Being a Biochemist, Nutritional therapist, mother of two teenagers as well as someone who has had to battle anxiety, the subject of how food can help during times of stress which can have a negative impact on our health is always a subject matter that is close to my heart.
I’ve yet to meet anyone who enjoys sitting exams, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, I’m sure they do somewhere but in 41 years of never met one!
The pressure we experience in the build up to exams and the stress during them can be very overwhelming. A prolonged period of additional stress can affect our mood, sleep patterns, immune systems and leave us feeling totally drained. Often, we can reach the other side of the exams unsure of how we actually got through them after having been on autopilot for several weeks or months.
One way we can help ourselves particularly during the exam period is to eat well. By avoiding unhealthy foods and increasing our intake of other healthy foods, we can greatly improve our concentration, energy levels and sleep, and decrease levels of stress and anxiety within our bodies. This is also an area our parents can help with too, as often they feel quite helpless during these times.
What should I be eating less of?
As the pressure increases with the exam dates getting nearer we can have a tendency to reach out to sugary foods and energy drinks to keep us going. They boost energy levels in the very short term but they cause us to enter into a cycle of mood swings, increased anxiety and fatigue as they damage the levels of good bacteria within our gut.
Levels of good bacteria in our gut are decreased when we eat sugary foods, this can allow the ‘bad’ bacteria also living there to increase in number and send signals to our brain via a nerve called the vagus nerve causing us to feel more anxious, agitated and stressed. This also causes us to crave more sugary foods.
“Say goodbye to eating too much refined sugar”
What to avoid (or at least significantly reduce)?
• Fizzy drinks including diet drinks, energy drinks and squash
• Sugary cereal bars and breakfast cereals
What could I include instead?
• Fizzy water with a squeeze of lemon or lime
• Watered-down fruit juice or fruit juice and some fizzy water
• Plain water
• Herbal teas
• Bananas, apples, grapes, nuts, veg sticks.
If you are really struggling and desperate for fizzy pop you could occasionally try something like Appletiser which is made purely from apple juice and without any of the extra added chemicals that you get in many other fizzy drinks. I say occasionally because it still contains fruit sugars which can damage your teeth.
As I’ve already mentioned when we don’t eat well we disrupt the bacteria in our gut and they can send signals to our brain which can lead us to become more stressed and anxious. Sugar is one food that does this, other foods that also have a negative effect are:
• Processed foods such as sausage rolls, pastries, pasties, ready meals, processed meat such as salami and bacon, biscuits and cakes, processed foods usually contain a long list of ingredients that you are often unable to pronounce.
• Too much caffeine, can leave you dehydrated and irritable
• Artificial sweeteners
• And dare I mention alcohol, which is a depressant, can cause you to feel angry and often anxious the next day.
“Quick fix foods are not the answer”
Now you’ve heard the bad news, what can you do to make yourself feel stronger, calmer and more focus during this period?
Introduce more fruits and vegetables
Eating plenty of fruit and veg is very important they contain lots of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C and magnesium, which are essential for maintaining energy levels, mental focus and balanced mood.
When you would normally reach out for a chocolate bar or biscuit have an apple or banana instead. Include extra salad with your meals and berries with your breakfast.
Eat more vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables at these as these are very good at keeping you calm due to their magnesium content, try and include more foods such as kale, cucumber, celery, avocados, watercress, lettuce, spinach and broccoli.
You can easily and cheaply cut up some cucumber and celery sticks and put them in your lunchbox and add some extra lettuce to your sandwiches.
Drink plenty of water
Even being slightly dehydrated can affect your concentration and stress levels.
Try not to fill up on fast release carbohydrates
Eating too much white bread, white rice and pasta however comforting these foods may feel can cause you to get blood sugar peaks and troughs which can trigger an anxiety and stress response in the body. Try changing to wholemeal bread, brown rice pasta, and brown rice instead.
Eat more foods containing omega-3
Omega-3 has been shown to improve mental well-being. Try including more foods such as oily fish, salmon, mackerel, tuna and seeds such as flax seed and chia seeds. You could also try eating more walnuts as they too contain omega-3 plus they also have the added benefit of helping to improve sleep.
Include more foods containing tryptophan
Including foods such as turkey, salmon, soya beans, chicken and cashew nuts will help to boost your mood as they all contain tryptophan, the amino acid that is required to make Serotonin your happy hormone and melatonin your sleep hormone. Boosting your serotonin levels will help you to feel happier and calmer, you could try having a turkey and lettuce or salmon and cucumber sandwich in wholemeal bread or celery sticks with cashew butter.
Include oats in your diet
Oats have a calming effect on the nervous system, you can include these in your diet by eating porridge for breakfast or supper or maybe take some oatcakes with some cashew butter to school as a snack.
“The key is not to eat lots of one particular food but to eat a variety of different foods”
Preparation can help
Making a meal plan during this time can be helpful if you worry you’re going to struggle when it comes to eating well. Also, having a few quick and easy ingredients in the cupboard ready for busy times can really help you to stay on track.
My top foods to help improve mental well-being and reduce stress include:
• Berries, these can be fresh or frozen as long as they don’t contain added sugar. I often keep frozen berries in my freezer to defrost and add them to my porridge and yoghurt in the morning.
• Bananas, these are great because they can be sliced up and put on wholemeal toast or added to smoothies and even on their own or mixed with other fruits in a fruit salad. Bananas are not only great for giving you energy but they can also help you sleep at night.
• Celery, when it comes to reducing anxiety celery is my absolute favourite it contains phthalides which can effectively calm the nervous system by lowering the levels of cortisol the stress hormone. You can add celery to all sorts of dishes, eat it raw with humous or nut butter or you can juice it.
• Mushrooms, these to help feed the good bacteria in your gut and they contain vitamins D which can boost your mood. Add them to omelettes with spinach, put them in curries or casseroles or just eat them on their own. If you place them on the window sill for a few days you can boost the amount of vitamin D they contain.
• Live plain yoghurt or live soya or coconut yoghurt. Make sure that it is unsweetened plain live yoghurt and not sweetened yoghurt. This will help feed your good bacteria in your gut. You can sweeten it by adding berries or honey. I like to add oats, nuts and honey.
• Cashew nuts and cashew butter, or any nuts and nut butter that you choose. These are easily available in individual packets if you want to take them around with you for a quick nutritional boost.
• Brown rice and brown rice pasta. It contains a good amount of fibre for a healthier gut, plus it is rich in manganese which helps with the production of energy in the body and the maintenance of a healthy nervous system.
• Humous. As the main ingredient is chickpeas and our ‘good’ gut bacteria love to feed off chickpeas, humous is a really good food to aid good mental wellbeing.
• Salmon and tuna. For its omega 3 content. You can add tuna to jacket potatoes or have salmon with roasted vegetables, watercress and new potatoes.
• Avocados. I love them because they contain so many nutrients within just one food which can make busy days a lot easier. They are very versatile, you can add them to smoothies, mash them on to wholemeal toast, add them to salads or eat them on their own to get a really good nutritional boost. Avocados are very good at calming nerves and anxiety due to the fact that they contain such a good balance of nutrients in particular magnesium which helps to relax muscles.
• Lettuce. Is particularly useful for relaxing muscles, calming nerves and inducing sleep, therefore it’s a very beneficial food to eat during times of stress and anxiety. The darker the leaves are the better as they contain a sedative called lactucarium which can help calm nerves and reduce palpitations.
• Kale. This is a great vegetable to include into your meals. You may be surprised to hear that it contains omega 3 so it’s good for your brain health but also vitamin C and iron to help you maintain a healthy immune system.
• Cucumber. They contain phytoestrogens and digestive enzymes which benefit the gut. Think of the phrase cool as a cucumber this comes from the fact that cucumbers help to maintain the body’s water balance and help you to feel more calm and relaxed.
“Don’t overthink it!
Eating a variety of these types of foods in moderation will help to improve your concentration levels and hopefully decrease your levels of stress and anxiety. Don’t get caught up in it, if you eat something that you feel is ‘unhealthy’ it’s not the end of the world. This is about increasing the amount of healthy foods in your diet and decreasing the amount of unhealthy foods. There is no right or wrong way of doing it, it’s about what works for you”.
A reminder to be kind to yourself
This isn’t a time for calorie-controlled diets or punishing yourself if you feel you’ve eaten something wrong, there is no right or wrong here as it’s your choice of food, and it’s just that YOUR CHOICE! However, every nutritious piece of food you eat is helping you to feel fitter stronger, and more focused, so when you do make a positive food choice praise yourself for looking after yourself no matter how small what you have done feels.
It feels too difficult for me to change!
If you find it difficult to change what you eat, maybe your parents buy lots of junk foods or you are a parent of a child who will not stop or cut down on eating crisps, sweets and chocolate and drinking energy drinks, even changing from energy drinks and fizzy pop to as I’ve mentioned before drinks like Appletiser (caution if you are diabetic as it’s high in fruit sugar) which have no artificial chemicals or caffeine in them , from flavoured crisps to plain ones or ready meals to scrambled egg on toast or tuna and jacket potatoes will all help to support better mental functioning and overall wellbeing.
But it’s too expensive!
Eating well doesn’t have to be expensive, my favourite shop is Aldi as they do a really good range of reasonably priced fruits and vegetables.
Look out for shop offers on fruit and vegetables, for example Tesco’s do three different vegetables for a pound. It’s also much more cost effective sometimes to buy frozen berries and vegetables and make extra when you cook meals such as Bolognaise’s, chilli’s, soups and casseroles so that they can be frozen and used on another day.
“Preparation is key when it comes to eating well”
1. Plain live yogurt or plain live dairy free yogurt with oats and berries/banana, or oats honey and nuts and seeds.
2. Avocado or banana on Wholemeal bread or sourdough bread/toast, sprinkle on some sesame seeds for an extra mood boosting boost.
3. Porridge (made with nut milk or soya milk if you want to avoid dairy) with berries, honey and nuts or grated apple and cinnamon.
4. Omelette with mushrooms or spinach.
5. Egg on toast.
Kefir drinks available in supermarkets can help you to have a healthier level of good gut bacteria which helps to support mental well being.
1. Turkey and lettuce sandwiches.
2. Cucumber. celery and carrot sticks with humous.
3. Salad and brown rice pots with tuna or salmon.
4. Oatcakes with cashew butter or another nut butter.
5. Homemade vegetable soup.
6. Scrambled egg on wholemeal toast.
Sauerkraut is a fermented food which you can add to your salads, put on your avocado on toast or add to which ever meals you choose can helps to boost your good gut bacteria levels. You can find recipes online or buy it in the supermarket.
Easy salad dressing:
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
¼ garlic clove crushed
2 tbsp lemon juice
Stir ingredients together in a small bowl and drizzle over salad.
1. Salmon with Mediterranean vegetables and new potatoes.
2. Turkey mince Spaghetti Bolognaise.
3. Chilli and brown rice.
4. Brown rice pasta with tomato sauce and green salad.
5. Homemade Turkey burgers, salad and sweet potato wedges.
6. Roast dinner
7. Jacket Potato/sweet potato with left over chilli, tuna or humous etc….
Easy tomato pasta sauce:
1 medium onion diced
2 cloves of garlic
2 celery sticks sliced
2 carrots diced
2 tins of chopped tomato
1 tbsp mixed herbs
250g mushrooms sliced
Salt and Pepper to taste
Fry onions and garlic until soften, add the remaining ingredients, simmer for 30 mins. Serve with Brown Rice, brown rice pasta or wholemeal pasta.
To turn it into a bolognaise add the sauce to pack of fried turkey and to create a chilli then add kidney beans and a teaspoon of chilli powder. For a vegetarian version just add more vegetables such as courgettes and some lentils to create a bolognaise and then add kidney beans and chilli powder to make a nice chilli.
What else can I do to help myself?
There are also other steps you can take to help manage your stress levels. Some simple things you can do are:
1. Go for a walk, the bilateral movement of your arms and legs can help you to process emotions and feel better.
2. The following technique has a similar effect to walking. Sit down, place your hands on your thighs, then alternating from one hand to the other gently tap your thighs as if your hands are walking on the spot on your thighs. Doing this for 5 minutes morning and evening or whenever you feel the need to can be beneficial.
3. Do any exercise you enjoy.
4. Write a journal or a diary of how you feel to off load the pressure.
5. Sit in the quiet, focus on feeling your feet on the floor, your bottom on the chair then notice five things you can see, hear and touch. Then anything you can smell. If ever you feel out of your depth this is a great exercise to practice anywhere even if it’s busy to help ground yourself and bring your mind back to the present moment.
6. If you are someone who struggles to sleep lie in bed, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Don’t change it, just watch it. Then as you breathe in follow the air as it enters your nose and goes down to your lungs, then follow it as it flows back out through your mouth. Now on the in breath start counting, one the inhale then two on the exhale and so on right up to ten. Once you get to ten begin back again at one. If you lose count just start again. If your mind wonders off which “everyone’s” does just gently bring it back to following your breath.
7. Talk with friends or family or just go out for a coffee to break the revision cycle.
“Good Luck to everyone sitting their exams. Remember that you can only do your best and by putting your health at the top of your priority list you will perform much better”.
You may have noticed that there are not really many dairy products included and minimal gluten, the reason is that they can affect some people’s mental well being. It is up to you to decide if these foods affect your mental well-being as some people who suffer from ADHD, depression and anxiety find they do. If you do choose to reduce your dairy intake make sure that you make your calcium levels from other sources such as almonds, leafy green vegetables, kale, spinach, watercress, tofu and fortified soy and milks.
If you make changes to your diet and begin to feel unwell seek medical advice.