One of the most important qualities of being a high performer is the ability to focus and concentrate.
For some people, this discipline comes easy.
However, for most of us, it doesn’t take a lot to throw our mind off track.
Considering all of the distractions in the modern world, being able to stay fully focused on a task is akin to virtue.
Many people turn to all kinds of substances, tools, and practices to help keep their minds aimed at completing the task at hand.
In this article, we explore some of the more natural options for increasing focus and concentration.
We’ll specifically explore the best herbs for supporting mental focus and concentration.
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What Is Focus And Concentration
Focused attention refers to the ability to selectively attend to parts of all incoming stimuli. Kind of like a magnifying glass. 1Heitz RP, Engle RW. Focusing the spotlight: individual differences in visual attention control.
, J Exp Psychol Gen. 2007
In your field of vision, there is a lot going on. You see an infinite amount of incoming objects that you can choose to set your gaze on.
But when you focus, you consciously choose one out of that endless sea of stimuli.
Concentration refers to the degree of attention you give that object. 2Hughes RW, Hurlstone MJ, Marsh JE, Vachon F, Jones DM.
. Cognitive control of auditory distraction: impact of task difficulty, foreknowledge, and working memory capacity supports duplex-mechanism account.
, JJ Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2013
To some extent, the ability to concentrate depends on your own internal motivation and effort.3Sarter M, Gehring WJ, Kozak R.
. More attention must be paid: the neurobiology of attentional effort.
, Brain Res Rev. 2006
How much attention do you want to give this object, along with the amount effort you expend focusing on this object to determine your level of concentration.
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Of course, the amount of actual effort expended focusing is all relative depending on your level of mastery since one can reach a flow state where concentration is effortless.4Brennan R. Payne, Joshua J. Jackson, Soo Rim Noh, and Elizabeth A. L. Stine-Morrow. In The Zone: Flow State and Cognition in Older Adults
, Psychol Aging. 2011
So to truly increase your focus and concentration you must prime your mind to work optimally.
This includes eliminating as many stimuli as possible that can shift your attention away from, while simultaneously exerting more effort on your desired object of focus.5Patrik Sörqvist and John E. Marsh. How Concentration Shields Against Distraction
, Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2015
How To Naturally Increase Focus And Concentration
For many people, exerting more effort on attention to specific stimuli may be easier said than done.
Fortunately, there are natural ways to support your brain’s ability to exert this effort.
These methods are for the people who want to avoid exposing their body to the chemical milieu found in many modern drugs.
The most affordable way to increase focus and concentration is by establishing a deep breathing routine.
Breathing techniques like diaphragmatic breathing have been shown to improve instances of distraction, even in the case of ADHD.6Xiao Ma, Zi-Qi Yue, Zhu-Qing Gong, Hong Zhang, Nai-Yue Duan, Yu-Tong Shi, Gao-Xia Wei,* and You-Fa Li*. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults
, Front Psychol. 2017
There is evidence that certain brain-training games can help sharpen focus and improve your ability to learn new skills. 7Abdulrahman Al-Thaqib, Fahad Al-Sultan, Abdullah Al-Zahrani, Fahad Al-Kahtani, Khalid Al-Regaiey, Muhammad Iqbal, and Shahid Bashi. Brain Training Games Enhance Cognitive Function in Healthy Subjects, JMed Sci Monit Basic Res. 2018
Exercise has shown to be an effective way to boost your brain’s ability to focus along with overall cognitive ability. 8Julia C. Basso and Wendy A. Suzuki. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review
, Brain Plast. 2017
When you exercise your body produces lactic acid from broken down glucose.
This lactate then crosses the blood-brain-barrier and supports neural plasticity which enhances your brain’s ability to learn new skills. 9Yang J, Ruchti E, Petit JM, Jourdain P, Grenningloh G, Allaman I, Magistretti PJ.
. Lactate promotes plasticity gene expression by potentiating NMDA signaling in neurons., Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014
Sleep deprivation is one of the biggest contributors to overall cognitive decline.
Getting enough good quality, deep, restful sleep can give a tremendous boost to your brain’s ability to focus and concentrate.10Paula Alhola and Päivi Polo-Kantola. Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance, Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2007
Meditation has grown exponentially in popularity over the last few decades in the western world, primarily because of its ability to help the mind focus.
What was once considered woo-woo, has now gained mainstream acceptance, mostly due to the mountain of clinical evidence of its effectiveness.11Lutz A, Slagter HA, Dunne JD, Davidson RJ. Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation., Trends Cogn Sci. 2008
Like meditation, yoga has also become more popular in western culture due to its cognitive boosting effects and ability to help your mind concentrate.
Anyone who has ever committed to a yoga practice can attest to its ability to help you stay focused.
In fact, the entire point of yoga is centered around focusing your mind on your breath while holding a complex, physically exhausting pose. 12Sana Jarraya, Matthias Wagner, Mohamed Jarraya, and Florian A. Engel,*. 12 Weeks of Kindergarten-Based Yoga Practice Increases Visual Attention, Visual-Motor Precision and Decreases Behavior of Inattention and Hyperactivity in 5-Year-Old Children
, Front Psychol. 2019; 10: 796.
Herbs That Can Improve Focus And Concentration
Different herbs are capable of performing a number of supportive functions in the body.
Luckily, a number of them have cognitive-enhancing benefits.
They are truly nature’s gift.
Some of our favorite herbs that can sharpen your mind’s ability to focus and concentrate include:
- Rhodiola Rosea
- Bacopa Monnieri
- Gingko Biloba
- Pine Bark Extract
- Huperzine A
Controlling stress hormones, particularly cortisol, is an important feature of helping your mind better focus.
This is not to say that cortisol is either bad or good, but rather modulating it is important for optimal brain function.
This is what adaptogenic herbs like Ashwagandha do.
They specifically work on the HPA axis to give you more or less cortisol according to your circadian rhythm. 13DeRijk R, de Kloet ER. Corticosteroid receptor genetic polymorphisms and stress responsivity., Endocrine. 2005
Your natural circadian rhythm gives you more cortisol in the morning and less at night. This is due to cortisol’s stimulating qualities.
Getting enough cortisol at the right time of day can be a tremendous boost to your mind’s ability to focus. 14Abercrombie HC, Speck NS, Monticelli RM.. Endogenous cortisol elevations are related to memory facilitation only in individuals who are emotionally aroused.
, Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2006
Ashwagandha, botanically known as Withania Somnifera, is one of the more popular adaptogenic herbs that can modulate your cortisol output and lower anxiety. 15Salve J, Pate S, Debnath K, Langade D.. Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study., Cureus. 2019
Its ability to reduce your body’s stress response helps manage anxiety which can sharpen your ability to concentrate and complete tasks. 16Oliver J. Robinson,* Katherine Vytal, Brian R. Cornwell, and Christian Grillon. The impact of anxiety upon cognition: perspectives from human threat of shock studies, Front Hum Neurosci. 2013
Ashwagandha is more of a calming adaptogen compared to the others.
Rhodiola Rosea is another adaptogenic herb that works to modulate the HPA Axis and the body’s stress response.
As opposed to ashwagandha, Rhodiola is more physically stimulating while also capable of giving you more of a nootropic boost.
It has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to replenish qi (vital energy), activate blood circulation, unblock blood vessels, and smooth asthmatic condition.
Rhodiola has also been shown to improve overall cognitive function 17Spasov AA, Wikman GK, Mandrikov VB, Mironova IA, Neumoin VV.. A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of the stimulating and adaptogenic effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract on the fatigue of students caused by stress during an examination period with a repeated low-dose regimen., Phytomedicine. 2000 and reduce mental fatigue 18Lazarova MB, Petkov VD, Markovska VL, Petkov VV, Mosharrof A. Effects of meclofenoxate and Extr. Rhodiolae roseae L. on electroconvulsive shock-impaired learning and memory in rats. Methods Find Exp Clin Pharmacol. 1986 .
A number of studies have also shown Rhodiola’s ability to improve markers of focus and concentration while boosting your overall ability to learn new skills. 19Gou-ping Ma, Qun Zheng, Meng-bei Xu, Xiao-li Zhou, Lin Lu,* Zuo-xiao Li,* and Guo-Qing Zheng. Rhodiola rosea L. Improves Learning and Memory Function: Preclinical Evidence and Possible Mechanisms, Front Pharmacol. 2018
Bacopa Monnieri has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for years in the treatment of anxiety, poor memory, and cognitive deficit.20Sebastian Aguiarcorresponding author and Thomas Borowski. Neuropharmacological Review of the Nootropic Herb Bacopa monnieri, JRejuvenation Res. 2013
Its main mode of action is through Long-Term Potentiation intracellular signaling cascade molecule enhancement in the hippocampus.
This allows for the downregulation of the excitatory brain receptors while promoting neuroplasticity.21Saraf MK, Anand A, Prabhakar S.
. Scopolamine induced amnesia is reversed by Bacopa monniera through participation of kinase-CREB pathway., Neurochem Res. 2010
Bacopa has also been shown to increase the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin along with the mind-calming neurotransmitter GABA. 22Rajan KE, Singh HK, Parkavi A, Charles PD. Attenuation of 1-(m-chlorophenyl)-biguanide induced hippocampus-dependent memory impairment by a standardised extract of Bacopa monniera (BESEB CDRI-08)., Neurochem Res. 2011
Bacopa’s cognitive enhancing qualities may come from its multi-pronged approach of neuroplasticity and mood-boosting effects.23Pase MP, Kean J, Sarris J, Neale C, Scholey AB, Stough C. The cognitive-enhancing effects of Bacopa monnieri: a systematic review of randomized, controlled human clinical trials., J Altern Complement Med. 2012
Gingko Biloba has been a popular herbal remedy in western culture for years.
It has been used for a number of cognitive-enhancing purposes, most notably to support recovery from Alzheimer’s disease.24Weinmann S, Roll S, Schwarzbach C, Vauth C, Willich SN.. Effects of Ginkgo biloba in dementia: systematic review and meta-analysis., BMC Geriatr. 2010
It should be noted that its success in this arena has been controversial and mostly inconclusive.25Lon S Schneider , Steven T DeKosky, Martin R Farlow, Pierre N Tariot, Robert Hoerr, Meinhard Kieser. Curr Alzheimer Res. 2005
That’s not to say that Gingko can’t be useful in supporting cognitive enhancement.
In fact, Ginkgo Biloba has shown success in enhancing working memory and learning. 26Kaoru Sakatani, Masahiro Tanida, Naoyasu Hirao, Naohiro Takemura. Ginkobiloba Extract Improves Working Memory Performance in Middle-Aged Women: Role of Asymmetry of Prefrontal Cortex Activity During a Working Memory Task
, Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014
Gingko Biloba works through several different modalities.
It has shown an ability to promote acetyl-choline (ACh) release in hippocampal synaptosomes. 27J Kehr, S Yoshitake, S Ijiri, E Koch, M Nöldner, T Yoshitake. Ginkgo Biloba Leaf Extract (EGb 761®) and Its Specific Acylated Flavonol Constituents Increase Dopamine and Acetylcholine Levels in the Rat Medial Prefrontal Cortex: Possible Implications for the Cognitive Enhancing Properties of EGb 761®
, Int Psychogeriatr. 2012
This boosting of the cholinergic system is known to influence cognitive processes.
Gingko has also shown antioxidant properties that may play an important role in the neuroprotection through free-radical scavenging.28M. T. Droy-Lefaix. Effect of the antioxidant action of Ginkgo biloba extract (EGb 761) on aging and oxidative stress
, Age (Omaha). 1997
This 1-2 punch of offense and defense makes Gingko Biloba a prime candidate to promote optimal focus and concentration.
Pine Bark Extract
Pine bark extract, also known as Pycnogenol, is derived from the bark of the French maritime pine. Its use dates back thousands of years.
In fact, Pine Bark Extract’s cognitive-enhancing effects may come from its anti-inflammatory properties.
Pine bark extract’s robust brain-defensive, anti-oxident profile includes: 30Packer L, Rimbach G, Virgili F. Antioxidant activity and biologic properties of a procyanidin-rich extract from pine (Pinus maritima) bark, pycnogenol., Free Radic Biol Med. 1999
- being a potent free radical scavenger,
- protecting DNA from damage
- increasing the synthesis of antioxidant enzymes
- protecting other endogenous antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin E, and glutathione) from oxidative damage
Clinical studies have confirmed pine bark extract’s potent ability to boost sustained attention, memory, and executive functioning. 31Luzzi R, Belcaro G, Zulli C, Cesarone MR, Cornelli U, Dugall M, Hosoi M, Feragalli B. Pycnogenol® supplementation improves cognitive function, attention and mental performance in students., Panminerva Med. 2011
Like some other herbs on this list, pine bark extract uses a strong defensive profile to promote the mind’s focus and concentration capabilities. 32Tamara Simpson, * Christina Kure, and Con Stough. Assessing the Efficacy and Mechanisms of Pycnogenol® on Cognitive Aging From In Vitro Animal and Human Studies, Front Pharmacol. 2019
Huperzine A is an alkaloid isolated from Chinese club moss and has been used for centuries in Chinese folk medicine for the treatment of contusion, strain, swelling, and schizophrenia.
It is a potent acetylcholinesterase inhibitor.
In fact, it is one of the most potent acetylcholinesterase inhibitors available over-the-counter. 33Zhang HY, Liang YQ, Tang XC, He XC, Bai DL. Stereoselectivities of enantiomers of huperzine A in protection against beta-amyloid(25-35)-induced injury in PC12 and NG108-15 cells and cholinesterase inhibition in mice., Neurosci Lett. 2002
This means that huperzine A helps to eliminate the enzyme, acetylcholinesterase.
Acetylcholinesterase is an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine and lowers the potency of the brain’s cholinergic system.34Tonduli LS, Testylier G, Masqueliez C, Lallement G, Monmaur P.. Effects of Huperzine used as pre-treatment against soman-induced seizures., Neurotoxicology. 2001
Simply boosting acetylcholine in the brain alone helps overall cognitive ability including memory, learning, focus, and concentration. 35Michael E. Hasselmo. The Role of Acetylcholine in Learning and Memory, Curr Opin Neurobiol 2009
There is also Huperzine A’s ability to inhibit glutamate activity in the NMDA receptor. 36Ved HS, Koenig ML, Dave JR, Doctor BP. Huperzine A, a potential therapeutic agent for dementia, reduces neuronal cell death caused by glutamate., Neuroreport. 1997
Glutamate excitotoxicity is at the heart of many neurodegenerative diseases and controlling this can certainly help boost mental acuity.
Nature has given us the ability to naturally boost our overall cognitive function.
Natural, herbal solutions are a proven, safe way to hack your brain and get better performance.
While mental strength is a virtue, you can always support your mind with herbs that are easily obtainable in both isolated form or preformulated in a stack.