What's food got to do with flourishing?

In our most recent Student Flourishing at School Survey (which all students in years 7-12 complete twice a year to provide us with a snapshot of their general wellbeing), nutrition and sleep were highlighted as areas for attention. It may or may not be a behavioural hangover from lockdown life, but the fact is the food we put into our body can have a huge impact on how our brain works and our overall feeling of positive wellbeing. From a physiological point of view, food can improve working memory, concentration, and focus, support problem-solving functioning, sustain physical energy, and influence the quality of sleep.

Fuel for thought

Our brain is the most complex part of our bodies. Like a computer, it runs millions of processes every day. It never stops working, so it needs constant topping up with the fuel it operates on – glucose - which is a type of sugar. Our body obtains glucose from our food, and it’s delivered to the brain through the bloodstream. The problem is, our brain can’t store glucose, so we need to top up our levels throughout the day.

Which foods are the best fuel?

Healthy brain foods include:

Protein — meat, fish, eggs, poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds, dried beans and lentils, dairy products, and soy products. Protein helps your brain send messages to the rest of your body, and helps create brain chemicals that improve your mood.

Antioxidants — fruits and veggies, including berries, and pomegranate juice. Antioxidants can help delay or even prevent certain effects of aging on the brain.

Omega-3 — oily fish, flax seeds and flax oil, and eggs, chicken and beef. Omega-3s have been found to help your brain work harder and improve your mental health.

Dietary cholesterol — dairy and egg yolks. Your brain relies on cholesterol to create the cells that send messages to the rest of the body.

Monounsaturated fats — avocados, nuts, olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil. Food that contains monounsaturated fats can improve your memory and help your brain work harder, better, faster, stronger.

Caffeine (moderate amounts) — tea, coffee and dark chocolate. In small doses, caffeine can help you feel refreshed and more focused.

Water - Your brain is 73% water, and water is vital to keeping your body (and brain) in tip-top shape.

What we eat affects how we sleep

Sleep research suggests that a teenager needs between 8 and 10 hours of sleep every night. However, most teenagers only get about 6.5 to 7.5 hours sleep per night.

Chronic sleep deprivation can have dramatic effects on a teenager’s life, including affecting their mental well-being and reducing their academic performance at school.

A balanced, nutritious, and healthy diet contributes to better, more restful sleep while a poor diet contributes to poor sleep quality and short sleep duration. The right foods can encourage better sleep efficiency, healthier sleep onset latency— the time it takes you to fall asleep— and may even contribute to more restorative, deep sleep. Therefore, the foods we eat during the day are not only vital to our physical health, but they’re key to our sleep health as well.

In an article published in Sleep Review Magazine, Dr. Jose Colon shares the following links between nutrition and sleep:

1. There’s No “One Size Fits All”

There is no single “best” diet for a good night’s sleep. Diet, nutrition, and sleep intersect in complex ways that differ from one person to the next depending on factors like age, lifestyle and activity levels, health, and genetics.

2. Nutrition’s Impact on Sleep Quality and Sleep Quantity

Broadly speaking, diets filled with fibre, moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates, plenty of high-quality protein, and healthy fats are associated with more deeply restful, restorative, and plentiful sleep.

3. Consistency is Key

It’s important to maintain a consistent sleep-wake routine each and every day. A consistent sleep schedule also helps regulate your appetite and reduce cravings for the foods that disrupt sleep.

4. Timing of Eating Effects Gut Health

Establishing a consistent eating schedule, optimizing those times to align with your circadian biology, and allowing sufficient time for the body to fast overnight may help you keep your gut stocked with more health-promoting bacteria. This is significant given the composition of the gut microbiome directly affects our mental and physical health. The gut microbiome is often referred to as our body’s 'second brain'. It influences our mood, metabolism, cardiovascular and circulatory health, as well as our immune system and risk for chronic disease. The microbiome is also responsible for producing some of the body’s melatonin supply, as well as other hormones and neurotransmitters involved with sleep.

5. Short Sleepers Have Distinct Eating Patterns

Short sleepers are often defined as those persons getting less than 7 hours a night. Not getting enough sleep alters the hormones that regulate appetite; this increases cravings for salty, fatty, and sugary foods, and increases overall daily calorie intake.

Food for Thought

A healthy and nutritious diet isn’t just vital for your overall health and brain functioning; it’s important for your sleep health, and vice-versa. If we want to focus on what’s in our control to support ourselves and our children, to function at their best, to thrive and to flourish, then food has everything to do with it.

Bon appetite & sweet dreams,

Director of Counselling

Acknowledgements & further reading:
Foods that help our brain study
Sleep Doctor Nutrition
The awful spike in Eating Disorders during Lockdown
Teenagers and Sleep