Have you seen the movie Limitless?
Played by actor Bradley Cooper, Eddie Morra is a total loser of a writer who is barely keeping his life together. Then, around the same time that his girlfriend gives him the boot for being so terminally tragic, an old friend slips him a pill he claims will change everything. The pill purportedly enhances brain health and mental focus, though it is yet to be tested.
Dubious but with nothing to lose, Eddie takes the pill.
Minutes later, a rush of acute mental clarity slams into him like a 1,000-foot tsunami. Everything Eddie had ever seen, heard, read, and experienced is within arm’s reach, available to be plucked out of his brain and applied to any situation. His writer’s block magically lifts, and he finishes his book, which is utterly sensational.
Suddenly, Eddie finds himself winning at life, getting heaps of sex, and making money hand over fist.
There’s more to the movie, of course, but the point is: wouldn’t it be AMAZING if you could pop a pill and, just like that, unleash the full potential of your brainpower? That sure would come in handy during your exams!
Unfortunately, such a pill doesn’t exist. But there are ways you can unlock greater clarity, focus, memory, and concentration, which are indispensable tools for studying.
Having built the world's best flashcards app, Brainscape has done a lot of research into how humans learn best. As you may have seen, we've already given libraries’ worth of advice on how to study effectively (see our complete guide of must-read study hacks).
What we have found and what countless peer-reviewed studies irrefutably show is that the very best way to optimize the effectiveness of your studying is to optimize your brain health. And since your brain is a flesh-and-blood organ, it needs what the rest of your body needs to be healthy.
If you’re hungry, tired, dehydrated, and stressed out, all of those hours of hard studying won’t translate into the grades you deserve. With your future at stake, ain’t nobody got time for 'dat.
So, let’s cast aside the bad study habits of old and get yourself into optimized shape for exams by promoting your brain health in these five ways:
- Feed your brain: The best foods to eat for optimal brain health
- Water your brain: The role of hydration in good brain health
- Recharge your brain: The importance of sleep when studying for exams
- Invigorate your brain: Getting exercise during exam time
- Relax your brain: Eliminate stress during exam prep
5 Ways to promote brain health during exam time
Your brain is a complex organ that is capable of incredible things but it requires a bit of tender lovin’ care. In the following five tips for promoting brain health during exams (or any academically demanding period), we’ll explain the best formula for this TLC.
So, while most of your peers emerge from their exams looking as traumatized as a gym sock in a frat house, you’ll feel fresh, energized, and totally ready for what’s next.
Let’s get started!
1. Feed your brain: The best foods to eat for optimal brain health
You look like a smart person. How can I see that? I can’t. But I’m saying it anyway because you’re reading this so you obviously care about doing well academically. And, I’ll let you in on a secret: only smart people care about doing well academically.
So, back to what I was saying…
You look like a smart person so you probably know what a healthy, balanced diet looks like. But if you’re struggling to get your eating habits aligned with doctors’ recommendations, consider the following:
The right mix of healthy foods can (1) improve energy, (2) sharpen focus, (3) optimize brain health, and (4) generally lift your mood and wellbeing.
Now, who doesn’t want a ticket to that show? I know I do: front row seats, please!
With food playing such a crucial role in physical and mental wellbeing, eating the right foods can really place you at a distinct advantage, particularly during exam time. A healthy diet can literally make you smarter and sharper.
What does this diet look like?
1.1. The right study diet for optimal brain health
Doctors, medical institutes, and Oprah Winfrey have been telling us for years: the best diet for promoting brain (and whole-body) health is one that is balanced and features plenty of the following:
- Lean proteins like white fish, plain Greek yogurt, beans, peas, lentils, skinned poultry, and eggs.
- Healthy fats (those omega 3 fatty acids) from avocados, fatty fish like salmon, nuts (particularly walnuts), seeds, and extra-virgin olive oil.
- Dark, leafy vegetables like broccoli, spinach, Swiss chard, and kale, which contain vitamins K, B6, and B12 for improved alertness and memory.
- Complex carbohydrates like whole-grain bread, brown rice, rolled oats, quinoa, barley, corn, vegetables, and fruits, etc.
Together, these foods contain a potent blend of vitamins, fiber, protein, and healthy fats that are scientifically proven to improve wellness, but particularly brain health. This is exactly the kind of advantage that can take you from a B to an A, and even add a pretty + sign to that A.
1.2. Foods and habits to avoid to protect brain health
The college diet is notorious for its appalling paucity of literally anything green. Students tend to rely on a fixed diet of instant ramen noodles to power their bodies through consecutive late-night study sessions (and you wonder why you haven’t pooped since last Tuesday).
The problem is, the wrong foods can make you feel sluggish, fatigued, and forgetful. A diet consistently lacking in the right nutrients for good brain health can compromise your ability to focus and retain information. Here are five habits to avoid, especially during exam time.
1.3. The lazy student diet
Ramen is easy, sure. That supersized Big Mac meal is convenient (and freakin’ delicious). And who doesn’t love a snack of potato chips? But this bad food is not helping you perform better. In fact, it’s doing the opposite.
These foods are hurting your body and your brain health:
- Sugar-packed treats: candy, chocolate, donuts, sodas, energy drinks, and fruit juices.
- Refined carbohydrates: white bread, chips, fries, and pasta.
- Greasy, fried foods: fried chicken, hamburgers, pizza, fries, and other deep-fried, greasy, salty, calorie-dense fast foods.
1.4. Deep-fried comfort foods
Sure, every now and then, raging through an entire bucket of fried chicken on your own is an emotional necessity. But if you’ve got a huge exam the next morning, steeping your brain in saturated fat and all the refined carbohydrates, salt, and calories they tend to come hand-in-hand is only going to achieve one thing: food coma.
In a study titled Dietary Pattern, Inflammation and Cognitive Decline, researchers from the National Centre for Biotechnology Information discovered an alarming correlation between diets high in fried foods and a decline in learning ability and memory, as well as an increase in inflammation. You're a serious learner. You don't need that.
1.5. Crash dieting
The last thing you should be at any time during your exams is hungry. Eat healthily, yes. But eat enough and make sure you are getting a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, unsaturated fats, and nutrients.
Avoid fad diets that are unsustainable and leave you feeling fatigued.
1.6. Being gastronomically adventurous
Do you know what you DEFINITELY don’t need during exam time, or worse, during an actual exam? A bout of food poisoning.
Play it safe with the foods you eat and avoid having to sit out your exam because you’re stricken with a case of Montezuma’s Revenge.
Alcohol impairs concentration, memory, and good judgment, which explains why you wound up streaking naked across the quad that one time.
Seriously, though. It’s exam time. You need your brain health to be in tip-top condition. You need it to perform like the rent is a month overdue. Imbibing alcohol while studying, or the night before an exam, is about as smart as strapping a boulder to your back and jumping off a cliff.
In addition to compromising brain health, alcohol also has a nasty habit of preventing your body from falling into a deep, restorative sleep, which is when your brain does its important housekeeping work.
For more information on the best study diet for great brain health, see Brainscape’s article: the best brain foods to eat before an exam. We’ve even included a sample grocery list to make things easy for you.
2. Water your brain: The role of hydration in good brain health
Did you know that the brain is 73% water? It follows logically that brain health is significantly impacted by hydration—so much so, that if you’re not getting enough water in your body during exam time, it can actually affect your attention span, memory functions, and ability to concentrate. Being dehydrated can also leave your body feeling stressed, restless, unwell, fatigued, and overheated.
In a thesis published by the University of Lethbridge in Canada, it was found that adequate and regular water had a positive effect on students' well-being and mood:
“Several [students] reported feeling more alert and more focused, less tired and less stressed—more ready and able to learn.”
Clearly water is crucial to body and brain health:
- Water accelerates the chemical reactions in our bodies.
- Water facilitates the smooth transmission of messaging within the brain and between the brain and the body.
- Water helps to deliver nutrients to our brains to keep it well fed.
- Water helps to flush toxins out of the brain and the body.
- Water helps regulate body temperature.
This not only makes us feel better but helps us perform better, both physically and mentally.
Pro Tip: Avoid drinking water 90 minutes before going into an exam or bedtime, so you can use the bathroom right before and not worry about bladder distractions.
2.1. Recommendations for staying hydrated during studying
The question you may be asking is how much water should you be drinking every day? This is a bit of a tricky question to answer because it depends very much on your lifestyle, environment, and your body’s unique requirements.
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, however, adequate daily fluid intake is:
- About 15.5 cups (130 ounces) of fluids a day for men.
- About 11.5 cups (95 ounces) of fluids a day for women.
These recommendations cover fluids from water, other beverages, and food. About 20 percent of your daily fluid intake usually comes from food and the rest from what you drink.
So those guidelines we’ve all heard of to drink 8 glasses of water a day are pretty much on point.
2.2. “Ugh, I really don’t like the taste of water.”
Rather than downing the equivalent in sugar-packed soft drinks, fruit juices, and energy drinks (which will only melt your teeth and land you on My 600-lb Life), dress up your water!
Add a few slices of orange, lemon, strawberries, cucumber, or some other pleasant-tasting fruit or vegetable to a jug of water. Try herbs like mint, basil, or rosemary, which will flavor your water without you having to add any sugar. Drinking your water ice-cold also helps it go down easier.
If you find that the tap water in your area tastes too strongly of chemicals, it may be worth investing in a water filtration system. You can always reimburse yourself for it one day when you’ve landed an awesome job, thanks to your exceptional grades.
3. Recharge your brain: The importance of sleep when studying for exams
Back in the Precambrian Era, when I was in high school, I followed in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of history students before me: I left my exam preparation to the last minute (well, to the last three days to be fair). No problem, I thought. I’ll just sacrifice sleep.
And so I did, getting a paltry three hours of sleep before my final exam. Not smart.
Was I tired? Heck, yes. I looked like Steve Buscemi on a bad day. The worst part of it though was that morning, on the way to my exam, I realized in pure horror that I could scarcely recall a single narrative of the essays I had attempted to memorize the evening before.
Less than 12 hours after cramming all that study material into my brain, it had vaporized into thin air, leaving behind nothing but the faintest traces of Tsarist regime, Bolshevism, and oompah music. Certainly not enough to ace a history exam.
This is one of the most important reasons why sleep is essential for brain health and for preparing for exams. A tired brain forgets.
3.1. The importance of sleep for good brain health
If you’re not convinced by my anecdote, listen to what the science has to say: In an article by Johns Hopkins Medicine, a leader in medical education, research and clinical care, sleep expert and neurologist Mark Wu explains that sleep significantly impacts brain function.
“First, a healthy amount of sleep is vital for “brain plasticity,” or the brain’s ability to adapt to input. If we sleep too little, we become unable to process what we’ve learned during the day and we have more trouble remembering it in the future. Researchers also believe that sleep may promote the removal of waste products from brain cells—something that seems to occur less efficiently when the brain is awake.”
This information would have been very useful in guiding me to plan better for my history exam. But because I foolishly left studying to the last second, I sacrificed precious sleep and barely remembered anything I had studied.
"Sleep is also vital for the rest of the body," says Dr. Wu, which we can all relate to. Just think about how you feel after a long-haul flight or a night of bad life choices at your favorite pub! Tired, washed out, maybe a little headachey, nauseous even.
But beyond mere fatigue, headaches, and a predisposition to taking your spouse’s head off for minor infractions, chronic sleep deprivation can be linked with depression, high blood pressure, a compromised immune system, and even seizures.
Remember that the next time you plan on pulling an all-nighter study session. Actually, on this subject, Brainscape’s engaging study app is an excellent aid that helps you prepare for exams in good time, saving you from even needing to go down this route in the first place.
Even the most knowledge-intensive subjects—like the bar exam and medical exams—can be prepared for with our adaptive flashcard learning platform. This comes down to the app’s intelligent design and algorithm, which is based on decades of cognitive science research. Brainscape works with your brain to help you master the material, manage your time effectively, and retain the information in half the time it would otherwise take you.
3.2. When studying gets in the way of quality sleep
The science is clear on the importance of sleep for brain health. But are you studying in a way that’s actually compromising your ability to sleep? The wrong study methodology can actually cause insomnia: difficulty falling and/or staying asleep.
This robs you and your brain of the precious health benefits of a proper night’s rest, which is the last thing you want when your grades (and potentially your career) are at stake.
Here are four common pitfalls to avoid when studying and trying to maintain healthy sleep patterns:
- Leaving studying to the last minute: Not preparing adequately can cause such severe pre-exam anxiety that you can find it impossible to fall asleep.
- Cramming: Trying to stuff too much information into your head can cause serious cognitive overload and burnout. This can leave your brain feeling wired and overwhelmed.
- Studying right up until bedtime: Stop studying at least 30 minutes before your intended bedtime, especially if you’re using your cell phone or laptop to study. Research has shown that exposure to light, particularly blue light (like the kind your devices emit) suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms. Mess around with these primal rhythms of sleep and wakefulness and you’re practically inviting insomnia over for a game of Scrabble.
- Overdoing caffeine and energy drinks: That 8 pm quad long shot grande from Starbucks is probably interfering with your sleep and if you’re not sleeping, you won’t memorize, focus, and prepare for your exams properly.
For more tips, check out Brainscape’s article on curing insomnia without drugs.
3.3. When sleep gets in the way of studying
Okay, so what if you’ve made the same mistake my teenage self did and now have an entire history syllabus to cram into a day? It’s not optimal, but there are a few things you can do to remember more of what you’ve crammed than if you didn’t follow these last-minute study tips:
- Caffeinate, but on a slow drip-feed: Rather than slamming your body with a quadruple shot of espresso, take frequent, small sips on your coffee, tea, or energy drink. Low doses of caffeine administered at regular intervals may help you focus better and for longer.
- Review your study material in the morning: A sleepy brain is leakier than a submarine with air vents so it's crucial to revisit what you’ve studied the morning after to refresh those memories and solidify those cognitive pathways. In fact, the more spaced repetitions the better; although, with very little time to prepare for your exam, a single follow-up in the morning will have to do.
Pro tip: If you need a quick knowledge refresher, try sitting down to a 10-minute Brainscape study session later in the evening. Research shows that knowledge fresh in your brain at bedtime is more likely to be consolidated into long-term memory while you sleep. And Brainscape’s dynamic and engaging web and mobile flashcards platform is excellent for sneaking in quick, hyper-efficient study sessions to reinforce knowledge.
4. Invigorate your brain: Getting exercise during exam time
Who the heck has time to exercise before an exam?
According to Dr. John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, YOU do. And if you don’t, you need to make time for it.
In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. Ratey writes about the transformative effects of exercise on brain health. Specifically, he unearths strong evidence that exercise—particularly aerobic exercise like walking, running, swimming, and cycling—physically remodels the brain for peak performance on all fronts.
“First, [exercise] optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation; second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus."
Improved memory, longer attention span, the increased production of neurochemicals for learning, and the repair of neurons—with such a succulent smorgasbord of study benefits the question isn’t whether or not you should be exercising ... it’s how.
4.1. The best exercises for studying
If you’re not one of those fitness enthusiasts who post endless sweaty gym selfies of rippling abs and flexed biceps, let’s dispel your anxiety. When we talk about exercising between study sessions, we’re not talking about logging a two-hour-long gym session or training for a marathon. The idea is not to get your body looking like it belongs on an episode of Jersey Shore.
If you want to, that’s up to you. But don’t unwillingly put that additional strain on yourself, your body, and your brain health.
What we’re talking about here is taking strategic study breaks during which you engage your body in gentle to moderate aerobic exercise.
What does this look like?
- Go for a 20-minute walk around the block
- Hop on your bike or stationary bike for a 30-minute ride
- Do a few laps in the pool
- Go for a 45-minute run
- Sit for a session of lounge-floor yoga
- Grab your partner and ....
The benefits of exercising between study sessions are two-fold: (1) You get the rush of physiological and psychological benefits from the exercise and (2) you take a little mental break from the books, which gives you the energy to tackle the next one.
You could also use these breaks to consolidate everything you learned! If you’re on a stationary bike, whip out your phone and run through some Brainscape flashcard decks. You’ll find that the time will go quicker.
Alternatively, engage in free recall: dig into your recent memory and recall from scratch and without assistance everything you’ve just studied. This will help to deepen the memory traces you created when you onboarded the information.
4.2. Tips for finding the time to work out during exam time
The fact that you’re furthering your exam preparation (and improving brain health at the same time) should be motivation enough to take the time to exercise. However, if your study schedule is jam-packed, here are some tips for finding the time to exercise:
- Planning is everything: Rather than seeing if you can squeeze in an exercise session, plan for it. Work short exercise sessions into your study schedule ahead of time, even if they’re just 10 minutes of jump rope, yoga, or stationary bike.
- Workout at home: Remove the obstacles between you and a quick exercise session by doing it at home. Perhaps invest in a yoga mat and a few dumbbells, or find a free aerobics or yoga class online.
- Get up one hour earlier: Swap your TV time in the evening for an hour of exercise in the morning. This will get your day (and brain health) off to an excellent start!
- Walk, don’t drive: Rather than driving to your local coffee shop, library, etc. walk. Use your feet more to get around and use this valuable time for reflection and study consolidation.
4.3. Using the Feynman Technique while exercising
Here’s an awesome study trick that lets you kill two birds with one stone ... practice the Feynman Technique while out on your walk or run!
Richard Feynman was an American theoretical physicist, known for his work in quantum mechanics. He was also a brilliant and ground-breaking teacher who proposed that the best way to learn something is to break it down into its atomic parts—it’s bare, basic conceptual framework—so that you can effectively explain it to a grade 6 student.
While out running or going for a bike ride, you can try this trick by focusing on the material you’ve just covered in your previous study session. Try to freely recall everything you’ve studied and “teach it” to an imaginary 6th grader while you don't have the written information in front of you. You can do this quietly in your head, under your breath, or even out loud if you don’t give a crap about looking like a crazy person.
The Feynman Technique (1) reinforces your knowledge by freely recalling the information and “teaching it” to an imaginary child, and (2) identifies areas in which your knowledge is shaky or propped up by assumptions.
If you want the full scoop on the Feynman Technique, I really encourage you to read Brainscape’s article because it is a powerful tool for consolidating and advancing your understanding of a subject. The fact that you can do this while exercising just supercharges the benefits of taking an effective study break.
5. Relax your brain: Eliminate stress during exam prep
Stress is a perfectly natural response of the human body to an environment in which danger is perceived: being stalked by a saber-toothed tiger, the impending bar exam, a girlfriend threatening to dump you for a poster of Ryan Gosling ...
A little stress can actually be a good thing. It can serve as the motivation that lights a fire under our arse, driving change—and driving improvement. Whether that requires you to run like hell, get a nicer girlfriend, or put in the time to study for the bar exam, the results are definitely in your favor.
But there comes a tipping point where stress begins to cause negative psychological effects. These can even go so far as having physical manifestations. And, trust me, a case of irritable bowel syndrome never helped anyone escape the jaws of a saber-toothed tiger.
5.1. Steps to mitigating stress and improving brain health
The problem for students, in particular, is that stress can inhibit activity in the brain’s hippocampus, which prevents the formation of conscious, deliberately learned long-term memories.
What’s the solution? Short of developing a dependency on Xanax—which we strongly advise against—it’s holistic management: a combination of therapeutic introspection, self-care, and, very importantly, proper exam preparation!
Ultimately, nothing will relax you before an exam quite like being prepared to write it.
Here is a step-by-step guide to managing exam stress:
- Identify what’s stressing you out. This may take real introspection so meditate on it, go for long walks, write in your journal, or talk to a friend or even therapist.
- In doing this, allow yourself to think about your stress from an objective perspective, rather than living and feeling it. You’re trying to understand the nature of your anxiety and what is triggering you.
- Once you’ve identified a stress trigger (e.g. I am stressed that I might fail the test), ask yourself what’s really the worst thing that can happen. You might get a bad grade? You might fail the class? That sucks, but you’re not going to die and it’s not the end of the world. You can always do better.
- Realize that you have the power to change the outcome. As much as you may feel powerless in the looming shadow of a terrifying exam, you have total control over how well you are prepared. Plan to study, put in the time, and your anxiety will likely melt away.
- Following on from # 4, use Brainscape to study. By its very nature, Brainscape breaks big, scary learning goals into long-term, medium-term, short-term, and very short-term goals, in the form of flashcard collections, decks, and cards. You can make the flashcards yourself or find flashcards on Brainscape's knowledge genome so you can get started right away.
- Rather than telling yourself to “calm down” and “it’s going to be okay,” get psyched about the upcoming challenge! Give that exam a stern talking-to: “Yeah exam, you are my bitch, and I am going to give you a spanking your unborn progeny will feel for generations to come!". Excitement can be a better weapon against stress than relaxation.
- Practice gratitude. Take a moment to think about all the wonderful privileges, people, and opportunities you have in your life you can be grateful for. If anxiety and stress are forces that dismantle brain health, gratitude is a force that heals.
For a more comprehensive guide on managing pre-exam anxiety, check out Brainscape’s article: “How to use exam stress to actually improve performance and prevent burnout.”
The road to better brain health
Feeling tired, drained, stressed, or unfocused isn’t just a major pain in the ass during study time: it’s your body telling you that what you’re doing isn’t working. So listen and pay attention:
- Are you eating balanced meals three times a day?
- Are you avoiding the heavy, greasy foods that can make you feel fatigued?
- Are you drinking enough water?
- Are you limiting your intake of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol?
- Are you getting enough quality sleep?
- Are you feeling stressed and anxious?
- Are you taking enough study breaks?
- Have you tried Brainscape’s adaptive flashcard study app to help you prepare in smaller, more manageable doses?
Ask yourself these questions to determine what’s missing from your lifestyle so that you can supercharge your mental acuity and brain health just like Eddie Mora did with that pill in the movie Limitless ... only, without the nasty side effects and avenging Russian loan sharks.
Graham, S. (2020, May 12). Regular mini doses of caffeine more energizing than morning mug. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/regular-mini-doses-of-caf/
Harvard Medical School (n.d.). Foods linked to better brainpower. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/foods-linked-to-better-brainpower
Kim, E. J., Pellman, B., & Kim, J. J. (2015). Stress effects on the hippocampus: a critical review. Learning & Memory , 22(9), 411–416. https://doi.org/10.1101/lm.037291.114
Ottewell, E. J. (2002) Think to drink: The effects of adequate hydration on student performance. University of Lethbridge Faculty of Education. https://hdl.handle.net/10133/830
Ozawa, M., Shipley, M., Kivimaki, M., Singh-Manoux, A., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Dietary pattern, inflammation and cognitive decline: The Whitehall II prospective cohort study. Clinical Nutrition, 36(2), 506–512. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2016.01.013
Ratey, J. J. (2013). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. Little, Brown and Co.
US Department of Health & Human Services (2004). Alcohol's damaging effect on the brain. Alcohol Alert, 63. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm