Dr. Jahn and Your Health : Stay Healthy in School

Dear Student Singer: September is here, and school begins. Unfortunately, with the joys of your voice lessons, choirs, harmony, and counterpoint come the dubious pleasures of communal living and institutional cuisine. Staying healthy at school is not difficult, however, if you follow some guidelines.

For some of you, this is your first time away from home—an exciting time of late nights, personal freedom, and discovery. Remember, however, that change can be both exhilarating and stressful, and stress can weaken your immune system. Between the physical stress of irregular hours, chronic sleep deprivation, exposure to infections and allergens, the psychological stresses of study, school expectations, and social realignment, it is not unusual to develop recurrent colds or sore throats.

The patients with chronic tonsillitis I now see most frequently are not children but college students. When the immune system weakens, latent infections become symptomatic. These are not bugs you pick up from other students, but rather indolent, subclinical infections you carry around and that now gain the upper hand. Keeping your immune system strong can help minimize such episodes.

Of course, you do acquire some infections from those around you. The Epstein-Barr virus can cause infectious mononucleosis, which can sometimes progress to chronic fatigue syndrome. Antiviral medications are not much help, so avoiding contact with infected individuals is better. When I was in college, infectious mononucleosis was called “the kissing disease” for good reason—it is transmitted by personal contact through saliva and other secretions.

What about the school cafeteria? Eating well is important. Our bodies renew themselves constantly. Remember that in a matter of months all the cells in your body (with very few exceptions) are replaced. What will your building blocks be? Salads, meat or soy proteins, and fruits? Or chicken fingers, French fries, and doughnuts? Focus on proteins and reduce carbohydrates, especially those with a high glycemic index, such as potatoes, baked goods, white rice, or cookies. Eat small amounts frequently, rather than a few large meals (especially late at night), since this is easier for your body to absorb and metabolize, and specifically puts less strain on your insulin production. If you eat less than ideally, either by habit or force of circumstance, take multivitamins and vitamin C daily.

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Now, about sleep. Most students need more sleep than they allow themselves. Between late weeknight studying and socializing, early morning classes, and weekend fun, it is easy to get behind on sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation is insidious, and can weaken your body’s resistance to disease. Give yourself time to catch up, even if only with Saturday or Sunday afternoon naps. Ideally, choose a roommate with similar sleeping habits, one who doesn’t keep you awake with conversation, music, or snoring. Nor should you keep your roommate awake with snoring! noring is not a joke but a symptom of upper airway obstruction, one that should be medically evaluated. If associated with sleep apnea, it can result in inadequate oxygenation of the blood and lead to poor sleep, poor concentration, and other illnesses, such as high blood pressure.

Make a conscious effort to schedule specific times for regular exercise. If nothing else, walk vigorously every day, listening to music assignments on your iPod, if necessary. Take the stairs, not the escalator or elevator.
Walking three miles a day (which is about 45 minutes) with a heart rate of 110 is excellent aerobic exercise, and will keep you healthier than fitful attempts at the treadmill and haphazard dieting.

Try to confront stressors and focus your efforts at resolving them. Social contacts are very important. Unless you are monastic by nature, cultivate your friends, and make time to unwind. This reduces stress, and actually keeps your immune system stronger. Like sleep and exercise, social outlets should be a regular part of your week, and not neglected. They are as much a part of staying healthy as eating well and avoiding infections.

Your time at school should be exciting, a time of personal and professional discovery. If you are chronically tired, find out why: Are you sleep deprived, anemic, sick, depressed? Try to keep to a regular schedule, and avail yourself of the school health service, especially counseling services, if you feel unable to resolve chronic stress.

Anthony Jahn, M.D.

Anthony Jahn M.D. is an otolaryngologist with a subspecialty interest in ear diseases, disorders of hearing and balance, and disorders of the voice. He is a professor of clinical otolaryngology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is a noted author of The Care of the Professional Voice. For more resources, go to his website www.earandvoicedoctor.com.