Ever walk into a room, only to forget the reason? Run to the store and return home without the needed item? Search for your glasses, only to find them resting on your head?
Momentary lapses of focus happen. But when they start to accumulate, everything from work performance to study skills to life skills can suffer. Luckily, simple dietary and lifestyle adjustments, along with herbal supplements, can make a world of difference—even for more serious conditions like attention deficit disorder.
Momentary lapses of focus happen. But when they start to accumulate, everything from work performance to study skills to life skills can suffer.
First, let’s look at our mental capacity. Yoga outlines three aspects of this: the power to learn (dhi), the power to retain (dhriti), and the power to recall (smriti). Each is important to navigate life. To be focused and clear, we need each to be in balance with itself and with the others.
The three may become out of balance in four main ways:
- lack of proper nutrients
- accumulated toxins (ama)
- instability (vata imbalance)
- stagnation (kapha imbalance)
The result is that we may hear ourselves repeating “I can’t remember” more often than we would like. To foster greater clarity and focus for the school year, work year, and calendar year, try these simple and powerful tips.
Nourish Your Brain
To be intelligent, we need to eat intelligent food. This means fresh food that is “close to the earth,” i.e., is not processed. Eat fresh fruits with vibrant and diverse colors to provide essential antioxidants. Include dark green, organic vegetables rich in chlorophyll, which contain important vitamins and minerals for your brain. Incorporate fish oil (for vegetarian diets, nuts, seeds, and algae oil), as they contain important omega 3s and DHA fatty acids needed for proper brain function. And don’t forget to include foods rich in important memory-enhancing minerals: iron (fish, beans, spinach), magnesium (leafy greens, avocados, grains), and zinc (chickpeas, cashews, almonds).
To be intelligent, we need to eat intelligent food.
Process Your Emotions
While the stomach digests foods, the brain digests every single sense impression of the day—sights, sounds, and feelings. When left unprocessed, these create mental indigestion (ama). Keep your mind clear with this simple practice. Before you sleep, go backward through your day. Envision a scene from 30 minutes earlier, and observe the thoughts, feelings, and emotions. When you have finished, then see a scene from 30 minutes before that. Keep going back in 30-minute increments until you reach the morning when you woke up. This will not only process your day, but help improve your memory.
Often we can’t recall what we just learned or read because we weren’t truly there in the first place. Our eyes may be present, but our minds are drifting into outer space. When information goes “in one ear and out the other,” it is an indication of too much air element (vata) in the system. One antidote is to practice mindfulness. Pay close attention to your physical movements throughout the day, connecting your awareness to your actions. Build focus by slowing down and doing one thing at a time (affectionately called mono-tasking). This practice anchors our minds to the present, making it easier to learn, retain, and then recall information in the future.
Turn to Herbal Allies
Plant medicine can help improve our focus and mental clarity, especially when combined with the above practices. A few herbal allies include:
Ginkgo (ginkgo biloba): The leaf looks like a lung or a brain, depending on who you talk to, which according to the doctrine of signatures would point to its intended use. Traditionally, Chinese medicine utilized it for lung conditions. But since the 1960s, pharmacological studies have focused on its use for the brain. They found that one of its primary actions is to increase blood supply to the brain, and today herbalists use it for difficulties with concentration and memory, absentmindedness, confusion, lack of energy, and anxiety. It improves focus and clarity, while also protecting the brain from possible damage.
Gotu Kola (centella asiatica): If you ever suffered from “inner muddle,” gotu kola is your friend. Charaka, the father of ayurveda, called it the “divine great drug.” It is a brain tonic, meaning you can take it for a long period of time to maintain healthy neurotransmitter function. It improves the flow of oxygen to the brain, helping you feel awake and stimulated without feeling tired. Not only does this herbal ally promote alertness and memory, but it also balances the overall nervous system.
Brahmi (bacopa monniera): Often called “gotu kola” in ancient ayurvedic texts, it is a completely different plant from the one above. The word actually means “god-like,” mostly in reference to Brahma, but also perhaps because it conveys “god-like” mental prowess to those who take it. Brahmi balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain and strengthens all three aspects of mental ability: learning new information, retaining what we learn, and recalling what we have learned.
Eleuthero: Formally known as Siberian ginseng, eleuthero is a mild adaptogen ("rasayana" in ayurveda). Adaptogens are herbs that strengthen the overall function of the body through nonspecific (i.e., normalizing) actions that counter physical, emotional, and environmental stresses. Each adaptogen has a secondary action, and eleuthero’s is to strengthen memory and clear the head. It is known to benefit both men and women, young and old. It is such a great herbal ally that one of China’s great naturalists, Li Shih Chen, wrote in the 16th century: “I’d rather have a handful of eleuthero than a cartload of gold and jewels.”
Each of these herbs can be taken for long periods of time. Gotu kola and brahmi can be taken as a tea or tincture, and eleuthero as a powder, decoction, or tincture. Each may have warnings when combined with pharmaceuticals or specific health concerns. Always consult your primary health care provider when adopting new health regimens.