It’s that time of year – articles are everywhere on summer holidays and exams! We are all waiting for the “Leaving Cert weather” that breaks out at the start of June and roasts all the poor students who are taking one of the most stressful exams of their life. There are all kinds of tips about studying, relaxing, coping and eating when it comes to exams. Throwing coeliac disease into the mix can be one stress too many for some students. So we have some hints and tips on nutrition for exams – with a twist on making it all gluten free.
Coeliac disease is an auto-immune condition that is triggered by eating gluten. In the short term it can cause stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting – none of which is helpful when you’re trying to sit an exam. Long term, coeliac disease can lead to anaemia, tiredness, migraine and depression. This is why it is so important for someone who is coeliac to strictly follow a gluten free diet – especially when exams are looming.
Good energy levels makes it easier to concentrate both for studying and during a 3 hour exam. Start by having regular meals. This may sound obvious, but lots of students skip meals coming up to exams due to habit, nerves or lack of time. It is important to nourish your body at least 3 times a day with a good meal. Try not to skip breakfast – even if all you can manage is something small. Get into the habit now of a good pattern and it will keep you going even when you do feel frazzled. Balance meals between carbs, protein and vegetables or salad. You do need a little of everything and a good approach is that half your plate should be salad or vegetables, one quarter should be protein (meat, chicken, fish, beans, eggs, lentils) and one quarter should be carbs like potatoes, rice, quinoa, gluten free bread or gluten free pasta.
Exams are about showing what you know but you have to get the information in before you can get it back out for the exam. Your brain runs on glucose and you need good levels of glucose in your blood to allow your brain to make memories in the first place. This is not an excuse to rush out and fill up on chocolate and sweets! However, exam time is not a good time to cut carbs either. High fibre carbs like jacket potatoes and brown rice release glucose slowly into your blood. This steady release is a good way to keep blood glucose – and therefore brain glucose – at the right level. Have some high fibre carbs at every meal. If you are struggling to get high fibre carbs, then have your normal gluten free pasta or bread but add lots of fruit, vegetables or salad to your meal as the fibre they contain will help. Beans like kidney beans and chickpeas are also great source of slow-release glucose and are naturally gluten free.
Staying calm is easier said than done but there is quite a bit you can do to help keep you on the right side of crazy when it comes to exams. Fish has always been known as a super brain food but the omega-3 fats that are found in fish like salmon have even more benefits. Studies show that the omega-3s found in fish – EPA and DHA – can help to reduce anxiety. These omega-3s are an important part of your brain too. So try adding some oil-rich fish in once or twice a week. Salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines and herring. Tinned fish like salmon or mackerel tinned in brine are convenient sources of omega-3 and are gluten free.
Magnesium is also important when it comes to stress. Add magnesium by eating a handful of nuts and 1-2 dessertspoons of any seeds everyday. Plain uncoated and unroasted nuts are all gluten free and seeds are naturally gluten free as well. Try hazelnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and chia seeds.
Your brain is 80% water and getting dehydrated is one of the fastest ways to run into problems with memory and exams. Being dehydrated can make it harder to think clearly and to form thoughts and sentences. You will also feel more tired and struggle to finish tasks. Plenty of reasons to add more water! Although coffee might keep you awake, it can have a dehydrating effect in some people. Make sure you have at least 6 glasses of plain water everyday. You can add slices of fruit, mint or a little gluten free cordial. You can also have tea, coffee, milk or a small amount of pure fruit juice but have the 6 glasses of water as well.
Although lots of people with coeliac disease can eat gluten and don’t feel unwell straight away, some have an instant reaction. If you are one of these, then you need to take some extra precautions coming up to exams. Check your Coeliac Food List to make sure any product you eat is gluten free. Even better, stick to foods that you already know are safe for you. Also be careful eating out. This is the time to bring your own foods with you rather than risking a deli or café – unless you are really sure that they understand coeliac disease. Better safe than sorry – and you really don’t want to be sorry mid-exam.