Exams – Manage Your Mind; Maximise Your Results

Exam food connection

What if I was to tell you that you could increase your grades and reduce your ‘exam panic’ whilst still maintaining your sanity all by changing a few eating habits from 6 weeks prior to your exams?

Well it is true. The reason being is that stress is not just a mental manifestation restricted to your brain. Have you ever thought about how you can think a certain thought that in turn can create the feeling of butterflies in your stomach? Or when the thought of something literally makes you feel sick? That is an example of how your stress responsive is intrinsically connected to your entire body including your brain and your digestion. Your brain is also directly affected by the foods you put into your body, and some foods provide fuel for your brain, whilst others can literally become brain drainers.

Once you make that connection, does it then make sense to you that the food you eat during times of ‘pressure such as exams’, could affect your brain function also and therefore your performance?

Feeling stressed during exam pressure is totally normal and to be expected. In fact, in modern society we are all often living in a state of chronic stress due to daily pressures and expectations. The good news is, whilst it is impossible to take away stress totally, you can do certain things to reduce it and, in turn increase your brain clarity and memory.

Diet & lifestyle plays a key role in managing stress.

Why? When our stress response is activated it influences blood and oxygen flow. This in turn can effect neurotransmitters and hormones. In times of stress the body directs more blood and oxygen away from non essential functions and more toward limbs. As a result anything that is not going to cause you harm or death (such as blood restriction to heart, liver, lungs, essential brain function), receives less blood and oxygen in times of stress. This includes your short term memory. And we all know that your short term memory is essential for maximising exam results and ‘cramming’. So this is why eating foods that are known to reduce your stress response are important, whilst eating foods that can increase your stress levels on your body can reduce your short term memories maximum function.

How is stress effected by what we eat?

What we eat directly effects something called ‘blood sugar balance’, and blood sugar balance, or imbalance, causes certain hormones to be secreted. If the wrong foods (especially high sugar) are consumed it causes insulin to be secreted. This insulin plays a strong role in influencing the release of cortisol which is one of our main stress hormones. So balance your blood sugar levels in order to maximise your short term brain capacity.

Below is a list of foods to avoid as these foods raise your blood sugar level and therefore increase secretions of insulin and cortisol.

Avoid – Brain Drain Foods:

  • Caffeine
  • High sugar foods
  • High white starch foods – especially if not eaten with protein
  • Skipping meals

Good – Practical Brain Foods

  • Snacks: Ensure you don’t go longer than 3 hours without eating something, even a snack
    Carmans bars -oat based muesli bars from cold storage/market place. They have a little sugar but not much. Perfect to carry a few in your bag
    Smoothies – super delicious and easy. Look on my website (products and services) for a free smoothie recipe download.
    Apple/pear – and a handful of seeds/nuts/other protein
    Ham & cheese – slice of any proteins on crackers
    Dried fruits & nuts/seeds
    Vegetable sticks – with hummus or even on their own – good when you just need a go to
  • Green tea – decreases anxiety, improves brain and immune function – can drink hot or cold. Contains caffeine but does not have the same effect on your blood sugar as other caffeine
  • Protein – You need protein in every meal (30%). You need this for mental function and reducing blood sugar as well as sustaining energy. It also helps you feel full for longer (positive for weight control for those concerned)..
  • Meals – Don’t skip meals.
    Skipping meals or not eating still causes a blood sugar surge the same as eating the wrong foods through activating certain secretions in the liver
  • Coconut oil – Your brain is largely made out of fat. You need it to think. Coconut oil has been found to have huge beneficial outcomes on mood, concentration. Studies are now even indicating therapeutic doses to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Have at least 2 tablespoons a day (on toast, smoothies, in cooking, on its own. (For more benefits of coconut oil view the 15 minute youtube video)

Lifestyle tips

  • Ensure you allocate daily ‘off time’ in your study. Having mental breaks without feeling stressed about not studying is very important in reducing stress levels
  • Do your best to have enough sleep. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation plays a huge role in decreased performance
  • When stressed try the de stress breathing technique – breath 4 seconds in, hold for 1 second, breath 4 seconds out. Repeat 10 times. Do this as much as necessary
  • Do not eat your meals whilst studying as your stomach will not digest food properly and this places stress on your body

Exam Day


L-Thianinine is an amino acid derived from green tea. It decreases anxiety whilst increases brain function without stimulating it. It does not cause you to stay awake as a stimulant does. It helps calm your nerves and increase clarity. Take 15-20 minutes before you go into the exam. Available at many good health food stores.

(However keep in mind it does not increase your short term memory, it simply takes the edge off pre exam nerves).

Finally good luck in your exams and enjoy the health kick and all its benefits!

Sara Valentine
Integrated Nutritionist

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