Sunday 23 September 2018

Foods to help focus the brain during exam time

At exam time the right meals can aid concentration, writes nutritionist Gaye Godkin

The brain needs to be fed the correct nutrients
The brain needs to be fed the correct nutrients

The brain is the hub of all stored information. Students sitting exams over the next few weeks are reliant on that information being translated onto the page, but in order for the brain to function at speed and efficiency, it needs to be fed the correct nutrients.

It is a very active organ with neurons firing and sparking every second. To maximise memory, brain cells need a constant drip, drip supply of fuel. The brain operates differently to other organs as it relies entirely on glucose to fuel it. Balancing glucose supply to the brain is the secret to staying alert.

The fastest way to make glucose is from carbohydrate sources. To get a sustained release of glucose to the brain, you need to eat carbohydrates in their natural state. Good sources include oats, wholemeal bread, barley, millet, rice, quinoa, fruit, and starchy vegetables such as carrots, turnips, parsnips, potato, sweet potato, lentils and pulses.

Students may be prone to reaching for junk foods out of convenience while revising, but you can help your child maximise their exam performance with some of the following foods. 

Evening meal suggestions

* Homemade curry such as chicken, lamb or vegetable curry with beans or peas and basmati rice plus a side salad.

* Stir-fries are very versatile and an easy way to incorporate lots of vegetables.

* Try fish cakes/fish casserole with salad or roast vegetables or mashed vegetables.

* When choosing salads in the summer ensure that there is a good portion of protein on the plate and dress with lots of extra virgin olive oil.

* Grill fish and eat with potatoes and vegetables — always aim for a rainbow of colour.


Students need to snack. However, excess snacking on sugar laden soft drinks, energy drinks, biscuits and bars should be avoided. Avoid excess caffeine which stimulates the production of adrenaline, the stress hormones. High levels of adrenaline increase anxiety.

* Fruit is excellent to snack on. Apples, pears, nectarines, berries and melons are packed full of nutrients.

* Nuts are a great snack food. Dark chocolate melted over nuts and fruits is a nice treat.

* Hydration must also be prioritised — 1pc dehydration leads to 10pc lack of brain function.

How to deal with student exam stress

If an exam goes badly…

If your teenager seems unhappy about how an exam has gone, it is important to meet them where they are at by acknowledging and reflecting their feelings back to them. You could say something like “I notice that you aren’t so happy with your English paper today, how did you feel it went?”

If an exam goes well…

If your teenager feels they have done well on the exam, explore the particular aspects they feel went well and in a genuine way encourage them about their strengths to build up their confidence for the next exam.

If they can’t move past the exam…

Once you have acknowledged their feelings and talked it through, encourage your teenager to ‘close the book’ on that exam and to focus on the next one as there is nothing they can do about it now. Remind them of their successes. Ask them “Are any practical steps you could take to prepare for the next exam?”

If they shut down conversation…

Try to open up conversations on a walk or in the car as teenagers prefer casual shoulder-to-shoulder chats where they don’t feel too exposed. They may not want to share how they feel immediately so don’t push them. At least you have opened up the conversation and let them know you are there for them.

If they seem overwhelmed…

Perspective is something you have which your child is unlikely to have right now. Remind them that this will be over in a short few weeks and to hang in there. Let them know that you are proud of them no matter what. Continual words of encouragement will go such a long way.

Dr Malie Coyne is a clinical psychologist and lecturer at NUI Galway

Irish Independent

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