Improve Focus and Attention with Nutrition

Written by Amanda Leach, MS, RD, LD, CLT

Do you or your child have a hard time sitting still or paying attention at work or in school?  Is it difficult to stay focused?  With school back in session, now is a great time to work on improving these skills.  Addressing areas of your nutrition may be just what you need to do this!

There are two main questions to explore that can impact focus and attention.  1) Is there a food or nutrient you need to get more of? And 2) Is there something you need to avoid? There very well could be.  Some examples of what may be needed to get include vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids.  These all play a role in your ability to focus and concentrate.  An insufficiency or imbalance in any of these things could leave you vulnerable to being easily distracted.

For example, let’s take a look at just one of the items mentioned above, a mineral, magnesium.  Symptoms of magnesium deficiency could include difficulty with memory and concentration.  Other symptoms could include depression, emotional lability, irritability, nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, constipation, migraine headaches, and fatigue.  Certain triggers that you may be exposed to can also decrease your magnesium, such as stress, certain medications, caffeine, alcohol, and soda.  Correcting a magnesium deficiency could improve many of these symptoms and may even help children with ADHD.   A 1997 study published in “Magnesium Research” found that when 75 hyperactive children aged 7-12 with ADHD and magnesium deficiency were given 200 mg of magnesium per day for 6 months, they all had a significant decrease of hyperactivity compared to their baseline and the control group.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to identify a magnesium deficiency since only 1% of your body’s magnesium is in serum blood.  The standard magnesium test looks at the amount of magnesium in your serum and this is maintained fairly well, even if magnesium intake is poor.  Most of your magnesium is stored in your tissue and cells.  The highest amounts being found in your brain and your heart.  Tests that tend to have better accuracy, than serum magnesium, in identifying a magnesium deficiency include Magnesium RBC and magnesium hair levels, but these tests still are not perfect either.  If a deficiency is present supplementation is best done with supervision because there are many different forms of magnesium and too much magnesium can lead to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.  Increasing magnesium through your diet is generally safe.  Food sources that are rich in magnesium include nuts and seeds, leafy greens such as spinach and kale, beans, and dark chocolate.

What are things you may need to avoid? These include toxins, allergens, and/or biologic agents.  These are components that can unintentionally be ingested in the items you consume or beverages you ingest.   For example, sensitivities to certain foods may worsen symptoms of ADHD.  Many people with food sensitivities may also have dark circles under their eyes, often referred to as “allergic shiners”, a history of colic, eczema, acid reflux, belly pain/IBS, ear infections, constant throat clearing, or even insomnia.  Trialing an elimination diet may help identify if/which foods are contributing to these problems, however there are many different elimination diets out there.  Getting assistance from a registered dietitian would be important if you wanted to try one of them.  One, to make sure you have identified all foods and food derived ingredients that you are trying to avoid on the elimination diet and two, to also ensure that you are meeting your nutrition needs.  Mediator Release Testing (MRT) used along with a LEAP diet is another option.  MRT is a food sensitivity test that helps identify which foods could be causing a release of inflammatory chemicals in your body that may be causing or contributing to problems with focus and attention, along with many of the other above-mentioned symptoms.   These results can then be used to tailor a specific elimination diet, called LEAP, to you.  There is less guess work involved with this type of elimination diet and it can often be very effective in reducing many of the above-mentioned symptoms.   If you are interested in more information about this testing you can check out: or call our office.

Overall there are many different nutrition and lifestyle factors that can impact your attention and focus.  Trying to identify which things may be contributing to the problem all by yourself can be frustrating and draining, since there are many factors.  Working together with a healthcare team, such as your medical doctor, a naturopathic doctor, a registered dietitian, a therapist, etc. can help ease the frustration and make it less challenging for you.  They can help you  in identifying what is contributing to the problem and  aid with having those issues fully addressed.


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