How to manage exam stress through understanding what it does to the body – by Catherine Jeans.

Exam season is upon us. The stress of SATs, GCSEs, A-Levels, university finals, and others, can all trigger sleepless nights, upset stomachs, anxiety and difficulty concentrating.

With anxiety levels reportedly soaring since the start of the pandemic, how can we create the right balance of positive and negative stress?

What does stress do to your body?

When faced with a stressful situation, such as a looming exam, our prehistoric brain reacts as if our life is under threat.

The hormone adrenaline is released, raising heart rate and diverting blood away from non-essential functions such as digestion, putting everything on high alert.

Once the danger is over, bodily functions should (ideally) return to normal. But if they don’t or if stress becomes chronic, this otherwise helpful survival response becomes a problem.

Anxiety about exams can build up for weeks, creating sleeplessness, maybe guilt for not revising enough, and overwhelm about the amount of content to study.

As a result, continual release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can create a vicious cycle of broken sleep, poor concentration, loss of appetite and poor digestion.

What to eat during exam season

When it impacts our ability to focus, process information and think clearly, stress becomes a disadvantage.

In fact, any bodily function not required to immediately save our life — digestion, hormone balance, sleep, immune health — can be affected.

Using a functional nutrition approach, one of the most effective places to start with managing any type of stress is blood sugar regulation.

Just like being in fight or flight mode, imbalanced blood sugar from poor nutrition or lack of sleep causes the release of stress hormones, further affecting our ability to sleep and increasing stress.

So burning the midnight oil, fuelled by caffeine and sugar, is unhelpful precisely for this reason.

Eating slow release (low glycaemic) foods such as protein (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, pulses) and fibre-rich carbohydrates (vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, nuts and seeds) can help to support better blood sugar regulation.

Prioritising a good breakfast before an exam can also help — eggs on wholemeal toast, porridge with nuts and seeds, snacks like hummus, fruit and nuts, or a chicken sandwich on wholemeal bread are all more sustaining for the brain than a biscuit or chocolate bar!

Sleep and stress

Despite the temptation to stay up and study all night, prioritising sleep is really important for good exam performance.

And whilst it can be tempting to reach for an energy drink to keep going, these can be disastrous for our ability to sleep.

Tackling sleep issues at exam time can be tricky, but lack of sleep also triggers the release of stress hormones, increasing the stress load.

A regular bedtime in the lead-up to exams, switching off screens an hour before bed, and avoiding caffeine from early afternoon can help.

It’s also important to reduce consumption of anything sugary later in the day.

To aid sleep, some people do well with a milky drink or herbal tea such as chamomile, valerian or lemon balm before bed, or a bath with added magnesium flakes.

Butterflies in the stomach

If you’ve ever felt ‘butterflies’ in your stomach when nervous or excited, that’s because of the links between our gut and brain.

A vast amount of nervous system cells exist within the gut, whilst more than 90% of serotonin — a neurotransmitter often called the ‘happy hormone’ — is made in the gut.

So it’s no surprise that exam stress can cause an upset stomach.

When we’re stressed, blood supply is diverted away from our digestive system as our limb muscles are prioritised for fight and flight — a much more essential function for immediate survival.

Helping to support balance in the gut microbiome is a key strategy for a healthy gut-brain axis, which is so sensitive to the effects of stress.

Our gut microbiome depends on a diversity of fibre-rich plant foods to stay healthy:

  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • pulses
  • nuts
  • seeds

Notably, children who eat more fruit and vegetables have been found to have better mental health scores, so there’s no greater time than before an exam to work on getting in more fruit and veg.

However, because this can be challenging with teens, smoothies might be a good option, or adding nuts, seeds, grated carrots, berries or dried fruit to baking.

Make it a habit to have plenty of veg with meals, alongside protein and slow-release carbs.

During exam season, it may also be helpful to include fermented foods such as kefir and live yoghurt, or to consider a probiotic supplement to help keep the microbiome in optimal health and more resilient to the effects of stress.

Magnesium benefits

This mineral can be helpful for supporting a calm nervous system but can become depleted by chronic stress.

Focus on foods rich in magnesium such as:

  • sunflower seeds
  • chickpeas
  • dark chocolate
  • green leafy veg, e.g. spinach/kale

Non-food options include magnesium baths, a magnesium glycinate supplement before bed, or a magnesium spray.


Omega-3s are essential for neurological and brain health. These can be taken in through oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), nuts and seeds.

If you struggle to get your family to eat these, omega-3s can also be taken in through a fish oil or vegan algae supplement.

Exercise to destress

Finally, movement also helps to raise endorphin levels that act as a balancer to stress hormones.

Jackie from ZenTeens advises exercising in a non-stressful way, rather than intense exercise.

“Moving the body effectively through the school day can increase focus at exam times. Even stretching helps to release serotonin, which is where yoga can be so helpful.”

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