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Top 5 Supplements for Focus and Concentration

Dr. Kate Rhéaume
Focused young Asian woman reading a book and making notes at home, concentrating on her studies.

Do you feel your focus starts to drift midday, or do you have problems concentrating while studying? Feel like you are having “senior moments,” but you’re not even close to being eligible for the discount? You’re not alone. Brain function tends to peak in our 20s, then diminish over time. Read on to learn about five nutrients that can help your brain work better.

L-theanine is an amino acid that can quickly help restore calm and focus.* Originally discovered in green tea, it is responsible for the mellow buzz of high-quality matcha. L-theanine stimulates the production of alpha brain waves. This is the type of brain activity that predominates when we are relaxed and focused.

Despite its chill vibe, L-theanine doesn’t induce drowsiness, so it can be taken as needed at any time of day. A typical 100 mg dose, taken in capsules or chewable tablets, kicks in within 30 minutes. One recent clinical trial of middle-aged men and women showed that a single dose of L-theanine improved performance on cognitive function tests of memory and attention.* [1]

Two sisters sitting in bedroom studying together

Got a Test Coming Up?

Some nutrients have the potential to support learning abilities.* Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a specialized type of fat that is present in healthy brain cell membranes. The amount of PS can decline with age, potentially impacting the way we think. As a result of its abundant presence in a healthy brain, PS has been studied extensively. Clinical studies suggest that PS supports mental functions, such as memory, learning, concentration, and vocabulary.* [2] In the past, commercial sources of PS have been derived from animal sources. Enhanced technology has enabled the development of a plant-based source of this important nutrient. Look for PS supplements derived from non-GMO sunflower oil.

Brain Cell Refuelling 

Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC) is a form of the amino acid L-carnitine that crosses the blood-brain barrier. Once in brain tissue, ALC helps round up fatty acids and deliver them to the cellular powerhouses, a.k.a. the mitochondria, where they can be burned for fuel. Helping your neurons produce more energy is an obvious boon to brain health.* One clinical trial showed improved mental and physical energy in participants taking ALC.* [3] ALC also supports the production of the major neurotransmitter acetylcholine so that brain cells can communicate better.* [4]

Mental Gymnastics

Did you know that you can grow new brain cells? For a long time, the prevailing notion was that the number of brain cells only declined from childhood onwards. We now know that some parts of the brain can grow new cells at any stage of life. This process is called neurogenesis. It doesn’t necessarily happen spontaneously, but certain activities and even nutrients can encourage the process. For example, exercise has been shown to stimulate the growth of brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that governs learning and making new memories.* [5] Who couldn’t use a few new brain cells?

Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) is a vitamin-like nutrient closely related to coenzyme Q10. It is present in tiny amounts in many foods. In supplemental amounts, PQQ can protect neurons – and potentially assist in making new ones – as it stimulates the production of nerve growth factor. Nerve growth factor acts like fertilizer for your brain cells. Studies of people taking 20 mg of PQQ daily over 12 weeks showed benefits for verbal memory, attention, and “cognitive flexibility,” the ability to solve problems in different ways.* [6]

Brain Food

Foods high in omega-3When it comes to brain health, you really are what you eat. The brain is 60% fat by weight, and the fats we consume affect the composition of our brain tissue, for better or worse. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are required throughout life to maintain a healthy, resilient brain.* There are two critical omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Optimal intake of DHA improves the quality of our grey matter, while adequate EPA is required for managing mood.* Our frontal lobes are the part of the brain that carries out higher-order cognitive activities like sustained attention, planning, and problem-solving. This part of the brain especially appreciates a regular intake of omega-3s. [7] In short, when it comes to thinking, omega-3s help you get the job done.

All of this makes omega-3s a unique fat. Unlike the other ingredients discussed here, you likely won’t feel any immediate brain-boosting effect from a spoonful of high-quality fish oil. Instead, omega-3s are a foundational nutrient that will help protect brain function over the long term from normal age-related decline.* [8]

We all wish our brains could work better sometimes. By staying physically active, eating well, and supplementing with key nutrients, we can help our brains reach their potential.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Kate Rhéaume
Dr. Rhéaume is a graduate of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine.
References
  1. Baba Y, Inagaki S, Nakagawa S, et al. Effects of l-theanine on cognitive function in middle-aged and older subjects: A randomized placebo-controlled study. J Med Food. 2021; 24(4):333-41. 
  2. Vakhapova V, Cohen T, Richter Y, et al. Phosphatidylserine containing omega-3 fatty acids may improve memory abilities in non-demented elderly with memory complaints: A double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord. 2010; 29(5):467-74. 
  3. Malaguarnera M, Gargante MP, Cristaldi E, et al. Acetyl L-carnitine (ALC) treatment in elderly patients with fatigue. Arch Gerontol Geriatr. 2008; 46(2):181-90.  
  4. Pennisi M, Lanza G, Cantone M, et al. Acetyl-L-carnitine in dementia and other cognitive disorders: A critical update. Nutrients. 2020; 12(5):1389.  
  5. Liu PZ, Nusslock R. Exercise-mediated neurogenesis in the hippocampus via BDNF. Front Neurosci. 2018; 12:52.  
  6. Shiojima Y, Takahashi M, Takahashi R, et al. Effect of dietary pyrroloquinoline quinone disodium salt on cognitive function in healthy volunteers: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study [published online ahead of print, 2021 Aug 20]. J Am Coll Nutr. 2021; 1-14.  
  7. Weiser MJ, Butt CM, Mohajeri MH. Docosahexaenoic acid and cognition throughout the lifespan. Nutrients. 2016; 8(2):99.  
  8. Mora I, Arola L, Caimari A, et al. Structured long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for improvement of cognitive function during aging. Int J Mol Sci. 2022; 23(7):3472.