That mid-morning crash you get after having a cup of coffee and a muffin for breakfast might be acceptable if you work at a desk, but imagine if your ability to focus and respond had more serious consequences. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is currently working with the Center of Nutrition, Learning, and Memory (CNLM) to study how nutrients and exercise can boost brain performance. And what they’re learning can help everyone’s productivity in the long term.
Through a collaboration between the University of Illinois and Abbott, scientists at the CNLM are combining physical exercise with the consumption of lutein to measure how the regimen improves concentration, focus, and memory for servicemen.
Matt Kuchan, a nutrition scientist at Abbott and the CNLM, is studying airmen, including drone pilot teams, who work at a computer screens. "Their job is similar to a job in an office," he says.
The research is finding that lutein plays a pivotal role in maintaining your attention. The naturally occurring antioxidant is most commonly found in our retinas, and the lack of it has long been linked to poor eye health.
Lutein also promotes focus, attention, and mental stamina, which are as important to airmen as civilians, says Kuchan. "Lutein is known to speed up brain activity, which helps in memory and decision making," he explains. "Research says the brain works faster when supplemented with lutein because it makes you feel mentally fresh. You’re able to concentrate longer."
However, our bodies don't manufacture lutein without the proper diet. "It’s rooted in what your doctor, mom, and Popeye have been telling us since we were kids: Eat your spinach," says Kuchan. "Spinach is rich in lutein, and it fuels our brains much better than caffeine." Spinach isn’t the only food on the lutein menu; other sources include leafy greens, egg yolks (particularly those from range-fed chickens), peas, cantaloupe, and other colored fruits.
To get enough, Kuchan recommends eating two eggs, a cup of spinach, an orange, a serving of cantaloupe and a serving of peas per day. "Lutein is super available from egg yolks, but the interesting thing about leafy greens is that lutein is cemented into the structure and the best way to get it is to lightly cook them." Another option is to take a lutein supplement.
"When you need more mental alertness, many of us often turn to coffee and sugar," says Kuchan. "Instead, have lutein at lunch to maintain your focus."
To supercharge your focus, pair lutein with exercise. The CNLM study is finding that food and exercise work better together to fuel the brain. "There is a bigger effect when you combine the right nutrients with exercise, than by doing either practice alone," says Kuchan.
That’s because exercise and lutein fuel the brain in different ways. "When you work out, your muscles release special compounds into the blood that help stimulate the brain," he says. Running, walking, biking, or taking a workout class provides mental stimulation, which is important for brain health. "Nutrients affect the brain indirectly by helping with the production of neurotransmitters," he explains. "These two work through different mechanisms and are better when combined."
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix because the antioxidant takes one to two days to be absorbed into the body. As Kuchan reminds us, "Nothing comes easy in nature." Getting the right amount of lutein necessitates a lifestyle change. "We’re finding that after giving the supplement [to the airmen] for three months, it takes three to four or even more months of good habits to feel the effect," says Kuchan. "A lifestyle change that focuses on fueling the body and brain will pay dividends if you stick with it."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Matt Kuchan's focus was studying drone pilots. The Air Force has since clarified that the area of study extends to airmen, including drone pilot teams.