We’ve all heard of food that is good for the soul. But did you know that food is good for the mind too?
Have you ever felt a bit hazy or fuzzy when reading a piece of crucial study text, whether it’s a science journal, or novel, or part of your coursework? Do you ever find information swimming in your head or on the page? This experience is colloquially known as ‘brain fuzz,’ ‘mental fog’ or reporting the feeling that your ‘brain feels foggy’.
Our brains are energy hungry: they consume a quarter of our total energy at rest. Your brain has to deal with molecules making their way through the blood-brain-barrier, a special membrane that divides the general body bloodstream from that blood which makes it to the brain. With the blood comes a whole host of small molecules and even hormones. Imagine, then, how your brain feels when it isn’t sitting in its perfect environment. Stressful situations like exams, deadlines or anxious friends are a lot for your already busy brain to cope with!
The mechanisms underpinning this mental fog are not precisely known but we do know that diet can play a major role in reducing the problem. One issue with this is that we are “neurodiverse”, which means that our brains and nervous system have different needs and different sensitivities. No one is the same. Given time, an individual can tailor his or her diet and working patterns through a process of trial and intuition.
However, we decided, what with back to school fast approaching, that we would do some of the hard work for you. We hope this post helps you reach an awareness of your own body more quickly, by outlining the factors that might be preventing you from reaching the top of the class.
Here’s our integrative and practical guide to optimising your brain and environment quickly, so that you are your most focused and positive self and that you perform to your best for the big moments. It’s the best of science and practical advice brought together.
Brain hack 1) Feed your brain directly; Fat fat smarty pants
There’s been a conspiracy theory blocking your brain for years and finally it’s been debunked. Low fat diets are not smart diets. The way of thinking started in the US, when the government in the 60s & 70s took some rather shaky research and decided that animal fats, also known as saturated fats, are bad for us, causing heart disease and obesity. They changed the recommendations for health and promoted a low-fat diet for all. Then their heart disease and obesity numbers grew faster than ever.
Innovative researchers have now thrown this idea out of the window, with more detailed explorations of our need for fats. In doing this, they have also discovered that certain fats may in fact protect us from heart disease AND help us actually form memories. Pretty useful for studying.
How? Firstly, we now know that brains have receptors all over them sniffing out a type of fat molecule called LDLs (low density lipoproteins), and if you completely deprive a person of these molecules (as certain drugs have accidentally done) it causes a state of amnesia.; memory loss. We also know that fats are not equal in their effects – for example, MCTs (medium chain fatty acids) create the substance surrounding our brain cells, making the cells communicate faster.
With this in mind, here are the fats to consume, and those to avoid, when you want to beat the dreaded mental fog:
Good for the mind:
MCTs (medium chain fatty acids). Found in coconut. Coconut oil! Coconut flesh! You name it coconut has it.
Omegas, especially omega 3 (which most western diets are deficient in). This isn’t just found in fish though – nuts and seeds in particular chia seeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds have a high Omega content too.
Grass fed animal fats. At EarlyBird, all of our products are vegan, but that’s not to say a bit of butter or meat isn’t a good addition to your diet if you aren’t. Look out for grass-fed products as these have fats that also contain natural fat soluble vitamins.
Bad for the mind:
Artificially saturated fats: Our brains cannot feed from fats that have been artificially changed, such as the ones we find in margarines, sweet spreads and products labelled ‘low fat’. These types of fats may very well clog up our vessels and whatsmore, these products generally have a lot of artificial ingredients and sugars added in the process to make them low-fat.
Brain hack 2) Find your happy brain state, get rid of the stressors.
When we’re stressed, by even just the thought of an exam or that person next to us in the library with a frown planted on their forehead, a special gland on top of our kidneys releases a hormone called cortisol. This hormone is great at mobilising sugars into our bloodstream and keeping them there. It’s great at pumping our heart fast and hard and it makes us feel twitchy. It’s a really important stimulator, but too much of it can leave us plump, tired and craving sugars.
So what can we do about it? Regulate! Eat foods at set times of day to fuel your body. So for breakfast, think about energy in a slow release form. For example fats (of course!), soluble fibre, and micronutrients from seeds. Fats stay in our stomachs longer, requiring more time to digest, and directly triggering hormones that say you’re full. If you eat at defined times, it will reduce the stress of digesting for the body, which will free it up for other tasks. Lunch should include a good source of protein because amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, stimulate a special group of cells in our hypothalamus (the regulatory part of our brains) and make us feel more awake. As a vegan, you can find protein in nuts and pulses.
Brain hack 3) Inflamed? Cut it out.
There is a strand of research which found that some of us are walking around in a state of low grade inflammation at all times. Loosely speaking, inflammation means a cascade of little proteins which are very reactive, are triggering others and creating ill-effects in the body: think of someone dancing in a full room: it’s infectious when one person starts, then the others get the bug and start to jive too. Inflammation is a little like this, one little protein triggers another then another. And, like any party, there are party starters and party poopers. The party poopers have an important part to play because without them the dancing goes on for too long; the furniture’s ruined, the carpets are worn down and the room (your body) suffers. Your body needs some down time .
The question of why we are inflamed in the first place, is a complex one with roots in our modern lives and eating. Since what we want to provide you with here are some simple nutritional solutions to help with your studying, we suggest that creating an eating style that removes any potentially inflammatory foods – as if you’re getting to a clean baseline – is a very good place to start.
So, what are the inflammatory culprits? Well thankfully you won’t find any of them in Earlybird’s foods. Top of the list, yes you know it – gluten! It’s the scourge of our modern age according to many. Yet does anyone actually know why it’s so bad for us? Well, frankly, it isn’t a food demon, most of us can manage it in small amounts with no difficulty but some of us are far more sensitive to it, and even that might be because of other digestive difficulties.
Gluten is a natural component of certain grains which have been propagated for centuries. In the past, gluten made up a tiny proportion of these grains, until we engineered them to be massive and contain lots of that sticky substance. Why? It makes food into the chewy and fluffy stuff of dreams: a nice chewy bagel is hard to beat, after all. However, our digestive abilities haven’t hanged at the same pace as our food engineering; simply put, we didn’t evolve to eat gluten in such large quantities.There is evidence that it can be a bit tough on our systems. Some researchers – like the neurologist Dr Perlmutter – go so far to advocate a completely grain-free diet. Gluten from grains, he claims, create inflammation that fuzzes our brains and ages us.
Dr Perlmutter identifies a second factor that causes us to get all inflamed: sugar. Remember what we said about the stress hormone cortisol earlier? It’s all linked. Cortisol out-competes insulin, and stops us from using glucose in the blood stream as we normally would. Therefore we might get shaky, nervous or even feel a little ‘sugar high’. None of these things are good for performance and focus.
A top tip, the, would be to try gluten free and refined sugar-free. Give the body a break and watch yourself feel lighter, let the party inside you cool down. Note – you require at least three weeks to feel any difference. It might seem that all the good stuff is off limits. But don’t worry, Earlybird is here to keep the sweetness in your life and to help you avoid the spiking and crashing that can stress out your body and mind. All of EarlyBird’s sugars are natural, come with fibre and are derived from fruits – they give you energy but in a gentler, more balanced way.
Brain hack 4) Final flourish
One final, rather smelly, tip to help you reach study success. The part of our brain critical in driving our motivations is called the VTA (ventral tegmental area).. When placed in brain scanners, people who can activate their VTA perform better at tasks. The problem is that not many people know how to tap into it. It’s possible to buy equipment that provides feedback when that area is stimulated but there’s a much simpler (and cheaper) approach and one that has been used to switch on motivation for centuries: smell.
Smell is the most ancient and valued of our senses. The receptors for it reach right up and into our brains right through a special plate at the base of our skull. It can bring to mind extremely powerful memories, almost instantaneously.
But how can you use it to focus and study better? Find a smell that is very particular, for example, a cinnamon stick. Then take that scent and only smell it when you are really really focused. Perhaps you play a sport and you feel really motivated just after scoring: smell the cinnamon stick. Perhaps there’s something you can think about, like a trip you’ll take after exams, think about it in a really focused way, then smell the cinnamon stick. What you’re doing is building a repertoire of smell linked to focus and motivation. That way, when comes to exam day, you can smell that cinnamon stick and take yourself immediately to a place of focus.
Let us know if any of these strategies work for you – tweet us at @earlybirdsnacks or email firstname.lastname@example.org – we would love to hear!