20 Dec Feeding the Brain for Academic Success: How Nutrition and …
It’s 8:35. Your chalk is in hand and you’re ready to start your day. You have carefully constructed a learning experience of visual input, hands-on activities, reading and experimentation – to help your students learn.
When you look around your room, do you see bright eyes and positive, expectant expressions, or do you see squirming, sleeping, or distracted students. What happens to your classroom mid-morning? Mid-afternoon? Do you have students who are stressed, depressed and anxious? According to experts, the internal environment of the brain is an integral part of learning, just as important as the classroom environment. You may find in some cases your students are not able to learn due to poor nutrition or inadequate hydration.
Within your student’s brain, a biochemical process of learning is occurring, that parallels the classroom experience. Making connections, finding meaning, and solving problems are learning tasks that require lightning-fast electrical impulses between areas of the brain. Formation of memory requires physical growth and reshaping of networks of brain cells. So that wonderful experience – when the lights go on and your student says, “I get it!” – is a neurochemical process as well as an academic one. By nourishing the brain with healthy food and water, you will optimize the internal environment, enabling students to truly engage in the classroom environment and achieve their potential.
What does the brain need?
Place two fists together, with your inner wrists touching. Your brain is about this size and shape. In contrast to the rubbery pink models we have seen, the brain is amazingly soft, composed primarily of fat and water. It is grayish and pudding-like – composed of 100 billion brain cells – called neurons, that drive our thinking, learning, feeling and states of being. Neurons need good fats, protein, complex carbohydrates, micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients – and water. These nutrients are used to drive the learning functions of neurons.
Neurons are shaped somewhat like an outstretched hand, with fingers spread. Dendrites (fingers) receive information from other neurons, which is then sent through the axon (arm) to another neuron. The connection between two cells is called a synapse, where the dendrite of one cell nearly touches the body or axon of another cell. Neurons can connect multiple times with the same cell, grow extensions to connect with distant cells, and connect with many different cells at once by growing more dendrites. The brain is dynamic, responsive, and efficient: new connections will be made to record and integrate new information learned. Old, unused connections will be pruned away. This process of building and pruning is not confined to the time of the classroom experience, but continually evolves with all learning that occurs in a child’s life, integrating what is learned within and outside the classroom, integrating life’s experiences into the knowledge base and personality of the child. The raw material for building and pruning of these connections comes from the food we eat.
A biochemical language
As neurons connect, they communicate using a process called neurotransmission. As child thinks, speaks, moves or feels, electrical impulses triggers the release of messenger chemicals, called neurotransmitters (NTs), which travel across the synapse, transmitting information to the next cell. This cell-to-cell communication forms the basis of learning. NTs help connect verbal, emotional, visual and kinesthetic memories. They connect prior learning to new learning. NTs correlate with mood and behavior. They regulate learning states and levels of alertness. There are hundreds of these NTs, which are manufactured in the brain – all from food we eat.
Energy and Protection
Within the body of the neuron, corresponding to the palm of the hand in our analogy, is where the cell manufactures NTs, using protein, vitamins and minerals. Energy is generated from food, and regulates growth and change of cells. Neurons are prone to damage from environmental toxins that make their way into our systems, as well as toxic by-products formed in the body. The first line of defense? Antioxidants from food. Diets low in antioxidants have consistently been shown to cause and contribute to illness and disease. The brain, due to its high fat content, is especially vulnerable to damage and requires high levels of antioxidants for protection.
Just what should we feed the brain?
1 Good fats
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