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Foods that Help You Focus

digestion focus Nov 14, 2018

Food has an amazing ability to affect your mental clarity, mood, memory, and your ability to focus and to feel calm. If you’re looking to boost your focus, one of the places you should start with is what you’re eating. Below are some general suggestions and specific foods that may help you improve your focus.

General Suggestions: 

Eat Breakfast. Studies have found that eating breakfast may improve short-term memory and attention. Foods at the top of researchers' brain-fuel list include high-fiber whole grains, protein, dairy, and fruits. Just don't overeat; researchers also found high-calorie breakfasts appear to hinder concentration.

Keep Regular Mealtimes. Your mid-day meal should be the largest if possible with a light meal at supper. Eat moderately, neither fasting nor indulging in large meals.

Relax. Take time to relax after eating. You'll digest better and feel more calm, satisfied, and ready to focus on your next task. 

Eat Diverse. Eating a variety of foods (and herbs) rich in phytonutrients, anti-oxidants, proteins, and omega-3 fatty acids, can support brain function. We need lots of vitamins and minerals to support our brain’s ability to manufacture the chemicals that allow us to pay attention, control our impulses, and remain calm. Although we will sometimes recommend vitamins and supplements to help give you more of these important substances, the best to get them is through food! See some ideas below to fuel your brain and body and boost focus.

Cool Down. Food should bring coolness and substance to help bring the brain back into balance—think light, summery foods, including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. During periods of agitation, you need only small to moderate amounts of protein with little if any red meat. 

Minimize Spicy Foods. Spicy foods (e.g., hot peppers) or greasy foods (e.g. deep-fried) can amplify a distressed brain.

Specific Suggestions:

Limit Highly Refined Flours and Sugars. Simple carbohydrates (white bread, cookies, crackers, donuts, white pasta) and refined sugars in things like candy and soda can increase the amount of inflammation occurring in the body and lead to an “inflamed brain.” Not surprisingly, an inflamed brain can cause mental fog and inattention. A diet low in sugar, chemical additives, and simple carbohydrates can be beneficial.

Notice Sensitivities. Food sensitivities can also cause immune system reactions that drive inflammation and irritation and damage to the GI tract (e.g., “Leaky Gut Syndrome”). These sensitivities can also negatively impact attention. Elimination diet trials under medical supervision can help to sort sensitivities out. Below are some foods that may negatively impact your focus. Remember, not everyone is sensitive to these foods, so thoughtfully consider your unique responses.

  • Gluten: Gluten( a protein found in wheat products) sensitivity is directly linked to  a gastrointestinal disorder called Celiac Disease and ADHD in both children and adults. Some research has found significant improvement in behavior and functioning after the initiation of a gluten-free diet. Some individuals can be sensitive to gluten but not have Celiac Disease even though they suffer many of the same symptoms. Foods that commonly contain gluten include brea ds, pastas, cereals and processed foods. Look for gluten-free and grain-free alternatives.
  • Cow’s Milk Products: Most cow’s milk products (milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt) contain proteins such as casein that can trigger a similar reaction as gluten and, therefore, could be considered for an elimination trial if you are struggling with the symptoms noted in the first lesson.
  • Artificial Food Colors (AFCs): Consumption of AFCs has increased dramatically over the past several decades in the USA. Studies have demonstrated a link between AFCs (and other artificial food additives such as preservatives, sweeteners, and flavorings) and behavioral issues such as hyperactivity in children. Artificial additives are found in most highly processed foods such as sodas, deli meats and cheeses, cereals, and even in chewable vitamins or toothpaste. As part of an approach to decrease inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity symptoms it can be helpful to avoid these additives.
  • Caffeine: Caffeine and other stimulating substances can greatly increase sleep problems. And as you likely have experienced, poor sleep makes attention problems and issues related to irritability worse. Recent research has also found that caffeine consumption may be associated with anger and violence in teens.
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): MSG (sometimes called yeast extract) has been associated with decreased dopamine levels which can lead to symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, or hyperactivity.
  • Nitrites: Many processed foods, canned foods, and lunch meats contain nitrites. Nitrites may cause restlessness and anxiousness in some people.
  • Artificial Sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame, benzene, cyclamates, saccharin, and sucralose can contribute to a variety of health problems such as cancer, obesity, increased heart rate, infertility, dizziness, headaches, and memory loss. As you consider reducing sugar as an option for improving brain health, remember that replacing it with artificial sweeteners is often not helpful- even if you have weight loss goals. Using smaller amounts of natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup may be a better approach.
  • Soy: Soy is in a lot of food and can be difficult to avoid. Those allergic to soy may experience a variety of symptoms including hives, tingling in the mouth, wheezing, difficulty breathing, and abdominal pain. Soy can also disrupt thyroid function and hormone levels for some folks, possibly contributing to symptoms related to focus and restlessness.
  • Common Allergens & Sensitivities: Common allergens such as peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, wheat, eggs, and dairy might be considered for trial elimination from the diet. Although imperfect, IgE/IgG/IgA food antibody testing is available to guide the food elimination and re-introduction process. Talk to your doctor to assist with this. Many individuals also have specific food sensitivities to foods such as papaya, avocados, bananas, kiwis, chocolate, fennel, caraway, and coriander which may drive immune system dysregulation and neuroinflammatory processes that negatively impact attention and behavior.

Healthy Fats & Fish: Healthy fats play a vital role in enhancing memory, mental performance, and attention, especially as we get older. Fuel your brain and body with good fats from foods like walnuts, avocados, flax seeds, olive oil, and fish. Nuts and seeds also contain vitamin E, an antioxidant associated with less cognitive decline as you age. You just need an ounce of them daily to get this benefit. Fatty/oily fish are often specifically encouraged for brain health because of the omega-3 fatty acids they contain. Omega-3’s can aid in memory, mental performance, mood, and behavioral function. Deficiency of these fats is associated with poor memory, mood swings, depression, and fatigue. Two servings of fish weekly is adequate for most folks. Sources of fatty fish include salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, and kipper.

Flax seeds: Flax seeds are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids (great if you don’t eat fish). They’re also high in magnesium, B-vitamins, and fiber; all of which help mental clarity, weight loss, and focus. Flax seeds work best if you grind them up before ingesting them (so your body can digest them). Try sprinkling/mixing them in whole grain cereal, salad, yogurt, or in a homemade smoothie (many purchased smoothies have too much sugar added).

Blueberries: Blueberries can boost concentration and memory for a few hours at a time. This is due to the antioxidants which stimulate the flow of blood and oxygen to our brains. This movement boosts focus and can even protect against cancer, heart disease, and dementia.

Green Tea: Two substances in green tea can boost your attention: caffeine and L-theanine. Caffeine helps you focus and improves alertness in the short term, but as noted above, too much can be trouble. L-theanine is an herbal agent that may increase alpha-wave activity in the brain. These waves are at work when you feel alert, calm, and focused.

Leafy Green Vegetables: Leafy green vegetables are full of helpful nutrients that boost your brain power and protect your brain. B-vitamins found in these greens are particularly helpful for improving memory and focus. You’ll also get folic acid, an essential vitamin that supports neurotransmitter production (i.e., dopamine and norepinephrine) to support attention and motivation.

Bananas & Black Beans: Bananas and black beans contain the mineral magnesium. Magnesium is involved in over 200 important processes in the body! Most relevant to focus, magnesium calms the nervous and muscular systems which promotes attention, sleep, and relaxation.

Iron-Rich Foods: Low iron can contribute to fatigue, problems with concentration, irritability, and poor memory. Include foods like swiss chard, spinach, egg yolks, navy beans, and meats like grass fed beef to get sufficient iron.

Clean Water: Mild dehydration (subtle enough that you don’t really feel it) can actually contribute to poor attention. Your need for water is affected by a lot of factors, but a general rule is to drink 8, eight-ounce glasses of clean water daily. Try to keep your water room-temperature and feel free to add some lemon or lime for flavor. 

Dietary Fiber: Lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension may impair brain function. That means eating high fiber foods like fruits, beans, vegetables, seeds, and whole grains can enhance health in your body and also improve cognitive functions. Fiber does this by:

  • Curbing your appetite
  • Sustaining energy
  • Providing lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
  • Helping balance blood-sugar levels.
  • Helping control blood lipid levels.
  • Helping reduce blood pressure.
  • Promoting  healthy gastrointestinal tract functions
  • Enhancing brain function.

Adults should shoot for 30-50 grams of dietary fiber daily. Children should get their age + 5 grams. For example, an 8 year old child should get 13 grams daily (8 + 5 = 13).

More Soothing & Focus-Boosting Foods to Try: 

Dairy: Milk, cream, butter, yogurt, cottage cheese, egg whites.

Meats: Smaller servings of chicken, turkey, shrimp.

Beans and Legumes: Tofu, lentils, garbanzo, small black or red beans.

Nuts and Seeds: Almonds; pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

Oils: Olive, walnut, or coconut oils; ghee (clarified butter).

Grains: Barley, oats, wheat, white rice, amaranth.

Vegetables: Tender salad greens, leafy vegetables, asparagus, celery, zucchini, green beans and peas; cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts).

Avoid nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant):  They can cause joint pain in people prone to inflammation.

Fruits: Apples, cherries, grapes, mangoes, melons, oranges, pears, peaches, pineapple, coconut, pomegranates, plums, raisins, all types of berries.

Herbs and Spices: Cardamom, coriander (cilantro), parsley, basil, mint, cinnamon, cumin, dill, fennel, lemon and lime, peppermint, saffron, turmeric.

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