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How to do well in exams: Foods, habits, and supplements to improve memory

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Exams are a way to prove your capabilities on the knowledge you have acquired over the study period. Yes, they can seem intimidating, and you want to ensure that you maximise your chances at acing them. Taking care of your nutrition and sleep are two of the most important exam preparation tips, along with effective exam stress management. You have studied for hours and your goal of getting into your dream university or climbing up the career ladder is so close! Now that your academic preparation is sorted, adopt these 5 evidence-based strategies for excellent results:

1. Hydrate your way to hyperfocus. 

Did you know that staying hydrated can help you focus better so you can study well? Dehydrated school students were educated about increasing water consumption, upon which their hydration levels increased by almost 50%. These students saw a 50% increase in attention test scores [1]. When you are dehydrated, your body treats it as a stress situation (exams are stressful enough), increasing your stress hormone cortisol [2]. High cortisol levels decrease your processing speed and impact memory [2]. In another study participants drank either nothing, 120ml or 330ml water before an attention test. Those who drank 330ml performed the best [3]. Water is needed for the transport of important nutrients and brain chemicals production which collectively impact brain performance. Better academic performance is another incentive to switch from sugary drinks to water. A review of 5 studies found that those with high intake of sugary drinks reported poor academic performance. Those who rarely drank sugary drinks scored 7% higher in Maths and 5% higher in English compared to those who drank them often [13]. Who knew that good ol’ water can actually help you get better grades?

2. One nutrient to boost your learning chemical.

Your brain uses a nutrient called choline to make its learning and memory brain chemical called acetylcholine. A study of over 300 students found that those with higher choline intake scored higher grades [6]. Even among adults, those who had higher choline intake performed better at verbal and visual memory tests [7].

Choline can be found in protein rich foods like beef, eggs, salmon, and soy. It is also available as a safe and effective supplement, Alpha GPC, which is 41% choline. It works quickly, increasing acetylcholine levels 1-3 hours after intake [4]. This can help you learn faster and retain information better. Animal studies where Alpha GPC was provided after enduring 7 days of stress, helped reduce stress-induced memory loss [5]. It also protected new brain cells and promoted their growth [5]. It is wise to keep a steady supply of acetylcholine through food and/or a 500mg Alpha GPC capsule containing 99% Alpha GPC,  to ensure your brain retains the material well. 

3. Your grades are what you eat.

Start your day right for the maximal chance of success. Breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day when it comes to exams. 77% of students who ate breakfast regularly had excellent grades [8]. Hunger resulting from skipping breakfast reduces concentration and motivation to study, leading to reduced learning in class [10]. Adults who ate breakfast 15-45 minutes before a test, recalled the information better than those who skipped breakfast [9]. Make time for breakfast on exam day to perform your best. Build a winning brain breakfast by including carbohydrates that will release energy slowly throughout the day. These include wholegrain cereals, fruits, and vegetables. These have shown to help you perform better at memory and attention tests [11].

Your overall diet quality can also make a difference to your academic performance. Those with high intake of fruits and vegetables were 41% times less likely to fail their exams [12]. Plant nutrients protect brain cells against damage, promoting optimal function. For example, a plant nutrient called anthocyanin (found in blueberries) increased blood flow to the brain and helped improve attention and memory [14]. 

4. 7 hours of sleep for spectacular grades

You can improve 25% of your academic performance by fixing your sleep patterns [15]. You can get better grades by getting a good night’s sleep instead of spending sleepless nights cramming exam materials. The golden formula is consistently getting 7-8 hours. University students getting 7 hours of sleep regularly scored better than those who slept less hours [15]. When you spend hours learning study material, your brain takes these chunks of information and “codes” them to store them for longer. This coding takes place during sleep and allows you to remember information for longer [16].

5. 10 mins of exercise for excellent memory
Another way you can help your brain code all the information you learn is by exercise. A large base of evidence highlights the benefits of exercise in improving recall across all ages. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and makes brain chemicals that make stronger connections and better networks in the brain [18]. A review of 13 studies reported that even a short 10 mins workout, followed by a 5-minute cool down/recovery period before settling in to learn information can improve memory [19]. The boosting effects last for 30-120 minutes. If you are looking to enhance long-term memory, 20-40 minutes of exercise has shown benefits [18].

How to improve concentration and focus while studying

John Dunlosky, Professor of Psychology, reviewed over 200 studies comprising 169,179 participants and established that the most effective study techniques are Distributed Practice and Practice Testing [17]. Distributed Practice is setting a practice schedule that is spread over time instead of learning chunks of material last minute. Practice Testing is self-testing using mock tests.

Jim Kwik, elite brain coach who helps world leaders, billionaires and celebrities learn and recall information quickly and for long provides tips on how to study smarter. He supports the use of the Pomodoro technique where you focus on the material for 25 minutes, followed by a short 5 minutes to maximize concentration.  Find more tips below:

References

  1. Samy, H. (2021). Effect of Hydration Status of School Children on Cognitive Performance and Impact of Health Education on Their Drinking Behavior. The Egyptian Journal of Community Medicine, [online] 39(2)
  2. Masento, N.A. et al. (2014). Effects of hydration status on cognitive performance and mood. British Journal of Nutrition, 111(10), pp.1841–1852.
  3. Rogers, PJ. et al. (2001) A drink of water can improve or impair mental performance depending on small differences in thirst. Appetite 36, 57–58.
  4. Frank, K. et al. (2022). Alpha-GPC Research Analysis. examine.com. [online]
  5. Jeong Yu, H. et al. (2022). The effect of choline alphoscerate on non spatial memory and neuronal differentiation in a rat model of dual stress. Brain research, 1786, 147900.
  6. Nilsson, T. K. et al. (2016). Plasma 1-carbon metabolites and academic achievement in 15-yr-old adolescents. FASEB journal : official publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology30(4), 1683–1688. 
  7. Poly, C. et al. (2011). The relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort. The American journal of clinical nutrition94(6), 1584–1591.
  8. Alqahtani, Y. et al. (2020). Relationship between nutritional habits and school performance among primary school students in Asser Region. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 9(4), p.1986.
  9. Galioto, R. et al. (2016). The Effects of Breakfast and Breakfast Composition on Cognition in Adults. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.)7(3), 576S–89S.
  10. Gao, C. L. et al. (2021). Breakfast Consumption and Academic Achievement Among Chinese Adolescents: A Moderated Mediation Model. Frontiers in psychology12, 700989.
  11. Adolphus, K. et al. (2016). The Effects of Breakfast and Breakfast Composition on Cognition in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.)7(3), 590S–612S.
  12. Florence, M. D., Asbridge, M., & Veugelers, P. J. (2008). Diet quality and academic performance. The Journal of school health78(4), 209–241. 
  13. Ren, Y. et al. (2022). The Association between Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and High-Energy Diets and Academic Performance in Junior School Students. Nutrients14(17), 3577.
  14. Mattioli, R. et al. (2020). Anthocyanins: A Comprehensive Review of Their Chemical Properties and Health Effects on Cardiovascular and Neurodegenerative Diseases. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland)25(17), 3809.
  15. Okano, K. et al. (2019). Sleep quality, duration, and consistency are associated with better academic performance in college students. NPJ science of learning4, 16.
  16. Rasch, B., & Born, J. (2013). About sleep's role in memory. Physiological reviews93(2), 681–766.
  17. Dunlosky, J. et al. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, [online] 14(1), pp.4–58.
  18. Loprinzi, P. D. et al. (2021). Acute and Chronic Exercise Effects on Human Memory: What We Know and Where to Go from Here. Journal of clinical medicine, 10(21), 4812. 
  19. Blomstrand, P. and Engvall, J. (2020). Effects of a Single Exercise Workout on Memory and Learning Functions in Young Adults – a Systematic Review. Translational Sports Medicine.




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