Back To School: Nutrition For Improved Learning 101

By Diana Licalzi, RD, LDN, MS Sep 13, 2018

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School’s back in session so we did a little studying ourselves. Whether you’re in college, grad school, or just affected by a student’s schedule – hello moms and dads – improving certain aspects of your life can better equip you for those unexpected late nights, missed meals, and undue pressures of a hectic routine. 


We’ve created a two-part series - Nutrition and Lifestyle - on ways to mentally and physically prepare you for the school year ahead. In this first part, we'll focus on nutrition and discuss the best ways to improve your brain’s ability to function thanks to fine-tuned nutrition.

The brain and gut connection

Before we jump into fuel for our brains, let’s take a minute to discuss the gut.

Without a healthy gut, we can’t expect our minds to work at full capacity. The gut and the brain share a special connection known as the gut/brain axis, and the two engage in constant communication with each other.1 How exactly? The gut’s microbiome promotes mental health by stimulating and producing neurons that send signals to the brain.2,3 For example, 90% of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with the regulation of mood, sleep, and memory, is produced in the gut.4 To optimize our brain’s capability, we must first improve the health of the gut. We can do this by:

1. Increasing the quantity of healthy or ‘good’ bacteria - more good bacteria helps prevent the growth of unwanted or ‘bad’ bacteria that also resides in our gut, and

2. Creating more diversity among the good bacteria, that is, increasing the different strains of healthy bacteria (there are thousands of them!).


Healthy gut, happy brain

Fortunately, several foods can stimulate our gut’s health. Fiber, also known as a prebiotic, passes undigested through our gastrointestinal tract serving as food for the good bacteria. With ample fiber, the bacteria can nourish, thrive, and hinder the growth of unhealthy bacteria. Whole grains like oatmeal and quinoa, legumes, and many fruits and vegetables are rich sources of fiber making them excellent fuel for the gut microbiome.

Phytonutrients, the compounds that give fruits and vegetables their unique colors, also play a role in promoting gut health. Phytonutrients reduce inflammation in the gut and promote diversity among the good bacteria.5 Furthermore, fermented foods naturally contain probiotics which help replenish the good bacteria in our intestines. Sources of these probiotics include kefir, yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut.6 A diet rich in fiber, phytonutrients, and probiotics promote a healthy microbiome and thus, a happy brain.

Boosting brain power


Step 1: Decrease inflammation

Now that we’ve touched upon the gut let’s switch our attention to the brain. A healthy brain works best in an anti-inflammatory state. By filling our diets with unsaturated fats and abundant sources of antioxidants, we can lessen inflammation. Fatty fish, chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, anti-inflammatory fats, which contribute to healthy brain function.

Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, prevents dangerous free radicals from damaging our DNA. Therefore, foods high in lycopene may protect the brain and thus, reduce the effects of age-related conditions like Alzheimer's or dementia.7 Lycopene gives fruits and vegetables their red color, so grab foods like tomatoes, watermelon, papaya, and red bell peppers for your daily dose of lycopene.


Step 2: Enhance focus and memory

While certain foods promote a healthy environment for our brain, others may directly bolster our focus and memory. Dark chocolate contains many natural stimulants, like caffeine, which enhance focus and concentration.8 Munch on a piece of chocolate before test time for razor-sharp focus.

Blueberries, a true superfood, directly improve memory. A recent study showed that the intake of blueberries increased brain blood flow, brain activation, and memory in older adults.9 Incorporate blueberries into your diet and studying for your next exam could be a whole lot easier.


Removing the junk

Now let’s quickly touch upon some foods to avoid in our diet. Research on hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorder is shifting focus from sugar to artificial colors, dyes, and preservatives. Compelling research shows these additives significantly increase hyperactivity in children.10 The results of these studies led the European Union to issue a mandate forcing companies to label products containing certain food dyes with the warning: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”11 While more research is warranted to solidify the effects of these additives on attention span, especially in adults, our recommendation: avoid them when possible.

To summarize, to increase our brain’s performance, we must first pay attention to our gut. Luckily, a diet rich in fiber, phytonutrients, and probiotics nourishes our gut’s bacteria allowing it to communicate effectively with the brain. Healthy fats and antioxidants create the ideal environment for a working brain while dark chocolate and blueberries can enhance focus and memory. Now you’re equipped with the necessary material to ace your next exam, deliver an impressive presentation, or just outsmart your peers.

Stay tuned, next week we’ll be talking about the lifestyle practices you can incorporate into your routine to complement your new nutrition habits.

 

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References:

(1) Cryan JF, Dinan TG. Mind-altering microorganisms: the impact of the gut microbiota on brain and behaviour. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2012;13(10):701-712. doi:10.1038/nrn3346.

(2) Bull MJ, Plummer NT. Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease. Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal. 2014;13(6):17-22.  

(3) Galland, L. The Gut Microbiome and the Brain. Journal of Medicinal Food. 2014;17(12):1261-1272. doi:10.1089/jmf.2014.7000.

(4) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/292693.php

(5) Duda-Chodak A, Tarko T, Satora P, Sroka P. Interaction of dietary compounds, especially polyphenols, with the intestinal microbiota: a review. European Journal of Nutrition. 2015;54(3):325-341.

(6) Rai A, Jeyaram K. Health Benefits of Functional Proteins in Fermented Foods. Health Benefits of Fermented Foods and Beverages. 2015:455-474.

(7) https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/lycopene-rich-tomatoes-linked-to-lower-stroke-risk-201210105400

(8) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3820066/

(9) https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170307100356.htm

(10) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17825405

(11) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=IM-PRESS&reference=20080707IPR33563&language=EN



 

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