Preparing for any exam is just like a high-level sporting challenge for the brain! A race against the clock. You need to memorise and make sense of a large amount of information in a very short time and be able to reproduce it. Pressure is intense, the positive stress required for success is present in abundance, but can be a source of anxiety and sleepless nights for some people.
Just like an athlete before a competition, both brain and mind must be in peak condition. As in sport, lifestyle takes first place: a sufficient quantity of sleep, high-quality nourishment and sufficient oxygenation…
To maintain your energy levels, resist stress and intellectual fatigue, sleep, let your brain cells float on a cloud… sound scientific advice which reaches you via what you have on your plate every day.
Stress is normal during this period. It comes from the desire to succeed, to surpass yourself! But if it is poorly managed, which happens with a lot of students, it has harmful effects. What are they?
Difficulty memorising and learning: persistent stress causes the continuous production of free radicals in high quantities and prevents not only effective transmission between neurons but also the formation of the new connections essential for long-term memory.
Difficulties sleeping: stress can create a state of anxiety resembling hyperstimulation, linked to the disturbance of neurotransmitters or messengers in the brain. In either case, wake/sleep rhythms are disrupted and a lack of sleep follows.
To stop your IQ going downhill fast, here's some scientifically backed advice to boost your neurons
Recommendation 1 • Sleep well
It's a bit of a surprise to start with this advice, isn't it? And yet without this, further advice is virtually useless...
Sleep and cognition are inextricably linked: information memorised during waking hours is consolidated at night (if you sleep on a task you have just mastered, its memorisation is improved by up to 30%!); new neuronal circuits are created for long-term memorisation*.
Studies have also shown that sleep deficit among young adults is almost always associated with overuse of screens during the evening**. 91% of students sleep less than eight hours a night, and 20% of these sleep less than six hours (the ideal is 8 to 9 hours). 38% of students surveyed suffer from insomnia, caused by stress or anxiety***. This lack of sleep naturally leads to drowsiness during the day.
We must add that, for a number of adolescents/students, late night exposure to blue screen light from telephones suppresses the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Falling asleep takes longer with lower-quality and less restorative sleep.
*The memory function of sleep. Susanne Diekelmann et al. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11, 114-126 (February 2010) **http://inpes.santepubliquefrance.fr/Barometres/barometre-sante-2010/comportement-sante-jeunes/pdf/Sommeil-15-30-ans.pdf ***Statistiques issues de l’étude de mars 2015 de Harris Interactive pour la SMEREP.
Put sleep back in its proper place during the revision period and organise your days around it (not the other way round):
As often as possible, go to bed around 10 pm.
Switch off mobile phones and computers at about 9 pm.
Recommendation 2 • Pay attention to the natural rhythms of the brain
The brain is not a thinking machine that works in linear mode. It follows the natural cycles of activity and rest. So it can only concentrate on an activity for a limited amount of time before it needs a rest to be able to accomplish the next task effectively. You could say that the brain gets tired… And lack of sleep definitely makes this worse. The diagram below illustrates these cycles.
How can you organise your day in line with these biorhythms?
Early morning: go over what you have already learnt, do some practical exercises. Repeat this after lunch.
Late morning and late afternoon: 2 special periods for better learning and retention, the memory is at its peak (in line with the increase in body temperature and blood glucose levels). If necessary, take a short nap after lunch (20 minutes maximum). Don't forget that consistency is essential for keeping your memory on top form!
Recommendation 3 • Feed your neurons well
We know that even though the brain does not weigh very much (barely 3% of the body), it is nonetheless very demanding, particularly in its consumption of glucose, its favourite fuel, in the presence of oxygen. Researchers at Laval University have discovered that stress caused by intellectual effort leads to a spontaneous increase in calorie intake and causes fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin levels1-2. So make sure you do not to fall into the trap of eating sugary snacks that create an illusion: a quick boost at the time but reduced blood sugar and feeling low guaranteed! Somewhat counterproductive.
1. Chaput JP et al. Glycemic Instability and Spontaneous Energy Intake : Association With Knowledge-Based Work. Psychosom Med. 2008 Aug 25. 2. Chaput JP et al. Acute effects of knowledge-based work on feeding behavior and energy intake. Physiol Behav. 2007 Jan 30;90(1):66-72.
Eat three meals a day, with at least two or three snacks at set times throughout the day, and try not to leave more than two and a half hours between meals and snacks.
Make sure that each meal or snack contains a portion of food rich in protein: lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, pulses, cheese, walnuts, hazelnuts.
Choose complex sugars: wholegrain or semi-wholegrain cereals, pulses, potatoes. Ban all types of sweets and fizzy drinks.
As a treat and for the magnesium: dark chocolate (> 70%), dried and/or oleaginous fruits (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts).
Oxygenate your brain by taking a 5 to 10 minute stroll breathing deeply, alternating this if you like with brisk walking or even small strides for another 10 minutes; when you’re sitting at the desk, try some deep breathing for several minutes (this will also release stress) and yawn.
Examples of snacks: 2 squares of dark chocolate + 1 piece of cheese 1 handful of oilseeds + 1 natural yoghourt 1 piece of fresh fruit + some dark chocolate
To find out about the specific dietary requirements of the brain: consult our information file « Brain food ». There you will discover the importance of good fats and certain vitamins, as well as their dietary sources.
Recommendation 4 • Stay motivated, alert, effective and hang on to your self-control
The memory process involves familiar messengers with evocative names: dopamine for alertness, motivation and the recovery of knowledge*; serotonin is essential for sleep, which has a direct effect on the memory. Moreover, serotonin leads to "zen" moments, which help with relaxation and better stress management, and also support the encoding and subsequent retrieval of information**. To ensure that these essential messengers are correctly synthesised by the body, the raw material to be provided is protein: tryptophan for serotonin**, tyrosine for dopamine*. With B vitamins and magnesium.
*BJ Jongkees et al. Effect of tyrosine supplementation on clinical and healthy populations under stress or cognitive demands. A review.Journal of Psychiatry Research. 70 (2015) 50-57. *https://www.lanutrition.fr/les-news/un-acide-amine-la-tyrosine-ameliore-les-reflexes **Trisha A. Jenkins et al. Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients. 2016 Jan; 8(1): 56.
In practice: bring amino acids...
Take amino acids in the form of animal proteins (fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs) or vegetable proteins (cereals + pulses). If stress levels are high and motivation is shaky, a dietary supplement can be recommended containing these elements.
Don't hesitate to get a helping hand from suitable plants: Energising plants: ginseng, yerba mate, eleutherococcus. Adaptogens: bacopa or rhodiola. Relaxing herbs: lemon balm, hawthorn.