitamins, you may well benefit from topping up your B vitamin intake with a B complex supplement. B vitamin supplements have been shown to significantly reduce dejected mood and personal strain, therefore reducing workplace stress. (11) If stress can be lowered, this often helps with attentiveness due to reduced mental distractibility.
Additional brain boosting nutrients
Once you have the basic nutritional components in place for brain health, if you are looking to boost your concentration, whether for exam preparation or for top performance at work, there are a few key nutrients – all provided in our MindCare FOCUS supplement – that can ramp up your ability to focus and concentrate.
L-theanine is a great addition to your supplement regime if you are finding it difficult to concentrate because of stress, as L-theanine supports feelings of calm by reducing both physical and mental stress. (12) As an amino acid naturally found in green tea, its effects are quite potent due to its ability to increase levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), which is well known for its sleep-promoting and anxiety-reducing effects.
Similar to L-theanine, taurine also activates production of GABA, (13) protecting the brain against age-related cognitive decline and improving function of receptors in the brain, increasing ability to improve memory by allowing your brain to retain more information. Taurine is the perfect nutrient for when you need to remember your facts.
Caffeine can also be particularly useful for improving acute concentration when you need it most. As a mild stimulant, it has been shown to increase energy, alertness and concentration. (14) Caffeine in combination with L-theanine and taurine may be even more effective when it comes to dealing with demanding tasks. Several studies have shown that the combination of L-theanine and caffeine is beneficial for improving performance for cognitively demanding tasks by allowing the brain to switch on, whilst simultaneously improving ability to ignore distractions. (15)
Acetyl-L-carnitine is also a superb nutrient to add to your list, with multiple functions that optimise brain health. Acetyl-L-carnitine, importantly, supports the transport of fatty acids into the powerhouse of each cell (mitochondria) and therefore provides a direct energy source to keep the brain focused. Acetyl-L-carnitine also increases levels of those important neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine and, to top that off, it also increases efficiency of the receptors in the brain that receive these messages of attentiveness.
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(3) Li M, Sun F, Piao JH, Yang XG. Protein requirements in healthy adults: a meta-analysis of nitrogen balance studies. Biomed Environ Sci 2014 Aug; 27(8):606-13.
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(9) Bauer I, Hughes M, Rowsell R, Cockerell R, Pipingas A, Crewther S, et al. Omega-3 supplementation improves cognition and modifies brain activation in young adults. Hum Psychopharmacol 2014 Mar;29(2):133-44.
(10) Bondi CO, Taha AY, Tock JL, Totah NK, Cheon Y, Torres GE, et al. Adolescent behavior and dopamine availability are uniquely sensitive to dietary omega-3 fatty acid deficiency. Biol Psychiatry 2014 Jan 1; 75(1):38-46.
(11) Stough C, Scholey A, Lloyd J, Spong J, Myers S, Downey LA. The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B-complex on work stress. Hum Psychopharmacol 2011 Oct; 26(7):470-6.
(12) Kimura K, Ozeki M, Juneja LR, Ohira H. L-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biol Psychol 2007 Jan; 74(1):39-45.
(13) Le-Corronc H, Rigo JM, Branchereau P, Legendre P. GABA(A) receptor and glycine receptor activation by paracrine/autocrine release of endogenous agonists: more than a simple communication pathway. Mol Neurobiol 2011 Aug; 44(1):28-52.
(14) Glade MJ. Caffeine-Not just a stimulant. Nutrition 2010 Oct; 26(10):932-8.
(15) Camfield DA, Stough C, Farrimond J, Scholey AB. Acute effects of tea constituents L-theanine, caffeine, and epigallocatechin gallate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Rev 2014 Aug; 72(8):507-22.
We recommend MindCare® FOCUS. MindCare® FOCUS dual capsules provide important nutrients that are scientifically proven to support the brain and central nervous system, optimise cognitive function and mental performance and help people stay alert. This formula contains ultra concentrated omega-3 EPA & DHA in combination with Acetyl-L-Carnitine, L-Theanine, taurine, caffeine & brain-boosting micronutrients.
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