Does stress make you eat twice as much or skip meals? Does it make you chew your nails, chew gum or smoke?
Everyone reacts differently to stress and, although there is no specific diet to improve intellectual performance per se, regular well-balanced meals, a little exercise and enough breaks and sleep will greatly contribute to preparing for the exams.
Under stress your body uses more group B vitamins and magnesium to keep your neurons going. B vitamins are found in yeast, cereal germs, wholegrain cereals (wholegrain bread, wholegrain rice, oat flakes, etc.), oilfruits (walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, etc.) and offal. Magnesium is found in wholegrain cereals, green vegetables, bananas, cocoa, legumes (lentils, peas, etc.) and oilfruits.
A lack of vitamin C makes you more sensitive to viral infection. Make sure you have a fresh vegetable or fruit with each meal, with a preference for citrus fruits, kiwis, peppers and cabbage.
Although some food supplements available at the chemist’s provide essential amino acids (protein derivatives), in the long run a healthy diet is more effective.
As your metabolism speeds up under stress, remember to drink enough. Your body needs a daily intake of 1.5 litres of water-based drinks (water, herb tea, soup, fruit juice, milk beverages). Be sure to have a bottle of water on your desk!
During exams you should ideally have breakfast plus 2 full meals (meat, fish, eggs or milk products, vegetables and/or salad, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes or cereals) in a low-fat preparation so as to avoid reduced performance due to slower digestion. However, do not discard vegetable oils (sunflower, corn, olive, rapeseed, etc.) as they provide vitamin E and the essential fatty acids needed for brain membrane structure.
If your working rythm is more conducive to snacks, opt for a wholegrain bread sandwich and fruit or vegetable sticks (carrots, fennel, cucumber). Avoid sweet snacks which raise your blood sugar level only to make it drop later, leading to tiredness and hypotonia.
You should use breaks to pump up energy by having fruit, dry fruits or yoghurt.
Need a stimulant for an extra long day? Beware, coffee or tea may disrupt your sleep pattern and increase your anxiety level. As for alcohol (beer, wine, aperitifs, spirits), this gives you the illusion of relaxation, lowers your attention span and self-control and may lead to addiction.
In short, adopting a healthy diet and taking time to enjoy your meals in a quiet place will increase your efficiency for intellectual tasks.
Laurence Margot, Consulting Dietician
Fédération vaudoise des ligues de la santé, Lausanne