How to improve concentration
- The benefits of improving concentration
- Locating concentration
- Basic brain biology (aka neurology)
- What determines supply of energy
- Methods to improve mental performance
- Going beyond your ‘normal’
Some of the most common reasons to improve concentration are:
- You do better at work.
- You do better in school; studying and making tests.
- You do better with learning or studying anything, including for personal projects or hobbies.
There are some non-obvious reasons why you should care about concentration:
- It is a marker of your overall health (and really good one at that, in my personal experience).
- It frees up time in your schedule (you’ll be able to work more efficiently).
- It improves your ability to pursue meditation/mindfulness or other spiritual practices.
- It improves your overall energy levels.
- It’s one of the 6 pillars of the LiveHelfi lifestyle.
Eduard and I came up with the following diagram to visualize the LiveHelfi lifestyle. The diagram summarized the six most important goals (Pillars), the eight techniques to improve them (Tools) and the three main mechanisms (Biology) behind them. As far as we understand the theory, all the biohacking and life-improvement techniques will fall somewhere within this diagram. There is so much to say about the principles contained within this diagram, I could write a book about it (or several).
Concentration falls under the Pillar: Mental Performance. You can improve your mental performance through any (and all) of the eight Tools. However, some tools are easier to apply than others. How food changes your concentration is much easier to comprehend than how thermoregulation will have the same effect. Some of the easiest methods will be discussed here and you will be able to trace them back to the tools in this diagram.
I think it is quite fair to put the brain as the center generator of concentration. However, focus is only part of what the brain facilitates (mental performance) and mental performance also includes recall, learning, communication, reasoning etc. For this reason, I will refer to ‘concentration’, ‘focus’ and ‘mental performance’ as the same thing in this context. In theory, if we improve brain health and performance, we will improve concentration. To improve the brain, we need to know how the brain works.
On a very basic level, you could see the brain as a black box that spits out outputs (behaviors) based on inputs (the senses). Nerves carry information to the brain from all over the body. The brain processes this information, after which it sends out signals for actions to be carried out.
To perform well, the brain requires a constant (and massive, relative to its weight) supply of oxygen and fuel. If the blood supply, energy supply or oxygen supply of your body fails, the brain will be the first thing to go. As such, we are most likely to notice changes in our health and well-being based on how our brain functions.
Important to remember: the brain is the most sensitive and the best connect organ in the body, therefore we can use our brain power as a measure of our general health and wellbeing.
Parts of our brain can be roughly separated by their function. One model divides the brain like this:
- Lizard brain: regulates unconscious functions, like heart rate, breathing, digestion etc. Crucial to our survival! Shared by all vertebrate animals (and possibly invertebrate animals as well).
- Labrador brain: regulates reproduction and everything required for reproduction. It regulates behaviors that make us eat, drink, sleep and sleep together. Probably emotions too.
- Human brain: aka the buggy, post-monkey beta expansion pack. This part is responsible for thought, reason, self-control, detailed communication etc. However, it doesn’t always work very reliably (unless you know what you are doing).
Based on this model, concentration is most likely regulated by the human brain. This model also explains the order of priority of delivering fuel and oxygen to different brain areas. When immediate survival is prioritized (and it always is!), the human brain draws the short end of the stick and is not supplied with enough energy to perform its functions. The condition of low human-brain energy is colloquially known as ‘brain fog’ and is believed to be quite a common condition.
On the other hand, if you have energy to spare, the human brain will benefit most. The human brain will get all the excess energy the lizard and Labrador brain aren’t using! Given that the crucial brain areas likely always get what they need (or you’d be dead), your human brain is the only part whose performance is likely directly dependent on its energy supply.
In conclusion: your concentration is directly dependent on how much energy your brain has access to at any given time. This means supply of fuel, but also processing capability of the brain cells themselves.
The entire body is involved in energy supply. Here, we want to find out how to get the most energy available to the brain. I will break this problem down into multiple parts based on biology.
- Energy supply: Food, digestion and storage are the main providers of energy in the body. What you eat, how often you eat, how well you digest it and how you store determine how much energy your body has access to.
- Energy transportation: How well your cardiovascular system is able to supply blood to your brain. Can be trained by exercise and other cardiovascular training methods.
- Energy production: How well your brain can convert fuel to energy in the form of ATP. It is primarily the state of your mitochondria that determines energy production capability. Keep them well maintained and undamaged.
Earlier I mentioned all 8 tools contribute to improved mental performance. Here’s how (briefly):
- Food: Directly affects our energy supply. Very important to get right.
- Supplements: Nutrient deficiencies will limit your mental performance (some more than others). When you get your nutrition right, you can enhance focus even more using nootropics, supplements designed to improve your mental performance.
- Exercise: Improves cardiovascular function and energy transportation to the brain and has effects on neuronal growth and development. And you should do this anyways.
- Sleep: Brain bath time (you’ll see) and important for memory reconsolidation (learning and remembering after). You will likely do this every night, so do it right.
- Neurotraining: Teaching your brain what you want it to do. Like muscles, your brain improves the functions you train it to do. Includes things like meditation, but also neurofeedback training.
- Extreme temperature exposure: Cold showers and hot saunas improve circulation and have significant brain benefits if done consistently. A bit technical to get right, though. Don’t try it at home unless you know what you are doing!
- Light: Light exposure affects circadian rhythm (your day-night cycle) and the body does a lot of thing differently based on the time of day. Can be very technical (I don’t understand all the implications myself yet). Comes down to (for most): turn your electronic screens off 2 hours before bedtime and get more exposure to unfiltered sunlight.
- Electromagnetism: Some of the most knowledgeable experts in the field are very insistent about the impact of electromagnetism. I am no expert and as such I am in no position to say exactly how electromagnetism effects your brain, other than that it probably does.
We have published a whole e-book on how you can apply these tools to improve your concentration. In this blogpost, we will provide a preview of the content you can find in this e-book. Or you can simply download the e-book for free right now!
The first four tools of the LiveHelfi Lifestyle are easiest to change and hardest to do catastrophically wrong, so we will start there.
Reduce carbs and become ketogenic
We want a stable and constant energy supply for our brain. The body uses one of two fuel sources: carbohydrates or fats. The important difference between these two fuel sources in the context of mental performance is their availability over time. Carbohydrates in the bloodstream are tightly regulated and storage capacity is limited. Each glucose molecule burns up quickly, while fats provide much more energy per molecule. Fats are less tightly regulated and have virtually unlimited storage space (since this storage can expand).
While glucose is the preferred fuel source for the brain while available, the brain can also run perfectly well on ketones. Ketones are produced when you are in ketosis, the fat-burning state. You’ll notice that your energy is much more stable during ketosis, that hunger (or rather ‘craving’) is virtually absent and that you have great mental energy and clarity. For more info on insulin and ketosis you can read our previous post on Bulletproof coffee as a great starting point (it has some great illustrations, too)! We will also provide more details on a ketogenic diet in the near future!
Avoid intolerable foods
Not all food is well tolerated by everyone. Sometimes due to allergies or simply because the food damages the gut and causes inflammation. Obviously, you should avoid eating foods you are allergic to and harmful food should also be avoided (if you know what food is harmful).
Food intolerances are often different per individual (and you therefore need to test this for yourself). However, foods that irritate the gut will cause inflammation and inflammation is like a fire alarm going off in the building. When your gut pulls the fire alarm, you can say goodbye to any concentrating you were planning to do and look forward to several hours to days of recovery.
Try not eating these things for a few weeks and see how it affects your concentration:
- Sweets: too much sugar kills your energy after a few hours due to an insulin spike. If you really like sweet, replace with a natural sweetener like stevia or xylitol.
- Gluten: disrupts your gut lining, which then leaks all sorts of inflammatory compounds into your body.
- Low-quality coffee and chocolate: these products are commonly contaminated with mold toxins (mycotoxins). Mycotoxins can be really bad for you (can actually cause cancer). Replace with products from brands with strict quality controls, like are sold by LiveHelfi.
- Dairy: pasteurized whole-milk dairy (milk, cheese) contains harmful proteins (caseins) that are problematic for most people. This is independent from a lactose intolerance. Fermented products like yoghurt and kefir might be okay and butter is mostly fat with very little milk protein and sugars (otherwise try ghee).
Fasting, eating nothing for a period of time, will allow your body to repair and clear out any waste that accumulates during periods of eating. The longer you fast, the more beneficial your fast will be. A period of 12 hours or more without eating will already give you some benefits, and some people will go up to several days in a row a few times a year.
When you fast your body starts to remove or recycle broken parts inside cells. This includes damaged mitochondria! Remember, clearing out waste benefits your overall health and performance. By fasting, your whole body will be cleaned a bit. When your whole body works better, your brain works better. And by removing or repairing crappy mitochondria, you can produce energy more efficiently from the fuel and oxygen you put in.
You can also check out some of the previous blogposts where Eduard describes his experience with a two-day and five-day fast with a detailed explanation about the underlying biology.
This goes into making sure your brain (and mitochondria) have all the nutrients they need to function well. It is always preferred to get your nutrients from food, but supplementation is also possible if food simply isn’t sufficient. I will list two of the most important brain nutrients, but really your real goals should be to have a sufficient intake of all essential minerals, vitamins, fatty acids and amino acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids
The brain is the largest user of omega-3 fatty acids in the body! Omega-3 fatty acids come from mainly from fish. Vegetable omega-3 fatty acids are not utilized as well as marine-based omega-3’s. If you don’t eat fish very often, you can choose to supplement. You can get some great omega-3 supplements at LiveHelfi.
Magnesium deficiency is the second most common essential nutrient deficiency in the developed world (after vitamin D). Magnesium is very important in neuronal signaling. Magnesium improves neuronal communication by cutting out background noise and intensifying intentional messages.
Magnesium is found in leafy green vegetables, nuts, legumes, beans and animal tissues. Magnesium is most easily absorbed from leafy green vegetables, so try to eat more of those (in general, anyways) (or put some spinach in your daily smoothie like I do). As a supplement, magnesium-L-threonate specifically raises brain magnesium levels, or take a form that ends with -ate (e.g. malate, citrate, aspartate). LiveHelfi offers several products through which you can increase your magnesium intake.
Exercise is good for concentration for two main reasons: 1) it trains (conditions) your cardiovascular system (the blood/oxygen/energy supply of the brain) and 2) it directly improves your brain!
The reasons behind how exercise improves cardiovascular health are well known, but direct effects on the brain are often left out. When you exercise intensively (HIIT/strength training, etc), your muscles produce BDNF. BDNF = brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Translated literally, BDNF is the compound that feeds your neurons (and happens to be discovered first in the brain). Feeding neurons is great, because you want more and healthy neurons. You can literally feed your brain with exercise!
This is common advice to improve mental performance, but the biology behind it may convince you to seriously pursue better sleeping habits. This tool plays into keeping your brain happy and healthy.
The brain disposes of its waste while you sleep through the glymphatic system. Since the brain has no direct perfusion, it requires another method other than the bloodstream to get rid of waste: the glymphatic system. Glymphatic drainage (flushing your brain) only occurs during sleep, so sleep well and long enough to clean your brain out properly.
Sleep also contributes to memory consolidation (allowing you to remember stuff for longer than a day). All great benefits, and remember, it’s not just your brain that benefits from good sleep. It will improve your general health as a whole, which improves brain health etc, etc.
For the true biohackers out there who have already applied all of the above methods to improve their mental performance, there are still ways to go beyond your normal limits. You can experiment with things like neurofeedback training to literally train your brain to do what you want when you want it.
Or you can look into nootropics: herbal/mineral supplements and synthetic compounds that improve your mental performance. With some dedicated experimentation and a bit of a budget, I bet you can find several nootropic substances that have excellent return on investment. LiveHelfi offers a great selection of nootropics as well as Dave Asprey’s book ‘Head Strong’, a good starting point to upgrade your brain and mental performance.
Some (budget) starting tips for nootropics include:
- Medicinal mushroom-based products, like Foursigmatic mushroom coffee with lion’s mane and chaga.
- L-tyrosine, as a supplement produced by Bulletproof and found in Kimera coffee. Tyrosine is a precursor to some very important neurotransmitters
- Caffeine, by drinking more coffee or by taking a caffeine supplement.
You can improve your concentration by improving your mental performance. You can improve your mental performance by improving your energy levels. You can improve your energy levels by adopting a (Live)Healthy lifestyle. Our body is a well-designed system that would run perfectly if we (as ignorant humans) would get out of the way. Stop overthinking your problems and go back to basics. Eat well, sleep well, exercise a little and chill out. Only then (in my opinion) consider things like nootropics. Nootropics will enhance your performance beyond ‘normal’, so you need to be on a ‘normal’ level before you’ll benefit from them.
And remember, if you want to know more, you can read our e-book on the topic. You can download it for free right here!