Eat, Sleep, Learn, Repeat

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Dr Waites, Deputy Head Pastoral, discusses how to maximise your child’s potential through nutrition and sleep.

Have you ever had “butterflies in the stomach” or “a gut feeling”? What about an “anxious stomach”? All of these are well known phrases that demonstrate the intrinsic link between our brain and our digestive system. With over 100 million nerve endings, this ‘second brain’ can communicate with our large brains to help control digestion. It has historically been thought that mental health issues contributed to digestive issues but more recently researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes, explains Jay Pasricha, M.D., Director of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Neurogastroenterology. This leads to the question: If it all starts with the digestive system then how can we use this to help support adolescent brain development?

At Sydenham High School’s annual Brain Bootcamp, we aim to inform pupils and their parents about the importance of nourishing your brain through what you eat. We do this by sharing recipe ideas and food samples from our caterers to inspire more creativity in cooking and more considered choices when eating. Speaking to young people about the benefits of eating broccoli and walnuts may seem like an impossible endeavour, but when you bring science and research into the argument, they can’t help but trust the facts. In a nutshell (pardon the pun) the simple yet impactful advice we share involves recommending foods such as:

  • Whole grains – for slow and steady energy release
  • Omega 3 fatty acids – essential for increased blood flow to the brain
  • Choline – an essential nutrient present in broccoli, lean chicken and fish, essential for the formation of new brain cells and a sharp memory.
  • Zinc – useful for memory and thinking skills, found in pumpkin seeds
  • Magnesium – has a calming effect on the brain and is abundant in avocado, almonds and brown rice.

 

Working closely with our catering team ensures that the lunchtime offering is balanced and conducive to learning and memory. Many schools are nut free so walnuts and almonds are off the menu, but we ensure that pumpkin seeds are always available as a topping and the vegetables and salad offerings are wide and diverse – and full of leafy greens!

On the flip side of all this brain stimulation is how we manage to calm down at the end of a busy day of cognitive activity. The myth that a sleeping brain is a resting brain is debunked in adolescents, whom we know need a lot more sleep than other demographics. During the time that our young people are asleep, their brains are going through a process of ‘pruning’. Studies have shown that sleeping brains are almost as active as waking brains; they are busy growing, repairing, integrating, reinforcing, maintaining, and otherwise processing neurological connections.

Poor sleep habits can lead to a myriad of other problems both physical and mental, from heart disease to depression, so it is imperative that we support adolescents in building these good sleep patterns and also that we simply let them sleep. In our Brain Bootcamp sessions we share the research around the use of camomile, rosemary and lavender for their calming properties. Eating and sleeping properly are essential for maintaining good brain health and development. Education around these areas for both young people and adults is a way to embed these good habits at a young age and hopefully sustain them for life.

Read more about the 2022 Brain Bootcamp here.

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