Improving diet and nourishing the brain can boost mental performance at any age. As exam season approaches, making some dietary and lifestyle changes could increase the brain’s ability not only to function better in revision and exams, but also support mental health throughout this stressful time.
The brain is a very complex organ and is carefully chemically balanced to make sure it can function correctly. Diet, gut health and exercise, along with exposure to toxins in food, environment and lifestyle have a profound and underestimated effect on the brain.
Blood sugar and brain fatigue
The brain can use up 20% of the body’s energy and when you are tired and running low it is no surprise that kids, teens and students may reach for a caffeine or sugary foods and drinks to boost their ability to study. Temporary energy boosts can have the exact opposite effect and cause an insulin response that creates a blood sugar low that makes the brain crave more sugar. This cycle can create a ‘wired tired’ brain which can impair concentration. Make sure all snacks contain complex carbs, healthy fats and some protein. Making homemade energy balls can be very helpful.
Toxins like alcohol, smoking, pesticides, acrylamides (browned burnt foods), damaged or unhealthy fats (deep fried foods, ready meals, processed dairy) and excessive salt can have an inflammatory effect on the brain reducing mental clarity.
Imbalance in beneficial bacteria
We now understand that the gut and the brain are intimately connected via the Vagus nerve and the ‘gut-brain-axis’. Bacterial imbalance in the gut can reduce mental clarity and performance. This can be caused by poor diet, refined carbs and excess sugar that feed toxin producing microbes, affecting brain function and wellbeing. Antibiotic use can kill off the beneficial bacteria that produce vital nutrients for brain health and energy, allowing non-beneficial bacteria and unhealthy yeasts to overgrow. To improve gut microbe balance, consume plenty of fibre every day: whole grains (brown rice, oats) Pulses (add chickpeas, butter beans, lentils to dishes) Stalky veg (broccoli, raw cabbage in salads, carrots, cauliflower) apples, oranges, kiwi, mango, pineapple and berries.
Include natural yogurt and kefir to get a probiotic boost.
Food sensitivities can cause brain fog and mental tiredness as they can cause systemic inflammation, like gluten for example. Food sensitivities can also cause irritation to gut lining which may damage the microvilli causing ‘leaky’ gut and impair absorption of nutrients which are vital for the brain! If you suspect a food sensitivity, take this seriously, it’s not like an allergy as it may not cause obvious symptoms and you may even only feel the effects later or the next day.
One of the first actions to take for better mental focus is to ‘clean up’ the diet by reducing refined carbohydrates, junk foods and remove as much sugar as possible.
Try removing gluten (there are many great gluten free products now) and excessive dairy.
Undernourished Brain The brain needs a constant supply of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, antioxidants and complex carbohydrates. Ramp up intake of raw fresh fruit and vegetables and healthy fats and oils, this is vital to help promote better cognitive ability during revision and exam season. Nourish the brain with the following:
Omega 3 essential fatty acids Keeps brain tissue healthy and promotes signalling between cells by keeping the cells plump and smooth. EFAs can be found in fish, leafy greens, flax oil, chia seeds, walnuts and organic eggs.
Good brain energy fats Healthy fats are a vital fuel and nourishment to the brain, medium chain triglycerides can help boost mental focus as these can act as an instant energy to the brain, these are found in coconut oil, natural yogurt, kefir, sesame oil, avocado oil and butter.
Protein Needed to make neurotransmitters, the signalling molecules that make us think, control actions, promote sleep, keep our brain healthy and make us feel good. For balanced energy the brain needs protein, and carbs in equal amounts, carbs should not take over the plate! Boiled eggs are a great brain booster, if vegan Tempeh is the best plant protein brain booster.
Choline Vital for brain function, found in chicken, salmon, shrimp, haricot beans, egg yolk, broccoli and peas. Lecithin granules are a very good source of choline, these can be added to cereal, sauces and smoothies.
Boron A deficiency in Boron is associated with poor attention and short-term memory. Good food sources of this vital nutrient are raisins, prunes and dates, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, natural honey, avocado, apples, pears, butter beans and potatoes.
Antioxidants are vital for protecting against ‘brain fog’. Food high in brain supportive antioxidants are berries, goji berries, black grapes, dark chocolate, turmeric, spices, broccoli and other fresh fruit and veg.
B Vitamins Thiamine (B1), Niacin (B3) and Folate (B9) are essential to brain signalling and energy. Found in brown, black and wild rice, pulses, peas, nuts, tempeh, soybeans, whole grains, fresh vegetables, nuts and seeds. Niacin is also found in lean meat.
Long lasting carbohydrate energy Healthy carbs are sweet potatoes, butterbeans, butternut, pulses, chickpeas, wholegrains, brown rice, oats, fresh fruit. Oatcakes can be a convenient healthy energy boost, use with nut butters.
Healthier carbohydrate snacks: Semi ripe bananas, oats cakes, apples, dates, seeded crackers.
Hydration: is vital to keep brain clear and focused drink at least 2 litres of healthy fluids
Better revision hacks:
Sleep balance early to bed and early rising sets the brain up for the day.
Walking and fresh air increases blood and oxygen flow to every cell in the brain.
Regular breaks resets the brain.
Stretching and deep breathing increases blood circulation and energy to the brain.
Originally written by Sam Bourne for the Interschools Advertiser: https://www.interschoolsadvertiser.com/