How Food Optimizes the Brain for Tests and What Foods to Eat Before a Test

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The alarm goes off while it is still dark outside. You have worked hard for weeks to learn all the details that will be on the exam. You got a good night’s sleep and as you reach for your cup of coffee you realize you should eat some breakfast. You open you pantry door to see a variety of foods. Is there anything that you should eat over another item? Do you need anything beyond your coffee? Yes! But why and what? Here are the foods to eat before a test.

We all know that at a base level, our body and brain needs food to function and this innate need can affect our mood. For example, when an infant is hungry, he cries incessantly and is much more temperamental. Many women can attest to the fact chocolate is a stress reliever during PMS and the menstrual cycle. Yet, it is not only our mood that is affected by our hunger and what we eat; our ability for our brain to function and recall is also affected by what we eat. Thus, in this article, we will have an overview of our brain’s functional abilities and foods that can be more beneficial for times such as testing and exams.

Brain chemicals called neurotransmitters can alter our moods as well as how effectively the brain functions. Dopamine and norepinephrine are two types of neurotransmitters that increase alertness. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that produces a calming effect. These three neurotransmitters are important during test-time because we are required to be alert and able to recall, rationalize, and process information (thus the need for dopamine and norepinephrine). However, not only do we need to be alert, we must be able to keep our stress in check so that we can take the test with a more even-keel mood rather than in panic mode. Often times, the stress, demands, and pressures of tests can alter our ability to focus and put forth our best effort and this is where we begin to see the need for serotonin and its role in test taking.


How to Feed the Brain Before Exams

There have been many studies on mood (because depression is caused by an imbalance of these neurotransmitters as well as others) and its relationship with food. Though these tests have been directed towards mood, researchers have also found in conjunction that these studies can be correlated in the brain’s functioning.

First of all, by eating an overall balanced meal plan, the brain can create the proteins and fats that it needs to form myelin. “Myelin is the fatty sheath to axons that allow the brain to receive and transmit signals and neurotransmitters.”[1] In other words, think of a dart board. If you only have one board at which to aim, the likelihood of hitting the board is much less than if you have larger boards and more quantity of boards. The more myelin in our brains, the better able our brain is to transmit the neurotransmitters that allow us to stay alert, to focus, to handle stress, and to recall information.

Beyond that, there are foods that do facilitate more dopamine, noreinephrine, and serotonin to be produced. Foods high in lean protein and omega-three fats cause the brain to produce and transmit more dopamine and norepinehrine. As these increase, the mind is more alert and able to recollect information. That ability translates into a more apt opportunity to focus on the test and being able to reuse the information that has been studied for the particular test. In order to increase the production of serotonin, there needs to be an increase in carbohydrates or starches. Typically, whole grain pastas and ‘less’ processed carbohydrates are preferred. As the serotonin is released, it allows the body to feel less stressed. It is a way for the brain and body to relax. Though you must be aware an overdose of starches before a test can produce a drowsy effect.

So before taking a test, it is wise to eat before it. A cup of coffee and sugary-candy may keep you awake, but it will not necessarily make you more alert or calm. The key is not to overload on either side, but to balance it out so that the brain can better function during the test. Below are some ideas for foods to help increase serotonin, dopamine, and norepinehrine.

Dopamine and Norepinehrine

  1. Almonds, natural peanut butter – these are high in omega-3 fats and B vitamins that increase the production of neurotransmitters
  2. Tuna, salmon, walnuts – all high in omega-3 fats
  3. Milk (not skim, the brain needs the fat in order to absorb the nutrients) – helps increase norepinhrine
  4. Beets – rich in nutrients and aides in the production of dopamine
  5. Eggs – contain choline that is a B-vitamin as is considered a lean protein


  1. Whole grain cereals, whole grain pastas, whole grain breads – produces relaxation neurotransmitters
  2. Beans, lentils, or sweet potatoes – these are complex ccarbohydrates and tend to sustain for longer periods of time

Try combinations before tests: cereal and milk, peanut butter sandwich and milk, scrambled eggs and toast, tuna and beet salad with a wheat roll.