17 Jul 2012

Seven Great Foods for Stressed Students

Worried about schoolwork, college apps, or standardized tests? Why not eat your way to a calmer, more focused state of mind?

Studies show that eating certain foods can reduce stress and boost students’ performance on tests and in school. In this blog entry, I will provide information on seven such foods. Get ready to get snacking!

1. Carbohydrates!

 Ah, carbs—our kindest, most empathetic food. Eating a bunch of carbs when you’re stressed or sad is like getting a big hug from Mother Nature. This is because carbohydrates encourage the brain to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical that regulates depression and anxiety.

It’s best to eat complex carbohydrates including whole-grain breads and pastas, oatmeal, brown rice and millet. Because they digest more slowly than white carbs, complex carbohydrates will also boost your  focus without resulting in an energy crash later on.

2. Oranges and Blueberries!

 Fruits like oranges and blueberries with a high concentration of vitamin C help reduce stress hormones like cortisol. In addition, blueberries are chock-full of anthocyanin compounds, which protect brain neurons linked to memory.

One 2010 study found that older adults who drank 2.5 cups of blueberry juice daily for two months improved their scores on learning and memory  tests by 20%. Studies involving rats have also shown that eating blueberries leads to improved learning ability and motor skills.

3. Fish oil tablets!

I could spend about 10 blog entries raving about fish oil’s myriad benefits. In addition to preventing heart disease, clarifying acne, aiding weight loss and promoting healthy hair, fish oil will guarantee your calm and focus.

Fish oil is replete with omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Such fatty acids are not only necessary for our bodies to function, but they also treat depression, anxiety and ADHD. In general, fish oil aids one’s ability to concentrate, calm down and think clearly.

Fatty fish like salmon, anchovies and tuna contain high levels of DHA and EPA, but they also contain too much mercury for us to eat them very often. By taking a daily fish oil supplement, you will ensure your brain’s fill of these delicious fatty acids. Your brain will reward you with its highest performance.

Note: Small amounts of vitamin E are often added to fish oil tablets to prevent them from going rancid. When selecting your fish oil supplement, make sure that it contains vitamin E. Also, be sure to thoroughly research any supplement you consider to make sure all harmful chemicals—like mercury—have been removed.

4. Nuts and Seeds!

 Rich in vitamin E, nuts—especially almonds—spike cognitive acuity and combat anxiety. Nuts’ high fiber and beneficial fat content also makes them an excellent snack when you need an immediate, but slow-burning, energy boost.

Walnuts and flax seeds are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids—just like fish oil!

Finally, sunflower seeds are a wonderful source of folate, which spurs dopamine production. Dopamine is a reward chemical in our brains that induces feelings of pleasure.

5. Coffee!

It’s true! Drinking 1–3 of cups of coffee each day is a great way to augment mental performance.

According to an article in Time Magazine, drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline—the chemical agent of intense focus. As a result, the well-rested individual who drinks caffeine is more able to concentrate on repetitive, boring tasks for extended periods of time. When you’re sleep deprived, you can count on caffeine to redeem your reaction time, concentration and logical reasoning abilities.

Drinking caffeine also promotes the release of dopamine, the chemical in our brains responsible for feelings of bliss and satisfaction. In keeping with this, drinking caffeine has been proven to improve mood and boost energy levels. Caffeine, in other words, can seriously motivate us to tackle our work!

Bonus: Research shows that drinking 2 cups of (strong) coffee per day helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Beware, however, of consuming caffeine and other stimulants when you’re stressed. If you’re already feeling slightly panicky and overexcited, a shot of espresso will NOT help you slow down, relax and focus.

If you need a boost but recoil at coffee’s taste, try dark chocolate! A generic cup of coffee contains about 130 mg. of caffeine. In comparison, a bar of regular dark chocolate (50–70% cocoa) contains about 70 mg. of caffeine. Dark chocolate is also loaded with flavonoids, a chemical with relaxing properties that is also found in chamomile tea.

6. Avocado!

Avocado is one of the hippest and happiest brain foods in town. The monosaturated fat in avocado benefits blood circulation. In turn, our brains function and think better.

Avocados are also full of potassium (half of an avocado has more potassium than a medium sized-banana!), which helps reduce high blood pressure—one of the symptoms of stress.

7. Water!

Not technically a food, but staying hydrated is essential for maintaining a good mood. Even slight dehydration can increase levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the brain—a catch-22, since many symptoms of stress (like sweating, heavy breathing and increased heart-rate) cause your body to lose water.

Water also makes you smarter. According to a recent study, college students who brought water with them to an exam scored higher than students that did not. Although the study didn’t address how water spurred this spike, it certainly suggests that constant sipping will help you do better in school.

Glossary:
These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

myriad: a very great number of things
acuity: sharpness; acuteness; keenness
augment: to make larger in size
recoil: to draw back in alarm, horror or disgust

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