Many readers are currently supporting a child or other loved one during their final preparations for what for many are the most challenging exams they will ever do - that's a lot of people struggling with stress levels right now!
I have written about the importance of sufficient sleep many times (see here and here) and when it comes to food the following tips might just help them over that final hurdle…. Nothing new, I know, with much of the advice taken from my latest book GLOW: Your Complete Four-Week plan for Healthy Radiant Skin Interestingly, its those same foods that boost our brains that also help to keep our gut healthy and bring on that glow, primarily because what we eat influences the delicate balance of hormones, the production of neurotransmitters and the regulation of our stress response—which combined make for one pretty crucial package!
Eat regularly - don't skip meals
Balancing blood-sugar levels is always important, most especially during stressful periods with several studies showing that blood sugar fluctuations are a key contributor to chronic anxiety. Eating nourishing foods regularly and NOT missing meals help ensure our brains (and bodies) are sufficiently powered for study and the thousands of other functions performed daily. Lack of time is no excuse as a few minutes is all that is needed to ensure that what we are eating will actually help us function better. When time is tight, cook in bulk, freeze and defrost as needed.
Eat mostly plants
Not rocket science, but what is new is the research showing just how beneficial a plant-focused diet is for the body at large. By 'plant-focused' I am referring to fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and the numerous range of nourishing grains now stocked in most supermarkets. Obviously there is room on the plate for quality protein sources - lean meat, fish, chicken and eggs.
Make meals as colourful as possible
Spice up meals with colour – think leafy green veggies, fruits and spices like turmeric and cinnamon, for instance, will add colour, taste and a multitude of health benefits.
Eat more good fats
Think avocados, oily fish and nuts - these brain foods extraordinaire are overflowing with brain, heart and skin-healthy omega-3 fats.
Boost the Bs
Eating plenty of plant-based foods ensures lots of B vitamins, with lean meat, fish and eggs being additional sources.
Easy on the caffeine
Coffee is the first thing many of us reach for during stressful periods but studies have found that those prone to anxiety may have a reduced ability to metabolise caffeine which means that the stimulating effects last for longer and, in higher doses, can leave a person feeling nervous and irritable. Get to know your body and how much caffeine is enough for you. For me it's 2 cups max per day - taken before lunchtime, otherwise both my mood and my sleep suffers.
Up the magnesium
Magnesium has a role in over 300 functions in the body, including the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain and regulation of the stress response. it also helps the body relax for sleep. Best sources include green, leafy vegetables, whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread), beans and nuts.
These simple swops can help swing the balance to the healthier side of the scales without much added effort:
- Biscuits and stodgy white bread for handfuls of mixed nuts, a bowl of home-made granola (see recipe below), wholewheat crackers or oatcakes with cheese. Eating fibre-rich foods ensures foods are broken down more slowly and energy is released more steadily through the body.
- Sugary breakfast cereals for porridge in its many guises, sourdough or wholemeal breads, yoghurts with fruit and smoothies
- White bread for sourdough or wholemeal bread or wraps
- Pasta and white rice for quinoa, couscous, farro, wholewheat pasta, short grain brown/wild rice and other natural grains
- Biscuits and cakes for oatcakes with nut butters/chopped banana or home-cooked banana breads and other sweeter options
- Milk chocolate for a few squares of top quality dark chocolate (minimum 75 per cent cocoa solids)
- Sweetened yoghurts for natural unsweetened Greek, sheep’s or coconut yoghurt
- Packaged juices for fresh homemade juices and smoothies or coconut water
- Sugar in tea/coffee: Wean yourself off sugar by slowly reducing the amount added to drinks. Remember, the plasticity of our brain allows it to change with constant repetition.
- Cultivate good gut microbes: This is such an exciting time in science with new research on the gut-brain connection coming to the fore almost weekly, paving the way to a healthier brighter future for us all. While there is still much to discover, what we do know is that the numbers and types of bacteria in the gut have a huge impact on our mood and levels of anxiety. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium (both strains of ‘good’ bacteria) are known to have anxiety-reducing benefits through their influence on the production of certain neurotransmitters. While all of the above will help support our gut, a daily dose of fermented foods (kombucha (see here for more on that), sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi etc) helps these beneficial bacteria thrive.
Maya's Granola (from GLOW)
Makes 1 large jar
- 250g buckwheat
- 250g rolled oats
- 200g chopped mixed nuts of choice (e.g. almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews)
- 100g mixed seeds (e.g. pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, flax, chia)
- 100g desiccated coconut
- 70g coconut oil
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 110ml maple syrup
- 1–2 tsp cinnamon
- 6 tbsp add-ins (e.g. goji berries, dried mango, banana chips)
- Preheat the oven to 140°C.
- Combine all dry ingredients (except add-ins) in a large bowl.
- Place the coconut oil, vanilla and maple syrup in a saucepan and heat until the coconut oil has melted. Pour over the dry mix and combine.
- Spread the mixture out in a thin layer on two large baking trays and bake for about 70 minutes. Leave to cool before mixing your add-ins.
- Can be kept in airtight jars or containers for up to three weeks.