Hungry brains: The best brain-boosting foods

It’s 11:11 a.m. You didn’t have time to eat breakfast before spending all morning in class. You shift positions on your unyielding plastic chair and attempt to focus as your professor introduces the chemistry of carbon compounds, but his words are drowned out by your stomach’s unending growl and your incessant thoughts of what’s for lunch. Your mind becomes consumed with anxiety, your limbs grow shaky, and your concentration fades. You look at the clock again only to find that the minute hand has scarcely advanced. It’s 11:13 a.m. Class doesn’t end until noon. You’re never going to make it. Such low blood sugar levels during periods of hunger can wreak havoc on the mind, but eating certain foods before classes or study sessions may actually help enhance memory and promote brainpower.

To function properly, the brain relies on glucose, a simple sugar which is most easily broken down from carbohydrates, as its principal source of fuel. Therefore, carbohydrate consumption gives the brain a quick fix and may help sharpen memory, according to an Environmental Nutrition newsletter. Sugary snacks will do the trick quickly but briefly, as sweet treats spike blood glucose rapidly before causing it to crash. The Los Angeles Times reports that complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain breads and pastas, and nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables are a better choice of carbohydrate to stabilize blood sugar levels and elevate brain energy.

Foods rich in antioxidants may improve memory by fighting against free radicals, which can inflict damage upon neurons in the brain. Research studies have shown that people with higher blood levels of the antioxidants vitamins C and E in particular have fared better on memory tests. Nuts, most notably hazelnuts and almonds, sunflower seeds, and vegetable oils, are rich in vitamin E, according to the American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. Citrus fruits, guava, papaya, strawberries, bell peppers, tomatoes and broccoli are all excellent sources of vitamin C.

The Washington Post hails the blueberry, also rich in vitamin C, as a superfruit that heightens brain function. Studies have shown that anthocyanins, the phytochemicals in blueberries responsible for their deep blue hue, have significant memory-improving properties.

B vitamins also play important roles in cognitive function. Homocysteine is an amino acid associated with clogged arteries, which result in decreased brain blood flow, causing impairment of mental functions. Based on research studies, the B vitamins folate and vitamins B6 and B12 seem to assist in lowering homocysteine levels, while B-vitamin-deficiencies have been linked to high levels of homocysteine.

Folate can be found most abundantly in leafy green vegetables, especially spinach, broccoli, beans, orange juice and avocados. B12 is essential for an astute mind, as a B12 deficiency is associated with cognitive problems such as memory lapses. B12 can only naturally be found in animal products, particularly salmon, beef, shrimp, yogurt, milk and cheese, but it is often fortified in foods such as soy milks and cereals. B6, which is found primarily in animal sources like poultry, pork, beef and seafood, and in smaller amounts in legumes like black beans, leafy green vegetables, nuts and whole grains, is also connected to memory.

Studies have revealed that omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for maintaining normal cognitive function, have additional advantages in the brain. According to Tufts University’s Health & Nutrition Letter, DHA and EPA, the Omega-3 fatty  acids found in fish, particularly salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, and swordfish, are vital for a sharp mind.

College students are no strangers to caffeine, which can be beneficial in improving alertness, focus, reasoning and memory when consumed in moderation. However, caffeine in excess can impair concentration by promoting overstimulation and anxiety.

So next time you are on your way to class, grab a bag of almonds and drink a blueberry smoothie, or eat some salmon while studying for your exam. A balanced diet with a variety of healthy brain-boosting foods allows students to focus on learning rather than rumbling stomachs. The journey to an impressive transcript can begin on your plate.