Do you ever feel as though your daily to-do list at work seems impossible to attack because you simply cannot seem to focus? We have all been there. It’s 3 pm and you have been staring at the 87 unread emails in your inbox for an indeterminate amount of time. In an attempt to kick-start productivity, you dig into the office candy bowl, down another coffee, and attempt to power through.
These days, increased work and life demands are met with brain fog and decreased energy levels, doing us no favors in the productivity department. Diminished mental focus is one of the costliest forms of presenteeism, which is defined as “reduced productivity at work due to health problems or other events that distract one from full productivity.” This state of being “at work, but out of it” results in a loss of an estimated $150 billion annually, making it costlier than actual absenteeism.
One of the main culprits of lack of mental clarity is failing to properly nourish our brains.
In addition to chronic sleep deprivation and lack of regular physical activity, the “Standard American Diet” (SAD) is proven to negatively impact brain function. Most Americans consume too many refined carbohydrates and saturated and hydrogenated fats—all of which are found in processed foods. Without adequate nutrition and proper physical activity, our waistlines have expanded as our energy levels have plummeted, forcing us on the caffeine-sugar-alcohol roller coaster to function daily.
Here’s the good news: You can break the cycle and beat brain fog by eating foods that support brain health!
Our stomachs, when empty, let us know by audibly growling in real time. Often less obvious, our brain also signals when we need certain nutrients. For instance, dehydration is often the root cause of an inability to focus (yes, water is a nutrient!). Foods rich in omega-3’s are required for mental clarity and cognitive functioning, so a healthy dose of fatty fish, avocados, or olive oil could help remedy fuzzy-headedness. Low blood sugar caused by going long times without eating can also lead to brain fog, as the brain is fueled by glucose.
The brain requires all three macronutrients in adequate amounts to function optimally:
- Protein is necessary for the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which serve as chemical messengers in the brain. Your brain uses amino acids from proteins to build these chemicals.
- Carbohydrates are the brain’s preferred energy source. Unlike your muscles, the brain cannot store glucose to call on in times of need; therefore it is important to frequently consume complex carbohydrates throughout the day. We need a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrates (8 servings) on a daily basis for optimum brain functioning. So reach for fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes and low-fat or fat-free dairy.
- Fats are crucial to the brain because the organ is largely made of fat— over 60% by volume! Essential fatty acids found in Omega-3’s (think avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds) are particularly helpful in improving concentration and focus, as well as preventing mood disorders like depression.
Top five brain-boosting foods:
1. Fatty fish: Fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel) is a great source of Omega-3’s, which are found in high concentrations in the brain. These healthy fats contribute to overall brain health, memory, and mental clarity.
2. Leafy greens: Spinach, kale, beet greens, swiss chard, mustard greens and the like protect our noggins from developing white matter lesions, which are responsible for strokes and Parkinson’s Disease.
3. Nuts: Nuts, especially almonds, are high in vitamin E, which has an antioxidant effect that plays a key role protecting membranes from oxidation. What’s more, when foods high in vitamin E are paired with others high in vitamin C (such as citrus fruits and peppers), they work synergistically to reduce free radical damage in the brain.
4. Lean meats/poultry: Iron-rich foods are essential for memory, attention, and oxygenation of the brain. In a small study of women in college, eating a protein-rich lunch for 4 months upped levels of iron in their blood and improved their brainpower.
5. Berries: The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s list of top ten antioxidants contains six types of berries— cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and wild blueberries. Eating a variety of berries can prevent free-radical damage to brain cells.
Bottom line: a brain boosting diet includes a variety of healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and plenty of lean protein, much like the typical recommendation for an overall wholesome diet. Adopt a balanced approach to nutrition, along with prioritizing those 8 hours of sleep per night. Get regular exercise and the brain fog and afternoon slumps will soon be a thing of the past!