By Ann Taylor & Janet Murton
Many senior students and their parents are struggling to cope with the pressures and resultant stress of increasing work load and competing demands on their time in their final years of study, with adverse consequences for their physical, mental and emotional well being – and school achievements. How are these students eating, exercising, sleeping, recreating, relaxing? Typically, with too much sugary foods and drinks and stimulants; too little sleep; too little healthy physical activity.
There is well documented evidence of the adverse effects of excess caffeine and sugar, particularly in relation to dysregulated blood sugar, leading to greater anxiety, irritability, addictive- and irrational behaviour; of brain shrinkage with sleep deprivation; and of poorer mental and physical well being with limited exercise and outdoor recreation. High expectations for academic achievements, peer pressure and excessive exposure to social media contribute to what can become an overwhelming stress load for many young adults, more vulnerable for their lack of energy reserves, vitality and resilience when they are poorly nourished and tired.
Would anyone dispute that well-nourished and rested children and adults think better, achieve better, behave better and are happier? Or do you need some convincing?
Sugar and brain function
Sugar has no useful nutrient for a healthy mental state. What sugar consumption can do is alter brain function adversely and induce addictive like behaviour by increasing dopamine levels. It also lowers a hormone in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), and low BDNF is specifically linked with reduced brain plasticity, which reduces our ability to develop new neural connections as we learn.
Sugar and refined carbohydrates allow candida and species of inflammatory gut bacteria to thrive. When these multiply to excessive levels, they prevent the healthy gut production of serotonin, our “feel-good” hormone - 95% of which is produced in the gut - which communicates with the brain through our vagus nerve.
This combination of low serotonin and low BDNF has been shown to correlate with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and dementia as we age (Monroe, 2018). Alzheimer’s disease is referred to by some as Type III diabetes, because of the sugar connection.
What is needed instead is plenty of vitamins and minerals essential for adrenal function (for healthy stress response) and synthesis of brain chemicals that are crucial in neurological function, especially vitamin C, vitamin B5 and B6, zinc and magnesium.
Meals should provide adequate amounts of good quality protein and healthy fats for satiety and to stabilise blood sugar. Unstable blood sugar from habitually eating sugary foods and drinks and refined carbohydrates can reveal itself with headaches, tiredness particularly in the afternoon and/or after eating, “hanger” when hungry, constant need for snacking and craving sweet foods.
Caffeine as a stimulant
Caffeine in the bloodstream flows to the brain where it blocks neurotransmitters responsible for sleep and fires up other neurons responsible for the “wired” feeling some people feel. This may lead to enhanced learning in the short term, but if it results in less sleep then any benefit will be negated. The more caffeine consumed by school children, the higher the resultant anxiety (Davey, 2018).
Sleep deprivation and impaired learning
Late nights and early mornings during the week and. most significantly, later weekend bedtimes correlate with smaller brain grey matter volumes in the areas of the brain associated with learning – shown to affect school grades (Urrila etal, 2017), while adequate sleep protects memory and recall (Carskadon MA, 2011).
Alcohol and risky behaviour
The research is conclusive: there is no safe level of alcohol - it damages our brain (Burton and Sheron, 2018). In adolescents, the prefrontal cortex is not yet matured, and alcohol has a stimulant effect rather than a depressant effect as in adults, but alcohol suppresses the adolescent amygdala, which impairs decision making and possibly encourages risky behaviour (DARTA).
Exercise and stress management
Even HSC students should be encouraged and enabled to be getting an hour of exercise a day, for fitness and weight management, to energise them and improve mood. It’s an energetic way to de-stress. Mindfulness and deep breathing are calm ways to de-stress. Read our other contributor articles about this.
Burton R and Sheron N, 2018, “No level of alcohol consumption improves health”, The Lancet, Vol. 392, Issue 10152, pp987-988, September 2018, https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736(18)31571-X/fulltext
Carskadon MA, 2011, “Sleep’s effects on cognition and learning in adolescence”, Progress in Brain Research Vol 190, 2011, pg 137-143, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21531249 .
DARTA, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, www.darta.net.au
Davey G, 2018, “Espresso to Stress-o: Coffee, Anxiety, and Panic”, Psychology Today, May 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/why-we-worry/201805/espresso-stress-o-coffee-anxiety-and-panic
Monroe J, 2018, “The Impact of Sugar and Poor Diet on Teen Mental Health”, U.S. News & World Report, https://health.usnews.com/health-care/for-better/articles/2018-10-24/how-sugar-and-poor-diet-affect-teen-mental-health
Urrila A etal, 2017, “Sleep habits, academic performance, and the adolescent brain structure”, In Scientific Reports, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28181512