Food That Helps You Stay Alert
Using foods to help you stay alert and focused can be divided into three parts.
The Three Effects of Focus Foods
- Immediate boost foods; such as those that contain stimulants.
- Foods that give you a slow release of energy; without the boom-and-bust of carbs and sugars.
- Long term brain enhancing foods, such as oily fish.
We should also mention that while some foods can make you more alert, others can do the opposite.
The post-lunch crash that many people experience is due to the sudden spike in glucose, which in turn is caused by eating foods high in easily digested starches and sugars. To avoid this stick to wholemeal and ‘brown’ products rather than the processed white varieties, and avoid sweets and sugary deserts.
Foods That Contain Stimulant Substances
Chocolate – Ideally dark chocolate, this contains not just caffeine, but theobromine, a similar stimulant and a dozen other substances that are known to improve mood and feelings of wellbeing.
Caffeine – This is an obvious one, which is found in coffee, tea, chocolate (including chocolate drinks, and ice cream, and even chocolate cereal), and some soft drinks. Coffee and tea also have anti-oxidants that can have a positive effect on brain health.
Tea – Also contains theanine, an amino acid that is reduces stress and improves focus and alertness, so when combined with the caffeine in tea, it will improve mental performance.
Mate – Mate is a traditional beverage from South America. Mate is well known for its stimulating effects. The leaves of the mate plant contain the same stimulant compounds as coffee: caffeine, theophylline, theobromine.
Oat Straw – This is the young green stems of the oat plant, the same one that goes in your breakfast cereal and granola bars. This has been used traditionally to make tea that is said to have both relaxational and stimulant properties. There is some modern evidence that there is some truth in this.
Foods Containing Tyramine – Tyramine is an amino acid that is present in various foods that have been aged, fermented, smoked, salted or dried, such as pepperoni, salami or bacon, soy sauce or tofu. Other sources of tyramine include aged cheeses, cottage cheese, olives, nuts, beers and wines. Tyramine can give you an energy boost and feelings of wakefulness, but also take note that excess tyramine can cause high blood pressure and headaches in some people.
Maca – A South American root vegetable that has traditionally been used to increase both physical and mental performance. It can be bought in powdered form that can be added to smoothies, coffee or shaken with milk.
Chili Peppers – The evidence is anecdotal, but also fairly commonly reported that very spice foods can leave you feeling alert, boosted and even ‘high’.
Water – dehydration is known to sap energy levels, so make sure you keep well hydrated.
Blueberries – These are rich in anti-oxidants that can boots memory and concentration for up to 5 hours.
Beetroot Juice – The trendy new drink that contains nitrates that are thought to increase blood supply to the brain, which may improve attention, alertness and focus.
Artichoke – These are rich in type IV-specific phosphodiesterase inhibitors that have been shown to reduce fatigue and increase in mental cognition.
Foods That Can Power You Throughout the Day
These are foods that give you a slow, steady release of energy, without the boost/crash that you get with sugary and white starchy food.
Wholegrain Cereals – Wholemeal bread and pasta, brown rice – these are digested slowly, as well as providing B-vitamins and fibre for a healthy gut.
Oatmeal – Another slow release, high fibre source of energy. Add some fresh fruit and you have an awesome breakfast.
Protein – Protein is digested slowly, so provides a slow energy release. There is no glucose spike with protein digestion, so no post-eating energy crash.
Beans – Contain complex carbohydrates that offer sustained energy throughout the day.
Eggs – With slow release energy and packed full of essential nutrients, eggs make a great breakfast.
Bran Cereal – Thanks to a healthy amount of B vitamins and complex carbohydrates and fibre, bran cereal is a food for lasting energy.
Apples – Contain high amounts of fibre and natural slow-release sugars to keep you going for a little while at least. Other studies have shown that apples contain quercetin, and other substances that are good for brain health.
Nuts – Packed of energy and healthy oils such as omega-3, nuts can be a really healthy snack. Stick to the natural form of the nuts, salted and dry roasted nuts are not so healthy.
Bananas – Giving you an immediate boost, as well and giving you a longer term energy supply. They also contain potassium, tyramine and B-vitamins which can help with memory and concentration.
Foods for Long Term Brain Health
Oily Fish – Contain omega-3 fatty acids that are a vital component of brain tissue, regularly eating these has been shown to prevent cognitive decline with age. Good fish for this are salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, herring and tuna. Unfortunately seafood tends to concentrate man-made pollutants, so current advice is to limit seafood consumption to two portions a week, or less if you are pregnant.
Dark Leafy Greens – Spinach, kale, chard, broccoli, watercress, and other nutrient-packed greens help promote energy with high levels of brain-boosting Folate, Vitamins C and K and calcium and beta-carotene.
Walnuts – Walnuts have the most omega-3 of any nut, so are an easy way to raise you omega-3 levels.
Avocados – Avocados have been found to improve lutein levels in the brain, which is related to improved cognition. The avocado’s mono-saturated fats also benefit the information-carrying nerves in the brain.
Flax Seeds – A source of omega-3 oils without the possible mercury content of oily fish.
Fresh Fruits – Contain anti-oxidants such as vitamin C that can help slow down age related mental decline.
To Sum It All Up
Many foods can help you stay alert through the day, and others can keep your brain healthy in the longer term, and some can do both.
Staying alert throughout the day is also helped by having the right environment around you, ideally with bright light and fresh air, and also by doing some light exercise whenever you can during your day.