Meditation can do wonders for the mind, but no amount of time spent on the cushion is going to help you get your focus back if an underlying health issue or poor lifestyle choices are throwing you off track. Use this checklist of mind-messing reasons to crack the nut why you’ve got the attention span of a squirrel and what you can do about it.
1. You’re suffering from seasonal allergies.
If you’re one of 40 to 60 million Americans who experience allergic rhinitis symptoms, like a stuffy nose, itchy eyes, congestion, and fatigue, you may also have decreased concentration and focus due to your allergies, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
Strengthen your attention: Check the day’s breathing conditions on Weather.com’s Allergy Tracker. If the pollen count is high, keep windows closed to reduce your exposure to those outdoor allergens, like pollen, in your home. Also, wash bedding weekly to minimize exposure to dust mites, which also cause allergy symptoms. Since some antihistamines may make you sleepy, talk to your allergist about the best treatments that will help alleviate symptoms and not make you feel “out of it.”
2. You have food sensitivities.
Do you regularly feel bloated, fatigued, and moody after eating a particular food like ice cream or a bagel? This could be a sign that you have food sensitivities, possibly to dairy or gluten.
Strengthen your attention: Amy Shah, M.D., puts patients with these complaints on an elimination diet to identify the culprit of this discomfort. A 2013 study published in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly found that people who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivities may have neurological complications that include attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. While celiac disease has to be diagnosed by a doctor, if you suspect a specific type of food makes you feel groggy or impacts your ability to focus, consider removing it from your diet completely and see how you feel after a few weeks.
3. You are nutrient deficient.
Micronutrient deficiencies, especially in iron, have been associated with different cognitive impairments, including attention span, reports a 2014 study published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. An earlier 12-week study published in The British Journal of Nutrition saw significant improvements in the speed and accuracy of attention as well as mood and memory of 81 healthy children, ages 8 to 14, after receiving daily supplementation with a multivitamin or minerals, such as iron, copper, zinc, calcium, and magnesium.
Strengthen your attention: Ask your doctor for a blood test to find out if you’re anemic, nutrient deficient, or if there’s something else going on that may be preventing your body from optimizing the healthy foods you’re eating. Also, ask whether you should add certain supplements or increase your intake of particular foods, such as iron-rich leafy greens for iron.
4. Your sleep isn’t restful.
Logging the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night doesn’t always guarantee quality rest. You might still wake up feeling groggy and fatigued. What gives? A couple of things might be sabotaging your sweet slumber, such as a hidden sleep disorder or obstructive sleep apnea. It could also be that you’re just not getting enough rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep or slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is deep sleep. REM sleep and SWS restorative sleep play significant roles in memory by processing and consolidating information you learned that day. Lacking these types of sleep could impede your brain function the next day.
Strengthen your attention: Talk to your doctor about possibly getting a referral for a sleep specialist if you suspect you have a sleep disorder (or your partner says your snoring is waking the dead). Also, skip the nightcap. Drinking alcohol before going to sleep tends to suppress REM sleep early in the night. You’re also more likely to wake up (perhaps at an ungodly hour like 3 a.m.) from sleep once the alcohol is metabolized.
Related: An Explanation of REM Sleep and Dreams
5. You’re not eating enough.
An audible stomach groan confirms that your morning meeting is running long. Rather than focus on the agenda being discussed, all you can think about is your lunch, waiting in the office fridge for you. This common scenario can be particularly distressing for folks following a restrictive diet, especially if it’s low-carb. Your ability to focus and retain information goes out the window when the brain is deprived of nutrients, including carbs, reports a 2009 study published in Appetite.
Strengthen your attention: Most nutrition experts recommend eating every few hours to keep energy levels high and your brain circuits firing on all cylinders. When possible, incorporate a healthy fat, like avocado, which contains monounsaturated fatty acids and lutein that can help improve cognitive function, according to research published in The FASEB Journal last April.
6. You’re eating too much (and the wrong foods).
Before you polish off a bowl of pasta or greasy burger at lunchtime, consider the effects of the food coma. As crucial as carbs are for brain function, overdoing it may leave you feeling dozy. It takes a lot of energy to process those large portions, so less blood flow is accessible to help your noggin, which may throw you off your game at work. Carbs aren’t the only culprit: Earlier research has linked a high-fat, high-sugar diet to impacting cognitive function, particularly in the areas of learning and memory. Science has also found how long-term overeating may decrease memory. Unrelated research discovered that binging and obesity may alter the brain’s reward circuit, making it easier to become addicted to high-fat, high-sugar foods over time.
Strengthen your attention: Moderation is king. Make sure you’re getting a healthy, balanced meal (picture half the plate with vegetables and fruit, one quarter with a lean protein and another quarter with carbs), especially if you need to bring your A-game after eating.
7. You’re depressed or anxious, and don’t know it.
Ever find yourself rereading the same page and still nothing’s sinking in? Or you get a far-off look when your boss is talking to you? Constant zoning out throughout the day could be a byproduct of feeling tired and run down, which happens to the best of us. You also might have a lot of things on your mind, like family and finances, that are making you feel a little blue, too. Your brain is so fixated on one or many things that you can’t concentrate on the task at hand. These might all be signs that you are depressed or suffering from an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Strengthen your attention: If your concentration problems last for two weeks or longer and coincide with other symptoms of feeling sad or moody, make an appointment with your physician to get checked out. Consider also finding a therapist who can help you work through your those issues that are consuming your every thought. In the meantime, try one of these guided meditations to help calm those negative and intrusive thoughts.