How to Stay Healthy At University (Alternate Title: How to Thrive When You're Young, Broke, and Stressed)
The years spent in College and University are overflowing with amazingness- but they aren’t exactly known as a time of great health. There are new, competing demands: course schedules, new friends, keeping house, and overall adulting. Not to mention the crushing stress of exams, bills, jobs, and the sometimes treacherous territory of new relationships. It’s a wonder if anyone can fit in a sit-up, never mind figuring out how to have optimum health at University! And yet, that’s exactly what I’m hoping that you, dear reader, will do.
You see, everything is easier with good health.
Your brain works better and you can kill it on exams.
Your emotions are more stable (yes, they really are rooted in your body).
Your energy is more reliable, giving you enough of a spark to get up for your morning classes, power through evening study breaks, pull espressos at your weekend job, and work up a sweat in the gym (or on the dance floor).
I promise that taking care of your health isn’t hard. It does require some effort, some know-how, and some planning. But this is an investment that will give you so much more than you put in.
I’m going to give you the very best strategies from my years as a Naturopathic Doctor, combined with my first hand experience of the divine grind of working through two degrees. While I do have 9 years of experience as a post-secondary student to draw on- I’m sure that some things have changed. If there is anything that you need help with, please click contact me and ask a question (or six). It is my passion to share what I know with people who want to find a better, more natural way to care for themselves and their health.
PS. University students inspired these tips, but really they are helpful for anyone who wants to prioritize their health and wellbeing but feel like they might not have the time, energy, or funds to make it happen.
Now, I’m going to share with you the secrets that I unlocked about how to stay healthy in University (or College).
Disclaimer: Please remember that this blog post is for informative purposes only and should not be taken as advice. Changes to health and lifestyle should always be overseen by a professional who understands you and your body. To find an ND near you, visit www.cand.ca. This post contains affiliate links meaning I receive a commission if you purchase from amazon.ca or well.ca after clicking one of the links.
ND Strategy 1: Take care of your diet
First make a meal plan. Meal plans can be as simple or as complex as you desire. In my experience, simple is always better in the long term. It’s really obvious that eating an organic, whole food, vegetable-heavy diet is ideal. But that’s $$$! When I finally figured out that food was important to how I felt and functioned, money was still really tight. The tricky thing is that time was even tighter- a lot of the strategies out there for eating well and cheaply cost extra time, and I didn’t have that either! With a lot of trial and error, I figured out how to eat well (and efficiently) on a budget.
These are my tried and true tips for meal planning on a shoestring.
Have the same thing for breakfast every morning. You’ll probably end up in a rush some mornings, so it’s good to have something that you can take to go. By having breakfast planned in advance, you reduce decision fatigue and guarantee a healthy start to the day.
When I was in ND school, my absolute favorite thing, was to make a smoothie using the Magic Bullet- you can put a lid on it and take it to drink on transit or during your first class. Rinse it out in the bathroom, and you’ve made a no-mess, 60 second breakfast.
Overnight oats is (are?) also a great option. They taste different than cooked oatmeal, but you still get a nutrient dense, high fibre start to your day with a slow burning energy that will take you through your morning classes.
Have a lunch strategy and stick to it.
Lunch Strategy 1 (recommended): eat leftovers from last night's dinner for lunch. This is definitely the most cost-effective and time-efficient.
Lunch Strategy 2: eat the same thing for lunch every day. Food prep once a week and have lunches ready to go without any extra work/thinking on school days. (Yes, both my strategies are boring- remember fight decision fatigue).
Mason jar salads. They look cute and colorful. They taste amazing. And you can pack them with nutrition to keep your brain and body well.
Cook a big ol’ pot of soup for the week. Soups are great- especially heading into the cool fall and winter seasons when the body is craving warming, easy to digest foods. The lovely thing about big pots of soup is that you can fill your belly and share with your friends. Learn to make 4-5 soups that you love. If an ingredient isn’t in season, is too expensive, or you just don’t like it- skip it or substitute it. Soups are forgiving.
Plan your dinners at the beginning of the week, and batch cook everything that you can. For example, if you’re cooking for one, making healthy grains like rice or quinoa in an appropriate serving size is tricky… not to mention the dirty dishes you'll create! At the beginning of the week you can cook all the grains you need and portion them out for the week. This also prevents you from over-indulging in comfort carbs at the end of a long, stressful day. Other foods that do well with batch cooking:
Baked yams (split them open for the base of a healthy meal later in the week)
Baked chicken breast
Salad greens (skip the dressing and watery vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes and add them just before serving- or prep them mason jar salad style)
Caramelized onions (cook em and freeze em)
Speaking of dinners- cooking for one is hard. Don’t do it! Cook a normal family dinner and freeze the extras labelled with the date and what’s inside (use masking tape). Future-you will thank you when you’re drowning in exams and term papers!
While it can be fun and creative to experiment with meals- it’s good to have a core repertoire of healthy, inexpensive, fast, easy meals. These are my favorite recipe sites:
Become a weekday vegetarian. It's exactly what it sounds like: 5 days a week you're vegetarian, 2 days per week you add meat to your diet. Health and environment benefits aside, skipping meat saves you money! Just make sure that you’re eating nutrient dense, protein-rich food. (Don’t be a junk food vegetarian- that’s a disaster waiting to happen!)
For people who aren’t avoiding meat for ethical reasons, eating meat for 2-3 meals per week will usually supply you with enough nutrients to feel great.
If you’re dealing with adrenal issues (post coming soon), you may do better with a diet that focuses more heavily on meat. Ditto if you’re training a lot. Ditto a couple other conditions like anemia, anxiety, depression, infertility, and more. That's why I beat that tired *check with your doctor* message to death- I'm not just covering my own butt- though there's an element of that- your body is unique. While this is great advice for the average person... the average person doesn't actually exist. Each reader is unique. Even a benign diet change like: eat less meat could cause problems for someone with an undiagnosed iron deficiency.
If it hurts your heart to eat meat- skip it. How you feel about your food is important and will affect your health. Although it is easier to get all the nutrients you need from a diet that includes meat- it certainly isn’t impossible (or even particularly difficult) to be healthy on a vegan/vegetarian diet. However, being a healthy vegan/vegetarian does require you to learn more about food and plan your meals a little more carefully.
I recommend having some tests (CBC, B12, ferritin, zinc tally) before decreasing your meat intake to make sure that you have enough of the nutrients that meat supplies best.
Try to budget for a monthly Costco run. Costco is tricky on a tight budget because you have to pay up front for the card, and if you’re not careful you can spend hundreds more than you meant to. Then there’s the challenge of storing everything- especially if you're in a dorm. BUT if you can swing it, Costco shopping will save you money over the course of the month/year. Smart students have Costco buddies they can split their haul with. My Costco list often includes the following: Chia seeds, gluten free oats, sprouted lentils, frozen blueberries, hemp hearts (I like them in smoothies instead of protein powder), organic chicken stock, gluten free penne, veggies, meat (which I wrap in individual portions and freeze once I’m home). PS. I'm not affiliated with Costco (I wish) it just saves me money.
Only drink water. Carry a bottle with you everywhere. It’ll save you money and keep you hydrated. For the most part: skip pop (obviously), juice, coffee, tea, lattes, booze etc. For the most part- not completely- you've gotta live a little, after all.
Feed your friends. I know that this one is counterintuitive- it’s going to cost a little extra money and time, but less than you might think. And I guarantee you that the community you create will be more than worth it.
In addition to being lovely, having a good social network is amazing for your physical and mental health and that of your friends!
I first got this idea from my friends Pete and Boyd in Calgary- one day they decided to start Taco Tuesdays: ie. tacos at their house every Tuesday! You just had to call in the afternoon and tell them you’d be coming- they might ask you to bring lettuce or salsa or cheese. They’d cook up the filling. Everyone would bring a little something. It lasted until they moved and I still miss it! My daughter’s Nonna and Nonno in Ontario also do a version of this- they have Pasta Wednesday every Wednesday. Everyone has a standing invitation. Just come- there’s always enough pasta! When I lived in Toronto I had friends who’d host Potlatch Brunch every Sunday. You could just show up with a dish- no RSVP required. They’d supply the eggs, toast, and coffee and everyone could make their own. People came and went. It was glorious chaos. Tacos, pasta, brunch- all good food that can feed a crowd for cheap.
Don’t use food for comfort. If you find yourself turning to chips, cookies, ice cream in times of stress don't feel guilty- just recognize that that is a sign your serotonin is starting to go off kilter. This is the time to get help from a Naturopathic Doctor- if serotonin gets out of wack it can cause problems with sleep, anxiety, depression. Prevention is much easier (and cheaper) than treatment. These are treatments that I often recommend to patients to support their serotonin. (The good news is that most of these have multiple benefits for your health).
Light therapy. Light therapy has great evidence for helping with mood, serotonin, and overall health. It’s easy and it’s free (unless you want to buy a light box- which, while helpful, can have some surprising side effects so don't do it without talking to a doctor first). To get the most bang for your buck, get outside, without sunglasses, for 20 minutes per day as close to noon as possible.
Aerobic exercise. More isn’t always better, and consistency is key. Try to get aerobic exercise at least 3 times per week to boost serotonin. To get an added boost, do your workout outside and get your light therapy at the same time. Alternatively, go to a group class or exercise with a friend to add in the social support. Or triple whammy: work out at noon, outside in the light, with a friend for the absolute in efficiency.
Gratitude journaling. Yes it’s a bit cheesy. Yes it works. It falls under the umbrella of positive psychology and it’s not just a trend that every self-help guru and their dog pushes- there’s research to back it up. I remember at one particularly dark point in my life when I was struggling with depression, the simple act of listing three things that went well every day (surprisingly) helped to pull me out of it.
Tryptophan rich foods + digestive booster. Tryptophan is the building block for serotonin. If you’re not getting a lot of tryptophan in your diet, you’re not going to be able to make much serotonin (thanks Dr. Obvious). The less obvious thing is that the tryptophan is trapped in the food that you eat, and if your digestion isn’t strong enough, you can’t actually absorb the tryptophan and you might as well not be eating it at all. My strategies for boosting digestion start with apple cider vinegar (mild), then go to a bitter tincture (moderate), and finally to a digestive enzyme with HCl (strong). In addition to having different strengths, all of these have different side benefits. An ND can help you choose the best one for you.
Supplements that support serotonin production. The most important nutrients to boost serotonin are a source of tryptophan (you can use L-tryptophan, 5-htp, or griffonia) and vitamin B6. I strongly believe that 5-htp et al supplementation should be supervised by an ND because there can be side effects- and if the root cause of your issues is not serotonin, it can actually make symptoms worse. Other vitamins that you need to make serotonin include B3, B12, D, and folate. You also need adequate selenium, magnesium and iron stores.
Theanine. I think that theanine might just be the best supplement for college and university students. When I take it, I feel calm, focused, and clear. What’s not to love!? Theanine is useful to support serotonin (and has been shown to be helpful for anxiety, depression, and insomnia). It also helps with relaxation, stress, and cognitive performance.
ND Strategy 2: Understand your body’s relationship with caffeine.
People ask me all the time if coffee is good for them. “You tell me” has to be my answer. Coffee is an herb- and just like any other herb it can be appropriate sometimes in your life and not others. On the plus side, coffee can increase alertness. It’s good for your liver (if you drink it black). It’s also a warming and drying herb which can be especially helpful in cold, damp climates. But in some people, that warming nature can be too intense, leading to hot flashes. In others that increase in alertness crosses over into jitteriness, anxiety and insomnia. In people flirting with burnout, coffee can accelerate that process. It can also wreak havoc on your digestion. If you struggle with anxiety and/or insomnia I would recommend skipping the coffee. If you already drink it- experiment with 2 weeks off- see if it makes a difference for you. Ultimately, the only way to know if coffee is good for YOU is to compare how you feel when you’re using it and when you’re not.
ND Strategy 3: Find a best tree friend.
Trees are our surprising and steadfast spiritual allies. Try sitting with your back to a tree and envision yourself sending energetic roots into the ground. Notice the calm, flexible, grounded energy that you get. I have always found that sitting with a tree during times of stress helps me find my center and process emotions much more quickly than I can on my own. Listen for lessons that come up- you may be surprised.
The Dharma Café has an in depth article about how to befriend a tree- you can follow their tips or find your own way.
On my latest trip back to Toronto, I took time out of a busy schedule to spend time with my best tree friend- a spruce that helped me tremendously during my clinical year at CCNM.
ND Strategy 4: Limit your late nights.
I get a lot of push-back on this recommendation from people of all ages, including my 4 year old daughter. But the fact remains that we have internal biorhythms that work best when synced with the rhythms of the world around us. The ideal sleep time varies from person to person, but what doesn’t vary is the need for circadian consistency, morning sunlight, and a dark sleep space.
In addition to going to sleep early (ideally some time before midnight) using blue blocking glasses to protect your eyes in the evening may help with those rhythms as well.
ND Strategy 5: Make time for movement.
Want a brain that is resistant to stress, flexible, and less likely to succumb to stress-related psychiatric conditions (like anxiety and depression)? That wasn't a real question- of course you do! Then exercise is the absolute best thing that you can indulge in. Find something fun and listen to your body. Forced exercise doesn’t have the same positive effects as voluntary! And remember, more isn’t always better… if you’re going through a period of increased stress, your body might be craving more gentle movement.
ND strategy 6: Make time for stillness.
Balance. It always comes back to balance, doesn’t it? We need stillness just as much as we need movement. And just like movement, a stillness practice has effects that echo through your life with improved wellbeing.
What if you hate meditation? Just can't do it? Nope. Nope. Nope. I've got a little analogy for you: I was at the Archangel Summit last weekend, and Danielle LaPorte was talking about stillness and meditation. For everyone who thinks they don't like meditation, she compared it to dating… if you've tried meditation and didn’t like it, maybe you just haven’t found the ONE for you. You wouldn’t give up on dating altogether if the first person you met wasn't the ONE. Don't give up on meditation if one (or two, or six) types didn't work for you. Keep trying… maybe you’ll like yoga, or vipassana, or qi gong, or gardening, or prayer, or just being alone with your thoughts on a long walk. My favorite form of stillness is to find a sit spot. Comment below (after the references) and let me know yours!
The best ways to stay healthy during the University years are:
Make a meal plan
Focus on vegetarian protein choices and consider becoming a weekday vegetarian
Host your friends for dinner weekly
Understand the effect that coffee has on your body
Find a best tree friend
Limit your late nights and stick to a sleep schedule
Make time for stillness
Make time for movement
Staying healthy on a limited budget requires a little more ingenuity, effort, planning, and know-how than for someone who has access to everything that Goop has to offer. But I promise you, taking care of your health is not out of reach- even when you're a University student, a struggling entrepreneur, or between jobs.