How to Stay Healthy in College

By Jilian Mincer

Janet Alexander, an organizational studies/media studies major at Pitzer College, takes us inside her school's health center and finds that some students see more room for improvement.

We asked students what they do to stay healthy in college. Here's what they said:

"First off, I drink a lot of water. Staying hydrated, for me, is the most important part of staying healthy. I honestly don't get as much sleep as I should, but I often try to break up my day with short naps if possible. Balancing school work and fun is difficult, but I limit myself in the amount I go out and have fun so I can make sure my body is in the best shape it can be in. Staying fit at my school isn't hard to do at all, especially in the warm months. Walking to class is great exercise and I love strolling through the quad on the way to class."

- Taylor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign



"If your campus has a graduate school, you may be offered treatment from Ph.D. candidates who, in addition to being able to listen, can often relate directly to your experiences."

- Toni, Wesleyan University




"Don’t forget that you are not alone. From drama to depression, anxiety over midterms to a family crisis, there is always somebody who will listen—it might even be that professor who keeps nagging you!"

- Ashley, Georgian Court University

These college health pointers are from Dr. Philip E. Stieg, Chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the Weill Cornell Medical College and the Neurosurgeon-in-Chief at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Stieg hosts the National Public Radio program "How To Save Your Life."

Managing Stress

As every student who’s managed a busy schedule knows, stress is a normal part of everyday life. College students, especially freshmen, are particularly prone to stress because of the transitional nature of college life. They must adjust to being away from home for the first time, maintain a high level of academic achievement, juggle schoolwork with other responsibilities, make decisions about their careers and develop new interpersonal relationships.

Mild amounts of stress can be beneficial: stress can motivate and stimulate, improving your performance in areas like academics and athletics. Too much stress, though,can be harmful. Stress levels tend to build over time. When not managed well, stress can result in physical illness, anxiety, and depression. Learning how to manage stress levels is vital to maintaining overall well-being.

Some warning signs of excess stress are:

• Changes in sleep patterns, like taking longer to fall asleep orwaking up tired.
• Changes in eating patterns.
• More frequent headaches, colds, and minor illnesses.
• Frequent muscle tension and/or tightness.
• Difficulty completing tasks.
• Increased anxiety over time pressure.
• More interpersonal conflicts.
• Increased frustration and anger.
• A tendency to lose patience, rush, or be careless or forgetful.
• Emotionally sensitive or volatile responses to inconsequential matters.

Here are some tips to help manage stress:

• Exercise at least every other day.
• Set both short term (this day or this week) and long term (this semester or this year) goals.
• Manage your time. Develop a schedule that provides for academic, social and physical time.
• Emphasize humor and practice positive thinking . Deal with success and failure with a balanced attitude.
• Talk to a person you trust.
• Don't take on any new or extra responsibilities.
• Say "no" more often.

Sleeping better

Sleep deprivation doesn’t just result in embarrassing in-class snoring. It’s a s serious health risk, linked to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. You need 7-9 hours of sleep a night to restore your immune system and allow your brain to process the day’s events.

But what if you’ve counted every last sheep in the meadow and you still can’t sleep? With natural solutions in mind, let’s look at common reasons and cures for insomnia:

• If you drink too much alcohol or caffeinated beverages, or smoke before bedtime, it could take hours to fall asleep.
• If you go to bed hungry you may toss and turn all night. A high-protein late-night snack is the cure.
• “Blue Light” from digital display clocks and electronics interferes with sleep, so turn your clock around and the power off for electronics. (You can turn that email addiction off while you’re sleeping!)
• Depression and anxiety also can keep you up at night. Researchers suggest you write down all your worries as a pre-bedtime ritual. If they surface again once you’re in bed, get up immediately and move to another room. Called “stimulus control,” this will train your brain not to associate your bed with anxiety.
• Meditation produces a state similar to REM sleep; it’s relaxing and can lead to a better night’s sleep.
• 10 minutes of upper-body stretching before bedtime was shown to reduce the need for sleeping pills by 60 percent.
• Set a sleep pattern. Ideally, go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends! Sleeping in, even by an hour, can throw off your sleep rhythm.
• Grandma was right: hot milk can help. Like turkey and cheddar cheese, it contains a sleep-inducing amino acid called Tryptophan.(Remember the post-Thanksgiving food coma.)

Boosting mental function

You’ll need all your brain power for college, and your brain function can be impaired or improved by things you control. Here’s a look at how to maintain high-level brain function:

• Eat fish. Arteries clogged with plaque can block blood flow to the brain. A recent study showed the Omega 3 oils in one fish meal a day protected arteries and reduced Alzheimer’s risk by 60 percent.
• Eat protein, like eggs, for breakfast. It helps to build neurotransmitters, which serve as messengers for your brain cells. (There are non-protein sources that foster neurotransmitter growth, too, like apples: mice with memory problems made it through a maze much more easily after a daily dose of apple juice.
• Meditate. A brain can become overloaded by outside stimuli. According to a study in London, workers distracted by emails and phone calls had a 10-point drop in IQ, more than if they smoked marijuana. Background noise – like loud music, news, and chatter – also impairs recall. But there is good news: Meditation can reverse this sensory overload and help to preserve your gray matter.
• Keep on learning. Did you know brain scans light up when the brain is excited? The brain seeks novelty. When it solves one puzzle, it wants another. So learn a new language, musical instrument, or art form.