When studying it is essential that we nurture our brain health to ensure we maximize our memory. For this we need to keep our energy levels balanced, ensure we get adequate sleep, and reduce stress as the cortisol from stress impacts the Hippocampus (memory centre) of our brains. There are some foods which science shows, help you eat yourself clever.
10 ways to boost your cognitive capacity
- Never skip meals, especially breakfast. We eat for energy, and our brains need food. Try to eat at the same time every day in a routine that suits the way you learn and sleep. The best breakfast will be one that balances your blood sugar as Insulin levels (Insulin hormone controls blood sugar) peak when you wake up. This is often savoury or high in fibre (such as porridge, Weetabix, toast with whole meal bread), protein and fat (milk, yoghurt, seeds, butter, peanut butter, eggs, fish or meat) and some brightly coloured fruit or vegetable for vitamins and minerals. Ensure you have some water with every meal.
- Reduce stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, has been directly shown to increase cognitive decline, reduce memory and enhance emotional instability. Breathe and put in place coping mechanisms which help reduce stress such as breaks with walks in nature, seeing friends, doing something creative, having a short powernap (as long you do this only in the morning as too much sleep in the day reduces sleep quality at night), time away from phones and doing things you enjoy that enhance Dopamine (the pleasure brain chemical). Our brains also see hunger as a mental stress, so ensure you never get too hungry.
- Make sleep a priority and watch caffeine. Get into a rhythm of at least 8 hours sleep as sleep is essential for stress regulation and memory consolidation. To do this ensure you practice good sleep hygiene with a dark, cool room and hot bath (to lower body temperature and enhance sleep) before bed and go to bed and get up at the same time each day.
- Eat for sleep. Sleep can be aided by eating foods that are high in Melatonin. Melatonin is the bodies sleep regulator, which works with the sun and Adenosine and Orexin (a sleep chemical) to regulate our sleep circadian rhythms. Foods high in Melatonin include eggs, milk, fish, and nuts. Magnesium also enhances a sense of calmness, reduces anxiety and aids sleep. It is found in green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, broccoli, leek, spring onion, wild garlic leaves, fresh basil, fresh parsley, fresh mint, fresh chives, fresh coriander, avocado, Brussel sprouts, edamame, lettuce, peas, green beans, and chard, rocket, watercress, green cabbage, cauliflower leaves, cucumber, and celery. It is also found lots in nuts (especially almonds), beans, soya products, chickpeas, tofu and salmon and some cereals and dairy products are fortified with it. Alcohol can also help you fall asleep but stop the REM sleep essential for memory consolidation and emotional processing and so should be avoided over exam periods.
- Eat lots of protein. Protein is needed for growth and repair. It is made in all cells from something called amino acids. When we eat foods high in protein, such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, dairy, and soy products, we break down protein into amino acids. Brain chemicals called neurotransmitters are made of amino acids. If we don’t eat enough protein, we cannot make neurotransmitters, such as Serotonin and Dopamine, the happiness brain chemical and reward brain chemical. These both play a role in mood regulation (helping us regulate our response to stress), energy levels (happiness increases Adrenaline, making you hyper and energetic) and the formation of new brain cells (neurogenesis), helping us form new brain pathways and learn more.
- Eat for sustained energy. We need carbohydrates for energy and not eating carbs can make you lethargic and tired, with brain-fog, unable to remember key information. You cannot think without food. However, it is important you chose the right energy sources, that will not cause energy dips that will make you stressed and tired. High refined sugars (like chocolate, cakes, sweets, sugary sodas, pastries, and biscuits), cause quick and short-lasting energy supplies, which cause Insulin (the blood sugar regulator) to be released, and a massive dip in energy. To stop this energy dip, eat complex, low-GI (glycemic index- the ability of a carbohydrate food to increase blood sugar) carbohydrates that are high in fibre, such as those in starchy vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, and seeds and high in protein and fat. Carbohydrates like wholegrain pasta, brown rice, wild rice, seeded wholemeal bread, potatoes, lentils, chickpeas (hummus) quinoa which also contain protein and fat have a lower GI and so will help you maintain your energy levels, problem-solve concentrate for longer, revise long into the night and remember more.
- Eat lots of omega-3 fatty acids. Our brains are made of 60% fat. When we eat a type of fat, called Omega-3, which is found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines as well as Brussel sprouts, flax seeds, chicken and beef, walnuts, chia seeds and spinach, it increases neurogenesis (the formation of new brain cells and synaptic, between brain cells, pathways).
- Staying hydrated is essential for learning. Evidence shows that regularly drinking water is necessary for maintaining energy levels.
- Try high fibre foods. Fibre is the structural component of many vegetables. There are two types soluble and insoluble. High fibre foods include broccoli, courgette, mangetot, sugar snap peas, green beans, sweetcorn, leeks and spring onions, wholegrain foods, wild rice, quinoa, potato skins and fruit like grape and apple peels. Fibre helps to increase the GI of foods, helping maintain your energy levels for longer.
- Avoid energy drinks and tablets. Though advertised as enhancing energy, most energy tablets and products cause a massive surge in energy that is fast acting but short lasting. This is great if you have two hours to finish an essay before a deadline, but if you are wishing to do long-term memory retention for exams, can have seriously unforgiveable effects. They can cause extreme mental stress, fatigue, burnout, mental fog and loss of memory.
Overall, it is essential that you maintain your energy levels, sleep, and try to avoid illness. Try not to stress too much over the exam period. Remember it will all be over soon, and you will survive no matter the outcome. Believe in yourself and your brain and do your best.
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