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Paleo Brain Food: 15 Essentials to power through exams

by Cassandra Basore

Nationwide, there is a small population of law school graduates who are currently at a critical level of stress studying for most anticipated moment of their early law careers: the bar exam. But no matter what level they’re at, students need energy to fuel their minds through exams.

For those already familiar with the Paleo diet, you know that sticking to a nutrition plan will be essential to your mind’s health.  Those unfamiliar with Paleo eating can see more about it here, but going Paleo the week of exams probably isn’t a good idea due to the adjusting period.

After some online research, I’ve found 15 essential foods that every student should be incorporating into their daily diet especially during exam time. The following foods are Paleo-friendly and benefit cognitive function.

  1. Asparagus- A particularly important nutrient found in asparagus is folic acid. Folic Acid has been shown to improve memory in stressed adults as well as reduce anxiety.
  2. Avocado- Although rich in many vitamins and nutrients, an avocado contains lutein which helps strained eyes stay safe from oxidative stress. Many students spend hours starring at their computer screens which can cause damage to the retina due to the high-energy photons of blue light they emit. Various research studies have shown that a direct relationship exists between lutein intake and ocular health.  
  3. Blueberries- Known for their antioxidants, blueberries contain anthocyanin¸ an antioxidant that promotes cognitive thinking. One study found that rats fed anthocyanins were less likely to suffer from memory loss and motor function degradation. It is believed that anothocyanins help reduce the loss of brain fat, a marker in brain aging.
  4. Cashews- As well as satisfying a salty snack craving, cashews are loaded with zinc. Zinc plays an essential role in neurotransmitter function and helps maintain brain structure and health. Zinc is a part of an enzyme that is necessary for the anabolism of fatty acids in the brain membrane. This is very important because a key part of supporting brain health and function is to ensure the membrane gets the nutrients it needs.
  5. Chamomile Tea- Most people turn to chamomile tea during times of high stress for its nerve-soothing and relaxing qualities. Various studies confirm that small amounts seem to relieve anxiety, while larger quantities aid sleep.
  6. Dark Chocolate- There is some Paleo “gray area” when it comes to consuming dark chocolate. There are those that would be absolutely against its consumption, and there are others that believe dark chocolate has great benefits and can be consumed in moderation. The fact it, studies have proven that Dark chocolate increases blood flow to the brain as well as to the heart, so it can help improve cognitive function. Dark chocolate also contains the following vitamins and minerals in high concentrations: Potassium, Copper, Magnesium, Iron.
  7. Garlic- Stress is known to lower the immune system making the body susceptible to catching a virus. Garlic contains the nutrient allicin, which stimulates both humoral and cellular immunity, causing T-cell proliferation and thus restoring suppressed antibody response.
  8. Grass-fed Beef- As opposed to corn-fed beef, grass-fed beef has shown high levels of omega-3’s that have been proven to protect against the effects of mental stress on the heart, particularly heart rate and muscle sympathetic nerve activity. (Fish is also a good source for omega-3’s)
  9. Green Tea- Among its many other benefits, green tea contains the active ingredient theanine, which has been linked to improved mental performance and fighting off free-radicals.
  10. Oranges- Not only an immune fighting fruit, Brazilian scientists have found that patients suffering from mental stress who sniffed orange oil were less anxious throughout an exam test and performed better than those who did not. 
  11. Oysters- Known mostly as an aphrodisiac, oysters are also a zinc powerhouse. Among its many benefits, zinc helps aid in neurotransmitter transmission and hormone production. Dopamine production, which is regulated by zinc status, is a chemical that boosts energy, mood, and reward-driven learning.
  12. Walnuts- Alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, is a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in walnuts and is similar to those found in fish oil. Most importantly to a stressful mind, ALA helps to prevent memory loss. 
  13. Coffee- Many people drink coffee for its ability to increaseshort term recall. Likewise, in tests of simple reaction time, choice reaction time, incidental verbal memory, and visuospatial reasoning, participants who regularly drank coffee were found to perform better on all tests, with a positive relationship between test scores and the amount of coffee regularly drunk. In my own Paleo adventure, I have removed all stimulants from my diet including caffeine. Remember that you can still reap the benefits of coffee by drinking it decaf (without the caffeine kick of course).  
  14. Peppermint- A 2006 study found that the simple aroma of peppermint enhances memory and increases alertness in human subjects. Peppermint oil is also used for relief from headaches. Inhaling a few drops of peppermint oil sprinkled on a handkerchief or dabbed on your wrist will remove a nagging headache. 
  15. Sleep- Obviously not a food, but after much reading on ways to lower stress and  develop high mental function, sleep almost always was the number one recommendation.  One study in particular showed that even a 15 minute nap (no more than 15 mins) helped restore the brain’s function allowing for more focus and memory retention.