An exam is a mental marathon – a test of resolve and endurance – and preparing for it should include a good diet. But extensive studies link altered eating habits with stress, including that caused by exams.
When one is chronically stressed, the hormone cortisol is released, which causes some individuals to binge.
Researchers Tanja Adam and Elissa Epel found that people who identified themselves as stress eaters had higher urinary cortisol and insulin levels when they were under pressure. Studies also show that female students demonstrate a proclivity to increase food consumption under stress.
Psychology researchers from Montclair State University in New Jersey found that while a group of students placed in stressful situations did not necessarily eat more, they were more inclined to eat more unhealthy, higher-calorie food.
They also found that people who were generally more restrained with food tended to eat much more when they were under perceived stress. Other studies note that non-stressed students have more fruits and vegetables in their diet than stressed peers who consume more soda and junk food.
Can we help the body cope with stress? Nutrition research expert Rohini Tiwari, of Avinashilingam University in India, points to serotonin, the brain’s stress-relieving hormone, as the key.
“Its proper functioning will help reduce anxiety and stress, improving mood and ensuring good sleep,” says Tiwari, who is launching a study aimed at creating a diet specifically for students preparing for exams. The list includes cereals, grains, leafy vegetables, roots, tubers and fruits.
Although diet management alone will not help, “the students who followed the prescribed diet exhibited considerable improvement compared to the placebo group”, says Tiwari.
While personality influences our food choices, the food we eat also influences us.
At exam time it is important that students increase their intake of foods known to relieve anxiety. A balanced diet rich in wholegrains contains tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin. Kelp and other seaweeds – which are also rich in tryptophan – are an alternative for those with gluten sensitivity.
Chocolate – especially pure, dark chocolate without added sugars or milk – reduces cortisol, the stress hormone that causes anxiety symptoms. Other compounds in dark chocolate are known to improve mood.
Blueberries, considered to be a “superfood”, are rich in vitamins and phytonutrients (natural chemicals in plants) and antioxidants that are considered extremely beneficial for relieving stress.
Almonds contain zinc and vitamin B12, which help maintain a balanced mood, as well as monounsaturated fats and iron which can combat anxiety and boost energy, as low iron levels have been known to cause brain fatigue.
Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School