How to Maximize Your Mental Clarity and Concentration
You're not unmotivated. You're inflamed.
If you regularly feel foggy, unmotivated, and tired, you might rely on coffee, chocolate, or other stimulating substances for mental clarity and concentration.
While these tools have their place, their effects are temporary. A few minutes or hours after eating chocolate or drinking coffee, you’re tense, twitchy, and/or yawning.
Plus, these are bandages, not solutions. Your fatigue isn’t simply a product of a lack of coffee. Rather, your exhaustion and lack of motivation are coordinated responses to imbalance. They’re symptoms of a larger problem, not the problem itself. Said differently, they’re the alarm, not the fire.
This alarm often manifests in inflammation, which happens when the body mounts a defensive response to a perceived intruder.
Fortunately, when you remove inflammatory foods and drinks from your diet, you’ll find massive improvements in your mood, ability to concentrate, and your overall wellness.
Inflammation, Mental Clarity, and Concentration Never Co-Exist
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is full of ingredients known to cause inflammation while depleting the antioxidants that prevent and control it. Inflammatory foods include refined carbohydrates, processed vegetable oils, artificial trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and processed sugars.
Inflammation, while not inherently bad, is a common denominator in virtually all chronic disease. Inflammation refers to cellular damage caused by metabolic issues, environmental toxicants in food and the environment, pollution, excessive exercise, sedentary behavior, and other factors. When it becomes chronic, it puts the body into a state of panic that causes cascading damage.
Research has demonstrated the link between not only inflammation and chronic disease but inflammation and depression. For instance, the aptly titled study “Inflammation: Depression fans the flames and feasts on the heat” demonstrated that inflammation and depression empower one another: inflammation plays a central role in the development of depression, and depression promotes inflammation. People with major depressive disorder consistently show high blood levels of cytokines, which are indicative of inflammation.
Inflammation doesn’t only provoke depression: it may play a key role in a struggle to focus or the experience of brain fog. In another study, researchers activated the immune response of 20 healthy men by injecting them with salmonella endotoxin.
They measured inflammatory markers like cortisol, IL-6, and TNF-alpha and noted significant inflammatory responses. Although they had no physical symptoms, the subjects reported increases in anxiety, depression, and reduced verbal and nonverbal memory. The greater the inflammation, the more their symptoms intensified.
If you struggle with brain fog, it may be that constant low-grade inflammation is demanding your immune system to work over time, causing fatigue. Why might this be?
Inflammation causes chronic stress via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis
The HPA axis is a network of organs, hormones, and other signaling molecules that manage the body’s response to stress. It evolved to help our ancestors respond to acute stressors like the pursuit of a lion.
However, in the face of chronic stressors, like an inflammatory diet, it can become dysfunctional, disrupting hormonal production and leading to downstream negative impacts on the gut and brain.
HPA axis dysfunction can cause depleted or even high levels of cortisol and a variety of other hormones, which in turn lead to panic attacks, insulin resistance, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms in the case of excess cortisol. Conversely, burnout, brain fog, chronic infections, and post-traumatic stress disorder can occur in the case of low cortisol.
There’s also a bi-directional relationship between the gut microbiome and the HPA axis. The microbiome is at the foundation of human health and is an ecology of bacteria, fungi, and parasites. The microbiome plays a central role in the immune system, recognizing intruders and balancing the greater ecosystem of the body. HPA dysfunction (HPA-D) negatively impacts the gut microbiome, which then influences the HPA axis and your stress response via the gut-brain axis.
The healthy functioning of the microbiome depends on the integrity of the gut lining, which is full of nerve cells that send messages to the brain. As explained in depth by Zach Bush, MD, chronic exposure to stresses like chemicals in processed or genetically modified foods, chemical-laden personal care products, and polluted water or air degrades the tiny junctions or gate keepers that limit the passage of molecules and ions through the spaces between cells.
When the lining of the gut breaks down (known as intestinal permeability or “leaky gut”), these toxins more easily enter the bloodstream where they then travel to tissues and organs and have the potential to cause brain fog, anxiety, and chronic diseases like autoimmunity, cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and more.
The Western Diet Is Inflammatory by Nature
Maintaining the integrity of the gut lining is especially crucial in the western world. For one thing, the U.S. invests subsidies into agricultural programs that support dairy, sugar, wheat, corn, soybeans, refined oils, white flour, and high fructose corn syrup. These investments make inflammatory foods ubiquitous.
Add this to culturally reinforced preferences that often equate celebration and socialization to inflammatory comfort foods like breads, cheese, ice cream, alcohol, fries, and the like. We also can’t forget that packaged foods arrive at the mouth after hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone into engineering optimal ratios of sugars, fats, and salts within them.
If you’re interested in health, it’s also tough to avoid the influence of the paradigm of Nutritionism, a perspective that sees scientifically validated nutrients as the holy ground of what should be eaten.
While there’s clearly value in evidence-based eating patterns, this kind of thinking can become counterproductive. When people become fixated on avoiding a specific macro-nutrient, whether it’s fat, protein, or carbohydrates, they lose sight of what’s truly healthy in a war-like effort to avoid whatever they’ve demonized.
Healthy eating can be quite simple. Dr. Robert Lustig, author of Metabolical: The Lure and Lies of Processed Food, Nutrition, and Modern Medicine, contends that what’s done to a food matters more than the macro-nutrients making it up. He explains that real food is inherently medicinal —it’s good for you until it’s processed. He writes:
“Food is medicine, but processed food is poison, and there’s no medicine that can undo the damage of processed food.”
What You Eat Determines How You Feel
Because of long-standing mixed messages around diet, many people throw up their hands and adopt a deterministic point of view, assuming that diet and lifestyle matter less than what “runs in the family.”
Yet the truth is that people have more power than this belief suggests. Food influences gene function, hormones, the immune system, and the gut flora. It’s not only fuel but a source of information that delivers critical messages to the body.
Even the composition of the brain itself depends on our getting specific nutrients. As Drew Ramsey MD, co-author of the Happiness Diet, explained in an article about the emotion-modulating effects of food: “Emotions begin in biology with two brain cells rubbing together, and those nerve cells are made of nutrients in foods.” The body struggles to produce certain mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin, tryptophan, and iron if they’re not present in the diet.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the most beneficial things you can ingest: it’s a component in every cell of the body, and about 90% of the omega-3 fat found in brain tissue is DHA. If your diet doesn’t provide sufficient quantities of this essential fat, your brain cells will fail to properly signal to one another, which is absolutely going to impair your ability to focus and result in other tolls on your overall health.
In addition to omega-3 deficiency’s link to anxiety, depression, and other chronic diseases, its absence can impair concentration. This study showed that kids with ADD, learning disabilities, dyslexia, and trouble with writing tended to be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.
How to Avoid Food-Related Inflammation
The most straightforward yet powerful way to avoid inflammatory foods is to emphasize a diet that reflects ancestral eating patterns. For millions of years, humans consumed natural foods like nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meats, eggs, and wild-caught fatty fish. Compare this to processed vegetable oils, which appeared in the early 1900s, or the seeds of the cereal grasses that sprouted modern wheat, which have been part of the human diet for only 20,000 years.
This evolutionary mismatch isn’t the only problem. Blood sugar instability is a known culprit of brain fog, anxiety, and dips in energy. When you eat foods with high glycemic indexes — white rice, bagels, sugary cereals — the body produces insulin to use that sugar for energy. This causes your blood sugar to dip, which signals alarm to the body.
The adrenal glands, which produce cortisol, begin working overtime, promoting insulin resistance, or the inability of cells to respond to insulin. In disrupting your glucose levels in this way, you not only subjectively experience anxiety and fogginess but you worsen your metabolic flexibility, making yourself unable to efficiently use glucose and fats as forms of energy.
Practically, emphasizing healthy fats in the morning is a good way to ensure a sense of mental clarity, focus, and well being. Fats stabilize blood sugar since they act as a slow-burning, long-term source of energy.
Emphasizing healthy fats in the morning will give you the calm focus that is crucial to productivity and emotional balance. You can also support your mind and body with non-inflammatory carbohydrates. In the morning (and throughout the day), you might emphasize the following foods:
- Avocado (supports production of acetylcholine, important for learning and memory)
- Fatty fish like salmon or mackerel (major source of omega-3s and brain-protective)
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and asparagus (improve mitochondrial function and enhance neuronal signaling, making the brain more responsive to challenge)
- Pastured eggs (contain tryptophan, a building block of the happiness neurotransmitter, serotonin, the B-complex brain-supporting choline as well as phenylethylamine, which produces dopamine)
- Walnuts (contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may reduce brain inflammation) as well as the build-up of beta-amyloid proteins known to be implicated in Alzheimer’s pathogenesis
- Blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries (contain flavonoids, which produce brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), stimulating the production of new brain cells.
Of course, this list isn’t complete. Consider focusing on foods that don’t talk. Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, says that the healthier the food, the quieter it will be. He and others have recommended seeing nutrition facts as warning labels. When a food is truly good for you, it won’t need to make promises about heart attack prevention — its effects will speak for themselves.
All of this said, remember that food, while critical, is a single factor in a larger equation. If you eat flawlessly but never sleep more than four hours a night, bathe in contaminated water, and so forth, food probably won’t be a shield against your other habits.
However, it’s a mistake to think of food as only a source of energy or avenue for sensory pleasure.
Food influences gene function, hormones, the immune system, and the gut flora. It’s also responsible for all that makes life meaningful.
By relying on coffee or other stimulants to power through exhaustion, you may miss signs of a larger problem. This isn’t to say that using stimulants is bad or always unhelpful. Yet a sense of being dependent on them might be the first signal of a system-wide imbalance.
Remember that fatigue, headaches, and other signs of disharmony are not enemies to suppress or kill — they’re messengers that signal the need for balance. When you learn to see discomfort in this way, it becomes an ally in the pursuit of higher levels of well being.
Helping readers find authentic forms of motivation using NLP, subconscious mind modalities, and the tools of holistic health.