The arrival of March signifies the start of spring, which is often a very welcome relief from the dark, cold and wet days of the winter months. We start to see a little colour back in the world, with the bursting of buds, daffodils and blossoms, which can’t help but put a little ‘spring’ back in our step. However, for those students that are facing exams in the next few months, March can be a time of anxiety, stress and moodiness, as it marks the start of the upcoming exam season.
It is no coincidence then that ‘Brain Awareness Week’ falls in March and this year it falls in the week commencing the 14th March. What better time than this to find out how food and diet can impact on the brain. Whether you are one of the millions of people with exams looming, or whether that is a distant memory and you just want to improve your brain health, then this article will give you some food for thought.
Exam stress can lead to sleepless nights, loss of appetite and heightened anxiety, none of which are conducive to sitting exams. Whether you're the one sitting exams, or you are the parents of students going through exam stress, don’t underestimate the impact that diet and specific foods can have on brain function. Eating properly before and during exam time is VERY important and eating the right foods will help keep you focused, alert and your brain functioning properly. Just like every other cell and organ in your body, your brain needs the right nutrients to function optimally and during exam season, when you want your brain to work hard, you need to keep it fed properly if it's going to get those answers right!
Wholegrain foods help increase Serotonin levels in the body, which is the hormone that makes us feel happier and improves mood
Eating whole grain foods will help improve energy levels and keep you going for a bit longer. Wholegrain foods include brown rice, barley, oats, quinoa and brown pasta and these are also low GI foods so keep blood sugar levels stable, which also help stabilise mood and help prevent a sudden slump in energy levels, which is definitely not something you want to experience in the middle of an exam. Wholegrain foods also help increase Serotonin levels in the body, which is the hormone that makes us feel happier and improves mood. Eating a wholegrain based food before an exam is a good idea.
Foods containing Tyrosine, which is an amino acid (a building block of proteins) has been shown to improve alertness and energy levels so is great to consume before an exam as it will help keep you firing on all cylinders. Foods high in Tyrosine include eggs, pork, cottage cheese, chicken, avocados, peanuts, bananas and pumpkin seeds. Milk and cheese are also very good sources of Tyrosine, with Goats’ milk containing higher amounts than cows’ milk. Hard goats’ cheese is also a very good source of this amino acid, so why not boost your levels of Tyrosine by choosing Delamere Dairy goats’ milk and tasty hard goats’ cheese. Try and have a breakfast that involves foods high in tyrosine if possible, especially if your exams are in the morning, but avoid after 5pm as too much can keep you awake too.
This vitamin is the single most popular vitamin supplement, but it is found in an abundance of foods too. Although most people associate this vitamin with improving immunity, which indeed it can, it also has a big role to play in the protection and functioning of our brain and nervous system. Vitamin C helps protect against age-related brain degeneration, including Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and strokes, so is definitely a vitamin to have daily in the diet. This vitamin is also essential in the production of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals in the body that enable our nerve cells to communicate with one another. With around 100 billion nerve cells found in the brain alone, it’s vital that they can communicate with each other properly and this requires Vitamin C. If neurotransmitters are not effectively working it can negatively impact on concentration levels, memory and the ability to focus. So make those neurotransmitters work for you by feeding them, kiwis, blackcurrants, peppers, chilli peppers, oranges, broccoli, dark leafy greens and other citrus fruits and berries.
Omega 3 Fatty acids
Found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, fresh tuna, anchovies and trout) as well as nuts and seeds, Omega 3 fatty acids are vital for improving brain power and mental clarity. A diet high in this has also been shown to improve IQ so make sure this is included regularly in your diet before and during exam time. We also know that many people suffering with depression, have low levels of Omega 3 fatty acids so eating more of it can help improve mood.
Although once associated with an old wives tale, it has now been shown that sage can actually pack a punch when it comes to improving brain function. For centuries, this herb was associated with powers’ for enhancing brain function and memory, and this has now actually shown to be the case. Research has shown that sage can improve brain performance and boost memory and recall, all essential things during exam time. It is currently being investigated as potential helpful treatment for Alzheimer’s disease too, with some positive early results so far and it may also be helpful in reducing cognitive decline.
Zinc has been found in many studies to be critical for brain power, enhanced memory and thinking skills, so is vital to have in the diet especially during exam time. So get filled up on high zinc foods including beef, lamb, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, spinach, dark chocolate and pulses. For the aging population, make sure you top up your zinc levels too, as we also know that zinc deficiency is linked to memory loss in people with Alzheimer's!
That old saying that ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’, is never more true that during exam time. Sitting an exam on an empty stomach is not a good idea and although your stomach may be doing somersaults and feels like it contains a butterfly farm, eating just something very small will make your brain function far more effectively than it would on an empty stomach. The dreaded ‘brain fog’ is a common symptom of skipping meals or going without food for a period of time and not something you want to experience during an exam!
When we eat, our body breaks the food down into a form the body can use, which is glucose. Glucose is the main source of energy for the brain and central nervous system, so if you are avoiding eating or you are skipping meals, the supply of glucose to your brain reduces. This results in impaired concentration, reduced focus and memory and low mood. This helps explain why research consistently shows that students who eat breakfast generally perform better on tests and activities than students who skip breakfast. So on the morning of an exam, although your stomach may be telling you not to eat, your brain is most definitely telling you the opposite!
The best breakfast to eat before an exam is one containing a good wholegrain food, a good source of protein and ideally an addition of a food high in Omega-3 fatty acid too. So scrambled eggs on wholegrain toast with smoked salmon or mackerel is an excellent choice, or a bowl of porridge made with Delamere Dairy goat’s milk, with fresh berries and pumpkin seeds is another tasty option.
No one can take away the nerves experienced by upcoming exams, but feeding your brain correctly in the run up to them should help improve concentration and focus for both revision and exams. Correct food and diet can certainly help maximise your chances of success. Being more aware of foods that have a positive impact on brain performance is not only helpful in the young, but in the older population too and it’s never too late to start feeding the brain correctly. For those of you soon to take exams, Delamere Dairy wish you lots of luck and as I say to my students, ‘If all else fails, THINK!’.