At certain times of the year your body needs a bit of extra help to stay well. When you start a new course you tend to meet lots of new people and, unfortunately, that means you get exposed to new germs! When you’re under pressure to meet deadlines or you’re experiencing revision and exam stress your immune system also gets put under a lot of stress.
There are a couple of chemical-free ‘secret weapons’ that I use regularly to keep those dreaded bugs at bay. They can prevent you from falling ill with a virus that leaves you bedridden for days, knocking out your carefully planned schedule that you were fully in control of.
First, take an acidophilus supplement
If you’re thinking ‘what on earth is that?’ acidophilus is a probiotic type of bacteria that naturally occurs in your gut and can be found in natural yogurt.
The theory is that 70% of the bacteria in your body that support your immune system reside in your gut. Diet, stress and other lifestyle factors can deplete these good bacteria so topping them up in large doses can help you stay healthy. The number of colds I caught reduced dramatically after I started taking acidophilus regularly and I can’t remember the last time I had the flu.
The secret of success to taking acidophilus is in the number of live bacteria you ingest so make sure you check the number on the front of the bottle. The higher the number, the more potent the pills are, so aim for millions, if not billions. The best but probably most expensive brand you can buy is Biocare. Other brands can work but Biocare really is the leading brand of acidophilus supplements.
Keep the pills in the fridge, start by taking two every day for the first week to give your immune system a good initial boost, then reduce your dosage down to 1 a day for a couple of weeks and over the winter months. After that you could reduce your intake down to 1 capsule every other day.
Secondly, avoid caffeine and energy drinks (which also contain caffeine)
A large, hot latte or quick cappuccino may perk you up in the short-term but, long-term, caffeine depletes your vitamin C stores which you need to fight off germs and viruses, leaving you feeling worse by the end of the day. Look at the ingredients list of most so-called ‘energy’ drinks and you’ll find near the top is sugar, followed by caffeine, then a list of chemicals most of which really only belong in a laboratory, not inside your body!
If you need something that will really give you a boost, get some Berocca or other brand of soluble vitamin C with zinc. Dissolving these in water means you get the vitamins and minerals your body really needs, and you get to increase your water consumption. Eat an apple, banana or some berries to help top up those vital vitamins.
Thirdly, get enough sleep
This may seem like stating the obvious but if you have deadlines looming and you’re getting up early and getting to bed late, or even working into the small hours of the morning to get work finished, you will become run down. Be conscious of how many late nights you’re putting in and, when you can, take time out to relax and have some down time. Have a lie in or go to bed earlier than usual.
If you struggle to get to sleep because you’re stressed about deadlines, exams or making progress with your studies in general, keep a notebook by your bed and write down your worrying thoughts. Getting the thoughts out of your head is the first step towards dealing with them and it may even help you to think of some solutions as you’re writing.
Also, accept that sometimes your brain will switch into ‘overactive’ mode, especially if you have multiple deadlines coming up. If you really can’t sleep and feel awake enough to study or work on an assignment, then get out of bed and do it. There’s no rule carved in stone that says you can’t or shouldn’t study in the middle of the night. I’ve suddenly woken up at 5:30am and written the first draft of an essay conclusion and I sometimes find myself being productive at my desk at 2:30am which is the preferred alternative to tossing and turning in bed.
If you’re really struggling to get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, try a herbal sleep supplement such as Kalms Night and aim to get to bed earlier. Only use these until you start sleeping properly. Try and avoid visiting your GP for sleep problems as they tend to prescribe anti-depressants and these are the last thing your brain needs if you want it to function properly and at a higher level.
Last, but by no means least, breathe properly
Yes, I know you’re breathing right now but most breaths we take during the day as we’re dashing around from place to place are shallow. Living in a city also makes it a challenge to really fill your lungs with clean fresh air.
Take 5 or 10 minutes each day to consciously breathe deep into your lungs. If you can, go and stand outside in a green space somewhere, preferably next to a tree or plant and take a couple of long, deep inhalations through your nose. Or just stand up next to your desk if you can’t get outside.
Put your hands on the lower part of your ribcage, just above your waist, and inhale slowly and gently through your nose for a count of 5, or longer if you can, until you feel your lower ribs expanding and your hands moving out with that expansion. Breathe out by blowing slowly and gently through your mouth to make it a good cleansing breath that completely empties your lungs so your hands move back inwards.
Repeat this 5 to 10 times, or more if you can. If you get dizzy (because your brain isn’t used to having so much oxygen!), stop, sit down or lean against the tree and just breath normally.
Take good care of yourself and stay well.
If you have any questions about any of the above or any other tips that you use to stay well and healthy, I’d love to hear them. Post your comments or questions below or add them to The Unlocked Learner’s Facebook
If you’re revising and studying intensively, you need to take very good care of your most important asset, your brain. This incredible organ remains the most complex and least understood in the human body. Research has proven that the brain has some fundamental nutritional requirements so a diet rich in healthy brain food is essential if you want it to perform at its peak.
1. Hydrate your brain regularly & consistently
Your brain is composed of 75% water so in order for it to function properly it needs to be hydrated properly, and regularly.
Your basic level of water intake should be 1.5 to 2 litres of water every day. That includes plain tap or bottled water, herbal tea and, to a lesser extent, fruit juice. Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and coke don’t count as caffeine is a diuretic so it triggers your body to excrete water.
Avoid sugar flavoured waters as these can contain as much sugar as a can of coke and it’s ‘synthetic’ sugar such as sucrose and aspartame which can cause headaches. Stay away from so-called ‘energy’ drinks as these are also just a mix of synthetic, toxic chemicals which have no nutritional value and cause weight gain and headaches.
If you don’t like drinking plain water, add a small amount of no added sugar fruit juice to each glass. Alternatively add small pieces of chopped fruit or cucumber to your glass, then pour on the water.
Headaches, tiredness and lack of focus can all be caused by dehydration. If you regularly get headaches, feel tired and struggle to focus, drink 2 large glasses of water before you start studying. Top up your glass during every ‘brain break’ which should be every 45 to 60 minutes. You will need to urinate more often but you’ll feel far more alert and your entire body will function better.
If you tend to forget to drink water when you’re out during the day, use a free app such as WaterMinder and set reminders at optimum times during the day that suit your schedule. If you have an iPhone, you can also use Siri to remind you to fill up your glass every hour.
2. Give your brain plenty of energy
Your brain alone uses up around 40% of your carbohydrate intake which explains why we get hungry and ‘the munchies’ when studying intensively!
Instead of reaching for Type-2 diabetes-inducing sugary junk, ensure you’re getting a regular intake of complex carbohydrates such as pasta and rice. Spelt pasta, which you can buy in most large supermarkets, is preferable to white as the carbohydrate sugars are released more slowly into the bloodstream and it’s more easily digested.
If you can’t find spelt pasta, choose wholewheat and always choose wholewheat, wholegrain, granary or even spelt bread. You could even invest in a bread maker (club together with your housemates) so you don’t have to buy industrially made sugar and preservative loaded loaves.
3. Maintain your myelin to enhance your neuronal function
Your neuronal stems are coated with a fatty substance called myelin. Think of it like the outside insulating layer of an electrical cable that protects the delicate wires inside that carry the signals.
A healthy layer of myelin protects the neuronal stems and increases the speed at which electrical impulses travel between your brain cells. Good nutrition is vital to support and maintain the cells that create the myelin (oligodendrocytes), in addition to the actual myelin itself.
Vitamins B12 and D are argued to be significant contributors to myelin production. Vitamin B12 is found in fish, lean red meat, chicken, cheese and eggs while Vitamin D is also found in eggs, fish-liver oils and oily fish as well as from sun exposure. All the more reason to take a break and go for a walk!
If you’re a vegan it may be wise to take a Vitamin B12 supplement as deficiency can cause anaemia which leads to low energy, in addition to damage to your nervous system, of which your brain is a vital part. A Vitamin D supplement can also get you through intensive study in the winter months and prevent you from slipping into ‘hibernation mode’ over the winter break, especially if you have January exams.
Not all supplements are equal as many of the cheapest brands contain only small amounts of the actual nutritional support you require. Always check the label for additives including bovine gelatine. Higher Nature and Solgar are two of the best brands for vitamins and minerals although Solgar can be expensive. I’ve researched and picked out some of the best value vs quality supplements for you below:
4. Snack on walnuts & dark chocolate
Walnuts are packed with Omega-3, a vital essential fatty acid (EFA) your brain needs. On days when I’m completing complex tasks that require higher levels of concentration my favourite mid-morning or afternoon snack is a portion of walnuts and 2 or 3 squares of dark chocolate. Yes, dark chocolate is also good for your cognition!! At least that’s what some Portuguese researchers have discovered (although the study was conducted on people over 65) and I’m certainly not going to argue 🙂
All nuts, including walnuts, contain high levels of fat, as does chocolate. And even though it’s largely non-saturated fat you still need to keep your portion sizes small. A portion of walnuts is about 6-8 and a portion of good quality dark chocolate is about 3 chunks. Oh, go on then, 6 if you’re studying really hard 😉
Bear in mind when indulging in your chocolate that anything less than 70% will contain higher levels of added sugar and milk. So I’m afraid the average bar of cheap dairy milk chocolate won’t have the same positive impact on your cognition, it’ll just make you gain weight. Always think quality over quantity!
As with any living organism, dehydration and starvation of essential nutrients will cause your brain, and you, to suffer. Regular and nutritious feeding and watering on the other hand will enable you and your brain to thrive. And that will empower you to learn more efficiently and, of course, successfully.