Hack your way to stress-free exams with nutrients to support brain power

In our third feature this month looking at exams, we’re delighted to hear from Caroline Hind, registered nutritional therapist at Vitaminology, who offers some top tips on maintaining good brain health and function through the use of key nutrients.

Exams. The very word strikes fear into the heart of the best of us! Whether it’s handling revision, managing nerves or mastering subject topics and techniques, exam season makes demands on the brain and nervous system that go way beyond everyday requirements. So how do you support good brain health and function to give yourself the best chance of exam success?

Brilliant B Vitamins
The eight water-soluble B vitamins come into play at multiple points in the metabolic processes of the brain and nervous system. The B vitamins are so important that each one has its own doorway into the brain across the blood-brain barrier! Look out in particular for these brain superstars:

Vitamin B12
Adequate levels of this vitamin are crucial for maintaining cognitive processing power and regulating the nervous system. Vitamin B12 supports the production of neurotransmitters, accurate cell replication and the integrity of the myelin sheath that surrounds nerves. Testing of your serum B12 levels is a useful place to start when supplementing this important vitamin, especially for vegans and vegetarians as vitamin B12 is only available in animal-derived foods. Natural sources include beef, liver, chicken, fish, shellfish, fortified breakfast cereal and eggs.

Vitamin B9 (folate)
Vitamin B9, also known as folate, helps to convert food into glucose, which is used to produce energy. Sufficient folate intake is needed to keep homocysteine at safe levels for the brain. High homocysteine levels in the blood can damage the lining of the arteries and increase your risk of heart disease, dementia and stroke. Natural sources include dark, green leafy vegetables, beans, peanuts, sunflower seeds and seafood. If you are supplementing Vitamin B9 chose those containing the bioavailable “folate” rather than “folic acid”.

Vitamin D3
Vitamin D has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the brain, protecting it from everyday damage. Research also suggests that vitamin D is vital for maintaining signalling pathways used in memory and cognition and associated with larger brain volume. It isn’t easy to get vitamin D3 naturally from your diet so supplementation can help but the flesh of fatty fish such as salmon, egg yolks and milk will provide small levels.

Essential fatty acids
Sixty percent of the brain is made up of fat, underlining the importance of maintaining a good supply of appropriate fatty acids for the brain’s maintenance and repair. Two kinds of fatty acid have attracted the most attention for their use as supplements to support good brain and nervous system function:

Derived from marine sources, these long-chain fatty acids are incorporated in cell membranes and, in particular, the sheaths surrounding nerve cells. Oily fish is incredibly important in the diet as it contains Omega 3 DHA which contributes to normal brain function7. Importantly, eating fish, rich in Omega 3 DHA is essential when pregnant and for breast feeding mothers as it helps contribute to the normal development of the baby’s brain and eyes. There are some simple and effective ways to introduce oily fish such as opting for salmon en croûte or making homemade pâté with mackerel or trout. Look for supplements providing krill oil, fish oil, fish liver oil or, especially useful for vegetarians and vegans, algal oil.

One thing that is essential during the stressful exam period is sleep so introduce magnesium into your diet or take a supplement. Magnesium levels in the body have long been thought to affect anxiety and mood and may help to keep those pre-exam nerves under control. Natural sources include dark leafy green vegetables, some fatty fish, nuts and bananas. Of course, you should always remember that food supplements should not replace a balanced diet or healthy lifestyle!

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