05 May Food and lifestyle tips to survive exam season
It’s the time of year for last minute revision and exam pressure. This can often lead to unhelpful food choices, that instead of boosting energy levels and concentration, have the opposite effect.
Here are my top tips to stay energised, focussed and relaxed:
- Stay hydrated
Drinking enough water will help with concentration, energy levels, mood and mental clarity.
Research shows that well-hydrated children perform better academically at school than mildly dehydrated children. Although studies involving teenagers are limited, one study concluded that mild dehydration was found not to affect the mental performance of adolescents, however, the teenage brain exerted a far greater effort to achieve their usual level of cognitive performance under dehydrated conditions1. This may have a knock-on effect for exams over several days.
Signs of dehydration: tiredness, moodiness, mental fogginess, headaches, dark coloured urine, bad breath, constipation.
Always have a refillable bottle of water accessible during the day.
Recommended daily water intake2
|Gender||Age Group||Amount of fluid from drinks and food (litres/day)a||Amount of fluid from drinks only (litres/day)b|
|Boys and girls||4 to 8 years||1.6||1.1 – 1.3|
|Girls||9 to 13 years||1.9||1.3 -1.5|
|Boys||9 to 13 years||2.1||1.5- 1.7|
|Females||14 years+||2||1.4 – 1.6|
|Males||14 years+||2.5||1.75 – 2|
- Eat breakfast
You may be rushing out the door to get to school in the morning but finding a way to eat something after getting up is shown to be beneficial for cognitive performance for the rest of the morning.
Research shows that children’s brains demand twice as much glucose (sugar) as adults. With generally longer overnight sleeping periods using up their glycogen stores (stored sugars), breakfast is important to provide necessary energy for the morning. Cognitive glucose demand declines gradually through the teenage years up to 16-18yrs where demand is the same as an adult3.
The first meal of the day should contain food which releases its sugar slowly, such as complex carbohydrates (wholegrains). These, combined with fat and protein to keep blood sugar balanced (avoiding energy highs and subsequent crashes), will help to provide sustained energy for the morning. This helps to keep us calmer, concentrate, supports better mood and provides sustained energy.
Some easy breakfast suggestions:
Porridge: with whole/semi skimmed milk, a palm full of fruit (berries, grated apple, kiwi), a tbsp of yoghurt, tbsp mixed seeds (whole or ground), handful of nuts/tsp nut butter.
No time – prepare overnight oats the night before.
Cereal: try to choose wholegrain, low sugar versions (less than 4g per serving), and add whole/semi skimmed milk, seeds, yoghurt, fruit (for a touch sweetness).
Toast: wholegrain/sourdough toast with baked beans and/or scrambled eggs, smoked fish (mackerel/salmon), avocado. Or, for a sweeter start try nut butter and sliced apple on toast with a tbsp of full fat yoghurt.
- Fuel the rest of your day
Back up the good start to the day with nutritious lunches and dinners. These don’t have to be complicated.
If a sandwich lunch is easiest, choose wholegrain/sourdough/rye bread or a wholegrain gluten free alternative (mix it up). Include some protein (cold meat, egg, tuna, hummus), add a bit of green (lettuce, rocket, watercress, spinach), take some vegetable sticks (carrot, pepper, celery, cucumber). Finish with some mixed berries and yoghurt in a pot.
Oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines are high in Omega-3 essential fats which are vital for brain health4. Have a portion at dinner time to provide great preparation for exams the next day. Add steamed greens, brown basmati rice, jersey royals, roasted Mediterranean vegetable tray bake or stir fry vegetables with noodles. If you don’t eat fish, oils can be taken as a supplement or in algae form. Plant sources of omega-3 fats include flaxseed, walnuts, pumpkin, hemp and chia seeds.
- Snacks and treats
Exam time often means your brain is working overtime and burning through your energy resources. Keep nutritious snacks to grab when needed. These could include a handful of unsalted mixed nuts, oatcakes with nut butter and fruit, boiled eggs, hummus and vegetable sticks, high protein granola bars (watch for the sugar content though), good quality granola with full fat yoghurt. Prepare homemade snacks which you can enjoy throughout the week, see my Instagram page for a few ideas.
After an exam or long revision session, be kind to yourself. Choose activities and food that support dopamine production (a chemical messenger in the brain that’s responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward). Getting active outside, listening to music5, eating protein rich food/treats (like the snacks and food recommended above) and some dark chocolate will all contribute to its production.
- Get enough sleep.
Getting adequate sleep (7-9 hours) before learning has been shown to improve our ability to make new memories. Daytime naps have also demonstrated an increased capacity of the brain to memorize new information6.
Support good sleep by allowing yourself time away from artificial light, electronic devices and smartphones in the hour leading up to sleep. If you cannot avoid devices during this period think about blue light blocking glasses.
Eat your evening meal by 7/8pm or 3 hours before sleep where possible. We digest food better during day light hours and indigestion may interrupt sleep.
Expose yourself to natural light as early as you can in the morning (great if you walk to school, walk to bus stop). This will support your daily wake/sleep cycle.
- Up magnesium intake to reduce stress and anxiety.
Magnesium is renowned for its ability to calm the nervous system, which is especially useful during high pressure periods like exams. Increase foods such as nuts, seeds, leafy greens (spinach, kale), peanut butter, brown rice and seaweed. Adding Epsom Salts to a bath is also an effective way to up magnesium levels and provides much needed time to relax pre and post exam.
- Pross, N. (2017) Effects of Dehydration on Brain Functioning: A Life-Span Perspective. Ann Nutr Metab. 70 Suppl 1:30-36.
- Gibson-Moore, H. (2013) Improving hydration in children: a sensible guide. Nutrition Bulletin 38, 236-42.
- Adolphus, K., Lawton, C. & Dye, L. (2013) The effects of breakfast on behaviour and academic performance in children and adolescents, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7.
- Su HM. (2010) Mechanisms of n-3 fatty acid-mediated development and maintenance of learning memory performance. J Nutr Biochem. 21(5):364-73.
- Koelsch S. (2014) Brain correlates of music-evoked emotions. Nat Rev Neurosci. 15(3):170-80.
- Walker, M. (2018) Why we sleep. Penguin Books.