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College can be one of the most challenging times to stay healthy. Suddenly, things like basic nutrition and sleep are taken for granted, resulting in compromised immunity and making students susceptible to colds, acne, hormonal issues, and more.
With six kids, two in college and three college graduates, I have had firsthand experience keeping my kids, and many of my patients’ kids, healthy and happy during those challenging college years.
To navigate the late night exhaustion, lack of nutrition, extreme amounts of schoolwork, a compromised immune system, a trashed digestive system, the ever-present social and emotional stress, and, oh yes, that thing called ‘partying,’ I have put together a College Survival Kit and set of strategies that these students seem to really need!
If you have kids in college or are in college yourself, read on.
Five Triggers for Compromised Immunity
Perhaps the most common symptom I see in my practice with college students is a compromised immune system. They get sick a lot! I find it easier to keep toddlers and elementary school kids healthy compared to college students. The causes are clear:
- Late nights
- Bad food
- Partying to de-stress
These triggers seem to be responsible for most of what typically ails college kids, including:
- mild acne
- acute insomnia
- occasional constipation
- hormonal issues
- lack of concentration
- mood issues
The “Blues” are a Close Second
Probably the second most common symptom I see in college students is low spirits. Basically, you need energy to be happy, have a stable mood, sleep through the night, and focus.
Once, my son invited me to sleep in his dorm room, and I did! The deafening roar from the hall and the open window to the courtyard below seemed to escalate from midnight to almost 2am, and finally, by 3am most of the commotion died down and I finally fell asleep. At breakfast, I learned that was a pretty typical weekday night. I didn’t dare ask about the weekends!
College students become exhausted without realizing it. The more tired they get, the more wired they become. The term “wired and tired” means that you are so exhausted that you do not have the energy the body needs to settle down and sleep, stabilize moods, and muster the energy to focus or find the joy in your life.
Additionally, while indigestion is common and easy to discuss with peers, many of the mood issues like sadness and loneliness are not socially acceptable conversations, so they often get internalized and buried.
The College Survival Kit
I do my best to motivate students to follow a better lifestyle. This is much easier as they move out of the dorms into smaller or more private housing where they can live the lifestyle they choose rather than be swept up by the incessant late night party roar.
Here are some of my favorite tips:
1. Sleep – College Style
While I make a case for early to bed early to rise, I often am outvoted by that late night roar. But, if they are up until 2am studying, partying, or chilling with friends, they often have time during the day to catch a nap and reboot. It is when sleep is missing regularly over an extended period of time that a strong immune system, stable moods, and a good night’s sleep vanish! (1, 2) Get it whenever you can!
Back in the sixties, a college student from California decided to attempt breaking the record for not sleeping. Researchers at Stanford followed him to document the effects of no sleep. He did break the record and stayed awake for 11 days, but not without extreme changes in his mood and behavior. Throughout the period, he became violent, blamed the researchers for making him do this and, by the end, this skinny white kid was convinced he was a black NFL running back. (3)
Sleep is needed for our sanity. While it is much better to get it at night, a midday nap during a break is better than nothing!
Pizza and beer may be the most popular meal on campus, but clearly falls short of delivering the nutrition college students need. The most common mistake they make is that they don’t eat at all, or frequently miss meals. Make an effort to encourage them to eat three times a day at least.
Instead of a Cliff Bar and coffee for breakfast, pizza for lunch with a coke, and nachos for dinner, not to mention snacks as-needed throughout the day, see if you can lobby for three filling meals that they actually sit down for.
Sitting and eating a meal until you are full is what students need to deliver enough energy to sit though classes all day, with enough energy left over to study at night. Snacks for college students are fine, as long as they do not interfere with, or replace, a healthy meal.
Sadly, our culture is more demanding now than ever before. Without adequate nutrition or sleep, students are drawn to coffee, energy drinks (like Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy), and even prescription drugs (like Adderall) to stay up at night and study. Not sleeping on the weekends catches up with them on Monday and then, exhausted, they look for ways to boost or stimulate themselves to focus and concentrate. This leads to a vicious cycle of deep fatigue and exhaustion.
The need for these stimulants is a sign of a serious sleep deficit and soon the body will give out. The body cannot be pushed so hard for so long and not break down.
To help counteract college burnout, I am a firm believer in the lifestyle changes I mentioned, along with three supplements essential to supporting immunity, mood, energy, and focus.
4. Vitamin D – Supports Immunity and Mood Stability
Up to 87% of folks in the Northern Hemisphere have a vitamin D deficiency in the winter. (4) With the majority of colleges located in the northern half of the US, many college students just don’t get enough sun to manufacture adequate amounts of vitamin D.
Low serotonin levels, which have been linked to seasonal mood issues, may be caused by vitamin D deficiency. (5) Vitamin D levels often plummet in the winter.
Vitamin D expert, Dr. John Cannell, developed a theory that the flu is seasonal because of seasonal variations in sunlight, which cause fluctuations in vitamin D levels. (6-8)
Vitamin D activates genes to protect antimicrobial peptides or AMP, which govern our immune systems and support the body’s natural ability to fight viruses like influenza. (9) Vitamin D is converted into its potent form in the respiratory cells, a process that supports respiratory immunity. (10)
Vitamin D Dosage: During the fall and spring college terms, I suggest 5000IU each day. In May, after school is out, I recommend getting a vitamin D test to confirm they are in the optimal range, which is 50-80 ng/ml. Vitamin D levels can easily be tested from home with a Vitamin D Testing Kit.
5. Ashwagandha – Rejuvenation and Stress Support
Ashwagandha (sometimes spelled Ashwaganda) is an herb that is becoming famous for its adaptogenic properties, meaning it supports the body’s natural ability to cope with stress.
In one study, Ashwagandha was shown to both increase and decrease cortisol, a stress-fighting hormone, based on what the body needed at the time. In times of exhaustion, cortisol levels plummet, while when over-stimulated or stressed, they can rise. (11)
Ashwagandha is therefore not a stimulant nor a sedative, it provides deep rejuvenative support. Ashwagandha is also an herb that is commonly used for supporting energy before a sporting event or a stressful endeavor. (12)
Most college students battle fatigue and exhaustion, particularly during exam time. Ashwagandha seems to provide the deep rejuvenative and stress-fighting support most college student’s lack.
Ashwagandha Dosage: 500 – 1000mg (1-2 capsules) of the whole herb with breakfast.
6. Turmeric – Supports Detox and Immunity
Experts now believe that up to 80% of the immune system is found in the gut. Thus, nutritional food supports a healthy gut and a healthy immune system. Unfortunately, most college students struggle to get healthy food on a regular basis.
Though poor food quality is a cause of poor digestion and compromised immunity, stress takes the number one spot responsible for weakening the immune system.
Stress receptors line the gut and, when one is under a lot of stress, the intestinal mucous membranes produce excessive reactive mucus. This reactive mucus may compromise absorption and detoxification pathways in the gut, leading to congestion in the body’s lymphatic system, which also lines the gut.
Turmeric supports the mucosa of the gut, thins the mucus, and supports the flow of bile.
In addition to breaking down nutritional fats that we need, bile is also our body’s primary immune response in the gut to emulsify toxic chemicals and other fat-soluble toxins that we may have ingested. These include heavy metals, parasites, pesticides, candida, fungi and more.
Cognitive Support: Turmeric has at least 10 neuro-protective actions that support healthy cognitive function, (13) which are important in a college environment of late nights and parties. Because the brain is predominately fatty tissue, fat-soluble toxins, chemicals, and certain drugs may accumulate in the brain and cause damage. As a fat-soluble substance, turmeric may have an affinity for chelating (removing) fat-soluble toxins out of the deep tissues.
Turmeric crosses the blood-brain barrier, where it may attach to neurotoxins and support healthy antioxidant activity. (14)
Turmeric Dosage: 500 – 1000mg (1-2 capsules) of the whole herb with breakfast.
Parenting College Kids
The key here is to not fight the system and, as parents, support your children as they navigate college life. It has been my experience that kids figure out soon enough that the college lifestyle is a drain. While these strategies offer support right away, most kids eventually choose a healthier lifestyle. It is our job as parents to introduce this to them.
This article was originally published September 12, 2012. It was updated and republished August 27, 2015.