Do you have trouble concentrating? Are you easily distracted? I know I am! This new generation where we easily have access to many different products, answers, and media, is now facing the difficulty of focusing. We are taught to be efficient and productive with the time that we have, yet all the social media and tools that we have are made to capture our concentration for mere seconds. So then are we slowly programming our brains to have shorter and shorter spans of concentration? This also brings up the discussion of ADD(attention deficit disorder) and ADHD(attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Is this a new problem that this generation is facing, and are we too quick to give out prescription medication rather than target the programing of our brains?
The New York Times recently published an article discussing the issue of Adderall abuse in the new job-seeking post-graduate population(1). Society pushes us to machine consistently cranking out high-quality fast work but at the same time juggling a multitude of activities. But to what detriment? As the article discusses students and employees are working until all hours of the night and yet expected to come to work and utilize their full capacities on limited sleep. We become addicted to this medication that wires our brain to be more efficient. Like many illegal substances–heroin, cocaine, etc. our bodies become addicted. But over time the adverse effects–increased and irregular heart rate, increased BP, low back pain, and incontinence– outweigh the benefits and rehabilitation is imminent(2).
So how do we improve our concentration in a natural healthy way?
To be able to improve our concentration we have to understand how memory works. Memory has three components: short term memory, working memory, and long term memory.
What you use on a constant basis is your working memory. While I am writing this I am using my working memory however it is pulling information from my short term memory–an article I read a couple of minutes ago on Adderall, but also long term memory–information I learned in my Neuro Rehabilitation class on memory. We constantly pull information from the two categories into our working memory. How efficient that comes down to the molecular composition of our brain.
The word metabolism is often thrown about when talking about weight loss, however, it also applies to how our brain functions. Nutrition and activities in our daily lives affect our neuronal and cognitive function. One protein in specific the CREB binding protein is crucial for the formation of long term and short term memory(3). Our memory is directly affected by energy metabolism. For example in this study(4) they chemically altered the energy metabolism in mice and found a decrease in synaptic and cognitive plasticity. Thus when our energy metabolism is decreased so does our working memory and cognitive function. Exercise is one component of our energy metabolism but so is nutrition. Exercise and physical activity increase our cognitive function including working memory (5). Exercise in combination with certain nutrients can also further enhance our cognition. Flavinoids (cocoa, green tea, citrus fruits, wine) for example when combining with exercise further enhance our cognitive function, this was especially true in the elderly. Different components of our diet can affect our cognitive function. For example, there is a strong correlation between Omega-3’s and depression (6). Countries, where the average consumption of fish per person is higher, have significantly lower depression rates(7). Our brain does produce a small amount of Omega-3’s or docosahexaenoic acid but we mostly rely on dietary supplementation. There are many other nutrients that help support our cognitive function. This article by Gomez-Pinilla goes into detail about the different cognitive effects of nutrients on our brain function.
So what does this mean? If you are having trouble concentrating try re-evaluation what you are putting into your body and the quantity of exercise you do. Adderall has so many negative side effects and is only a temporary solution. Even caffeine can negatively affect your working memory, especially when it is combined with a lack of sleep(8). Yes, caffeine can help with concentration but too much can also have negative effects. A good night’s sleep, exercise, and a well-balanced diet can do wonders on your brain function. So next time you feel like you aren’t able to concentrate go on a 30min walk, eat some fish, have a cup of green tea this might be the simple solution you need to be more efficient.
(1)Schwartz, A. Workers seeking productivity in a pill are abusing A.D.H.D drugs. The new york times. April 18, 2015. Accessed April 30, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/us/workers-seeking-productivity-in-a-pill-are-abusing-adhd-drugs.html?emc=edit_th_20150419&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=58842742
(2)Drugs.com. Adderall side effects. Accessed April 30, 2015. Available at: http://www.drugs.com/sfx/adderall-side-effects.html
(3) Chen G, Zou X, Watanabe H, van Deursen JM, Shen J. CBP is required for both short-term and long-term memory formation. J Neurosci. 2010; 30(39): 13066-77.
(4) Vaynman S, Ying Z, Wu A, Gomez-Pinilla F. Coupling energy metabolism with a mechanism to support brain-derived neutrophic factor-mediated synaptic plasticity. J Neurosci. 2006; 139(4): 1221-34.
(5) Ratey J, Loehr J. The positive impact of physical activity on cognition during adulthood: a review of underlying mechanisms, evidence, and recommendations. Rev neurosci. 2011; 22(2): 171-85.
(6) Gomez-Pinilla F. Brain foods: the effect of nutrients on brain function. Nat rev neurosci. 2008; 9(7): 568-578.
(7) Hibbeln JR. Fish consumption and major depression. Lancet. 1998;351:1213
(8) Nehlig A. Is caffeine a cognitive enhancer? J Alzheimers dis. 2010; 20: S85-94.