The 'Perfect Storm' Of Mistakes Students Make When Studying

Weeks out from sitting their final exams, now is the time Year 12 students across the country may find themselves incessantly reaching for the chocolate.

For many, the lead up to exams spells long and often sleepless nights in front of a laptop screen, perhaps with an energy drink in-hand or an UberEats bag in the corner.

A survey of more than 1000 young people, commissioned by frontline youth service ReachOut, found more than 45 percent of students' diets were less healthy during exam time. Forty-five percent of them singled out junk food and 41 percent caffeine, while 14 percent opted for energy drinks.

It's a common yet complex coping mechanism that, when combined with poor sleep and less exercise, can affect not only productivity, but also a student's mental health.

READ MORE: Students Experiencing 'Worrying' Levels Of Stress

Psychologist and lecturer Michelle Noon called it a "perfect storm".

"Exams are a really stressful time, and often the first thing that happens is your routine goes out the window," she told ten daily.

"You're working to strict guidelines with limited social support. Once your sleeping and eating patterns go, you can become more vulnerable. Add to that the social pressure to perform and you have a perfect storm."

But there are ways to manage the stress (and some *desirable* healthy swaps to that block of chocolate). To understand them, we start with the age-old question ....

What comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Stay with us, here.

During exam time, students are typically weighing up two main parts of their normal routine: diet and sleep. According to Dr Jessica Danaher, lecturer in nutrition at RMIT University, the two are inextricably linked.

"A lot of students will rely on caffeinated energy drinks to see them through the night in those study periods, and we know that a lot caffeine several hours before bed is going to keep you up and reduce your sleep quality," she told ten daily.

"If you have insufficient or disordered sleep, it reduces your alertness and makes people more prone to errors."

Danaher studies how genes relate to sleep -- including whether people are typically night owls or early birds -- but points to a range of external factors, including periods of mental stress, exposure to light and diet.

"We know that the mechanisms behind sleep deprivation can be, at least in part, influenced by a person's hormones that play an important role in controlling appetite and feelings of fullness," she said.

Don't underestimate it.

Studies have shown people who are sleep deprived have an increased level of the ghrelin hormone, responsible for increasing hunger, and lower levels of leptin, which does the opposite. What does this mean?

If you are losing sleep, you're more likely to eat more.

"While the research is inconsistent on what people are choosing to eat, what is agreed on is that total calorie intake increases, particularly the next day," she said.

While Danaher would recommend avoiding caffeine intake several hours before bed (unlikely for some), she said a suitable nighttime alternative would be a caffeine-free calming tea, such as chamomile or ginger.

Now, more on those pesky eating habits ...

Yes, you can put down the chocolate.
be mindful of your diet

Themis Chryssidis, an accredited practising dietitian, told ten daily that reliance, particularly on high-sugar, high-carbohydrate foods is unsustainable over weeks of exams.

"Athletes might adopt this kind of diet during short periods of training under strict supervision. But they're not doing it over longer periods, or when they're competing, which is what a study program is," he said.

Both Danaher and Chryssidis recommended trying to stay ahead of the cravings by maintaining as normal a routine as possible during studying.

"Aim for small frequent meals, and use them as an opportunity to take a break from the books," Chryssidis said.

"My best advice is to meal prep in advance," added Danaher.

"Create lean meat and vegetable-based meals and store them in the freezer so you're not relying on highly-processed junk foods for a quick meal,' she said.

But in those times where you're in desperate need of a pick-me-up, Chryssidis suggested a low-GI muesli bar, wholegrain crackers or a handful of dry-roasted nuts to keep those energy levels up.