As your children head off to college, you know they’ll pack what they think is important—trendy clothes, a stereo, posters for their dormitory room. But you’re a parent, so you mention winter coats and car insurance, all the while wondering what you can do to help your children stay healthy.
College campuses expose young adults to new health risks. For freshmen, that first year can be especially stressful as they experience a different lifestyle, one that often includes fast food, parties, and all-night study sessions. And all college students are at risk for colds, flu, and other common ailments, as well as more serious conditions, such as depression and sleep disorders associated with pressure to perform.
You can’t continually watch over your children as they go out into the world, but you can help them stay happy and healthy by slipping a few carefully selected herbal remedies into their luggage. We asked professionals with experience in herbal therapy to suggest items they would include in a college care package—alongside a tin of homemade chocolate chip cookies, of course.
College students are often too preoccupied to think about preventive health care—until they wind up in bed with a nasty cold.
“To get a young adult to take supplements is sometimes difficult,” says Hyla Cass, a psychiatrist who specializes in nutritional medicine. “Kids generally feel they’re invincible until they’re finally on their own and begin to get run down.”
Cass says her college-age daughter would handle illness by calling home to ask, “Mom, I’m sick—what do I do?” To help her daughter learn to take better care of herself, Cass began assembling care packages.
“When she’d come home, I’d give her things to take with her,” Cass says. “She always had echinacea, goldenseal, vitamin C, mycelized vitamin A, an herbal formula for sleep, and aloe vera juice for an upset stomach.”
Cass also recommends that parents use herbal combinations, such as echinacea/goldenseal, in a care package to keep the number of bottles to a minimum. She packs capsules rather than tinctures, which can be rather strong and offensive to sensitive taste buds. In addition, she advises common-sense caution—kids should not expect herbs to be a quick fix, and they shouldn’t overindulge in a purported remedy.
“Tell your kid to monitor carefully,” Cass says. “Don’t take anything arbitrarily”. You can help by sending remedies that your children have already been using at home.
An effective and pleasant way to help compensate for a poor diet and high stress is to drink herbal teas, says Paul Bergner, clinic director at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies and author of The Healing Power of Garlic (Prima, 1995).
Bergner makes stress-reducing teas out of catnip (Nepeta cataria) and oatstraw (Avena sativa), and stomach-soothing teas of peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and chamomile (Matricaria recutita). You can purchase these herbs in prepared tea bags in supermarkets and health-food stores, or make up bags yourself by buying bulk herbs and cloth tea bags in natural food stores. Brewing a pot of tea is a good way for students to take a break and relax, although some college students might find preparing teas to be a challenge because they don’t have access to a kitchen.
An easy answer is to give your college student an electric percolating coffeemaker to take to school. They simply place herbs in the basket (1 to 2 teaspoons of dried herbs per cup), add water, and plug in the pot. As an alternative, a drip coffeemaker will work if the herbs are placed in the pot with the water, rather than in the basket, and allowed to steep for at least 20 minutes.
As the term implies, adaptogens help the endocrine and nervous systems adapt to environmental, personal, chemical, and biological stresses, Crawford says. Her favorite adaptogen is Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus).
“Siberian ginseng has been shown to improve general immunity, which many parents would like to see in their children at any age,” Crawford says, and it causes fewer side effects, such as headaches, than Panax ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), another common ginseng species.
In addition to facing daily stress, students sometimes experience depression and anxiety. Rosemary Gladstar, author of Herbal Healing for Women (Simon and Schuster, 1993) and mother of two daughters in college, recommends a tincture of St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) combined with kava-kava (Piper methysticum) and Siberian ginseng. She suggests starting with no more than one-half teaspoon of the tincture twice daily when symptoms appear. If depression and anxiety persist for more than a couple of weeks, make sure your college student seeks help from a health-care professional.
According to Gladstar, college students take well to kava-kava because it relaxes the body yet keeps the mind alert. She warns, however, that it can be misused and should be taken only in moderation. “Any time I recommend herbs, I suggest a break: five days on, two off. It gives the body a chance to catch up,” she says.
Insomnia and fitful sleeping plague some college students. Crawford says herbal remedies range from the mild oatstraw and the familiar chamomile, to the stronger passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). The strongest remedy, valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), may make the whole dorm room smell like old socks, she says, but will ensure a good night’s sleep and is nonaddictive. All of these herbs can be taken in liquid extract, capsule, or tablet form; follow the dose instructions on the product label.
To help students avoid the seemingly omnipresent cold and flu bugs circulating throughout campus, consider giving their immune systems a boost. The popular herb echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida, and E. purpurea) works well for this, especially when supplemented with other herbs. Terry Willard, director of Wild Rose College of Natural Healing and father of three teenagers, says echinacea works best for cold prevention. At the first sign of a cold or flu, Willard advises turning immediately to a liquid echinacea tincture, taking 1 teaspoon hourly for a day or two. If by the fourth day cold or flu symptoms persist, he switches to an astragalus and goldenseal combination.
For sore throats that frequently accompany head colds, syrup made from elderberry (Sambucus nigra) provides excellent relief, according to Linda Ligon, editorial director of Herbs for Health.
“One of my kids tends to have sore throats, and I have always made sure he had elderberry syrup,” she says. “If you get a head cold with sinus drainage, it tends to go down into your chest. Elderberry coats the throat so that germs can’t dig in.”
With the high level of analytical thought and fact retention required for success in a university setting, an alert mind is essential for students. There are healthy alternatives to highly alkaloid drinks; alkaloids are a class of chemicals that are among nature’s most potent medicines and include caffeine. Crawford’s favorite caffeine substitute is rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) in the form of capsules, extracts, or tea. Research shows that rosemary contains antioxidants that help increase oxygen flow to the brain; in baths, rosemary is used externally to stimulate blood supply to the skin.
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is effective at calming anxiety and increasing mental acuity, Willard says. Two capsules of reishi a day can calm the mental field and is the perfect antidote to too much coffee, he says.
Gladstar says she makes Magic Zoom Balls for her children as an alternative to highly alkaloid caffeine drinks and other “uppers.”
Although you send them off hoping it doesn’t happen, some college students occasionally drink too much alcohol. In addition to affecting their general immunity, drinking can cause dehydration and blood sugar imbalances, and, as a result, hangovers.
“You want to have good detox formulas, especially the first year,” Gladstar says. She recommends a mixture of one part dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), one part burdock root (Arctium lappa), one-fourth part grape root (Vitis vinifera spp.), and one-fourth part Siberian ginseng, with anise for flavor. This creates a good liver tonic, “without seeming like heavy medicine to students,” she says.
Ligon recommends milk thistle (Silybum marianum) to protect the liver from alcohol damage (scientific studies show that milk thistle can prevent toxins such as alcohol from penetrating and damaging the liver). Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is an excellent remedy for an upset stomach, she says, and can also help with motion sickness.
Along with a lot of water, Willard recommends taking 2 to 4 g of evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) and/or 100 to 200 mg of vitamin B complex after an evening of indulging and before going to bed.
Erika Lenz is a freelance writer who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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