Do you have kids with big exams this term? Is exam stress getting them down? For British kids, SATs, Common Entrance, GCSE and A level exams all fall in May and June. This can make some kids super stressed and very tired. What a child eats can have a big impact on their mood, sleep and energy levels. Here I share with you some nutrition tips that I have learnt over the past 20 years in my clinic.
Did you know that anxiety and excitement act in a very similar way in the body? Both of them trigger a faster heartbeat and an adrenaline surge. At the start of term, kids are usually excited about seeing their friends and starting the summer term. But soon that excitement can wane as tiredness and the reality of impending exams kick in, which can lead to anxiety. An overstimulated or anxious child can find it hard to get to sleep, which can make things even worse.
When we are excited, anxious or during times of stress, our bodies use a lot more magnesium, so we need to replenish our reserves. Adding magnesium-rich foods to your children’s diet is thought to help with anxiety. Magnesium can also help to induce sleep.
Foods that contain lots of Magnesium
- Green leafy veg such as spinach and kale
- Avocados, bananas and raspberries
- Nuts, seeds and beans like chickpeas and black beans
- Dark chocolate
- Oily fish like salmon and mackerel
If you can cook with the ingredients above, and get your children to eat it, then you’re doing really well. If you want to know how to do that, including how to hide nutrition in the food your kids will eat, then my cookbook The Good Stuff has some ideas for you. Look for Green Monster Smoothies, Raspberry Nana Nicecream, Black Bean Chilli and Zesty Salmon Balls.
The Gut Connection
We often get butterflies in the tummy when we get excited or anxious. Research has found that this is not all in the head. Our gut harbours our “second brain”, called the enteric nervous system. This gut connection is probably why our kids can feel sick or get sore tummies when they are nervous or worried.
Researchers have also found that about 90% of our happy feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin is made and stored in the gut before it is sent up to the brain via a nerve called the vagus nerve – the superhighway to the brain. Beneficial bacteria like lactobacillus (which you find in live yoghurt) is also needed to help our kids produce a hormone called GABA. This is like a little yogi inside our brains that keep us cool and calm.
Think of the gut like a garden with beautiful ﬂora and fauna that needs to be nourished with a wide variety of plants, fibre and probiotic foods. So, try encouraging your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds as well as live yoghurt, kefir and apple cider vinegar.
One easy way to encourage your kids is to offer them foods from every colour of the rainbow each day. Young kids might like to colour in a rainbow picture on your fridge – red for tomatoes, orange for carrots, yellow for peppers, green for peas, and blue/purple for blueberries.
You can also find delicious gut-friendly recipes in The Good Stuff that help with gut and mood. Look for Simply Supercharged Porridge, Apple Cinnamon & Flax Compote, Kefir Two Ways and My Super Healthy Ketchup.
The Sugar Connection
Too much refined sugar and processed white flour can affect mood. Some studies have shown that excess sugar and carbohydrate consumption may contribute to depression and anxiety. One study even made a connection between sweet fizzy drinks consumption and aggression, attention problems, and social withdrawal in young children. With this in mind, it is a good idea to reduce the amount of refined sugar and white flour your kids are eating.
Breakfast time is generally when kids tend to eat lots of the white stuff. Croissants, brioche and sweet yoghurts are appearing on the breakfast table a lot these days. Breakfast cereals often contain more sugar than you think, and one large bowl of sweet cereal can contain up to 3 x the government’s sugar guidelines. This means many kids are often eating far more sugar than they should even before they leave the house in the morning.
For kids who eat a healthier diet, things look brighter. Research has shown that kids who eat more fruits, vegetables and home cooked food are more likely to have better self-esteem and fewer emotional and friendship problems. They are also less likely to bully or be bullied. Healthy eating is just as important for teenagers, and several studies show that young adults who eat more fruit and vegetables are happier, more curious and more creative compared with those who skip their five a day.
Starting the day right by having protein-rich foods such as eggs, seeds, nuts and some complex carbohydrates like porridge made with oats or quinoa or wholegrain bread, means blood glucose levels will be well balanced to sustain energy and tackle the busy day ahead.
The Good Stuff gives lots of breakfast ideas such as Blueberry and Banana Muffins, Carrot and Poppyseed Waffles and even Brain Boost Pancakes which contain spelt and buckwheat flours as well as eggs and Greek yoghurt.
Vitamin D & Fresh Air
Getting outside can help regulate our circadian rhythm which is our natural sleep/wake cycle. Good quality sleep is hugely important for anxious minds and our body clock needs to get outside into natural light in order for our bodies to differentiate between day and night. Just walking outside for 20 minutes in the morning can help to get the balance right, and then turning off all screens at least an hour before bed can help kids wind down to get to sleep.
In the UK the sun can be slightly elusive even in summer; so vitamin D levels can easily become depleted, especially during the winter months. So it may take some time to rise at the start of the summer, especially if your kids are stuck indoors revising. This fat-soluble vitamin is responsible for many mechanisms and has receptors all over the body including the brain. Low levels have been shown to contribute to depression and seasonal aﬀective disorder (SAD).
Vitamin D can be found naturally in foods such as eggs, shiitake mushrooms, sardines, mackerel and salmon, although it can be hard to obtain from diet alone. This is why the UK government guidelines recommend that everyone tops up with Vitamin D supplements between October and March and grab some daily rays of sun from April to September.
For some natural dietary vitamin D find recipes in The Good Stuff for Egg and Salmon Roll Ups, Salmon and Polenta Muffins, Courgette and Pea Frittata or even add Mackerel Pate to some wholemeal pitta breads.
Omega 3 Brain Food
There are several studies that show a clear benefit for older children who take omega 3 supplementation which include better cognitive performance and behaviour, improved reading, better attention and less hyperactivity, and even better sleep. The UK’s leading Food and Behaviour Research unit is based at Oxford University and run by the incredible Dr Alex Richardson, who I see as the queen of omega 3. I have learnt more from Dr Alex than anyone else on this complex subject of fats, and I urge you to get to know her in-depth work. A good initial read is her book They Are What You Feed Them.
If you have a healthy and hearty eater who eats plenty of oily fish, organic milk, eggs, walnuts, chia and flax seeds then you may not need to supplement with omega 3. I personally recommend that kids should aim to eat oily fish at least two to three times every week, plus daily omegas from seeds. However, if they are picky eaters or struggling with their learning or development, they may need a great deal more and this is where supplementation is more important. Aim for at least 500mg of DHA/EPA daily.
My recipes in The Good Stuff for Salmon Roll Ups, Mackerel Pate and Zesty Salmon Balls are delicious kid-friendly ways of getting these essential fatty acids into your children without any fuss and bother. If your kids really won’t eat fish, then try my delicious Brain Food Omega Mayo for a daily dose of omega 3.
Help Exam Stress With Nutrition
Hopefully the above gives you a good insight into the best nutrients and foods and some top tips to support your children at a time when exam stress can be a big deal. Finally, best of luck to all those taking exams over the next few months!