Boost nutrition and learning through exam season

It’s a nerve-wracking time of year for students across the country as they prepare for forthcoming exams. Whilst it may feel a little daunting, there are a number of food and lifestyle tips students can tap into to boost the learning process and to help them survive and even thrive through the revision period. Take a look at the following suggestions.

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Boost your learning through food

Balanced meals

A balanced diet consisting of three healthy meals across the day will provide a good foundation to help you focus and avoid illness. Try not to skip meals to avoid energy dips and avoid eating large meals late in the evening which may impact your sleep.

At dinner, look to include a good serving of colourful vegetables (ideally covering half of your plate) protein-rich foods such as legumes, eggs, good quality meat, shellfish and fish (one-quarter of your plate) and the remaining quarter should be made up of nutrient-packed complex carbohydrates, which are high in fibre. These include wholegrains such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta and quinoa. 

Breakfast

Getting a good breakfast will give you a head start to the day. Slow releasing carbohydrates such as porridge which also contains protein are a good choice and you can top this off with nuts and seeds for extra protein. Add some fruit, berries are a good choice for antioxidants such as vitamin C, to support energy levels and immunity. Other options include eggs or avocado with sourdough bread and fruit on the side, frittata or pancakes with fruit and nuts.

Snacks

Revision and snacking go hand in hand. Stock up on healthy and readily available choices. Think fruit, hummus and crudités, nuts, seeds, sourdough bread with nut butter, smoothies, Greek yoghurt, miso soup, cheese and eggs. If you develop cravings, look to get more sleep as cravings for carbohydrates, including sugary foods can be driven by sleep deprivation.

Water

It sounds so simple, but it’s a basic requirement that you keep well hydrated so that your brain can work optimally. Water is required for the production of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) and dehydration will negatively affect brain function leading to a direct impact on cognitive ability, concentration, and alertness, ultimately affecting revision and exam performance.

Dehydration can also exacerbate feelings of anxiety and research shows a link with depression. Drink 1.5-2 litres of water gradually across the day, maybe more if you are exercising and don’t wait to feel thirsty. Keep an eye on the colour of your urine too, the darker it is the more likely that you are dehydrated. Caffeinated drinks don’t count in your water total as they are dehydrating, but herbal teas do. Add fruit e.g. lemon juice or herbs e.g. ginger if you get bored of plain water.

Sugar 

Sugar levels should be kept to a minimum to avoid spikes and troughs in blood glucose levels, followed by dips which can crash energy levels, reducing concentration with a negative impact on mood. Sugar may also reduce immunity, leaving you more vulnerable to picking up colds and other viruses which will impact learning.

Fizzy, sugary drinks should be kept to a minimum and avoid the caffeinated ones labelled as energy drinks, which often contain other stimulants, that are linked to negative effects on mental health and cognitive function, including anxiety and poor concentration.


Top nutrients for learning

Iron

Iron is a key nutrient during childhood and teenagers have a high requirement for this energy-related mineral, especially girls due to blood loss during menstruation.

40% of teenage girls are reported to have a deficiency, which can lead to low energy levels, headaches and poor concentration amongst other symptoms, which obviously can affect learning. Iron deficiency is also known to disrupt levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Include iron-rich foods such as eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes including beans and lentils, pumpkin seeds, almonds shellfish and good quality meat.

Choline

Choline is a lesser-known nutrient but is actually very important for the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation. Food rich sources include sunflower seeds, eggs, liver pate, wholegrains, dairy and peanut butter.

Omega 3

Omega 3 fatty acids are healthy fats that are critical for the production of neurotransmitters related to mood and brain function. DHA in particular speeds up communication across the brain. Rich sources include oily fish, chia, flax seeds and walnuts. Look at supplementation too.

Magnesium

Magnesium is essential for learning, working memory, sleep, energy production and mood. Unfortunately, our levels of this important mineral are depleted when we are stressed so it’s especially important during revision time to top with rich food sources. Think green leafy vegetables, avocados, nuts and seeds, whole grain foods such as oats and quinoa, and legumes such as chickpeas and beans. In general, increasing whole foods and reducing processed foods will increase magnesium intake. 

B vitamins

B vitamins are vital for energy production, focus, memory and mood. Choose whole grain foods e.g. brown rice & oats, plus eggs, fish, chicken and green vegetables. Like magnesium, our levels reduce with stress so it’s important to get a good intake.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D, otherwise known as the sunshine vitamin, is well known for supporting the immune system which is especially important during revision time to protect you from viruses and infections. Low levels are linked with anxiety, low immunity and low mood. Time outside will boost production, but levels may be low after the winter so think about testing blood levels and look into supplementing.


Lifestyle tips to help you thrive

Time to relax

It’s important to take a break from revision and find time to relax in a way that suits you, whether this is watching a movie, going out with friends or playing sport. Coordinate revision breaks with friends where you can, to maintain social contact for that feel-good factor. You’ll feel regenerated when you head back to revision and will be more efficient at learning, with research demonstrating benefits for retention. Take a break every hour to maintain a productive level of work.

Sleep

Ensure you get a minimum of eight hours of sleep a night. If you are feeling anxious, your sleep may be affected so take time out during the day to relax and be sure to wind down after revision whether you choose to read, listen to music or daydream, to allow your brain time to relax before you nod off.

Also aim to finish eating your main meal two to three hours before you sleep to allow your body to concentrate on healing and regeneration, rather than digestion. If you are hungry before bed have a light meal such as soup, smoothie or porridge. Also, remember to stop drinking caffeinated drinks early in the afternoon to avoid a detrimental effect on sleep. 

If you work on a screen until late at night, look into purchasing blue light glasses to reduce the impact of blue light emitted from screens, which can negatively affect the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, thereby reducing sleep quality. A warm bath before bed can help you wind down and feel sleepy and adding some Epsom salts to the hot water will enhance relaxation and boost magnesium absorption.

Getting outside

Get outdoors at least once a day for fresh air and a chance to boost vitamin D levels. Exposure to daylight is also important for balancing your circadian rhythm, which is an internal timing system regulated by light.

Research demonstrates that taking a morning walk (ideally within one hour of waking) and exposing your eyes to sunlight can help you to fall asleep quicker and experience improvements in sleep quality. Spending time in nature or green space, in particular, has been found to help support mood and reduce anxiety.

Exercise

Moving your body through exercise will result in the production of feel-good endorphins which will help you feel relaxed and are the best antidote to stress. Exercise can also enhance your revision sessions by boosting blood flow to the brain, and delivering oxygen and essential nutrients to enhance learning.

Choose a physical activity that you enjoy and try to get a daily session fixed in, between revision sessions. You don’t have to go to a gym, walking and running are two free options as well as following YouTube videos on yoga and pilates.

Good luck!

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Colchester, Essex, CO4
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Written by Karen Maude, Nutritional Therapist DipNT mBANT CNHC BA (Hons)
Colchester, Essex, CO4

With the goal to help clients feel at their best every day, Karen has a special interest in women & children's health. As a mum of three, nutrition is a key part of her tool kit for looking after her children, who have presented a variety of health challenges. She continuously draws on her experience of the NHS to inform her work.

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