It is not uncommon to be distracted in today’s world. During these challenging times, the usual everyday stressors and technological interruptions are compounded by current events, polarizing topics, and the economy. The world is struggling emotionally and mentally as its inhabitants learn to cope with its twists and turns and regain their balance. With all that’s going on, and with the pace of modern society, it is no wonder that the ability to pay attention is waning for so many.
Stress and overwhelm are probably the most common reasons for the inability to focus or concentrate, and they can result in more negative downstream effects in the brain and body. In one of my previous articles, I discussed this interaction when I explained how being in a constant state of urgency can impact brain processing and cognitive functioning:
It has been demonstrated that stress causes functional changes of the brain resulting in enlargement of the “fight or flight” area (the amygdala) and shrinkage of the memory center (the hippocampus). (source, source) A bombardment of emotional triggers can also “shut-down” the area of the executive function, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). (source, source) These effects result in negative thinking and “brain fog” that make rational decision-making, planning, organization, focus, and follow through more difficult. (source, source) Hence the expression, “stress makes you stupid.”
Long-term stress also has physical implications. Studies have shown that it depletes immune function and is associated with autoimmunity. Stress has been linked to gastrointestinal disorders, fatigue, hormonal imbalances, and practically every symptom of every organ system.
Furthermore, this connection between our brain and body is reciprocal. In other words, there is a feedback loop of mental stress causing physical symptoms that in turn leads to further emotional strain. For example, the gut and brain have shared neural pathways. Referred to as the gut-brain axis, this concept describes how the microbes in our bellies impact our mood and how our brain impacts our digestive function. (source) A bit more “far out,” is recent research that “microbiome transplants,” aka “fecal transplants” have caused changes in personality and behavior in the recipient that mirrors their donor. (source) You may have heard of this occurring in heart transplant recipients, but it seems like the microbiome is an organ system that also influences our personality and health in more than just one way.
Seven Other Things That May Be Robbing You of Your Focus
Besides stress (factor one), there are many other reasons why one’s ability to focus is compromised. (source, source, source) Stress is intimately interlinked with many of them.
Below are some of the most common.
1. Lack of Sleep
Sleep is important for:
- memory consolidation
- forming neural pathways for integrating new information
- cleansing of the glymphatic system– the “brain detox” system which aids in the removal of “neurotoxic substances” and enhancing circulatory and lymph flow
- providing mood support, healing, rejuvenation, and energy (source, source, source)
For all these reasons, a lack of good quality sleep can negatively affect how the brain processes information and how it functions. (Click here to review some basic sleep hygiene hacks.)
2. ADHD (Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder) & ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)
For those with ADHD/ADD, being told to try harder or focus more usually makes the problem worse, as their issues are often related to an imbalance in the brain’s executive function center, the prefrontal cortex.
Dr. Amen has classified seven types of ADHD/ADD, each with their own distinct brain patterns. He discusses a commonly shared pattern among them, an overactivity in the prefrontal cortex, in an informative blog:
ADD/ADHD, typically occurs as a result of neurological dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex. When people with ADD try to concentrate, PFC activity decreases rather than increases as it does in the normal brains of control group subjects. As such, people with ADD can have poor internal supervision, short attention span, distractibility, disorganization, and hyperactivity (although only half the people with ADD are hyperactive), impulse control problems, difficulty learning from past errors, lack of forethought, and procrastination.
Assessing brain patterns to find the best neurotransmitter and supplement recommendations, gut-brain support, nutritional interventions, lifestyle, and essential oils may be helpful for those struggling with ADD/ADHD. (source, source)
3. Hormonal Imbalances
Stress impacts hormones and hormones influence brain neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which impacts focus. I wrote a post on how naturopathic medicine and essential oils can be helpful for balancing out all of these aspects. You can read it here.
4. Gut Health
As mentioned above, digestion and gut health, can impact brain health. If the brain is inflamed from a gut issue, it will have systematic effects on the body and mind. (source, source) Furthermore, the microbiome has been associated with many mental and cognitive health conditions. This is why probiotics may support neurological and mood states.
5. Lack of Brain Food
Not providing the brain with the vital nutrients it needs can cause issues with mental and emotional balance. Many people who are on elimination and restrictive diets should take heed, as this could negatively impact the brain.
6. Not Being Aware of Priorities or Embracing Acceptance
Not being aware of one’s own values and/or not accepting the current situation as it is can keep one stressed and fixated on the problem rather than focusing on the solution. Sometimes this can be the result of an underlying imbalance in the brain’s emotional center, such as the limbic system or temporal lobe. It can also simply be one has a lack of motivation and clarity on why and where to focus their energy. In this latter instance, my follow up post on motivation and the essential oils below may be just what is needed. To read more about acceptance and solutions to achieve it, click here.
Medications such as antianxiety drugs, antihistamines, and common heart medications can impact memory and cognition. Talk to your doctor if you think you are being negatively affected.
The Digitally Distracted World
Beyond the physical and mindset reasons for lack of focus, there is no doubt that our smartphones and digital tools have only contributed more to our society’s fragmentation of thought processes and distraction. This is a whole other topic that comprises a discussion of deep work, multi-tasking, social media marketing, psychology, and much more.
Thankfully, the ability to “Reclaim Ourselves in the Modern World,” is beautifully summarized in a recent podcast with Cal Newport, interviewed by Chris Kresser. They discuss:
- How digital technologies like smartphones and social media interfere with our ability to focus without distraction and why that matters
- The link between our attention and focus, and our physical and mental health and well-being
- What deep work is, how it helps us solve our most important problems, and why it is being threatened today
- Why email led to a way of working that Cal calls the “hyperactive hive mind” and how that destroys our productivity and hijacks our attention
- Why multitasking is a myth
- The most effective strategies for reclaiming our attention, creativity, and peace of mind
- How to embrace what Cal calls “slow productivity and anti-busyness” to dramatically improve the quality of your life (source)
Naturopathic Medicine & Essential Oils for Treating the Root Cause of Focus Issues
As a naturopathic and functional medicine doctor, I believe the best means to enhance any brain processing issue is to address and treat the root cause. This usually requires a combination approach. For example, oftentimes I am assessing for nutrient deficiencies, technology addiction, sleep issues, and gut disorders in conjunction with addressing various other factors related to brain and mental health issues.
From this information, a personalized, lifestyle and wellness program can be implemented, including the use of essential oils.
Four Essential Oils for Enhancing Focus
Essential oils are my go-to tool for modulating emotional and mental health and cognition. They support the brain at the psychological, physiological, structural, functional, and biochemical levels. Essential oils are a perfect complement to naturopathic philosophy.
Some of my favorite oils for focus include:
- Peppermint oil, which not only supports the gut but also enhances attention and exercise performance. In one recent, small study, “Both cinnamon and peppermint administration led to increased ratings of alertness, decreased temporal demand, and decreased frustration over the course of the driving scenario. In addition, peppermint scent reduced anxiety and fatigue.”
- Rosemary oil, which has many studies on how it aids memory and is stimulating to the nervous system.
- Sage oil, which has been shown to also assist with cognition and brain health support.
- Jasmine oil and many of the oils in the acceptance blend also have evidence for supporting the brain’s ability to concentrate, pay attention, and stay balanced.
If you are tired of feeling a lack of focus and attention and an inability to concentrate, it may be time to address the root cause. A naturopathic or functional medicine doctor can help you to find what may be impacting your cognition and provide you with tools, such as essential oils, to help you achieve more brain boosting abilities.
If you’d like to learn more about how naturopathic medicine can support you, rather than trying to force solutions that may not be in your best interest, click on this link or the one below.
We all deserve to live life from a place of intention and focus.
Do you agree?
How will you make it a priority to achieve it?
What essential oils have you found helpful?
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Mental Health Resources
If you are in need of additional support and professional health, please reach out!
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) — Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line — Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor
- Lifeline Crisis Chat — Chat online with a specialist who can provide emotional support, crisis intervention and suicide prevention services at www.crisischat.org
Other Uplifting Resources
The Tapping Solution, A Technique to Lower Cortisol and Reduce Stress- Podcast interview by Dr. Kara Fitzgerald with Nick Ortner.
Stress management tips and resources
Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
According to experts and the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no approved standard of care treatment, cure, or preventative for COVID-19. Supportive measures and containment are in full force as a result. Please see the CDC website and your state’s website for more information and updates. They also state when to contact your physician related to symptoms and travel history, exposures. Please read my more detailed article on this subject here.
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.