Starting college for the first time can be an incredible experience; sometimes exciting, frightening, enlightening and exhausting all in the same day. You’ll meet more diverse groups of people than you’ve ever met before, have many a heartfelt, drunk moment of bonding with a stranger and probably have your mind blown and your heart broken a few times for good measure; all while studying diligently and getting all your recommended reading covered, of course.
However all that excitement, hard work and socialising can take its toll on your health at a time when you’re also being exposed to the massive range of previously unencountered bugs and germs that usually accompanies new people and places. The result: the dreaded fresher’s flu, scourge of labs and 9am lectures everywhere. Though there is some good news: with minimum effort and the slightest bit of forethought this regrettable condition can be entirely avoided, with a little help from science.
What to eat
So first thing’s first: what to eat. Nobody really has time to be getting their five a day when there’s a €5 burrito deal and pints in the Pav to be had ,but your immune system’s got your back if you only remember to top it up regularly with these three things:
Garlic has potent anti-biotic properties that support your body in fighting infections as well as sulfhydryl, which can help to clear toxins from your system. You can add it to pretty much any meal to increase the nutritional value and overall deliciousness.
This weird looking, pungent root is a staple of Asian cooking and has powerful anti-inflammatory properties that allow it to ease the symptoms of cold and flu as well as relieve some of the pain of inflammation.
The stronger you can handle the better. It helps to clear congestion, boosts your overall metabolism and has the added bonus of helping to lower cholesterol; all great excuses for a mid-essay take away.
Some other honourable mentions are onions, used in herbal poultices for centuries because of their antibiotic effects, and citrus fruits packed with vitamin C to help minimise the symptoms you feel if you do get sick and help get rid of bacterial infections. It also might be worth remembering that sugar has a tendency to feed infections so if illness is looming around exam time it might be a good idea to seek solace somewhere other than the vending machine.
What (not) to drink
A couple of other factors can have a much bigger impact on your susceptibility to illness than you might think. The first one of these is alcohol. A glass of red wine of an evening may have long-term health benefits but in the short term even a small amount of alcohol can have a powerful suppressive effect on your ability to stay healthy. Regular consumption of large amounts of alcohol has been linked to an increased risk of pneumonia as well as some less common diseases like meningitis (inflammation of neural and spinal membranes) and cellulitis (inflammation of connective tissue). On top of this, it has been observed that in the case of long-term, serious alcohol intake some more common problems have shown a tendency to develop into septicaemia, a full blown infection of the circulating blood, which is far more life threatening and difficult to treat.
This is not to say that a couple of drinks after class are going to be the death of you but it’s worth bearing in mind when the workload starts to mount or exam time rolls round that socialising might be doing more than eating into your time. Exams are bad enough without a wicked case of sniffles ruining your essay structure. The main issue is that alcohol has displayed a tendency to downgrade the responsiveness of some of your body’s frontline defenders. In particular, cultured monocytes (innate immune cells) exposed to a level of alcohol akin to that seen in binge drinking were shown to have a reduced ability to present antigen to T cells, effectively preventing them from alerting the adaptive immune system to any invading microbes.
From this it’s fairly easy to see that with lots of late nights, fast food and drinking ahoy during the college year it’s easy to get run down fast and even easier for a bit of exhaustion to turn into a full blown illness right when you need it least.
Sleep, glorious sleep
Another key factor in not falling victim to the college plague is a good night sleep. They say that college revolves around the three S’s: study, socialising and sleep, but you can only ever get enough of any two at a time. Sadly, it’s true. Obviously, being in bed by 10pm every night is negative craic and half the fun of being a university-going, decision making, legal adult is the ability to pull ill-advised all-nighters whenever you feel like it – but just a little consideration for your poor, belaboured immune system will go a long way.
Research has shown that lack of sleep can shrink the number of T-cells in your body. These cells wander around getting rid of any infected or misbehaving cells and are a key component of your ability to fight off bugs you’ve been exposed to before. In addition sleep deprivation weakens your body’s fever response, an important reaction to infection which helps to increase clearance of the pathogen. Long term, sleep deprivation can also impair your ability to recover from illness and could potentially add to the risk of developing diseases like type two diabetes and heart disease.
So how much sleep should you be aiming for? Generally speaking, adults need between seven and eight hours a day, which lessens a little as you get older. Now staying up too late now and then isn’t going to do too much damage but it’s important to keep an eye to make sure you’re regularly getting a decent rest. If you’re a bit of a night owl, there are plenty of apps available that monitor your sleep for you and can alert you if the sleep deficit starts to reach chronic levels.
The idea of looking after your health in college can sound like an awful lot of work (not to mention a bit boring) but what it really boils down to is making sure sickness doesn’t get in the way of all the things that really count. Whether your poison is training, debating, studying or Jägermeister , you’ll be glad you kept your game face on when you make it to the end of the year mostly bright eyed and bushy tailed. A minimal amount of effort with things like diet and sleep can make a world of difference, especially in these first few weeks of term when the social calendar is busy and the workload is light. Do what you can, when you can and you’ll hopefully be able to glide through flu season without any issues
Illustration: John Tierney