It’s exam time again … healthy eating to beat exam stress

As end of year exams approach, the next few months can be a stressful time for students (and their parents!). Rare is the student who doesn’t experience some stress around exam time. And while stress can have its benefits – it can motivate students and give them that extra burst of adrenalin to see them through the exam period – it can also sabotage performance if it gets out of control. In times of stress, the body releases various hormones including cortisol, high levels of which are thought to impair memory and our ability to recall information.[1]

The following are some simple steps you can take to help deal with the pressure of exams:

Eat well. Don’t be tempted to snack all day on sugary fast food or shots of coffee or energy drinks.  Energy drinks seem to have become a crutch for many young people, but the reality is they can contain a whopping 39g of sugar and the same amount of caffeine as an espresso.  You want to be eating food that will help calm stress but at the same time boost exam performance and energy levels. Make a point of eating 3 meals a day and include healthy snacks (see below) to keep your energy levels up.

ALWAYS start the day with a good breakfast to fuel your body and your mind.  It doesn’t have to be a 7 am breakfast, but make sure you’ve eaten something before the exam, or that you take a healthy option to school with you.  Not eating before an exam can mean your brain doesn’t have enough energy to function at its best. Be prepared, and don’t just rely on grabbing a pastry from the nearest shop.  Eat foods that will provide slow-release energy to sustain you throughout the morning. Porridge oats with ground nuts and seeds and some mixed berries will provide slow-release energy from the oats and brain-boosting omega 3’s from the nuts and seeds. Alternatively whole-grain toast topped with eggs, avocado, nut butter or hoummous are healthy breakfast options

Fresh smoothies also make a great breakfast, just make sure they include some protein and fat and aren’t just made of fruit which will deliver a concentrated dose of sugars.

For lunch, try to avoid a big plate of refined carbohydrates (e.g. pasta or lots of bread) as they are more likely to make you feel sleepy in the afternoon – not ideal for afternoon exams! Instead opt for a vegetable-rich salad with a protein such as fish, meat or tofu or a soup.

Snack ideas include a handful of nuts and a banana, boiled eggs, protein pots from supermarkets/cafes, sandwiches (wholegrain bread with some sort of protein), oatcakes with nut butters or smoothies (make sure they have protein eg ground nuts or seeds).

My golden food rules:

  • Breakfast is always important, but especially on exam day. If you can’t stomach a big breakfast it’s OK to eat something small.
  • If you have a long exam make sure you’ve eaten enough to get you through the exam – be prepared with healthy snacks on hand.  Bananas are great for exams
  • Don’t gorge on huge meals that will leave you feeling sleepy while your body works hard to digest it
  • Ditch the sugar – it may provide a short-term high but will be followed by an energy dip
  • Eat protein and healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, nuts and seeds) with each meal to help stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent energy dips
  • Ensure you’re eating omega-3 fatty acids to help support the brain. Sources include oily fish, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and green leafy vegetables
  • Equally important during exams are magnesium (green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, avocados, bananas, whole grains and DARK chocolate), zinc (eggs, lean meats, seafood, nuts and seeds and seaweed) and B vitamins for energy production (whole foods – animal products, whole grains, green leafy vegetables and nuts and seeds).
  • Snack between exams. Always carry healthy and portable snacks with you – nuts and seeds, oat cakes, cut up vegetable sticks with hoummous, low-sugar energy bars or a piece of fruit will all provide energy. Even a piece of dark chocolate is OK if you feel like something sweet (but it must be dark!).

Get a good night’s sleep. Resist the urge to stay up all night studying. Research shows teenagers should get between 9 and 10 hours of sleep each night. But in reality this is rarely the case. Sleep not only helps you focus and concentrate on exam day, but also helps your brain retain knowledge into your long-term memory. A lack of sleep is also associated with increased cortisol levels. The following steps may help improve your sleep:

  • Remove electronic devices from the bedroom (that includes smart phones, tablets and TVs).   The blue light they emit is known to stimulate the brain and prevents the production of melatonin, a hormone which helps regulate sleep cycles
  • Don’t eat a big meal too close to going to going to bed
  • Restrict caffeine intake after lunch – this includes sodas and energy drinks as well as coffee
  • Some people find that stress interferes with their sleep. We all respond to different stress-relieving techniques, but things like yoga and meditation can be helpful as can simple things like taking a warm bath before bed.

Exercise. Time is often short around exam time but it is important to make time for some sort of exercise.   Exercise has been shown to boost memory and brain activity and even going for a walk can provide benefits.[2]

Hydration. Drinking enough water throughout the day is vital and being even slightly dehydrated can impair your ability to concentrate. By the time you register you are thirsty you are most likely already dehydrated. Research indicates that students who take water with them into exams perform better. If you find water boring try infusing it with fruit, vegetables and herbs to add flavour. Steer clear of caffeine and don’t be tempted by the energy drinks that make all sorts of energy boosting claims.

Supplements. There is much debate around supplements and whether they are necessary. My view is that the average student diet is not ideal – fast food, sodas, skipped meals, late nights – which all take their toll. Add stress to this scenario and you run the risk of weakening your immune system, leaving you prone to bugs and reducing your body’s ability to handle stress. If you fit this profile then you might want to consider taking a good quality multi-vitamin during the exam months and for a few months beforehand.

Wishing you good luck with those exams!

  1. Stress Hormone Hinders Memory Recall (2013), Cognitive Neuroscience Society, Accessed: 30th March, 2016, https://www.cogneurosociety.org/cortisol_memory
  2. Exercise Appears To Improve Brain Function Among Younger People, Science Daily, Accessed: 5th April, 2016, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/12/061219122200.htm

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