Whether it's A levels or GCSEs, university or Common Entrance exams, it's sometimes hard to know who is more nervous come the day-the students or their parents. With so much riding on good test scores these days, everybody wants to do whatever's possible to ensure the best scholastic performance in test situations and over the long haul.
The good news from brain and nutrition researchers is that a great deal can be done. Just as we can optimize our computers and search-engine parameters, we can also optimize our brain and cognitive functions for higher-level achievement.
1- Clean up your child's nutrition
"There is no question about the importance of adequate nutrition for mental health," says Edward F. Group, III, MD, DC, NP. "Kids, adults, everybody. It's very simple. Your body needs nutrients in order to function properly. And the brain does require 'gas', so to speak, in order to run. It doesn't just happen."
And increasing evidence over the years has revealed that nutrition and healthy eating are "essential for adolescents to achieve their full academic potential, mental growth, and lifelong health and wellbeing".
Nutrition plays a vital role in maintaining a sufficient blood supply to the brain. Vitamins A, C, D, E and the Bs all play a role in brain function, as do minerals like magnesium, sodium, potassium and calcium. While vitamin B12 helps maintain healthy brain cell (neuron) activity, other B vitamins like niacin, riboflavin, thiamine and B6 are crucial for the production of neurotransmitters, brain chemicals essential for brain cell communications. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a fatty acid, is abundant in the brain's grey matter, and plays a major role in brain development and normal brain function. DHA has also been clinically shown to improve learning ability.
Some studies have even found that multivitamin/mineral supplementation "has the potential to improve brain function in healthy children". But the vast majority of clinical studies involving nutrition and brain performance have been focused on how nutrient deficiencies negatively impact brain function, rather than on the positive effects of supplementation. And they take this negative approach for good reason.
The modern Western diet is highly nutrient-deficient. Most people are lacking in B12. Copper levels, which can "seriously affect brain functions", are at an all-time low. Vitamin D, necessary for normal brain development, is critically lacking in most diets. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is "one of the most common medical conditions in children and adults". To date, inadequate levels of this vitamin have been linked to cognitive impairment, dementia, muscle weakness, depression and Alzheimer's disease.
Other nutrients needed by the brain to maintain top-level functioning include magnesium, iodine, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, folate, protein and iron.
But just as researchers are discovering the importance of nutrition in brain development and healthy brain function-including the ability to perform well on exams-countries all over the world are facing a rapid decline in the nutritional quality of their food.
In one study of US Department of Agriculture crop data, significant declines in protein, iron, calcium, magnesium, and vitamins B2, C and E were reported in staple vegetables and fruits. A similar, earlier study in the UK cited "significant reductions" in levels of calcium, magnesium, copper and sodium in vegetables, and in magnesium, iron, copper and potassium in fruits. In fact, copper levels had dropped by more than 80 per cent and calcium, which the Linus Pauling Institute says is crucial for memory, was reduced by 19 per cent.
Magnesium is essential for 'synaptic plasticity' (the growth and formation of new neuronal networks and connections) in the brain. Yet roughly half of all people in the industrialized nations are believed to be deficient in this mineral.
So far, low levels of magnesium have been related to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, while studies in rats have demonstrated that a magnesium supplement can increase learning ability and short- and long-term memory.
"Our findings suggest that elevating brain magnesium content via increasing magnesium intake might be a useful new strategy to enhance cognitive abilities," says Guosong Liu, director of the Center for Learning and Memory at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.
On top of the nutritional decline in our fruit and vegetables, Dr Group, III, founder of the Global Healing Center in Houston, Texas, says the lack of nutrition and ever-increasing number of toxic food additives and preservatives in our highly processed, sugar-laden, pre-packaged and frozen foods is also directly reducing children's mental faculties and their ability to perform well scholastically.
"Kids consume this stuff by the truckload and then we wonder why they're not performing at their best in school? If you're only giving your brain half of what it needs, don't be surprised if it's not firing on all cylinders-and that's a serious warning, " he says.
2- Make sure they eat a good breakfast
Once upon a time, parents could feel good about contributing to their children's academic performance at exam time by making sure they went off to school with a good breakfast under their belts. And it's still an effective approach today. As clinical studies consistently suggest, "omitting breakfast interferes with cognition and learning".
In addition to playing an important role in improving tests of attention and memory as well as creativity, mathematical ability and verbal skills, school breakfast programmes have also improved attendance rates and tardiness as well as "academic performance and cognitive functioning". It's especially important among children aged from four to 10, as positron emission tomography (PET) studies have shown that glucose-the main fuel of the human brain-is metabolized in the brains of children that age at about twice the rate of people aged 16 and over.
Yet eating breakfast is still hit or miss for as much as 40 per cent of adolescents in the developed countries. And even in those who do consistently eat breakfast, not all morning meals are created equal. In the US, cold cereal and fruit juice is the most common breakfast. Carbohydrates from the fruit as well as from grain sources like bread and cereal are rapidly turned into glucose, which feeds the brain. And carbs also trigger the release of the calming 'feel-good' neurotransmitter serotonin, which can help settle a student down before heading off to an exam in the morning.
But most breakfast cereals these days are highly processed, contain genetically modified (GM) wheat and corn, and are bursting with sugar. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in Washington, DC, just one serving of a normal 'children's' cereal a day adds over 10 lb of sugar to a child's diet over the course of a year.
And not only are the most popular, child-marketed, commercial breakfast cereals inferior in both quality and nutrition, but even the fruit juice on the table adds to the problem. Commercial apple juice contains the same amount of sugar as a can of Coca-Cola (10 tsp), while 12 oz of orange juice contains 8 tsp of sugar. All of this contributes to the average 22 tsp of added sugar consumed by Americans every day, and the 18.5 tsp of added sugar consumed daily by British teens and the 15 tsp by children ages four to 10.
Aside from providing a temporary energizing sugar 'high' by causing blood glucose and insulin levels to spike, such foods also then rapidly switch the body into 'crash' mode, characterized by confusion, difficulty concentrating, anxiety and fatigue.
Animal studies have shown that too much sugar leads to lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which assists in neuronal dendrite growth (thought to play a role in memory and learning), neurotransmitter release and memory formation. Also, consistent additional sugar consumption dulls the brain's ability to determine satiation levels after a meal, so contributing to overeating and obesity.
But excess sugar isn't the only potentially IQ-diminishing culprit in this common and familiar breakfast. Even the grains that go into the cereal, toast and muffins children love are suspect. Neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, author of the best-seller Grain Brain, and recipient of the Linus Pauling Award for his work in the field of nutrition, reveals that the life-long consumption of supposedly 'good for you' grains-even organic whole ones-causes inflammation that contributes to ADHD, anxiety, Alzheimer's disease, depression and more.
So what's a healthy morning start?
Perlmutter's breakfast recipes highlight eggs, eggs and more eggs-all free range and organic-made into frittatas, veggie omelettes and even poached with smoked salmon. Long considered dietary 'bad guys' (along with anything else that raises cholesterol), eggs are actually a first-class source of protein with all the necessary amino acids, plus vitamins A, D and B12, iron, choline, healthy saturated fat and cholesterol-which comprises a full 25 per cent of the human brain.
As a break from the egg routine, he also recommends what he calls 'Quick Crunchy Cereal', made from raw unsalted nuts, coconut flakes, fresh berries (strawberries and blueberries work well) and milk.
7 foods to boost your child's brain power
American nutritionist Jill Castle strongly recommends the following foods to boost cognitive function.
1- Avocado Rich in healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids), this boosts blood flow to the brain. Mash it up and use it in sandwiches instead of mayonnaise, or chop into pieces and sprinkle with Himalayan salt.
2- Blueberries Full of flavonoids, these improve memory, learning and general reasoning capacity. Mix a handful into a container of full-fat Greek yoghurt and add it to your child's lunchbox. Great for desserts made with milk.
3- Dark chocolate This contains cocoa flavanols and increases blood flow to the brain, so improving thinking and mood.
4- Eggs One yolk has about 200 mg
of choline, important for children ages eight and younger. Eggs also contain iron, folate and vitamin A, but avoid 'vitamin D-enhanced' eggs.
5- Fatty fish The omega-3 oils present in
fatty fish can enhance problem-solving, concentration and memory. Freshly caught (not farmed) salmon is best; mackerel and sardines also score low in toxins and mercury.
6- Nuts A good source of monounsaturated fats and full of vitamin E, which protects the brain against degenerative diseases; perfect for snacking, lunchboxes and sprinkled on salads.
7- Olives Their monounsaturated fats promote the transport of oxygen to the brain, while olive oil is a great source of phenolic antioxidants.
3- Make sure they get enough sleep
"Brain power relies on many factors, including physical activity, sleep and food," says child-nutrition expert Jill Castle, MS, RDN, LDN, based in New Canaan, Connecticut. Sufficient sleep is of such importance to academic performance that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended in August 2014 that middle and high schools (grades 6-12) push back their class start times to 8:30 in the morning or later.
"The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life," says Dr Judith Owens, MD, FAAP, author of the AAP's policy statement.
More top brain foods
Almond and peanut butters: high in protein, vitamin B3 and folate, good child-friendly additions to brain-boosting diets
Asparagus: a good source of fibre and packed with copper, vitamins B6, B2 and pantothenic acid (B5), A, C and E, potassium, choline, selenium, zinc, iron and protein, all nutrients the brain needs to work efficiently
Broccoli: high in potassium, vitamins C, A, B6 and K, great for the brain and high in fibre
Coconut oil: rich in medium-chain triglycerides, renews brain cells (neurons) and restores nerve function
Cod liver oil: a century-old staple and fabulous source of vitamins D and A, and omega-3 fats, all needed for a clear, active mind
Flax seeds: rich in fibre and protein, and a reasonable source of magnesium-great in salads and sprinkled on veggies
Full-fat Greek yoghurt: a good source of calcium, which reduces stress, improves mood and speeds thinking
Kale: high in vitamins E and C, folate, minerals and fatty acids, all necessary for brain power
Mussels: high in vitamin B12, which aids memory and balances mood
Pumpkin seeds: crunchy and filled with zinc, which aids memory and general brain function
Spinach: rich in magnesium, vitamin E and folate, boosts blood flow in the brain and the formation of new neural networks and connections.
4- Keep them moving
Aerobic physical activity has also been consistently linked with improvements in children's overall academic performance, intelligence testing and psychosocial functioning. Exercise increases brain volume in the parts related to executive processing and can help children who struggle with reading difficulties.
So far, though, no direct correlation has been found between the amount and intensity of exercise and general fitness and cognitive improvement. Exercise benefits seem to vary from child to child, and more is not necessarily better when it comes to aerobics. Children with reading problems, for example, have been helped more by athletic programmes focusing on developing balance, timing and coordination than straight-out high-intensity workouts.
Time for unstructured play during the school day, especially for children in primary school, is now also recognized as invaluable for promoting problem-solving, and better self-regulation, verbal skills and reasoning ability. Play may also trigger the secretion of BDNF in the brain, as shown in animal studies.
Schools in Japan-known for their academic rigour and excellence-allow 10-minute breaks for every 50 minutes of classroom time. In the UK, break times are usually one at mid-morning and one mid-afternoon (for 15 minutes each) in primary schools, and only one at mid-morning (for 20 minutes) in secondary schools.
In the US, the focus on 'getting tough' on education has resulted in a substantial decrease and even a curtailment of recesses in many schools. Yet in 2013 the AAP released a report stating that "safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits . . . is a crucial and necessary component of a child's development and . . . serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom".
Physical activity during breaks is stimulating and preferable, but the importance of breaks lies in their unstructured nature. Physical education classes, for example, are not a substitute for undirected play.
5- Keep them well watered
Another overlooked element in improving academic performance is the role of hydration. Most children tend to avoid plain water, spending their lunch money on sports drinks, sodas, juices and flavoured waters. Yet studies indicate that drinking plain water during school hours boosts attentiveness, critical thinking and memory, while "even mild dehydration-a body water loss of 1-2 per cent-can impair cognitive performance".
6- Create an environment conducive to learning
Numerous alternative therapies also have an impact on learning. For example, aromatherapy-the use of essential oils to create physiological and psychological changes in wellbeing-has proved effective for stimulating cognitive function. Research with volunteers who underwent cognitive tasks in cubicles diffused with the scent of rosemary essential oil, which contains the chemical 1,8-cineole, revealed that breathing in the oil at higher concentrations was "significantly related" to both speed and accuracy in their test performances. In another study of 144 volunteers, exposing subjects to the aroma of peppermint essential oil led to enhanced memory and increased alertness, while exposure to ylang-ylang decreased it.
Colour has also been shown to boost mental attention and assist memorization. Studies have confirmed that information delivered in multicoloured multimedia presentations is remembered better than information presented in various shades of grey. In a series of studies by a pair of researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, it was found that red enhanced detail-oriented tasks while blue encouraged creativity.
So, would it help to paint your child's bedroom in warmer red tones to stimulate attention? Or blue to inspire out-of-the-box thinking? Perhaps. According to Andrea Thompson, a primary-school teacher based in New South Wales, Australia, students improved their IQ scores when tested in rooms with low ceilings that were painted light-blue, yellow, yellow-green or orange, whereas their scores fell when taken in rooms with ceilings painted white, brown or black.
Your brain-boosting action plan
Establishing healthy eating habits is crucial to brain health, and a healthy diet means cutting out processed foods, refined foods and sugars, and soft drinks and other sweetened beverages, while getting into the habit of buying and cooking (not microwaving) a wide variety of nutritious whole-food meals.
According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, children and teens who regularly eat dinner with their family do better at school and are also less likely to smoke, drink and take drugs.
Your shopping bag should include organic fruit & veg, organic free-range eggs, grass-fed organic meat & poultry, legumes, nuts & seeds, and fermented foods like kefir, unpasteurized yoghurt and sauerkraut.
But making the switch may be easier said than done, especially when dealing with kids who have strong food likes and dislikes and who, on average, eat 40 per cent of their meals away from home.
Here are a few tips that may make it easier:
o Make breakfast a must and schedule for it. Avoid sugary cereals and refined gluten-filled pastries and breads. One idea is to approach breakfast like a lunch or dinner-cook up veggies and eggs, eat leftover casseroles and other 'dinner' foods in the morning.
o Cook enough on weekends or in the evening to have leftover meats and vegetables on hand in the morning. Freeze prepared meal elements-like chopped meat and veggies-in individual baggies, thaw overnight and use in the morning.
o Pack school lunches comprising a high-quality protein, veggies, low-pasteurized full-fat cheeses and fresh fruit.
o Set a good example by eating healthy meals yourself.
o Enlist your children's support. Explain why you're making changes, and get them learning about whole organic foods; take them shopping with you and let them help you choose items, and take turns choosing and exploring new foods. Read labels together. Encourage them to join in the food preparation. Remember, you're doing more than just raising your child's IQ-you're creating a lifelong foundation of healthy eating.
7- Supplement judiciously
While there is no magic pill that can boost IQ overnight, studies have shown that, in as little as 12 weeks, supplementation can make a difference in mental performance (and mood).
The following list includes the Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center recommendations for supplements on top of a daily multivitamin/mineral with mostly 100 per cent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).
For children ages four to 13
Suggested daily dosages: vitamin A (half as beta-carotene): 2,500 IU (750 mcg); vitamin D: 600-1,000 IU
For children ages four to eight
Suggested daily dosages: calcium: 1,000 mg; magnesium: 130 mg
For children ages eight to 13
Suggested daily dosages: calcium: 1,400 mg; magnesium: 240 mg
Nutritional expert Dr Leo Galland suggests a low-sugar, low-fat, high-fibre diet supplemented with flaxseed, cod liver or walnut oils to help boost concentration and lift any depression, plus the following B vitamins.
Suggested daily dosages: B1: 25 mg; B6: 50 mg; B12: 1 mg
Suspect a vitamin/mineral deficiency?
Symptoms of extreme nutritional deficiencies range from general fatigue, muscle weakness and abnormal heart rhythm to numbness in the extremities, memory loss, extreme pallor and irritability. Milder symptoms include blurred vision (a sign of B6, B2 and pantothenic acid deficiencies), eyelid ticks (not enough magnesium, B2, B6 and zinc), acne (a lack of vitamins A, E, B2, B6 and C, niacin, biotin, zinc and essential fatty acids) and white spots on the nails (zinc and B6 deficiency).
If you suspect your child has a nutritional deficiency:
o Get a nutritional assessment done by a doctor, naturopath or nutritionist
o Get a hair analysis done; hair changes slowly and can accurately reveal mineral deficiencies and the presence of heavy metals
o In the UK, get tested by the Biolab Medical Unit (tel: 020 7636 5959020 7636 5959), which offers numerous tests to determine vitamin and mineral deficiencies (see
o In the US, get tested by Genova Diagnostics, which does a CoQ10 + Vitamin Profile as well as numerous other tests, such as the Cardio ION Profile, which measures levels of amino and fatty acids, vitamins
and minerals (see www.gdx.net).
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