Ask Kirsten – instead of smart drugs, try smart foods

Kirsten Chick is our resident expert nutritionist, here to help with all your food and health questions. This month, we’ve been asked how you can improve your ability to concentrate and focus without resorting to so-called ‘smart drugs’. It’s your chance to Ask Kirsten…

Omega 3 fish oil

Dear Kirsten

A friend at work has been taking prescription medication to help with focus and concentration. Is there a natural alternative that will help me stay on top of the game?

Slavka, Haywards Heath

It’s becoming more popular now to take brain stimulants such as Adderall and Provigil to stay focused, alert and productive through the day. These often work by affecting your levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which increases motivation, concentration, pleasure and even euphoria. However, there are indeed more natural ways to boost your brain power without many of the side effects of the so-called ‘smart drugs’.

Adderall and Dexedrine, for example, are amphetamine drugs, and the long list of common and very common side effects include: anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, palpitations, diarrhea, heartburn, nausea, headaches, dizziness, painful periods and even impotence. Provigil and Nuvigil are neurotransmitter stimulants with an even longer list of harmful side effects.

So why not eat right for better results? Here are six natural and effective alternatives you can try to avoid the potential damage of pharmaceutical drugs.


Ask Kirsten - smart food instead of smart drugs on Title Sussex Magazine Keep your blood sugar stable
Your brain needs a steady and high supply of energy. It’s often the first to feel the effects of blood sugar hits and crashes. So while sugar will light up your dopamine receptors like a firework display, it will quickly drop again until you get into an addictive cycle. So instead…

  • Keep sugar and refined carbohydrates (white bread/rice/pasta/flour) to a minimum
  • Include protein at breakfast (eggs, nuts, seeds etc.)
  • Eat regular, balanced meals
  • Drink adequate water (approx. 1.5-2 litres daily)

2 Feed your brain coconut oil
Your brain can actually make more energy from coconut oil than from sugar, so cook with it, and melt it into smoothies and porridge.

3 Keep your brain cogs fish oiled
DHA is an omega 3 found in fish oil, and your brain levels need to be high. A study that improved DHA levels in healthy adults by supplementing with fish oil showed improvements in mental flexibility, nonverbal reasoning, working memory and vocabulary.

4 Nurture your gut to balance your neurotransmitters
Recent research highlights that you produce most of your dopamine in your gut. To support this, you need to keep inflammation low and your gut microbes in a healthy balance. A spoonful a day of raw sauerkraut (cultured cabbage) or natural yoghurt may be helpful here, or a gentle but good quality probiotic supplement. Too much too quickly can have the opposite effect, however, so downing vast quantities won’t help you concentrate more.

5 Add phosphatidylserine for memory and concentration
Phosphatidylserine is a key ingredient for brain and nerve cells. Studies have shown it to help you focus attention and concentrate, reason and problem solve, learn and recall information, form short term memories, consolidate long term memories and communicate well.[1] You can find it in soft egg yolks, or buy supplements for a concentrated boost.

Kirsten Chick nutritionist on Title Sussex Magazine

Kirsten Chick

6 Include herbals supplements ginseng and bacopa
Panax ginseng and bacopa are both plant extracts used for millennia in oriental medicine. They were pitched against Modafinil (aka Provigil) in a scientific review and found to be as effective, and in some key areas more effective than the drug. This included delayed word recall, reaction times and general memory and learning.[2]


Kirsten has been talking nutrition for over a decade in workshops, on courses, on retreats and to the hundreds of people who come for one-to-one consultations. And then there are those she meets socially who open with, “Oh, you’re a nutritionist? Can I just ask what you think about…?” So here’s your chance to ask… email with ASK KIRSTEN in the subject line and we’ll pick something each month to respond to.

[1] Glade, Michael J., and Kyl Smith. “Phosphatidylserine and the human brain.” Nutrition 31.6 (2015): 781-786.

[2] Neale, Chris, et al. “Cognitive effects of two nutraceuticals Ginseng and Bacopa benchmarked against modafinil: a review and comparison of effect sizes.” British journal of clinical pharmacology 75.3 (2013): 728-737.

About Kirsten Chick
Kirsten has been talking nutrition for over a decade in workshops, on university and college courses, on retreats and to the hundreds of people who have come for one-to-one consultations