Exam season has arrived, which means that teenagers will be spending the next few weeks sitting GCSE and A-Level exams. According to reports, teachers have already noticed high levels of anxiety among pupils, who will be the first to take these exams in three years due to the pandemic.
The pressure of revision, along with the demands of sitting more than 20 GCSE exams, makes this a stressful time for teens. Those sitting A-Levels will also be navigating their first experience of formal exams, as their GCSEs were cancelled in 2020. So we asked registered nutritionist Charlotte Faure Green for some tips on the best ways to support your teen if you’re worried they’re not coping with exam stress.
Charlotte says: “Whilst it’s not possible for our stressed teenagers to simply eat themselves out of an anxious or stressed state, WHAT they eat, what they DON’T eat, and WHEN and HOW they eat has the potential to influence their mental health and stress response.”
Read on for Charlotte’s top five tips to tackle exam stress…
1. Eat within 30 minutes of waking
“Our bodies typically run out of fuel in the early hours of the morning, and our liver demands cortisol (one of our stress hormones) to produce energy (glucose) for the body,” explains Charlotte. “When we wake in the morning, our cortisol levels are high and rise to a peak shortly after. So when we’re experiencing additional stress – such as during exams – eating within 30 minutes to an hour of waking is optimal. This tells our body that there is no famine, and to switch off cortisol-assisted energy production, lowering stress.”
2. Eat more protein
“It’s important to avoid the ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’ when trying to ease exam stress,’ says Charlotte. “When we consume carbohydrates but don’t pair them with proteins and fats, they are quickly broken down and hit the bloodstream fast. As a result, our happy neurotransmitters rise, and we are momentarily energised. However, our bodies don’t like this sharp rise, so we release the hormone insulin to store the glucose away for later. This means we then feel this sudden dip quite keenly, so we release stress hormones to bring our blood sugar up again. We can reduce this additional stress by balancing carbohydrates with good proteins and fats – so think about adding tuna or baked beans to a buttered jacket potato, making a quick omelette, topping toast or porridge with nut butter, and adding lentils, avocado and olive oil to salads.”
3. Choose study-boosting snacks
“There’s no magical ‘super food’ that will single-handedly help your teen to retain facts, but what they eat can power up their brain and help with focus, particularly if they eat them regularly during the exam period,” says Charlotte.
Here are Charlotte’s favourite study-boosting snacks to keep on hand when hitting the books:
- Blueberries: “These may help to stimulate the flow of oxygen to the brain, and reduce short-term memory loss.”
- Oats: “A great slow-release form of glucose, which is our brain’s preferred fuel. Start the day with porridge or overnight oats, or reach for oatcakes as a quick snack.”
- Eggs: “These are a great source of choline, which builds healthy cell membranes and memory-forming acetylcholine.”
- Salmon: “It’s a good source of essential fatty acids, vital for brain cell preservation.”
- Walnuts: “They’re rich in vitamin E, which research shows may prevent cognitive decline – and they even look like tiny brains!”
4. Cut down on caffeine
“You may be concerned that your teen is turning to coffee and caffeinated soft drinks to keep them going,” says Charlotte. “Caffeine keeps us alert by blocking the effects of adenosine, a chemical that makes us feel drowsy. Although this can help your teen study for longer, when the caffeine wears out, they will feel that adenosine like a tidal wave – and either need more coffee or a nap.
“Caffeine has a half-life of six hours, which means that enjoying a cup of coffee or an energy drink after 2pm is likely to affect sleep quality – and your teen needs good-quality sleep to support academic performance, focus and concentration. Furthermore, caffeine is anxiogenic, which means that it triggers the release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which may already be elevated during the exam period.
“If your teenager is relying on coffee, work with them to find other ways to boost their energy – such as a quick run around the block, kicking a ball in the garden, or taking a hot shower followed by a blast of cold water. If they can’t kick caffeine completely, suggest a cup of green tea. It contains less caffeine than coffee, and also contains l-theanine, an amino acid that increases dopamine (our reward chemical), serotonin (our happy neurotransmitter) and GABA (our calming neurotransmitter), all of which help to level out the impact of caffeine.”
5. Let the sunshine in
“A good night’s sleep starts in the morning,” says Charlotte. “Ensuring your teen gets sunlight in their eyes within five minutes of waking kickstarts their circadian rhythm and serotonin production, which not only keeps their mood happy and stable during the day, but later converts to melatonin (our sleep hormone) to allow for a good brain-rejuvenating slumber. If they’re not keen on the idea of pulling the curtains back and letting sunlight flood their bedroom, encouraging sunlight breaks throughout the day will also have some benefit.”
Finally, it might be helpful to remind your teen that it’s normal – and maybe even helpful – to feel a little stressed. “During exams, it may be handy to remember that not all stress is bad,” says Charlotte. “Stress is a necessary mechanism for everyday life. It keeps us alive and helps us adapt. It can motivate us to make changes, to thrive and make quick reactions when faced with a challenge. We call this good stress ‘eustress’, as opposed to ‘distress’ – which is negative stress.”
Charlotte adds, “Regardless of the type of stress we’re experiencing, our bodies and brains kick into fight-or-flight mode, and we like to deal with the stressor quickly so we can feel safe again. When we overcome the problem – or, in this case, finish an exam – our brain feels good and remembers our successes, so when we hit that challenge again, we feel competent.
“For this reason, don’t forget to remind your teen, and yourself, that the end is in sight – and they may come out of their exams feeling stronger than before.”
Charlotte Faure Green is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, speaker, writer, and brand nutritional advisor. She provides one-to-one expert guidance both online and in person at her Brighton clinic. She helps stressed bodies and minds regain balance through real-world sustainable changes. You can find her on Instagram @charlottefauregreennutrition or contact her through her website at charlottefauregreen.com.