Throughout the day, as you work at your job, attend school and keep your household glued together, a myriad of distractions compete for your attention, challenging you to stay focused and on task. Your brain uses a variety of amino acids to produce the hormones and neurotransmitters that help you carry out the seemingly endless demands of your day-to-day life. Some amino acids promote a calming effect while others are more activating. A varied diet with a balance of these amino acids is ideal for healthy brain function and will ensure optimal ability to focus.
Branched-chain Amino Acids
Branched-chain amino acids -- leucine, isoseucine and valine -- may help improve mental focus by competing with tryptophan, the amino acid famous for causing the ubiquitous post-Thanksgiving dinner nap. Tryptophan, which your brain converts to the calming neurotransmitter serotonin, is sold as a natural sleep aid in the form of 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5HTP. Serotonin has been associated with a type of brain-suppressing activity called central fatigue, according to the Teachers College of Columbia University. Consuming branched-chain amino acids, which use the same carrier molecule to help them cross the blood-brain barrier -- the selective filter that lets in only substances that the brain needs or uses -- may decrease the amount of serotonin the brain produces.
Glutamine, an amino acid found in many high-protein foods, such as meat, fish and beans, is converted into two neurotransmitters that are important for brain function: glutamate and GABA. Glutamate is activating to the brain and fosters learning and memory. GABA is a calming neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety and makes it easier to focus and learn. A study published in the 2012 issue of the journal "PLoS One" found that a balance between exciting and calming neurotransmitters is needed for optimal focus and learning. Researchers observed that GABA levels are highest when the brain is establishing an initial working memory during a new task and then decrease as the task is repeated.
Tryptophan, the amino acid that your brain uses to manufacture serotonin, improves mental focus by helping to reduce distractions, improve sensory processing and increase your awareness, according to Dr. Hyla Cass, author of the book "Natural Highs: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind-Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good All the Time." A study published in the August 2012 issue of the journal "Behavioural Brain Research" found that depletion of serotonin impaired learning and motivation in laboratory animals. In a laboratory animal study published in the October 2012 issue of the journal "Aging Cell," tryptophan supplementation helped prevent a type of nerve cell damage that can lead to Alzheimer's disease.
Serine, an amino acid that acts as a precursor to tryptophan, also combines with fatty acids to form a phosphlipid compound called phosphatidyl serine. This amino acid hybrid molecule improves learning, concentration and memory, according to Dr. Jonny Bowden, author of the book "The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer: The Surprising, Unbiased Truth About What You Should Do to Prevent Disease, Feel Great, and Have Optimum Health and Longevity." Phosphatidyl serine is found throughout the body and is most concentrated in the brain, where it is an important structural component of cell membranes and helps control the release of neurotransmitters.
- Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food and Nutrition Guide to Fuel Your Active Life; Julie Upton and Jenna Bell-Wilson
- Prescription for Nutritional Healing; Phyllis A. Balch
- Missouri University of Science and Technology: Long Term Potentiation
- Shippesburg University: Neurotransmitters
- PLoS One: Frontal GABA Levels Change During Working Memory
- The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer: The Surprising, Unbiased Truth About What You Should Do to Prevent Disease, Feel Great, and Have Optimum Health and Longevity; Jonny Bowden
- Behavioural Brain Research: Impaired Reward Learning and Intact Motivation After Serotonin Depletion in Rats
- Aging Cell: High Tryptophan Diet Reduces Ca1 Intraneuronal β-amyloid in the Triple Transgenic Mouse Model of Alzheimer's Disease
Tracey Roizman, DC is a writer and speaker on natural and preventive health care and a practicing chiropractor. She also holds a B.S. in nutritional biochemistry.