How to easily improve your focus, according to research

Alistair Gardiner | June 01, 2021

Do you often find yourself distracted? Don’t fret. Research suggests you can fine-tune your diet and lifestyle to help settle your scattered thoughts and improve cognitive performance. From berries and beets to meditation and more time outdoors, here are five dietary and lifestyle choices that can help boost your concentration levels.

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Female doctor taking notes

Research shows there a variety of habits you can adopt to improve your concentration.

Berries

A handful of berries in your breakfast isn’t just about waking up with a blast of great flavor. According to a study published in Nutrients, the flavonoids in berries can have a positive impact on cognitive performance almost instantly and their effects can last up to 6 hours. 

While past research has shown that eating berries can help improve executive function for up to 2 hours, researchers on this study aimed to see if this effect could last through a working day. They followed a cohort of 40 individuals aged 20-30 years, half of whom consumed a 400 mL smoothie of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, while the other half were given a placebo. The groups were then given tests, including a task designed to measure attention, at 2, 4, and 6 hours after consumption of the smoothie. 

The placebo group’s performance on tests worsened over the 6-hour period. But the group given the berry smoothie maintained greater accuracy and quicker response times on all three tests. The findings suggest that starting the day with a berry smoothie can help you improve and maintain focus.

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment and harboring openness and acceptance of things as they are. If that sounds like a lot of effort, one study involving two experiments, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that just 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation can result in a marked improvement in attention span.

In the two experiments, participants listened to a 10-minute guided mindfulness meditation audio tape, alongside a control group who didn’t. Afterward, all participants were asked to complete cognitive tests. The first experiment used the Flanker task, which is a measure of executive attentional control. The second experiment used the Attention Network Task, a set of tasks that calculates different types of attention, including alerting, orienting, and executive control.

On both sets of experiments, the groups who listened to the mindfulness meditation audio tape performed better on the attention tests, exhibiting boosts in accuracy and response time. Researchers concluded that meditation increased attentional control regardless of the presence of distracting stimuli and provided participants with more “efficient attention allocation.”

“In sum, our results suggest that even in novices, one brief 10-min audio-guided mindfulness meditation instruction period improves attention,” the authors wrote.

Chocolate

Working your way toward better concentration doesn’t have to be challenging. On the contrary, a study published in Scientific Reports found that eating more chocolate and other foods that contain flavanols is a simpler, tastier, route to improved focus.

Study authors used a cohort of 18 healthy adults to test whether flavanols present in cocoa could improve brain function. They split the research into two trials: one in which participants consumed  flavanol-rich cocoa, and another in which they ate processed cocoa with low levels of flavanols. 

Participants were then tested for brain vascular function and cognitive performance. The former was measured using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, through which researchers ascertained oxygenation levels in the frontal cortex, a brain region involved in planning and decision-making. The latter was measured by giving the participants a set of complex and challenging tasks, some of which involved contradictory demands.

Researchers found that, after ingesting flavanol-rich cocoa, participants not only had levels of maximal oxygenation in the brain three times higher than the control group, they also performed better on the cognitive tests, correctly solving problems 11% faster than the control group.

Chocolate is also among a list of foods (and activities) that boost endorphins. Learn more about the health benefits of eating chocolate at MDLinx.

Beetroot juice

While cocoa can offer a cognitive boost, eating too many sweets brings downsides that outweigh the benefits. If you’re looking for a less sugary alternative that can still boost your attention levels, a study published in Nutrients may have the answer: beetroot juice.

Researchers examined the effects of acute supplementation with nitrate-rich beetroot juice on cardiovascular and cognitive function in groups of 13 younger individuals (aged 18-30 years) and 11 older subjects (aged 50-70 years). Participants consumed either 150 mL of beetroot juice or a placebo and then underwent a series of cognitive tests.

Those who consumed the beetroot juice performed far better on the Stroop test, in which different color names are displayed on a screen in different color fonts. The aim of the test is to press the key corresponding to the color of the font, rather than the words displayed. Researchers noted that this finding was consistent with those of other studies, which found that beetroot juice consumption can result in increased cerebral oxygenation, allowing for a decrease in how much oxygen is required for mental processing.

“Collectively, these results indicate that acute supplementation with [beetroot juice] can reduce BP and improve aspects of cognitive performance; thus having potential health benefits for both younger and older adults,” the authors wrote.

Need more convincing? Read about the other health advantages of consuming beetroot juice at MDLinx.

Time in nature

If you’re having problems paying attention at the office, you might want to get out into the great outdoors, according to a review published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

The review cites various studies suggesting that those who spend more time in nature, as opposed to urban environments, tend to experience cognitive benefits, including working memory performance, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control. One of the studies cited in the article found that adults who live in greener public-housing buildings exhibited higher levels of attentional functioning. 

The mechanisms behind these benefits remain unclear, but several theories are under scrutiny: 

  • Stress-reduction theory posits that positive emotional responses to nature reduce stress and allow a person to maintain higher levels of sustained attention.

  • Attention-restoration theory states that natural environments allow a person to relax their directed-attention resources, which are often pushed to the max in urban environments.

  • Perceptual-fluency theory is the idea that natural vistas provide attention restoration and stress reduction because they take less effort for us to process.

Regardless of the reasons, evidence suggests that some time in nature will help you focus when you get back to the office. Learn more about why exposure to natural environments is linked to better health and well-being at MDLinx

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