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Exploring Non-Academic Factors in EU Education

As an advocate for education in oral health and it’s wider impact on the body to improve long term health outcomes, it was interesting to explore this alternative angle… How can oral health, lifestyle and nutrition impact educational outcomes?

In this session, set up by We Are Innovation, we discussed the main non-academic factors including sociology-economic and family background, nutrition and lifestyle as well as oral health. We spoke about the challenges and variability between rural and urban populations as well as different cultural and family values. We also spoke about the limitations in educational systems supporting children with neurodivergence; being inclusive whilst adaptive to their specific needs.

The importance of nutrition and its impact on cognition was a hugely relevant factor. The connection between what we eat and its impact on health cannot be overlooked. It is also important to remember that different aspects of health are connected. Nutrition impacts our gut health, immune health, brain health and oral health. Specific nutrients as well as gut hormones and insulin influence cognition. Certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids from dietary fish, were isolated and discussed in detail. These omega-3 fatty acids affect brain plasticity, which is important for learning and memory. The particular omega-3s found in oily fish have been shown to help regulate inflammation in the body, with plant-based sources showing less efficacy. Including protein with meals can also impact brain function; one particular amino acid (I-theamine) has been shown to help regulate mood and relieve stress.

Oral health was covered as an indicator and relevant factor of overall health. Nutrients that have a positive impact on our oral health also support brain health; a healthy mouth is linked to a healthy body. It is not only linked via biological processes but also impacts mental and social wellbeing. Oral discomfort can be a disrupter to learning and factors such as bad breath and poor oral hygiene can be a barrier to social perceptions and interactions.

Strategies to address oral health discrepancies were discussed and included improving diet and oral hygiene education as well as considering sugar-free chewing gum. The action of chewing stimulates saliva, our mouth’s buffering system against imbalances towards pathogenic microbial growth. Chewing may also enhance cognitive ability through positive influence of cerebral blood flow.

Sleep was discussed as an important mechanism to recharge the body and allow for better concentration. A deficiency in quality or quantity of sleep can result in poor decision making and reduced attention. Sleep has also been shown to be a powerful stress reducer, benefitting both mental and emotional health, as has mindfulness. We spoke about education in mindfulness and creating opportunities within the educational system to support this essential factor. Yoga is an example of practising mindfulness that has been shown to have positive effects on our stress hormone cortisol. Yoga helps support our physical and mental wellbeing, encourages us to be present in the moment and focus on gratitude.

To finish, we gave our opinion as to possible strategies to enhance the education system and incorporate these important non-academic factors. As well as introducing formal lifestyle/health education into the curriculum, it would be great to see an end to all vending machines and fast food stalls within educational establishments. Feeding healthy minds with fresh fruit and vegetable bars and hydration stations is a better approach. Creating equal opportunities for young people to flourish and equipping them with lifelong skills to live healthy, happy lives.

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