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How to Fuel for Focus – performance nutrition for the mind

by Lisa McDowell / Detroit Red Wings

As a sports dietitian, I concentrate much of my work on how to fuel the demands of an elite athlete's body. However, a less obvious component of my job involves fueling the mind. Using only science-based evidence, and avoiding experimentation, nutritious and delicious meal plans are developed to support the brain for optimum focus, mental sharpness and even improved reaction time. Scientific research has provided a strong foundation to help us connect the dots between lifestyle and cognitive brain function. The foods we eat can also impact how we think and feel. And though our head only weighs around three pounds (which is 2-3% of your total body weight), the brain consumes a remarkable 20-30% of the calories we eat. If you do not feed your brain well, you will not reach your full performance potential.

Having the discipline to maximize exercise potential, expert breath control, sleep, stress management, positive relationships and nutritious food is the secret sauce to train the mind to gain a mental edge. Committing to these details on a daily basis develops stronger reflexes, intuition and the ability to compensate during challenging times. Athletes are frequently faced with the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and have a harder time staying in the parasympathetic zone (rest-and-digest). The fight-or-flight system is that rush you may feel if you've ever been on a rollercoaster. When the fight-or-flight system dominates, training tools to calm breathing rates can help with focus. The ability to work hard, and then transition to meaningful rest periods, optimizes recovery.

The American Academy of Neurology recently reported daily exercise slows aging by 10 years. Having excellent blood flow and oxygen delivered to the brain helps us in both the short and long term. The physical and emotional benefits of exercise last over 12 hours and improve sleep quality. This is very important because sleep is another factor for nourishing strong brain function and focus. If you want to be mentally sharp, pay attention to the detail of getting seven-eight hours of sleep each night. Inadequate sleep, after all, has been shown to correlate with a decline in brain function similar to being intoxicated. We've all been there - that feeling of fogginess the day after pulling an all-nighter. It's why all-nighters in college cramming for a big exam are less effective than getting a good night's rest. When we don't consistently get a full night's sleep, our bodies make too much of the stress hormone called cortisol. We can measure both blood and salivary levels of cortisol to understand how stress, sleep and hormones impact our overall well-being. Cortisol can trigger a domino effect that creates a constant fight-or-flight state which, over the long haul, results in a decreased number of stem cells that turn into neurons, resulting in a decrease in cognitive function. Cortisol testing can not only indicate whether an athlete is getting adequate sleep, it can also help us understand if they are under-recovering, over-training or consuming too much caffeine.

The Detroit Red Wings have many different ways to manage stress and acquire focus. You often see players arriving to games with headphones on in accordance with their pre-game ritual of listening to music. There is scientific research to support that this has a positive effect on performance. In a bit of a shout-out to Detroit, a recent study found listening to the music of Eminem resulted in running 10% faster! The rhythm, tempo and emotional resonance contributed to this increase. Music has also been connected with exercise feeling easier. In addition, listening to music can increase dopamine release and lowers blood pressure while increasing blood flow to the brain. Learning to play and read music also has a very powerful effect on brain development.


Healthy eating has long been associated with preventing Type II diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer, but it also improves mood, cognition and even memory. Oxygen delivery to the brain, as well as brain size, actually decreases if you are overweight. Eliminating the intake of processed food, simple sugar and trans fat is a great first step to improving overall health.

Additional benefits have been observed in various sources and are listed below:

I think many would agree that drinking a good cup of coffee or tea helps clear the morning cobwebs. A typical cup of coffee contains about 100 mg. of caffeine and is the right amount needed to get an increase in the feel-good chemical called dopamine. Of note, more is not better and can actually cause anxiety and disrupt sleep patterns. Be sure to choose great-quality coffee and avoid the instant powders which often contain mycotoxins.

Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3's are essential for healthy brain cell structure. The brain is made of 60% fat, but we must be careful to avoid the inflammatory fats (trans fat, heated omega-6-fatty acids, etc.) that cause damage in our body. Instead, it is best to consume healthier fats such as cold-water fatty fish, chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, avocado and seaweed. Omega-3 supplements like the one from Nordic Naturals has the proper certification by the NSF to be used in professional sports.

L-Theanine is an amino acid found in black and green tea. L-Theanine has been found to boost cognition and alpha brainwave activity which combats the beta waves created by stress. It also has a calming effect which can help with mental focus. Matcha tea contains five-times the amount found in regular green or black tea. Matcha also has 10-times as many antioxidants as green tea.

  Vitamin D
The receptors for Vitamin D in the brain contribute to nerve growth, protect neurons and help produce neurotransmitters. The heart pumps about 60 liters of blood into your brain every hour which delivers nutrients and oxygen for optimal function. If we are deficient of nutrients in our body, it also will impact our brain. Make sure you are either consuming foods high in Vitamin D or are spending time in direct sunlight to activate the body's own production of Vitamin D. Low levels of Vitamin D have been connected with a slower processing speed of information in the brain.

Chewing Gum
The locker room has stashes everywhere and you can often catch our coaching staff chewing several pieces of bubble gum. Many chew gum to help relieve stress and improve concentration with the thought being that the chewing mechanism increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Studies are inconclusive whether gum actually improves memory, attention and focus. If you do choose to chew gum, make sure you select a brand with natural ingredients.

Athletes often refer to "mind over matter" when achieving breakthrough performances. Therefore, fueling the mind can be just as important as fueling the body. We can all be champions in our own daily lives by recognizing ways to build resiliency and calm the fight-or-flight response. Our players are encouraged to take notice of the details when they experience peak performance. Did they have a relaxing mineral bath and a great sleep the night before a game? Or perhaps a relaxing lunch featuring fresh greens, wild Alaskan Salmon and lots of laughs with buddies? Or maybe it was just a traffic-free drive to The Joe while sipping on a great cup of Joe while jamming to Eminem?

"What the mind can conceive, it can achieve." -Napolean Hill

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