Exam survival guide - Nutrition

Jane McClenaghan offers her top tips for acing this summer exam season

Student studying on the table
Exam season has started... thinking carefully about your diet and routine can pay dividends to help students perform to the best of their abilities (seb_ra/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It is exam season and in houses up and down the land, teachers, teens and parents are counting down the days until the end of June.

Whether you have your head in the books, or are part of a teenager’s support team, here are some ideas to work alongside the long hours of revision.

  • Keep well hydrated. Drinking enough water will help keep you energised, so keep a bottle on your desk and top up your water levels regularly. Herbal teas are good for this too, if you like them.
  • Rosemary has been shown to be good for memory. Apart from being a herb that is useful in a roast dinner, it can also be used as an essential oil in a burner, or try adding a sprig to your water bottle with a slice of lemon.
  • Eat breakfast. A decent breakfast will help fuel your body and feed your brain. If you are heading into an exam with butterflies in your tummy, skipping breakfast can make exam nerves even worse, so eat something before you hit the exam room, even if it is just a small meal or snack.
Young woman leaning on tree enjoying the warm sunlight. Enjoying the silence, smiling happy.
It's important to take breaks during revision sessions - preferably outdoors (Finn Hafemann/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
  • Include some protein in your breakfast to help sustain your energy and concentration. Something like yoghurt and fruit with granola, peanut butter and banana on toast, or overnight oats with nuts and seeds would be great. If you can’t face that on an exam day, then make yourself a smoothie with some berries, banana, yoghurt and milk, or just have some yoghurt before you go into school.
  • Take regular study breaks. Healthy snacks can give you a break from the books, and can help with memory and concentration too. Your brain needs healthy fats, so nuts are a great snack. Houmous and veg sticks, oatcakes or wholemeal toast with nut butter or cheese and crackers would be good.

  • Get outside. Your brain will retain much more if you take breaks and study in bite-size chunks. Set a timer on your phone so you can really focus for 20-30 minutes. Then get outside, have a stretch, get a drink or take a mini break.
  • Don’t skip meals – it will only add to the stress load. Keep your mealtimes regular and take a break for lunch and dinner. Skipping meals increases adrenalin and can make you feel more edgy and anxious.
  • Have an early night. Get to bed at a decent time if you have an exam the next day. Although you might feel the need to cram and sit up half the night, you will think more clearly and be more focused if you have slept well.
Unite said exams may be affected (David Davies/PA)
Studying your diet can yield benefits for anyone facing exams
  • Did you know that exercise can help with exam stress? Regular exercise releases brain chemicals that are important for memory, concentration, and mental sharpness. It can also help lift your mood and help reduce anxiety and stress. It could even help your exam performance, as there seems to be a link between physical activity and academic performance. Walking, cycling, swimming, skipping – any sort of exercise that you enjoy will work.

Feed your brain with some good mood foods:

  • Bananas, oats, yoghurt, chicken, turkey and almonds contain an amino acid called tryptophan. This is a precursor to serotonin, a brain chemical that helps us feel calm and happy.
  • Omega 3 fats from oily fish (salmon, sardines or mackerel) are important for brain health and memory. If you are not keen on fish, try chia seeds, walnuts or flaxseeds
  • Green tea contains a nutrient called l-thenanine that can help you feel calm, but also helps with clarity and focused thought. Worth a go.

I would also recommend taking a decent quality multi-vitamin with some B vitamins in it to help support your nervous system and memory, maybe an omega 3 fish oil and if you feel stress getting the better of you, lemon balm has really calming effects.

Talk to the team at your local health food shop for their recommendations.

Good luck – I hope all your hard work pays off.