Compared with the rest of the body, the brain expends an enormous amount of energy and requires ample fuel for that energy, especially during heavy-hitter exam time. A healthy human brain can process information as fast as 268 mph, can make trillions of connections to other cells and can think nearly 60,000 thoughts a day. These thoughts are being generated by the brain’s 100 billion neurons. Boy, the brain is busy.
Despite being engrossed by these facts, my boys still questioned whether healthy foods could in fact support their brainpower for exams. It worked wonders to refer them to research studies by neuroscientist, distinguished fellow and New York Times best-selling author Daniel G. Amen, who has worked with 135 active and retired NFL players. Amen put professional athletes on a special diet that included increased lean proteins and vegetables, regular exercise and adequate sleep, as well as nutritional supplements such as fish oil and vitamins. Within six months, the players showed significant increases in cognitive scores, blood flow to the brain, self-reported better moods, memory and motivation. Many athletes had 50 percent boosts in attention, information processing speed and accuracy on tests. Seems worth a try, boys.
The most important brain food is probably the omega-3 fatty acids. Healthy brains are about 60 percent structural fat, with omega-3 fatty acids and specifically DHA the most prevalent. These fats help reduce brain inflammation, build and repair cell membranes, aid with stress management, and have been shown to be fundamental to brain development in children (the reason there is so much DHA in breast milk and infant formula). The best sources of omega-3s and DHA are wild salmon, sardines, mackerel and fish oil supplements.
• Protein builds new and repairs damaged tissue in our bodies and brains. Amino acids (parts of proteins) ignite certain neurotransmitters in the brain. For instance, eating the amino acid tyrosine, found in salmon, eggs, turkey and red meat, helps the body produce norepinephrine and dopamine, which promote brain alertness and activity. Other brain-boosting proteins include avocados, chicken, beans, and raw nuts and seeds.
• Antioxidants found in fresh foods such as blueberries, carrots and leafy greens strengthen the blood vessel walls in the brain. There are 100,000 miles of blood vessels in the brain, so that is no small job. Vitamin C, found in citrus and green vegetables, is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to reduce oxidative stress in the brain and helps control spikes in cortisol, leading to more stable energy levels.
• B vitamins are essential for blood and nerve health, which are important for the brain. These vitamins also provide long-lasting energy needed for exam time. Feed on spinach, avocados, beans and nuts.
• Water keeps the blood viscous and moving, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Knowing that three soda cans’ worth of blood travels through the brain every minute, it seems right to keep it moving.
• The brain is vulnerable to oxidative damage from free radicals that are released in our modern-day world and also created when our body breaks down certain foods.
• Caffeine and sugar can make it harder for a child to focus and increases stress levels.
• Trans fats and hydrogenated oils have been shown to contribute to diminished cognitive function.
Oh, and let’s not forget breakfast. If you want to increase your chances of focusing during exams, don’t even think about skipping breakfast. Test scores of children who miss breakfast are generally worse than those who eat a well-balanced meal. Children who eat breakfast show better academic performance, longer attention spans and reduced hyperactivity in class.
Even though the secret to success and good grades is not as simple as baked salmon, it clearly can’t hurt to enter exam time with a well-fed brain. So our grocery cart this month will include plenty of that brain-boosting salmon, plus leafy greens, blueberries, eggs and avocados, and we will be putting a premium on healthy breakfasts. Perhaps I’ll start sounding a little smarter this month, too.
• Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a nutrition education company, and co-author of “Super Food Cards,” a collection of healthful recipes and advice.