An Integrative Psychiatrist's Best Tips For Improving Focus, Productivity & Mental Clarity
As an integrative psychiatrist, I teach parents of ADHD children and people with ADHD how to use nutritional and lifestyle changes to improve focus. But many of the natural treatments I suggest can work for anyone who wants to concentrate better and perform more efficiently. My recommendations—which are outlined in my book Finally Focused—fall into two categories: supplements to take and lifestyle habits to develop. Here's what I would recommend for anyone wanting to become more efficient by supporting the health of their brain:
Supplements for focus and mental clarity:
You can increase your brain's ability to focus with OPCs (oligomeric proanthocyanidins). These are plant extracts that can dramatically affect brain waves, which improves concentrate. OPCs are often plant pigments—the blue in blueberry, the red in grapes, the green in green tea, and the dark brown in dark chocolate. One way (among many) that OPCs work is by regulating levels of norepinephrine and epinephrine, neurotransmitters that direct the flow of information within the brain—irregular levels of which can undermine focus. I’ve found that a supplement that combines OPCs is most effective.
Known as the mindful mineral, magnesium is a cofactor in hundreds of enzyme systems that control activities throughout the body including the activity of brain cells. Low levels of magnesium (and as much as 80 percent of us may be low in the mineral) can cause poor concentration. It can also cause irritability and anxiety, depression and apathy, mood swings, fatigue, and sleeping problems—all of which affect focus. I recommend 200 milligrams (mg) of magnesium, twice daily, with breakfast and 30 minutes before bedtime.
For healthier brain cells, try taking phosphatidylserine. This nutritional compound is a type of phospholipid, a fat that helps form the outer covering (membrane) cells, including brain cells. And neurons with healthy membranes do a much better job of communicating with one another, resulting in more focus and clearer thinking. I recommend 200 to 300 mg daily, with 100-mg doses taken at two or three meals.
Omega-3s are known as the brain-nourishing fats. Sixty percent of your brain is fat, and your brain depends on a steady supply of essential fatty acids (EFA) for its health and well-being. Fatty fish and fish oil supply two of the most important essential fatty acids for your brain: the omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Scientific studies show supplementing the diet with omega-3 can improve focus, memory, and learning ability. I recommend a supplement of one to two grams of EPA/DHA, with meals.
Lifestyle changes for a healthier brain and attention span:
1. Don't forget about exercise and movement.
For a fitter, more focused brain, exercise is everything. It acts like medicine for the brain. Studies show that it can reduce inattention, improve "executive function" (the ability to organize, make decisions, think ahead, and delay short-term gratification for long-term results), and decrease intrusive, unwanted thoughts. Exercise probably works by triggering the release of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that regulate attention. It also boosts levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) a protein that energizes brain cells. And any exercise works—just find something you like to do, from walking to swimming to biking, and do it a minimum of 30 minutes a couple of times a week.
2. Take time to be in nature.
3. Practice mindfulness daily.
With mindfulness, you’re attentive to the present moment. You’re also open, accepting, and curious about the present moment, no matter what is happening. Mindfulness training will make you more attentive, less impulsive, better organized, and better able to think clearly and plan. I strongly endorse it.
4. Eat plenty of protein.
For balanced "brain sugar," eat protein throughout the day. Blood sugar (glucose) is the fuel that powers every cell in the body—but brain cells need the most. By weight, the brain is 2 percent of the body, but it uses 20 percent of the body’s available glucose. And when glucose metabolism in the brain isn’t working right—when neurons don’t get the glucose they need—the brain doesn’t work right either. Concentration is a chore, and inattention rules. To keep "brain sugar" steady, eat a small amount of protein throughout the day—at breakfast, midmorning, lunch, midafternoon, dinner, and before bedtime. Great sources of snack protein include nuts and seeds (and nut butters), hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, sardines, jerky, and edamame (steamed, salted soybeans in the pod).
5. Avoid sugar as much as you can.
Similarly, ingesting sugar and other refined carbohydrates is a sure way to imbalance "brain sugar" and lose focus. Cutting out sugar and refined carbs is hard, but there’s one simple change that goes a long way: Eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, and coffee and tea drinks and the like).
Adopt some of these 10 tips for better focus—and nothing will escape your attention!