Study effectively with healthy fuel

Eating the right foods can help with studying for an exam. Photo: Getty Images
Eating the right foods can help with studying for an exam. Photo: Getty Images
Diet and lifestyle have been shown to play a major role in disrupting as well as correcting neurotransmitter pathways which are relied upon during times when focus and concentration are required.

The British Journal of Psychiatry published a study recently that showed people who consumed diets high in processed food were more likely to develop anxiety and depression.

The brain is an organ, therefore each of its cells has a high demand for nutrients. Preparing healthy snacks and meals to keep the brain fuelled during studying is useful.

Snack ideas include some raw mixed nuts and seeds (portioned to avoid overeating), boiled eggs, carrot, capsicum, cucumber and celery sticks, fresh fruit such as blueberries (which are protective to the brain), roast vegetable salad, shredded chicken or turkey and canned salmon.

Amino acids (from protein-rich foods) are the building blocks of neurotransmitters. While some amino acids are found in plant foods, tryptophan, the main precursor to serotonin, is found mostly in animal sources such as chicken, fish and turkey. GABA is the brain's peacemaker, regulating stress hormones and creating a sense of calm. A deficiency sign can be anxiety and panic attacks. Glutamine is the precursor to help to make GABA, helping improve both mental energy and relaxation, reduce alcohol cravings and addiction, stabilise blood sugar and promote memory. Glutamine supplements are often taken by athletes as it helps to support immunity and improve muscle repair which is why these are often located in the sports section of health shops.

Cabbage-based sauerkraut raises glutamine levels and production of GABA, as well as improving healthy bacteria balance in the gut. Beef, chicken, fish and eggs are good food sources. Herbal medicines such as kava kava, zizyphus, magnolia and passionflower have all been shown to support this pathway also.

Green tea contains the amino acid L-theanine, which antagonises the stimulating effect of caffeine, promoting a sense of calm. It also modifies brain serotonin levels. Look for organic green teas to avoid spray exposure and add a little cold water to the cup first to avoid drawing out the bitterness. Reducing caffeine intake through coffee and the likes of Coca-Cola is beneficial for anxiety also. Herbal teas and water are great for keeping the brain hydrated and improving learning outcomes. Regular trips to the toilet can also be beneficial to improve circulation.

Ginkgo biloba is one of the most ancient herbal medicines due to its antioxidant and vasoactive properties. This large tree may live over 1000 years and reach 400m in height. Extract from ginkgo leaves has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to treat circulatory disorders, asthma, tinnitus, vertigo, and cognitive problems.

Today, ginkgo extracts are one of the most commonly taken phytomedicines globally and are often prescribed in Europe by doctors as a nootropic agent in old age and dementia.

Complex carbohydrates are essential to fuel the brain and provide cofactors for neurotransmitter production. Refined carbohydrates such as biscuits and lollies create an imbalance in blood sugar levels, which contribute to mood disorders and poor concentration. Sourcing carbohydrates from wholegrains such as oats and quinoa or root vegetables is vital.

Phospholipids found mainly in egg yolks form neuronal membranes and receptor sites where neurotransmitters communicate. A vegan source is lecithin granules. Good fats are particularly important for reducing inflammation and supporting a healthy mood. Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, anchovies and sardines all provide omega 3 for healthy neuron communication.

A ''B'' complex supplement can be worthwhile during exams to improve mood, motivation, concentration and energy levels.

Minerals are very important in maintaining a healthy brain function. Low magnesium is associated with anxiety and depression while high calcium levels are often seen in depression. Zinc is fundamental to neurotransmitter balance and immune health and this can easily be tested through an oral taste test from a naturopath or health shop. Food sources of zinc include beef, oysters and pumpkin seeds.

Getting plenty of sleep is also important for memory and concentration. The most beneficial sleep is before 2am when cortisol starts to be re-manufactured for the following day so ideally seven to nine hours of sleep from 9pm-10pm is ideal. We are better to rise and fall with the sun to keep hormones and other body rhythms balanced.

Lemon essential oil has been shown to support focus and clear thinking. Peppermint energises and boosts mood. Lavender calms and promotes relaxation. These can be in a diffuser or dabbed on to wrists or temples.

-The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional.

-By Deanna Copland

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