Preparing for a long and difficult exam is often considered to be very similar to training for a marathon– endurance, stamina and preparation are critical to a successful outcome. Like the body, the brain needs to be provided with the right vitamins and nutrients to maximize the results of “training.”
The NCLEX is a test that requires training just like that. The gateway into becoming a licensed nurse, this exam is seen as one of the most important milestones in a medical student’s career. With so much riding on this test, it almost seems impossible to ever be fully prepared.
However, with the right sustenance, you can improve your memory, concentration, and alertness, all while providing you with sustained energy for grueling study sessions. With poor food and beverage choices, you may find yourself losing concentration or burning out after a short bout of studying.
While studies of the effect of food on the brain are still a new body of research, we do know that certain foods are better for the brain. Four major nutrients have been found to affect the brain in a positive way:
- Glucose: The brain essentially runs on glucose. Without this source of energy, your brain will be sluggish and perform poorly. Glucose might help with learning and memory, but only in the case where brain glucose is depleted quickly.
- Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: Also known as omega-3 and omega-6, these fatty acids are essential for brain function. Good sources are fatty fish, chia seeds, and flaxseeds.
- Amino Acids: Amino acids are necessary for the production of neurotransmitters, including those related to learning, like serotonin (memory and learning), norepinephrine (concentration and alertness) and acetylcholine (memory). Protein-rich foods, like chicken, beef, and fish, are good sources of essential amino acids.
- Antioxidants: Antioxidants block free radicals that can destroy brain cells. Vitamin E, in particular, seems to be associated with memory.
Food and drinks that contain one or more of the four nutrients can help boost results from your study session. Eat foods that improve cognitive performance (like memory) and foods that provide consistent fuel to keep you going.
- Fatty Fish. A protein-rich source that also provides the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, fatty fish, like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are associated with good brain and heart health. Consuming two to three servings of fish weekly will help to boost the overall development and function of your brain–meaning that all those facts you are inputting will stay active inside your brain longer.
- Berries. Not only do berries taste great, they are perfect for long study sessions. The antioxidants contained in raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and cherries all contribute to improved short-term memory. Eating these while you study, and in the days before you take the NCLEX, will aid in last-minute cramming. Another study has found that the antioxidants in blueberries stimulate the flow of blood (and therefore oxygen) to the brain, keeping it alert.
- Oatmeal. While it is loved by some and hated by others, there is just no way around it — oatmeal is food to fuel your brain. Eating it in the morning before you begin studying, or as a midday snack, are both great options, because the high levels of fiber within oatmeal help to stabilize blood sugar. When your blood sugar remains constant, your study sessions won’t be interrupted by a mid-morning fog.
- Eggs. Eggs are an amazing brain food. They are an excellent source of choline, which is necessary for the body to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. It’s also a good source of vitamin E. Boost your memory and protect your brain from free radical damage with eggs. Hard boiled eggs are also a great study snack, as they are easy to cook, portable and cheap.
- Fruit. Dried or fresh, fruit is an excellent source of energy. Fresh fruit has the advantage of providing hydration, which is key to transporting oxygen and hormones throughout your body for energy. Dried fruit is more portable, which is great for study sessions away from the house. However you choose to eat it, fruit is a great source of fiber, fructose, and glucose. Glucose will keep your brain running, and fructose with the added fiber will keep your energy levels up and stable. Added bonus: fruits are packed with antioxidants, which can help protect your brain.
- Coffee. The go-to substance of weary workers and tired students alike, there’s no denying the pick-me-up effects of coffee. Caffeine, in small doses, has been found to help focus and concentration, while providing a surge of energy. Keep in mind, however, that caffeine alone will only have short-term effects—and can come with a substantial dip in energy when it wears off. Try to pair coffee with another source of energy that is longer-lasting.
- Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate has small amount of caffeine, which can help improve mental performance. The cocoa in dark chocolate also contains theobromine, which is a central nervous system stimulant that has a similar effect without the crash.
- Popcorn. An easy, customizable, whole-grain snack, popcorn’s fiber helps keep blood sugar steady to prevent mid-afternoons lumps. Popcorn’s B vitamins also help convert the food you eat into energy. Toss popcorn with nuts and dark chocolate chips for a healthy snack that provides plenty of brain power.
Foods to avoid
- Refined sugar. Food items high in refined sugar can lead to blood sugar spikes and dips—which, in turn, can lead to dramatic energy fluctuations.
- Heavy carbs. Consuming a lot of carbs, especially those low in fiber, can lead to feelings of sleepiness, hindering your ability to focus.
- Alcohol. Even small amounts of alcohol can be damaging to your study efforts. Alcohol can impair your judgment, your ability to focus, process, and your memory.
Give your studying a boost with the food mentioned above. What you eat fuels not only your body, but also your brain, and it is key that it is well-supplemented while you’re studying before taking the NCLEX. While studying is the most important key to passing this exam, you can combine your efforts with the proper food to make those study sessions even more effective. And make sure that you get plenty of water—dehydration can actually make your brain shrink and impair short-term memory, focus, and decision-making abilities.
Eating these foods will have you so well-prepared, there will be nothing the NCLEX throws at you that you can’t handle.
Virginia Cunningham is a freelance health writer and hard-working business owner in California. In order to keep performing at her best and make the right decisions for her company, she makes sure that her diet includes all of the necessary vitamins and nutrients that she needs.