The extent to which each factor influences academic success varies from student to student. To both parents and students, several of these factors might be out of their control. Students and parents can, however, affect the impact of diet and nutrition. Many students report turning to energy drinks to achieve mental health benefits as well as energy. Increasingly, they are seeking more targeted nutritional interventions that address their specific mental needs. For researchers, formulators and marketers of dietary supplements this signals new opportunities in providing cognitive health benefits to a largely untapped market.
Mental Performance Needs
Relevance to Students
Based on recent interviews with students and parents, most needs fall into three categories—concentration, memory and cognition (the thought process).
Concentration is often referred to by parents as the student’s ability to maintain mental focus. Students are well aware of symptoms of attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD) and to varying degrees feel they are affected. Examples include:
• Focus during class, paying attention to the lecture
• Completing homework routinely, sticking with it, having the energy to continue
• Studying for exams, similar to homework with the inclusion of stress (“cramming”)
• During exams, concentrating on the problem presented
Memory is an obvious issue, though it is unlike the need expressed by Baby Boomers or Seniors, which often hinges on a decline in short-term memory. For students facing years of education, they are concerned with both short- and long-term memory. Specific examples include retention of information when preparing for exams and improved recall while taking exams.
Cognition is a very broad and comprehensive term, yet in talking with students it ranks high as an unmet need. The following examples are often cited:
• The ability to understand material and offer meaningful contribution during lecture
• Understanding new materials, especially completing assignments (e.g., homework)
• The ability to quickly work through problems, especially during exams
Nutrients for Cognitive Performance
Consumption of healthy meals and snacks are critical to cognitive performance. Thus, many students believe supplementation may offer benefits beyond basic nutrition. However, few students are aware of the breadth of data supporting nutritional supplementation for cognitive health, though this number can be expected to increase as the demands on students increase and media drives awareness.
Protein and Amino Acids: Proteins that are broken down into essential amino acids are recognized by many teenagers for their cognitive benefits, especially as part of breakfast. Keep in mind that vegetarianism is on the rise, especially among college students. Most believe that except under more extreme situations a vegetarian diet provides the body a well-balanced source of protein.
Essential Fatty Acids and Phospholipids: Each time the brain receives and processes a piece of information, the messages are received by receptors made up entirely of essential fatty acids. Further, when the message travels down the nerves, the covering that allows the transmission is also made up of these lipids.
The omega 3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are essential to brain development and there is evidence that healthy individuals can expect cognitive benefits from supplementation.
Other fats present in high concentrations in the brain are phospholipids. These are also vital to the structure of the brain cells and form part of the covering that relays messages.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is an essential component found in brain cell membranes. The body manufactures PS but if a diet is deficient in B vitamins and essential fatty acids, production of PS may be insufficient. Research supports the ability of supplemental PS to show significant improvement in ADHD symptoms.
Citicoline is essential for the synthesis of phosphatidylcholine, a major constituent of brain tissue. It facilitates communication between neurons in the brain to support visual function and protect neural structures from free radical damage.
Botanicals, Vitamins & Minerals: Ginkgo biloba leaves have been used for 5000 enhancing cognitive function. Though most students are aware of ginkgo, believability may be an issue. Still, compounds in ginkgo improve blood flow to the brain, which may help sharpen mental focus and enhance memory and reaction time.
Vitamins and minerals are needed for building neurotransmitters along the metabolic pathway. The main vitamins and minerals include B vitamins, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, manganese and zinc. Students seem to be more aware of B vitamins, more specifically to help meet their energy needs during hectic, stressful times. Of the vitamins comprising the B complex, interest is high in:
• Vitamin B5, which aids in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps relieve stress and anxiety. Stress reduction may relieve test and performance anxiety, improving the ability to focus.
• Vitamin B6, which supports the body’s ability to absorb and metabolize carbohydrates and fats, necessary for building healthy brain cells, including those involved in memory and learning. B6 helps ensure adequate production of GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid), which also regulates mood and nervous system activity.
Supplement Strategies for the Future
Like many adults, students look for immediate benefits from dietary supplements. However, nutritional interventions take time to show results, especially compared to pharmaceuticals. Thus the effects of taking supplements just before an exam are not as beneficial as taking them over time. In this vein, achieving compliance will likely be an issue, at least until the student realizes the desired benefit.
Editor’s note: David Volin, a graduating senior at Shippensburg University and incoming post-baccalaureate at The University of Pennsylvania, provided research support for this column.