The best foods to increase alertness are foods rich in protein. Mental alertness depends on two brain chemicals –norepinephrine and dopamine, both made from an amino acid called tyrosine. Norepinephrine has adrenalin-like effects. It travels through the bloodstream to raise brain activity, thereby increasing alertness and concentration. Dopamine ensures proper immune and autonomic nervous system function and proper muscle co-ordination. Inability of the body to synthesize dopamine is a major cause for age-related cognitive decline.
Norepinephrine and dopamine are easily oxidized, and as such, tyrosine requires regular replenishment. The best sources of such amino acids are protein-rich foods, such as fish, eggs, poultry and meat. These foods break down into their amino acid building blocks during digestion, facilitating the synthesis of these brain chemicals.
The neurotransmitter acetylcholine plays a major role in storage and recall of memory, and is partially responsible for concentration and focus. Increased consumption of choline leads to higher production of acetylcholine, which in turn reduces fatigue and insomnia, and improve nerve-muscle co-ordination.
Soybeans, egg yolks, butter, peanuts, potatoes, cauliflower, lentils, oats, sesame seeds and flax seeds are all foods high in choline.
Dr. David N. Figlio of the University of Florida conducted research that found that some schools provided higher than normal carbohydrates and calories in lunch menus on test days to boost alertness and improve scores. A follow-up study on 23 school districts in Virginia indicated that schools that hiked calories and carbohydrates in meals on test days did raise grades by 6 to 11 percent. The enhanced sugar and simple carbohydrates consumed immediately before taking the tests improved alertness and ability to concentrate. Such a boost lasts for a few hours.
What Dr David’s study conclusively proved is that nourishment as a whole improves brain function. This study is too small to make a definite conclusion about the specific role of calories and carbohydrates improving alertness and mental faculties, and other studies do not provide any corroborating evidence to this effect.
A high-carbohydrate meal does increase the brain's tryptophan levels, however, which in turn increase serotonin levels. Increased serotonin keeps anxiety at bay. Low serotonin levels produce insomnia and depression, aggressive behavior, increased sensitivity to pain and obsessive-compulsive eating disorders. Folic acid deficiency causes serotonin levels in the brain to decrease.
Following are some foods that increase alertness:
- Low-fat cottage cheese, yogurt, scrambled eggs, peanut butter, hot cereal, English muffins and whole grain toast are good breakfast options.
- Consumption of poultry, hard-boiled eggs, greens, fish, particularly wild salmon, and veggies in lunch helps to avoid a mid-afternoon slump.
- Greens and vegetables are an absolute must, as they provide the body with fiber, phytochemicals and other nutrients, besides protein.
- Nuts, such as walnut and almonds, and seeds, such as pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, nourish the brain and are great snack options. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds contain tryptophan, which the brain processes into serotonin.
- Include antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables in the diet to protect dopamine-using neurons from free radical damage.
- Blueberries improve memory and can also help to prevent short-term memory loss. Eat fresh blueberries, or blueberries from energy bars, dried fruit, granola or smoothies.
- Green tea contains caffeine and L-theanine, a unique amino acid. This combination induces relaxation without causing drowsiness, and helps improve mood, alertness, concentration, learning and memory while reducing stress and nervous tension.
- Drink coffee in moderation. One or two cups each day help retain mental faculties, but excessive coffee consumption can minimize your alertness and focus.
- A cup of cooked spinach or a glass of orange juice provides the required daily quantity of folic acids.
Carbohydrate-rich foods are a mixed blessing. They induce relaxation and calmness, which may not always be a good idea when undertaking certain tasks. Those with a very busy schedule would do well to avoid foods rich in carbohydrates, such as potatoes, pasta, couscous, beans and rice for lunch. Those planning to work late at night would do well to skip carbs for dinner as well.
Avoid French fries, colas and other processed foods for lunch if you want to remain alert for the rest of the day. Among breakfast foods, especially avoid high fat croissants and bagels with cream cheese. Processed foods high in fat reduce the effectiveness of the immune system and cam increase anxiety. Caffeine in cola and soda may provide a momentary blast of mental alertness, but such alertness comes down with equal, if not more rapidity.
- Lawrence, Star. “Eat to Boost Mental Alertness." https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=56583. Retrieved July 21, 2011.
- "Food, Mood, and Neurotransmittors." https://frank.mtsu.edu/~studskl/food.html. Retrieved July 21, 2011.
- "Nourish – Proteins." https://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/proteins.html. Retrieved July 21, 2011.
- Leeward Community College. "Exam Season Foods." https://emedia.leeward.hawaii.edu/kamanao/story/exam-season-foods. Retrieved JUly 21, 2011.
- WHFoods. "Choline." https://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=50. Retrieved July 21, 2011.