A toolbox for mental sharpness

Many young people, including my own kids, have been revising hard and will continue to do so over the coming weeks as they sit GCSE’s, A Levels and other end of year exams. Are they supporting their bodies and minds in the best way through diet and lifestyle to make this often stressful time a little easier??? I’m guessing possibly not, if they are anything like mine, so here are a few pointers which may help fire up their brains, help them sleep and stay energised throughout the process.

What should they be eating?

Brain Boosting Food

If we provide the brain with the right nutrients, it will work more effectively and efficiently, increasing mental sharpness, memory, focus, learning and creativity ability. Brain food will help:

  • Increase blood flow to the brain
  • Support neurotransmitters
  • Stimulate new brain cells
  • Protect and repair existing brain cells

Focus on healthy fats and hydration including:

  • Oily fish for omega 3s, especially DHA found in high concentration in the cerebral cortex which is responsible for memory, attention, creativity and language
  • Avocados are high in monounsaturated fats required for fluidity of cell membranes and high in tyrosine, an amino acid precursor to dopamine associated with motivation and focus
  • Walnuts which look like the brain, so it is no surprise that they are beneficial for their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which studies have shown to improve cognition, memory and learning as well as anxiety.
  • Eggs that provide the nutrient choline, the precursor of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter most strongly associated with learning, memory and cognition in general.
  • Berries & beetroot are rich in flavonoids, good for relaxing blood vessels and enhanced circulation to peripheries….brain!
  • Dark chocolate is shown to improve neuroplasticity increasing gamma frequency in the cerebral cortex involved in memory and processing.
  • Water… the brain is approximately 70% water. Studies suggest that even mild dehydration, such as the loss of just 1-3% of body weight can impair many aspects of brain function including memory, concentration and alertness.

Brain boosting breakfast idea – Paprika Spiced Smoked Salmon Omelette served with Guacamole

Brain boosting snack – Dark Chocolate Dipped Berries and Walnuts

Eating for Energy

Staying sharp and alert especially through an afternoon exam or revision session can lead to reaching for a sugary snack or drink, however this can be counterproductive. 

Avoid refined sugars and carbohydrates:

  • If you flood your bloodstream with fast releasing sugars the initial energetic high is soon followed by a crash as glucose is rapidly taken into cells due to the rush of insulin, leaving your blood sugar levels low leading to tiredness, irritability, grogginess and a downward mood spiral. 
  • The best approach for steady energy, mood and concentration is consuming a moderate amount of complex carbohydrates at each meal which also include high levels of protein and healthy fats.

Teen friendly dinner idea – Baked (or air fried) Pesto Crusted Chicken served with Sweet Potato Wedges & Steamed Vegetables (ideally green!!).

B Vitamins

B vitamins are important for energy production and have far reaching functions throughout the body but especially in the brain including supporting memory and learning and the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin and the production of GABA, both important for sleep and reducing anxiety.

The best sources of B vitamins include beans and pulses, especially lentils, meat, fish, eggs and greens.

Other Considerations

Eat regularly –Starting the day with a balanced low sugar breakfast really helps set the tone for the day’s energy and concentration.  However, many young people (including mine) don’t feel like eating early so consider a smoothie or sending them on their way with natural yogurt and berries.  Focusing on eating regular balanced meals would be the best approach and avoid constant grazing, snacking and nibbling while revising.

Manage stress – This can be a stressful time for all and having strategies to keep calm will help really help.  Getting daily fresh air and gentle exercise, like a short walk, can be a transformative practice, especially when on study leave.  When anxiety begins to rise, breathing techniques have been shown to quickly calm the body and mind, slow the heart rate and reduce the physical and psychological symptoms.

Prioritise sleep – Sleep is when we repair the powers of both the mind and the body. It is essential for the regeneration of our brain cells and the reorganisation of our memory, processing the day and helps improve our learning capacity.  Sleep deprivation causes irritability, memory loss and reduced capacity for concentration as well as the likelihood we will be reaching for caffeine, energy drinks and sugary snacks to perk us up.

Strategic caffeine – On the subject of caffeine, while a little at the right time can be beneficial, too much can lead to irritability, sleeplessness and anxiety.  Everyone metabolises caffeine differently so finding the right time and quantity before exams is a good idea.  Looking for natural sources from good quality coffee and green tea while avoiding energy drinks and other synthetic caffeine is the best approach.

Essential Oils – A great addition to the tool kit and one I often utilise myself, whether diffused, applied topically or just inhaled from the bottle, essential oils can improve concentration and alertness… try Rosemary, Lemon, Orange or Peppermint and for a calm and grounding effect, try LavenderorFrankincense

Alcohol – A note for us all!!  Overindulging in alcohol damages dendrites, the nerve connection between brain cells and slows down the central nervous system.  The brains of teens and young adults, which are not fully formed until around 25, are particularly vulnerable to memory loss and cognitive impairment from alcohol.  Needless to say, best to leave the celebrations until after the exams!

In conclusion, let your teens read this and together build strategies ahead of time to maximise their body and mind for success. GOOD LUCK!