We are all about supporting your physical and mental health throughout the year. However, we know that this time of year, in the midst of exams, can be stressful for kids and parents. Read our tips on supporting your brain health now and in the longer term or watch Heather on TV3
Adolescents and even children today are more likely than before to suffer from anxiety and depression. Statistics show that 25% of Irish teenagers surveyed had feelings of anxiety (SEYLE study), with up to 40% in a Northern Ireland study (YPBAS) worried about their mental health. Exam time has been identified as a major contributor to high stress and anxiety.
So what can you do?
Firstly, talk to someone if feeling anxious. Other lifestyle advice that can make a huge positive difference includes getting some exercise and getting enough sleep.
- Exercise helps the body to release mood-supporting neurochemicals which are effective in reducing mild anxiety and depression.
- Regular exercise can also enhance memory and concentration. It helps to develop the hippocampus, the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems. A study done in UCC on secondary school children shows that participating in sports during the last 2 years of school conferred a 25 point benefit on Leaving Certificate scores. Taking a short walk during study breaks can help improve concentration
- Even 10 minutes of coordination skills, like bouncing two balls at the same time, improved the concentration of teenagers in a German study
- Getting some exercise and fresh air may also help sleep. Staying up late to study and especially pulling an all-nighter ahead of an exam has been shown to negatively affect brain function. This can cause memory problems, forcing the brain to work harder and making complicated tasks more difficult.
Laying the ground work
Longer term, there are a couple of food groups that are particularly important for brain function.
- Omega 3 fats, found in oily fish and in smaller quantities in linseeds, walnuts, chia and pumpkin seeds. These essential fats help the brain to function better. Research shows that children with good levels of essential fats have higher IQs at age 8 and beyond. Adults with good levels are also less likely to suffer dementia. Eat fish 2 – 3 times per week (not tinned tuna as usually contains low levels of omega 3) and eat nuts or seeds most days
- Professors Dineen and Cryan in Cork University are doing ground breaking work on the role of the bacteria in supporting brain health and mood (psychobiotics). Key appears to be having a wide diversity of bacteria. Studies have shown that older people with more diverse gut microbes have better cognitive health. Menu tips to support your gut bacteria include:
- eating probiotic / fermented foods like natural yoghurt, miso and kombucha to provide beneficial bacteria. Try our miso maple kale salad for a tasty probiotic boost
- eating prebiotic foods which feed the bacteria. These high fibre foods include a range of vegetables, pulses, fruit and wholegrains.
- eating polyphenols – chemicals found in plants. Good sources include dark chocolate, vegetables and fruit, green tea. These are acted upon by microbes and help learning and memory
- avoiding processed foods and artificial sweeteners. These have been shown to reduce diversity and quantity of beneficial bacteria
Read more in their great book, The Psychobiotic Revolution.
So, what can you do today?
If you are in the middle of exams or a busy period at work, there are a few steps you can take that have a more immediate effect.
Eat and drink well
- Stay hydrated. Drinking enough liquid can support brain function, memory and concentration and water is always the best option. Rule of thumb is 1.5 litres daily, more if you are active or weather is warm. Remember to have a glass of water before your exam. Research shows that this boosts reaction times and performance straight away
- Don’t overdo the caffeine. While small amounts can help concentration and focus, the benefit peaks at around 2 cups of coffee / 4 cups of tea. Beyond that, too much caffeine can have a negative effect on brain function and impact your ability to get sufficient deep sleep. The levels found in some energy drinks are very high (equivalent of 2 cups of coffee) and these are typically full of sugar too
- Avoid too many sweet treats. Your brain needs glucose to function, but high sugar foods are quickly metabolised, giving only a short-lived boost, usually followed by a dip in energy, mood and concentration. If you are craving sugar, try a little dark chocolate, a fruit smoothie or some dried fruit and nuts
- Fuel yourself regularly, ideally every 4 hours. After that, your body and brain start to run out of fuel and this can have a negative effect on energy and concentration. Especially important to have a good breakfast including some slow releasing carbs and protein to keep you fuelled during morning exams. Good examples include scrambled eggs with wholegrain bread, wholegrain cereal with milk and fruit or even wholegrain toast with peanut butter and a banana if running out the door
- Include some protein with meals and snacks to keep you fuelled for longer. Add some cheese, egg or even peanut butter to a slice of toast to make it longer lasting fuel
Top tips during exams or busy periods
- Aim for 8 hours sleep per night
- Get some exercise, even a short walk
- Eat a good breakfast, with slow burning carbs and protein
- Bring water with you. Have a glass beforehand and drink throughout day
- Bring a healthy snack with you to keep you going
Brain boost menu plan
|Breakfast||Wholegrain cereal, milk, seeds, strawberries|
|Snack||Summer berry protein smoothie|
|Lunch||Wholegrain wrap / sandwich with smoked salmon / cheese and salad, piece of fruit|
|Snack||Dried apricots and pumpkin seeds|
|Dinner||Thai prawn curry with wholegrain rice|
Heather Leeson, Senior Nutritionist with Glenville Nutrition Ireland