Saturday, 7 April 2012

Brain food

My students are in the middle of assessment season. It is tough for them. The course they study is only 9 months long, but has 6 exams and a host of other assessments. They are about to sit exams in civil litigation, criminal litigation and evidence, difficult and technical subjects with a massive syllabus to cover.

Their predicament has made me wonder whether there is any way of giving yourself the 'edge' mentally through what you eat. Just as athletes and sports people manage their diet for optimum physical performance, perhaps that is also possible to achieve the best mental performance.

So I've been doing some research. I've found that there is a wealth of research which shows the effect of diet on brain function. Often it is the case that the studies show that diets low in certain nutrients result in lack of mental abilities and even a higher risk of dementia, so it is question of reasoning that a diet high in those nutrients will assist your mental powers. In other cases, the improvement in cognitive power through the intake of certain nutrients can be proved.

This are some of the interesting facts I discovered:

Many products selling themselves as being good for memory and brain development tout the fact that that contain “Omega 3”. Omega 3 is a type of fatty acid, specifically a polyunsaturated one. They cannot be created by the body, so have to be part of our food intake. Omega 3 can be found in certain plants and in fish/ fish oils. Walnuts and linseed are a good source of Omega 3. Oily fishes are another good source, meaning mackerel, herring, sardines and salmon. Apparently human eyes and brains are made up of a large amount of these oils, so ensuring your diet contains Omega 3 oils will ensure brain renewal. There have been studies which suggest a diet low in Omega 2 oils can lead to a risk of Alzheimer's disease, another good reason for making sure you get your regular dose.

Minerals seem to be essential for memory recall and mental agility. Folic acid, iron and zinc appear to be the most important for brain function. Zinc can be found in pumpkin seeds, a great healthy snack, which will improve cognitive function and memory.

Iron is needed for the production of haemoglobin, which is the chemical that enables your blood to carry oxygen round the body. Without a good oxygen supply, the brain cannot function. Hence iron is very important for anything your might want to do with your mind. It is also thought that lack of iron can result in a listlessness, poor energy levels and an inability to concentrate; exactly what you don't need when trying to study for exams! What should you eat to keep those iron levels high? Egg yolks, red meat, lentils, red kidney beans and wholegrains. So the student classic Chilli Con Carne, served perhaps with some brown rice would go down pretty well here, wouldn't it?
Don't like rice? How about:

By the way, don't believe the hype about spinach; it isn't as high in iron as you may have thought. Popeye's favourite grub is not going to help. Don't believe me? Check out:

Vitamins also have an enormous influence on our mental powers. Vitamin B12 is said to improve information recall, as well as reducing homocysteine levels in the body, a chemical found in high levels in those suffering from dementia. Sources include milk, milk products, poultry and liver, although vegetarians and vegans may wish to consider supplements.

Vitamin C has been shown in studies to assist with memory and attention. Obviously, vitamin C can be found in all forms of citrus fruit.

Vitamin K improves brainpower and is known to improve thinking skills and can be found in broccoli. Now I know what some of you will say: 'But I don't like broccoli!'. If so, chances are you were served soggy, grey looking overcooked stuff as part of your school dinners. Try steaming it for 7-8 minutes. It is transformed into a whole new vegetable, with subtle flavour and al dente texture. I was a broccoli hater too, but learning how to steam it has totally changed my opinion.

Vitamin E is thought to improve memory. So eating foods rich in it may help prevent poor memory; nuts, seeds and wholegrains (time to bring out some muesli or better still sweet, crunchy granola!).

What you may notice from all the fascinating facts above is how varied the different sources of brain enhancing nutrients are. This makes perfect sense. A healthy diet ought to be varied, containing different sources of protein, carbs and some fats and oils. It should contain fruit and vegetables. Any diet which is good for the body is highly likely to be good for the mind.

So, if you are in the middle of exam fever, can I impress upon you the importance of looking after yourself. You need to study, but you mustn't overload yourself. Rests and breaks are needed, and they will help the learning and information stick. You need your sleep; all nighters are bad for you and you won't remember much of what you read when tired. It will do no good to eat your umpteenth Pot Noodle, because you don't have the time to cook or shop. Popping out to the shops to buy some fruit and veg will give you a break, some fresh air and a little exercise. Cooking a meal will give you a break from the books and get your mind working on a different challenge. How about making that chilli? You can make a massive pot and have 2 or 3 days dinners ready and waiting for you. As they say, a change is as good as a rest.

Get enough sleep, don't skip meals, keep away from those tools of procrastination known as 'facebook' and 'twitter', take breaks every hour or two and you will find the revision should come along nicely.

Good luck to anyone who is currently revising for exams, whatever they may be. I have my fingers and toes crossed for you all!

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