It seems that more than ever in nearly two decades of practice, my clients are complaining of being easily distracted and having difficulty focusing. Drugs like Ritalin, Adderal, and other stimulants don’t do anything to heal the cause. In order to change this epidemic trend, I believe we need to understand what’s really going on, and in my opinion, the crux of the issue often lies in our digestion.
The digestive tract is responsible for absorbing the nutrients that are utilized by the whole body and are essential for a sharp mind. Good nutrition is important, but your diet is only as useful as your ability to absorb it. Regardless of how much wheat grass juice or expensive supplements you consume, you could be missing out on their value if your digestion isn’t functioning well.
Eastern medicinal perspectives can give us a better sense of the big picture here. In both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda (the medical system of India), good digestion is seen as central to optimal overall health, and digestive imbalance is regarded as the origin of a wide range of health problems.
TCM describes four primary functions of the digestive system – receiving, ripening, transforming, and transporting. The first two happen in the stomach – the “receiving” of food after you swallow it, and the “ripening” of the food, meaning the initial breakdown that occurs as the stomach’s acids start to act on the food. Then the “transformation” refers to rendering the food into basic nutritional building blocks that the body can utilize, and “transportation” means distributing these nutrients to wherever they’re needed (clearly there’s some overlap with the circulatory system).
These functions coincide pretty well with our Western framework of digestion, but here’s one that’s a bit outside that box. In TCM, each major organ system is considered to govern a certain facet of our consciousness, and the digestive system relates to the intellect, called the . The represents the ability to focus and extract ideas, and if you think about it, it’s not so different from what the body does with food. As food moves through the digestive tract, we pull what’s valuable out of it and incorporate it into ourselves — and a strong intellect does the same with the ideas it’s exposed to.
In fact, we could see all four of the food-digesting functions — receive, ripen, transform, and transport — as applying also to ideas. We must be receptive to the idea (receive). Then we chew on it and comprehend it (ripen). Next we assimilate it and make it our own (transform). And finally, the idea becomes accessible in whatever circumstances we need it (transport).
If the physical digestive faculties are disturbed, the mental digestive faculties will be compromised as well. I’ve seen this countless times, most commonly as ADD/ADHD due to food sensitivities. Nearly every person with difficulty focusing — especially kids — is routinely eating something their body dislikes, and the burden it causes to the digestive tract impairs mental function. Unsettled guts make for an unsettled mind.
Besides food sensitivities, I’ve often seen cloudy thinking in patients who have taken antibiotics recently, or repeatedly in the past. Besides killing bacteria that are causing an infection, antibiotics tend to kill the beneficial bacteria in your intestines that are integral to nutrient absorption and the integrity of your gut lining. There’s growing evidence for the role of the “gut-brain axis” — the close relationship between gut health and brain health — in regulating mood and mental function. Also, because mental digestion and food digestion operate through the same mechanisms, overeating, eating too fast, or any other behaviors that harm physical digestion aren’t conducive to good focus and the “absorption” of ideas.
Speaking of overeating, one could make the case that the Information Age has caused an epidemic of “mental overeating.” The volume of data we’re exposed to in the form of emails, texts, videos, posts, tweets, articles, photos, and more, is like living at an all-you-can-eat buffet. We’re inundated with information to process, and it streams through our lives at an ever-increasing pace.
So, it’s unsurprising that we find it hard to sit quietly and focus on just one thing. Moreover, the demand of sifting through so much data has forced us to get better at skimming — engaging at a relatively shallow level. It’s not unlike a wine tasting where you swish mouthful after mouthful and spit it all out. You get a taste of lots of ideas without digesting anything. But when you want to go deep — to really understand and learn, or to be fully present with someone — you may find you’re out of practice.
If you want better mental focus, there are two main strategies I recommend:
First, do everything you can to support healthy digestion and good nutrition. Take probiotics and/or consume cultured foods to stock your intestines with beneficial microbes. Eat slowly, chew thoroughly, savor your food, and stop eating when you feel like you’ve eaten about 80 percent of your capacity. Eat in a consistent way – at roughly the same times and amounts day after day. Cut out any foods you’re sensitive to, and reduce your consumption of simple carbohydrates (sugar, corn syrup, other sweeteners, and flour) as much as possible. The brain is composed of approximately 60% fat, so healthy fats — especially the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA — are an essential part of a brain-supportive diet, as are fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. Finally, try to eat with as little stress, guilt, or mental processing as possible. Stop, sit down, put away your phone and computer, and feed yourself.
Second, treat your attention like a muscle. You must work it to make it stronger. Practice holding your focus. One of the best ways to do this is through meditation, and the simplest approach is to simply close your eyes and “watch” your breathing. Watch yourself inhale and exhale and inhale and exhale, and every time you discover that you’ve lost your focus and you’re following some thought train instead, bring yourself back to your breath. Start with one minute and gradually lengthen your sessions. Your attention is limited and valuable. If you want it to be available when you need it, curb the habit of continuously engaging with devices and other forms of purposeless mental digestion. You’ll discover that you’re not just more productive, but your relationships will improve and your overall experience of life will be richer.
© Briana Borten and Dr. Peter Borten, authors of The Well Life: How to Use Structure, Sweetness, and Space to Create Balance, Happiness, and Peace.