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Can Good Nutrition and Hydration Improve Exam Performance?

A healthy lifestyle prepares a body for life’s challenges. If your body’s in tip-top condition, you have a better chance of fighting off illness, recovering from trauma, running from danger, and making quick, intelligent decisions. Good health will even give you a better chance of performing well in exams.

However, if your body is not in tip-top condition, there’s no need for despair. Even if you don’t make vast, long-term changes to your diet, remember that what you eat affects your body on a day-to-day basis.


The nervous system functions through electrical transmissions. These nerve impulses are triggered by the movement of electrolytes, which are electrically charged atoms or molecules (ions). Three of the most important electrolytes are sodium (Na+), magnesium (Mg2+), and potassium (K+).


Dietary sodium is acquired through salt (NaCl), and levels are regulated by the kidneys. When there’s too much sodium in the blood, the kidneys filter it out. However, although the kidneys can lower the concentration of sodium in the system, they can’t do anything about sodium deficiency (hyponatremia).

Because hydration is so important to cognitive function, students may be in danger of over-diluting blood sodium levels. Some of the signs of hyponatremia include muscle cramps, fatigue, and confusion. Reduced sodium in the blood triggers the release of adrenaline, which can cause you to feel jittery and light-headed.

So, if you’re keeping well hydrated, remember that you also need salt, especially if you eat a diet of whole, unprocessed foods, which typically contain very little salt.


Glutamate, a neurotransmitter that occurs in abundance in the brain, is crucial for cognitive functions such as memory and learning. An excessively high glutamate level, however, over-stimulates the nervous system, leading to cell death. The thing is, the release of glutamate is triggered by anxiety.

Magnesium blocks glutamate receptors in the brain, with the effect of calming the nervous system. In exam situations, when anxiety is just about guaranteed, controlling glutamate levels is important.

You can get magnesium from dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, avocados, leafy vegetables, and bananas.


Symptoms of potassium deficiency (hypokalemia) include leg cramps, high blood pressure, fatigue, and abnormal heart rhythm. Any of these symptoms could have a detrimental effect on exam performance.

Potassium occurs to some extent in most foods. However, foods that are particularly rich in potassium include parsley, yam, potatoes, bananas, soybeans, milk, avocados, bamboo shoots, pistachios, and almonds. In fact, all nuts are a rich source of potassium.


Water is the single most important nutrient. If you absorbed water and no other nutrient, you’d survive for several weeks. If you were to take away water as well, you’d live for no more than three days.

Adequate hydration is at the root of all bodily functions, including cognition; so, when it comes to taking exams, keeping your body hydrated is crucial. Water plays a role in short-term memory, alertness, concentration, and problem-solving. Every mental faculty relies on good hydration.

Hydration in universities

In 2000, a national campaign, Water is cool in school, set out to provide fresh, mains-fed drinking water, free of charge and readily available from hydration points around the school.

Universities are now following suit.

  • Over the past couple of years, the University of Edinburgh has installed or upgraded around 200 hydration points around the university’s estate. Reusable bottles are being sold in shops on campus, and there’s a map to help students and staff find water points.
  • The University of Aberdeen has recently made the transition from bottled water coolers to mains-fed water dispensers. The cost of drinking water at the university is now a tiny 100th of what it was
  • The University of Central London is “committed to making free drinking water accessible for students and ”
  • The University of Leeds has over 200 water fountains around its facilities, providing free, fresh water for staff, students, and visitors. A map is available to show where these hydration stations are
Drink availability is associated with enhanced examination performance in adults

A 2013 study (“Drink availability is associated with enhanced examination performance in adults”) explored the potential benefits of the availability of drinking water for undergraduates during exams.

With earlier coursework marks taken into account as a measure of underlying ability, the results of the study showed that students who brought water into the exam achieved (comparatively) better grades than those who did not. Cognitive function was enhanced by hydration, and, according to the study leaders, drinking water during an exam might also alleviate anxiety, which can negatively influence exam performance.

One of the lead researchers, Dr Mark Gardner (University of Westminster), said, “Supplementing with water is a really cheap way students and educators can get better results.”

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