As you’re aware, I’ve embarked on writing a book in real-time online. As one writes and publishes their content, some listen, some don’t, and some really enjoy your work. That’s the beauty of the format in which I’m writing this book. This method, which I’ve termed for now as “Writing 2.0,” results in interacting with readers that are passionate about specific areas of focus–areas in which I, admittedly, am not as knowledgeable about. For this reason, I decided to invite Ashley Marie Smith write this chapter on the subject of Focus Foods.
About the Guest Author:
Ashley Marie Smith is an alumna of UC Berkley where she studied economics. She spent a summer as a research assistant in an endocrinology lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine. In her own words, she says, “I had the crackpot dream that I could be strong enough to withstand sleep deprivation to go to medical school.” Though, she’s still very interested and passionate about healthy living and public health issues. To learn more, you can follow Ashley on Twitter here.
It’s 3pm in the afternoon. Your co-worker barges in for the zillionth time while your phone incessantly rings. You being the ordinary, upstanding citizen are now beginning to harbor unsavory thoughts towards humanity. Or if you’re the typical college student, imagine it’s 3am in the morning. You’ve got one night to bang out that paper assigned only mere months ago. Alas, you’re beset by serious munchies and urges to check your brother’s girlfriend’s neighbor’s Farmville updates on Facebook.
Do you reach for a Snickers? Coffee? Red Bull? Maybe something natural and healthy, like a banana? Dial for a pizza?
No matter what the old GRE Verbal section may have me believe, my best analogy for food is likening it to fuel for car engines. Our motor shuts down when we run on empty. Regarding gingko biloba and other herbal supplements, there really are no miracle concentration cures. Anyone who says so will also probably sell you natural hair solutions from Donald Trump and other sorts of oil from slithery, coldblooded creatures. Yet some food combinations are indeed better than others when it comes to fighting slumps. Nothing, however, will rescue you from the food coma that results from overeating any combination of food, healthy or not. How does this all work? Why does such a fine line exist between not enough food and the all-you-can-eat buffet that disturbs our focus? And how does this knowledge help you make better food choices for optimal concentration?
Crash course through basics of metabolism and your brain function
Remember the kid from Jerry Maguire who says, “Did ya know the human heads weighs 8 pounds?” It actually comprises 2-3% of an adult’s body mass. Thus for the average person of 150 lbs, the brain would indeed weigh about 8 lbs. Despite its relatively small percentage of mass, it consumes about 10% of the body’s entire metabolic energy due to the constant firing of the neurons. The primary fuel to run the brain is glucose, which the neurons cannot store.
When you eat, your pancreas releases the hormone insulin into the blood stream. The insulin scoops up excess glucose and starts a chain reaction where the glucose is added to glycogen molecules for storage in the liver. At the lowest point, i.e. your fasting blood glucose level, you have about the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar floating in your blood. Simple carbohydrates easily enter the blood stream via the stomach, which is why you feel the surge from simple sugars so quickly. Another hormone from the pancreas called glucagon breaks down the glycogen back to glucose when your body needs to increase the blood sugar level.
While used in by most cells, glucose has been observed to increase activity in certain hippocampus cells of rats, as well as inc. The hippocampus is one of the major areas of the brain associated with short-term memory and learning. Previously, it had been believed that the brain was able to maintain stable glucose levels. In the early 2000′s, Ewan McNay of Yale School of Medicine observed that for rats learning new mazes, their glucose levels were depleted in the hippocampus, and the older rats faced a faster rate of depletion. Other studies have examined the effects of glucose on acetylcholine formation, a key neurotransmitter involved in sustaining attention and in controlling the motor movements of muscles.
So more is better, when it comes to glucose? Depends. Marathon runners can get away with pasta and other simple carb loading for speedy pick-me-ups. But unless you swing a night job as a lab rat hooked to a wheel or as a professional marathon runner, that amount of carbs will usually lead to nothing more than a crash later. Too many carbohydrates can trigger insulin overload, thereby pulling too much glucose from the blood stream.
If your brain can only remember one thing at the moment…
So the golden rule of food for focus is to keep your blood sugar stabilized. Stay hydrated, get caffeine in moderation, and eat small meals combining complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and a little fat at regular intervals throughout the day. Eating every 3-5 hours should be sufficient, if the meals are small enough.
Be reasonable, though. If you cannot bring yourself to drink 8-10 cups of water a day, drink seltzer mixed with a little juice and bask in your European chic with their standard way of drinking juice. Or if you do reach for a candy bar, find one that has nuts and/or dark chocolate. Digestion rates can be slowed in the presence of protein and small amounts of fat. Dark chocolate merely has less fat than milk chocolate. If your sweet tooth can be appeased with nonrefined sugars, try a a bit of honey mixed with cinnamon and peanut butter on a rice cake. Tasty and rice cake might not be words normally uttered in the same sentence, but the honey, cinnamon, and peanut butter just nails that perfect salty-sweet combo.
If coffee is your fix, try smaller cups or alternative caffeine sources like teas and chocolate. All contain some level of caffeine, although the levels of metabolized caffeine derivatives like theobromine also may influence how an individual reacts to the caffeine. White, green, and black teas come from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. They differ by the length and process of fermentation. Yerba maté is another type of leaf that is brewed and purportedly has a gentler post-caffeine crash than coffee. If you’re really in a focus jam, maybe then an energy drink. Remember moderation, despite what the scantily clad energy drink salesmodels may say.
Try not to eat or drink while you’re working. Take an actual break. Get up, walk, stretch, breathe, and use that 5-10 minutes to enjoy your food or drink. Whether one can truly multitask is under scrutiny; mindless eating, even of focus-friendly foods, can be counterproductive to focus. The world will not end if you take 5 minutes to eat. The world might end momentarily, or at least a small island economy might sink, if you do put a “b” instead of “m” in front of “illion” due to fuzzy thinking from dehydration or while juggling a sandwich and your keyboard. While I exaggerate here, at the University of Geneva Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences, the 10-minute water break for every class that met for more than an hour is no laughing matter. Students in my econometrics class practically threatened mutiny when a professor once asked if the water break could be skipped, and a “compromise” was reached that the class would end 10 minutes earlier.
How to Turbocharge Your Focus for The Long Haul
Perhaps you’re still thinking about all the good stuff you’ve read about gingko biloba for memory. That indicates to my highly unprofessional opinion that you might have a better functioning cognitive state than that of the target population who actually demonstrated measurable benefits from gingko biloba. Of gingko’s mixed reviews, the studies who find slightly positive results often are examining laboratory animals under large doses or persons suffering from cognitive decline due to factors like age-related dementia. Gotu kola is another East Asian leaf occasionally declared a new remedy. Peppermint has also been touted as a aid to wake up the senses, and a recent study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found positive memory effects of blueberry juice on elderly subjects at risk of dementia versus the control group. Blueberries, pomegranates, and green tea already have enjoy reputations as superfoods due to their antioxidant concentrations; B vitamins from sources such as whole wheat, vitamin E in sources like avocados or olive oil, and Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and other cold-water fatty fish also may prevent cognitive decline.
The media tends to report on one “breakthrough” study that finds x-y-z result, but often it is better to look at meta-studies which review a large portion of studies to see overall trends in findings. Individual studies may achieve results that are very specific to a population under study or certain laboratory control settings. Researchers also may report positive correlations but fail to adequately measure size of effect or control for variables that are inherently linked to the supplement under study. Or the study might have been “published”, but in the world of academia there exists a hierarchy and broad range of certain journals that are more selective in the quality of the studies published.
These supplements probably will not hurt in moderation under careful supervision, but they’re a bit like fancy shoes and performance gear for runners. They are not going to help the person who has not been consistently training their bodies. Generally, the best way to get your vitamins and nutrients is through whole foods. Taking some supplements, like fish oil or vitamin D, might be worthwhile though. Talk to your physician so he or she can monitor possible signs of drug interactions with your current prescriptions. And caveat emptor: be aware of the source. The quality of herbal supplements are not regulated by the Federal Drug Administration in the United States, so look for the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) stamp for some measure of assurance. If you are reaching for the energy drinks for an extended period of time because you are really unable to focus at certain parts of the day, go see a medical professional. All sorts of health issues, often arising from unbalanced diets and sleep affected by said diets, can express symptoms of fatigue or inability to focus.
The advice in this article may seem like common sense and obvious: stabilizing blood sugar levels through moderation, drinking water, and eating balanced, small meals. Eating foods for focus might be hard if no particular list of foods was actually mentioned.
Sharpening focus is a process in which one pares away the nonessential, and let this rule extend even to your eating habits.
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