Foods to Help you Focus
The slump. We’ve all had it at some point. You’re halfway through your day at work, you’ve had some lunch and not long after, you feel brain fog descend and distractions are more tempting than ever. You switch tabs on your computer, check your phone, refresh your emails; but can’t seem to actually focus on the task in hand. Or perhaps for you it comes a little later in the day, when you have one more hour left to try and finish your to-do list but just can’t seem to.
Whether it’s 2pm or 4pm, most of us are susceptible to the afternoon slump for a few reasons. In some circumstances, the foods you are eating in the morning and for lunch may be the culprit. You could be dehydrated or not getting enough sleep the night before. It could be that you have been attempting to multitask too much, which can exhaust the brain and make it harder for you to commit to any type of flow state. There could even be an underlying food intolerance, thyroid or metabolic disorder. For many though, it may be a relief to know that an afternoon slump can be very normal in terms of our physiology.
The feeling of sleepiness or lack of concentration post lunchtime is actually a natural response to circadian rhythms, or our internal body clock, which typically make us most sleepy from 2 to 4 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m.
Because of our circadian rhythm, our alertness levels dip and rise throughout each day. This may mean that none of us are immune to the slump, however, there may be ways to hack the system. By knowing which foods feed the brain and which foods make the slump worse, you can be armed with some brain boosting fuel to power you through a workday better than most.
Carbs - friends or foe?
Those poor carbs can’t seem to catch a break. It is worth knowing though that carbs, or more specifically glucose, are your brain's preferred energy source. Unless you are using ketones and closely following a keto diet, your brain does need some amount of carbs to properly function.
However the type and quality of carbs you are consuming is important when it comes to efficient fuel. Simple carbs, like bread, pasta and juice, are quickly absorbed in the body, which means they can provide a quick boost of energy, but then also cause a blood sugar imbalance - a slump if you will, since those levels will go up and then crash down instead of staying steady. This is the perfect recipe for post-lunch-brain-fog.
However, complex carbs, such as oats, lentils, quinoa, and beans, are actually linked to benefitting brain health as they contain a good amount of fibre and phytonutrients. This helps to stabilise blood sugar levels, keeping your mood and energy stable in the short term but also promoting a healthy brain in the long term. Using complex carbs as a condiment to your protein and veggies can go even further in supporting that stable blood sugar and improving your energy.
Ketones you say?
But what about those ketones we mentioned? Ketones are an extremely clean source of energy for the brain to use when glucose isn’t available, for example with those who follow a keto or very low-carb diet. Many proponents of a ketogenic diet often wax lyrical about how efficient their brain feels whilst in ketosis and there’s research to back this up (1). The science is also saying that the keto diet suits some people, but not everyone (2), however a great tool anyone can use to support their brain energy is MCT oil.
Those on a ketogenic diet love using MCT oil, as Medium Chain Triglycerides convert directly into ketone energy rather than being stored as fat. In fact a 2020 published meta-analysis from 13 clinical studies concluded that MCT improved cognition, including memory (3). But even if you are including carbs, your body won’t necessarily utilise the MCTs as its primary source of energy but by still consuming fats like MCT oil as part of your diet will help stabilise blood sugar levels and improve brain alertness.
Which other nutrients to focus on
B is for Brain - The B vitamins often work together in synergy and are well known for their brain and energy supportive roles. They are commonly found in a wide range of food sources such as whole grains, leafy green vegetables, meat, fish, veggies and dairy products so focusing on these in the morning and at lunch can go some way to providing the brain with some vital nutrition. B vitamins are specifically involved in energy production, and are essential in nourishing an energy hungry brain, making you better able to concentrate, focus and get to grips with the task in hand.
B vitamins are tricky for the body to store and therefore susceptible to depletion however, so keeping them topped up is really important. Late nights, alcohol, stress and some medications deplete the body of these key nutrients, as do processed foods high in sugar and bleached flours, which demand additional amounts of B vitamins to convert them into energy. Choline (actually another B vitamin) also has an essential role in helping brain cells produce acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter for mental focus and learning.
Ensuring you get a wide variety of B Vitamin rich whole foods in your first meal of the day will ensure you aren’t robbed of their vital benefits. When breaking-your-fast (read: breakfast) think;
Eggs (rich in B2, B12 + choline), smoked salmon (B3 + B12), with spinach (B9) on sprouted whole grain toast (which adds a hit of B1). For a plant-based brekkie you might opt for a smoothie made with Radiant Collagyn (rich in choline and B12 from seaweed - although don’t worry, it doesn't taste of seaweed!) made with almond milk (B1), frozen spinach (B9) sunflower seeds (B5) banana (B6) and avocado (B2, B3).
Amino Acids - the OG of nootropics
Nootropics, supplements which directly impact your brain health, focus, and memory are an exciting concept, however some overlooked nootropics we love here at Ancient + Brave are the amino acids.
Amino Acids, the building blocks of protein and collagen, are needed for many vital processes in the body, but specifically are essential for synthesising hormones and neurotransmitters, and boosting performance. Our brains need a constant top up of these aminos to put to use building these chemical messengers, firing our nerves and metabolising food into energy; Another reason why you should include quality protein in your breakfast and lunch (pro tip: collagen peptides are a great source of protein!)
Whilst each amino acid plays a different role, when it comes to focus some deserve more attention;
Tyrosine + Phenylalanine: Studies have highlighted some promising findings on the impact of increasing these aminos for enhanced mood and cognitive function, which may help improve levels in concentration, motivation and energy (4)
Protein-rich foods are a great place to start for these aminos. Those richest in tyrosine include dairy, eggs, beans, fish, and meat such as beef and chicken and both of these amino acids also feature in collagen.
Glycine - Glycine, found in high levels in collagen, acts as a neurotransmitter and may also reduce the blood glucose response to carbohydrate ingestion (goodbye sleepy post-lunch slump!). This amino plays an important role in brain signalling and therefore it is theorised that boosting glycine levels may actually improve cognition and positive mood (5).
The Brain Botanicals
Turmeric is known as a potent anti-inflammatory spice, but it’s also a seriously powerful nootropic too. Memory, mood and productivity can all be enhanced by an increase in a growth hormone BDNF(Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). Curcumin, the active component found in turmeric, significantly increases BDNF, allowing you to tick another thing off that to-do list (6).
Ginger is most commonly used as a digestive aid, but this spice also offers a number of benefits for the brain as well. For one, ginger increases blood flow to the brain. Adequate blood flow is key as this then delivers vital nutrients to the brain, as well as removing unhelpful metabolic waste and toxins. Ginger may also increase the level of two important mood-boosting neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. In one study, healthy adults were given dried ginger supplements and showed improvements in working memory, reaction time, and attention (7).
Caffeine - this nootropic is very much person dependent. If you are someone who can tolerate caffeine well, it can be a game changer. It stimulates the body's central nervous system, and boosts the brain's production of dopamine, which as we know, controls the ability to focus and maintain concentration. However, it’s a bell shaped curve of benefits. Overconsumption of caffeine can cause anxiety, jitters and nervousness as well as an inability to focus (8). When we’re talking about the afternoon slump, this nootropic may be one you want to swerve as it can disturb the quality of sleep you get at night. Sticking to caffeine in the morning and having a cut off around 1pm suits most people.
Advantageous Adaptogens - When stress plays a part in your inability to focus it pays to take your cues from nature’s own pharmacy. Adaptogens help with that resistance to the effects of stress but also have been shown to support brain function too.
Ashwagandha - used for thousands of years to support stress resilience and help people feel more chilled with the challenges life can throw at them, Ashwagandha is often thought of as a calming adaptogen. Which it is. But it’s the benefits of ashwagandha for focus and concentration that's seen its popularity booming recently.
One study found that ashwagandha consumption led to improvements in memory with a significantly greater improvement in executive function, sustained attention, and information-processing speed (9).
Lion's Mane - another adaptogenic nootropic making huge waves in the wellness world is Lion’s Mane Mushroom otherwise known as a “brain tonic”. Lion’s Mane is believed to have been used as a tea for thousands of years by Buddhist monks to heighten their ability to focus during meditation. Modern day science has caught up, showing how it seems to be extremely effective at stimulating Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) in the brain and is also known as a neuroprotective (10.)
If you need a break, take a break!
Whilst you may be able to go some way in increasing or balancing your neurotransmitters through your diet by consuming adequate levels of the basic nutrients needed for neurotransmitter synthesis, it is also worth noting that your mind powers and influences your entire digestive process. That means it isn't just what you eat that can affect how productive (or not) you are, and sometimes, what you need is a mindset reset. How does this look? Step away from your desk. Breathe, stretch, eat lunch outdoors and take a break!
Where to find some of these brain boosting nutrients in our formulations
As well as getting some of these nutrients from the meals you eat, we’ve made life simple when you feel the slump coming, with our unique blends and formulas. For botanicals such as turmeric and ginger with a dose of brain supportive choline, use our Inspired blend for your caffeine free afternoon pick-me-up. If adaptogenic ashwagandha is needed to help balance you, take this with a dose of amino acids in our Cacao + Collagen. You can find energy boosting True MCT oil to add to your salads or whizz into your drinks too.