Exams? Time to Nourish your Noggin
What are the best foods to eat at exam time? We asked nutritionist Veronica Burke from Pharma Nord for advice on the best brain boosters.
Late nights, stress, missed meals and quick sugar fixes play havoc with cognitive function. If you’ve got exams around the corner but your brain feels like it’s fit to burst, follow our foodie advice for making the most of your mind.
Optimising nutrition can increase productivity, improve memory, make you more alert and even boost intelligence! The below foods have been proven to play a pivotal role in mental performance and if you’re a poor struggling student with very little time on your hands, there’s a tip on how to incorporate them into basic, budget friendly meals. It’s a no-brainer!
Omega-3 rich fish:
Arguably the most important food for brain health. Oily fish such as herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, tuna, kippers, anchovies and sardines are high in omega-3 oils which have been shown to improve memory and alertness while reducing the risk of dementia. It has also been shown to boost serotonin (our happy hormone) and decrease anxiety, mood swings and hyperactivity. Seafood contains a substantial amount of protein for stable blood sugar and steady energy levels throughout the day.
Make it student friendly: Make a wrap with canned tuna, greek yoghurt, sliced avocado and cherry tomatoes. That’s four brain boosting foods in one easy to prepare meal!
Avocados are rich in a fatty acid called oleic acid, which helps speed up messaging within the brain. A diet rich in monounsaturated fats is essential to clear thinking, good memory, and a balanced mood.
Try it: Pile guacamole on top of Mexican style dishes
These tiny berries are jam packed with antioxidants. One in particular (known as resveratol) increases circulation and allows for more oxygen and nutrients to the brain. In animal studies blueberries have been shown to improve learning ability and motor skills.
Snack Idea: Dip blueberries in yoghurt and freeze for a healthy treat.
Greek yoghurt contains an amino acid that helps to perk you up and makes you more mentally alert.
Try it: Combine berries, almond milk and chia seeds for a triple whammy brain boosting pudding. The longer it chills in the fridge, the thicker the consistency will be.
Olives are a key player in the brain healthy Mediterranean diet and may contribute to their reduced rates of alzheimer’s and dementia. Extra virgin olive oil contains monounsaturated fats that protect the brain from oxidative stress. It’s sensitive to light so always buy in a dark coloured glass bottle.
Try it: Mix olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and herbs for an easy and tasty salad dressing.
Choline is a vitamin like supplement found in the egg yolk. It has been shown to improve cognitive performance and memory. Despite what we’ve been told over the years, the yolk of the egg is the most beneficial part. It’s loaded with the nutrition needed to keep us mentally sharp. Think of it as a very inexpensive vitamin supplement! 60% of our brains are made up of fat so we should be emphasising and not avoiding this vital macronutrient. Eggs (with the yolk) contain a mixture of fat and protein that provides hours of energy for the brain.
Try it: Make an omelette more interesting by adding your favourite pizza toppings
There’s absolutely no need to shy away from carbs, they are responsible for helping drive tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier (hello, serotonin!). It’s just important to pick the right kind. Unrefined grains such as oats, release energy slowly and unlike refined carbohydrates (like white bread) they won’t cause blood sugar fluctuations which are linked with cravings and fatigue.
Try it: Overnight oats are super easy and allow for a healthy breakfast no matter how busy your schedule. Mix oats, chopped nuts, frozen berries, chia seeds and whatever other topping you want in a jar. Leave in the fridge and the next morning you’ll have a delicious, ready to eat breakfast you can take on the go.
Tomatoes contain an antioxidant called lycopene which has been shown to protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals. Tomatoes actually have more health benefits when cooked as this opens the cells up and makes the lycopene more available.
Try it: Make a meatball marinara
Chia seeds are high in fibre and omega-3 which helps keep the arteries to the brain clear of plague.
Try it: Mix with almond flour and seasoning and use instead of bread crumbs to coat chicken and fish.
Nuts are high in vitamin E which improves cognitive function. Walnuts help develop over 3,000 nerotransmitters used for sending messages within the brain. They actually look just like tiny brains so you’ll never forget! Try it: Mix nuts, raisins, dried berries and coconut flakes for a tasty homemade trail mix
Cacao (the pure, unheated version of cocoa) increases blood flow to the brain which can improve attention span and verbal fluency. Try it: Heat almond milk, cacao and a little honey for a super healthy hot chocolate.
The main source of fuel for the brain is glucose, however, in times when glucose is scarce the liver produces ketones which provide an alternative source of fuel. The medium chain fats (in the form of MCTs) in coconut oil are broken down into ketones by the liver and can cross the blood-brain barrier providing instant energy to brain cells. Try it: Use canned coconut milk as the base in currys and smoothies
Beware of D-ficiency:
Not actually a food but vitamin D is essential for good brain health. It’s needed for the production of serotonin. Studies show a link between depression and vitamin D deficiency. It’s also essential for immunity. If you’ve been suffering from stress, sleepless nights or a poor diet due to all that knowledge cramming, your immune system will likely need a helping hand. Vitamin D is produced in the skin upon sunlight exposure. An SPF of 8 or higher can block its production by up to 95%. Get at least 20 minutes sun exposure everyday but never let the skin get burned.
Spending time in nature can also help reduce anxiety. A brisk walk increases the amount of nutrients and oxygen that travel to the brain. As the sun in Ireland is too weak for 7 months of the year, many would benefit from a vitamin D supplement.
What’s the buzz with caffeine?
Energy drinks may help get you through an all night cramming session but they are temporary fixes at best. They’re full of sugar and caffeine which can effect the central nervous system, increase blood pressure and make anxiety even worse. They can also play havoc with the digestive system and I’m guessing your bowel movements are the last thing you need to be worrying about on exam day! Make no mistake about it, there is nothing that can compete with proper nutrition and a good nights sleep!
Wishing you the best of luck in your exams 🙂