OK, so it’s the end of the year, exams are looming or already upon you and you’re all stressed out. Studying is vital for success, of course, but there are ways to ward off the fatigue that often sets in at exam time. Stress can weaken your immune system and deplete your body of certain nutrients. In a report published by www.health24.com, Principal Officer of Fedhealth Peter Jordan explained: ‘Nutritionists emphasise the importance of healthy eating habits at such a particularly stressful time. They advise that the right food and drink can energise your system, improve your alertness and sustain you through the long exam hours. On the other hand, making the wrong dietary choices could leave you feeling jittery, sluggish or burned-out.’
Follow these tips to boost your system, feed your brain, enhance your ability to concentrate and think clearly, and to help you succeed in your exams:
Don’t skip meals
Eating a nutritious breakfast (poached eggs and grilled bacon, fruit smoothie with yoghurt and muesli, toast with no-added-sugar peanut butter) may help concentration. But keep it light. A big breakfast or lunch before an exam will sap your energy as your body focuses on the digestive process rather than on giving your brain the energy it needs to function efficiently. So, to avoid the snooze factor, avoid high-fat pizzas and cheeseburgers.
Protein is your friend
Don’t choose only a salad at lunchtime. Your brain needs protein; in fact, studies have shown that people who skip proteins at breakfast are more likely to experience fatigue, depression and stress than those who consume it regularly. It’s the amino acids in proteins that are your friends. They are the body’s building blocks, helping with growth and repair and increasing levels of neurotransmitters, which stimulate alertness and mood. A little protein with every meal also helps maintain steady blood sugar levels. Try lean meat, fish, walnuts, blueberries, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, dried fruits, figs and prunes – all good brain foods. Aim for 0.6 to 0.8 g of protein per kilo of body weight every day (that’s about 50 g for a 70 kg person).
Iron is a prime constituent of haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying part of red blood cells. Iron deficiency can lead to anaemia, fatigue and a dull brain. You’ll find it in lean red meat, oysters, legumes and raisins. Remember, though, that the body processes iron from meat more easily than it does from plant sources. Eat the latter with vitamin C (spinach salad with a good squeeze of orange juice, for example) to aid absorption.
Avoid the sugar rush
You may feel good while you’re eating the chocolate bar but it doesn’t provide many nutrients and you will probably feel really hungry a couple of hours later.
The right carbs
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy. However, it’s not the high-glycaemic-index carbs that make give you stamina and the endurance to get through a three-hour exam, but the low-glycaemic-index ones. Choose unrefined rather than refined products, such as brown rice and brown sugar instead of white, muesli instead of sugary cereals and whole-wheat bread above white. Whole grains are a good source of vitamin B, which feeds the nerves, helps in red blood-cell production and to extract fuel from carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Drink lots of water and remain hydrated during exam time. Water helps combat fatigue. Avoid caffeine-containing and fizzy beverages and, unsurprisingly, alcohol. No-one needs the morning-after drag!
Vitamin C, found in citrus fruits, guavas, red peppers, broccoli, tomatoes and a host of other fresh fruit and veg, banishes fatigue. It also helps fight infection, absorb iron and feed the adrenal system. Beta-carotene, found in carrots and spinach, builds the immune system and fights fatigue. Eat five servings of veg a day.
For an extra edge
Take a multivitamin in the lead-up to exams to stimulate your memory and concentration. If takeaways and pizzas have been your main source of nutrition, a good multivitamin will boost your levels of iron and other essential minerals and vitamins. Multivitamins also contain zinc, which is vital for memory and general brain function.
Spending hours with your books can frazzle your brain, leaving you both wound-up and exhausted, barely able to sleep. Try to take an hour to chill before bedtime. Read, have a banana, a hot milky drink or a handful of pumpkin seeds, which are rich in magnesium, a mineral that relaxes muscles, relieves cramp and aids sleep.
On the day
Low-fat healthy snacks such as energy, protein or granola bars, trail mix, pumpkin seeds, almonds, walnuts or fruit will keep up your energy.