Whether you’re deep into exam season yourself, or supporting family members who are, it’s nice to know that you can provide that extra edge by eating certain foods and taking a few helpful supplements.
What's the best brain food?
Let’s start with the brain. We know that 60% of the dry weight of the brain is made up of essential fats - so called because we can’t make them ourselves so it’s essential that we consume them in what we eat and drink. As well as that, the hard working brain needs plenty of vitamins and minerals to keep it humming along happily.
For the fats, I recommend 3 portions a week of oily fish (think SMASH - sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring) as well as a daily handful of mixed pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds or some walnuts. This is where a daily spoonful of Omega 3 Zooki hits the mark by making sure you have the right essential fat that the brain needs.
Add in some avocado regularly, which provides monounsaturated fats. This contributes to a healthy blood flow, necessary for carrying all those vitamins and minerals around the body.
Several studies have shown the beneficial effects of eating blueberries. One 2019 study recorded a 10% short-term memory boost from consuming a blueberry smoothie before an exam. Blueberries increase the blood flow to the brain which in turn improves focus, concentration and performance. But another study found you need 4 hours for the effects to take hold, so including some throughout the day might be the answer here.
Eating enough protein when you’re studying or taking exams is crucial. Think about good quality protein sources, such as eggs for breakfast, or tofu and beans if you’re vegetarian. Try to have some protein with every meal or snack as this will help slow down the release of sugars from carbohydrates, keep you fuller for longer and help keep energy levels more stable if you’re putting in long hours at your desk.
Here’s some good news - dark chocolate may benefit brain health! Cocoa is packed full of flavonoids - more by weight than any other food - and studies have shown that drinking high flavonoid beverages can significantly improve test scores. Flavonoids also help improve insulin sensitivity, which again improves brain function. But either use pure cocoa or dark chocolate that is 70% or higher to take advantage of those important flavonoids.
Make sure your plate is full of different coloured vegetables to maximise your intake of beneficial plant compounds. The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin in particular have been shown to support brain function and intellectual ability. So fill up on kale, parsley, spinach, peas, carrots, broccoli and green or red peppers, which are all good sources.
We also know that all those brightly coloured vegetables contain high levels of vitamin C. Research has shown that vitamin C can reduce the levels of stress hormones in the blood and also reduce other symptoms of physical and emotional stress. A deficiency in vitamin C has been widely associated with stress-related disorders and supplementation has produced both antidepressant effects and improved mood.
Supporting exam-related stress and anxiety
Now we’ve looked after your brain’s performance, how about dealing with the stress and anxiety that can often sabotage even the best prepared student?
We talked earlier about keeping sugar levels stable and this is key not just for energy levels but also for stress. If you’re fuelling yourself with sugary snacks and caffeine, chances are your adrenal glands will be pumping out way too much adrenaline and your insulin levels will be charging up and down causing blood sugar spikes and crashes. Keep your sugar intake as low as possible. Avoid the white, starchy carbohydrates like rice or white bread and replace them with wholegrain alternatives such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, quinoa and dark rye bread. These nutrient dense carbohydrates will release their sugars slowly, halting the energy rollercoaster and keeping you topped up longer. Twin those with some protein and you should start to bring the anxiety levels down.
The gut-brain axis
Heard the one about the bacteria in your gut and how they affect your mental health? Some particular strains have been identified as having beneficial effects on stress and anxiety. A deficiency of Lactobacillus has been linked to depression and Bifidobacteria may be linked to a reduction in anxiety. They both help manufacture B vitamins, which are major players in energy production and also support the adrenal glands, as well helping produce short chain fatty acids that have been shown to influence the production of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Making sure you get some good quality sleep is really helpful. Avoid sugary snacks and caffeine later in the day. Try some camomile tea, eat a pre-bedtime snack ideally with some protein and try some of the lavender sprays on your pillow to help calm the nerves. Epsom salts in a warm bath are another great way to help you wind down.
It’s a tough one, but blue light from screens and phones interferes with the production of melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycle, so if you can avoid those screens for a few hours before bed, it can help. Similarly, getting a burst of sunlight first thing in the morning helps keep that circadian rhythm functioning well.
So what’s the verdict on caffeine? We know it can provide a short term kick that increases focus and attention, but it may lead to a slump later on. Green tea releases its caffeine more slowly and may be a good alternative if you think caffeine is a problem for you.
Here’s something we can all benefit from: drinking enough water. Did you know that even a 2% drop in hydration levels can lead to a 10% drop in mental performance? Dehydration can lead to tiredness and fatigue, headaches or feeling dizzy and lightheaded. It can even affect how well you sleep, which in turn affects your stress and anxiety levels.
How can Zooki help?
Our Omega 3 delivers a whopping 4500 mg of fish oils containing those brain boosting essential EPA and DHA fatty acids with a bonus addition of some vitamin D and E.
Our high strength Vitamin C sachets should be in every desk or school bag. Combining the double whammy of providing energy while helping to reduce stress, it’s perfect for avoiding the mid-afternoon slump. Or combine it with a snack of nuts and seeds to bring in the protein and essential fats you need.
Finally, a daily dose of our Gut Biome will help keep those key strains of anxiety reducing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria topped up, supporting both the gut and the brain.
1. The effects of acute wild blueberry supplementation on the cognition of 7-10-year-old children
2. Effects of a single dose of flavonoid-rich blueberry drink on memory in 8-10 y old children
3. Blueberry benefits to cognitive function across the lifespan
4. The effect of flavanol-rich cocoa on the fMRI response to a cognitive task in healthy young people
5. Role of lutein and zeaxanthin in visual and cognitive function throughout the lifespan
5. Anxiety might be alleviated by regulating gut bacteria
6. Effects of hydration status on cognitive performance and mood