Exam time! How to bag good grades despite the challenges of home-schooling
GSCEs and A-levels have been cancelled due to COVID-19 but it’s likely to be exam time as usual for all other school years. Nutritional Therapist, Jackie Newson, shares her nutrition and lifestyle tips for top focus, concentration, mood and cognitive function to help support your child with home revision in the lead up to summer term tests.
Even the best students may fail abysmally in their exams if the brain isn’t firing on all cylinders, especially if the study environment offers too many distractions or they are feeling particularly stressed. So how can you maximise all the mechanisms in the brain that support memory and learning when you’re up against it? First you need to determine what the brain needs most and then implement a plan of action.
Tackle eating habits
The brain is the most complex part of the human body, an intricate structure made up of more than 100 billion nerve cells. It is the centre for intellect, behaviour and memory and as one of our vital organs it has immense nutritional requirements, so let’s take a closer look at dietary changes that could really make a difference.
A diet for enhanced learning
The brain consumes a huge amount of energy relative to the rest of the body, so making sure you give it the right fuel is vital for enhanced brain performance and concentration.
Looking after brain function at any age involves eating regular balanced meals with occasional healthy snacks. Eating breakfast is particularly important to help concentration levels and mental performance throughout the day. Skipping meals may mean missing out on vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates which may lead to low energy levels and possibly depriving the brain of the essential nutrients required to protect brain cells and maintain normal metabolic activity.
Balanced diet for cognitive support
Ideally, a balanced diet should include a wide range of fresh and natural foods.
Carb check: Wholegrains and cereals contain carbohydrates which fuel the brain. These foods also provide a good source of B vitamins, which play a key role in nervous system function. In terms of vegetables and fruit, research consistently demonstrates that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps benefit the brain and may lower the risk of memory loss.4 Sticking to the 5-a-day (or more!) rule is fundamental if you want your brain to benefit from the multitude of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants this food group contains.
Pukka protein: Good quality protein sources are chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils. These protein foods provide all the amino acids needed for neurotransmitter production, essential brain chemicals that are responsible for mood and mindset.
Omega 3 facts: To further support the brain, you should include oily fish in the diet two to three times a week to gain the benefit of omega 3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA, shown to safeguard brain health amongst all age groups.1
Blood sugar balance: Fibre, protein and healthy omega 3 fats also help to manage blood sugar balance. This ensures a steady supply of energy to the brain and prevents glucose dips throughout the day that may impact on learning and concentration.
Foods that deserve an extra mention
Clever meal planning should include foods like beetroot and spinach, which contain nitrate, a nutrient that has been found to support blood flow to the brain. Nitrate helps to dilate blood vessel walls making sure the brain cells receive oxygen and important nutrients that are necessary for optimal function.
Avocados, turmeric, cinnamon and ginger contain phytonutrients that may also provide protection to brain cells. Walnuts make a great snack and, like oily fish, contain a significantly high concentration of DHA, which has been shown to support cognitive performance.1 They also contain polyphenolic compounds that may help neutralise the oxidant load on brain cells.5
During the weeks of intense revision time the student brain may face additional challenges, which may be even more of a factor during this unusual summer term of home-schooling. Stress tends to generate free radicals, which in high levels contribute to oxidative stress that are potentially harmful and damaging to brain cells.2 One way to cope with additional stressors is to support the brain with plenty of protective defence nutrients. Fruits, vegetables and grains are rich in a range of naturally occurring antioxidants that help provide cells with valuable protection from oxidative stress.
Beat brain fatigue
Make sure you sip plenty of water throughout the day to keep hydrated and help maintain healthy circulation to help prevent brain fog. You can also include your favourite cuppa. Many teas offer health benefits to the brain, in particular green tea, white tea and oolong tea. Just remember a dehydrated brain is not a brain that functions well! For younger children, caffeine-free options include water or water with a splash of fruit juice.
When you’re totally engrossed with studying it can be easy to let the variety and nutrient content of your daily meals slide. Adding in a few carefully chosen supplements during challenging times may be invaluable for cognitive function. We’ve picked out specific nutrients from the Altrient range that are centred around supporting mental energy, concentration and memory function:
- Altrient R-Alpha Lipoic Acid: The brain has exceptionally high energy requirements so you need as much help as you can get to keep it ticking over during study time. Alpha lipoic acid is a naturally occurring compound synthesised in human cells, which is known to freely cross the blood brain barrier. As a coenzyme, it is involved in a series of biochemical reactions in the body related to energy production. 3,7
- Altrient Vitamin B Complex: Maintaining cognitive function, memory and motivation requires a good mix of B vitamins. According to research, vitamin B5 contributes to mental performance and vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, biotin and folate contribute to normal functioning of the nervous system. You can also count on the B vitamins to help support motivation and positive mindset since vitamins B1, B3, B6, B12, biotin and folate are known to contribute to normal psychological function.
- Altrient Vitamin C: The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, which has the potential to negatively affect many of the brain’s functions including memory, learning and concentration.6 Several nutrients have the capacity to neutralise these damaging effects and vitamin C is one of the team. Studies show that vitamin C contributes to the protection of cells from oxidative stress.
Altrient liposomal nutrients are manufactured by LivOn labs in the US using cutting edge patented Liposomal Encapsulation Technology (LET). The unique delivery system of LET ensures far superior absorption of nutrients compared to standard oral supplements.
From dietary changes to lifestyle changes
Now you’ve got the dietary changes under your belt, a few lifestyle amendments could also help set you up for success.
- Establish a sleep routine, go to bed and get up at the same time. You need plenty of sleep for the brain to rest and repair itself. Keep TVs, books and electronic gadgets out of the bedroom and invest in some blackout curtains and earplugs for totally uninterrupted restful sleep.
- Organise your day and allocate a set timetable for study, making sure you include plenty of breaks to eat, relax and exercise.
- Minimise your exposure to pollution, additives, preservatives, pesticides, alcohol, sugar and caffeine, your mind and mood should benefit from a clean lifestyle!
- Keep active to increase the flow of oxygen to the brain. Health experts recommend at least 30 minutes a day. Regular ten-minute bouts of exercise throughout the day are equally beneficial and great for re-energising the brain.
- Set regular alarms to remind you to stop studying and take a break, eat, exercise or sleep!
Jacqueline Newson BSc (Hons) Nutritional Therapy
- Derbyshire E. Brain Health across the Lifespan: A Systematic Review on the Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements. Nutrients. 2018;10(8):1094.
- Harvard School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. Antioxidants. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/antioxidants/ [Accessed 23.3.20]
- Hruby A, Manson JE, Qi L, et al. Determinants and Consequences of Obesity. Am J Public Health. 2016;106(9):1656–1662.
- Jiang X, Huang J, Song D, Deng R, Wei J, Zhang Z. Increased Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables Is Related to a Reduced Risk of Cognitive Impairment and Dementia: Meta-Analysis. Front Aging Neurosci. 2017;9:18.
- Miller MG, Poulose SM & Shukitt-Hale B. Role of walnuts in maintaining brain health with age. J Nutr. 2014;144(4 Suppl):561S-566S.
- Salim S. Oxidative Stress and the Central Nervous System. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2017;360(1):201–205. doi:10.1124/jpet.116.237503.
- Shay KP, Moreau RF, Smith EJ, Smith AR, Hagen TM. Alpha-lipoic acid as a dietary supplement: molecular mechanisms and therapeutic potential. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2009;1790(10):1149–1160.