By contributor Danielle Cunningham

As a full-time student, I know the stress that comes with meeting due dates and cramming for exams. I also know the toll this stress can take on my health. Last April, in the midst of final exams, I fell ill with mononucleosis (mono), which doctors first misdiagnosed as a seasonal virus.

At first, my symptoms were much like any run-of-the-mill flu: sore throat, dry cough, aching muscles, and the token runny nose. It didn’t surprise me when my first visit to the doctor’s office resulted in little more than an apologetic shrug and a peek at my tonsils.

Two weeks passed, and the symptoms worsened. Walking left me breathless, talking was painful, and small red bumps besieged my body while swelling developed on my lower lip.

Seeking a second opinion, I visited the nearest walk-in clinic. There, I was told that the rash and swelling were inconsequential, likely a result of new laundry detergent or sensitivity to skin care products. After only a little contemplation, the doctor reached the conclusion that an antibiotic “might” be the appropriate solution for what “might” be a bacterial virus. With that, he scribbled a prescription for amoxicillin with a “take it or leave it” passivity.

Another week of worsening symptoms passed, bringing me down a total of 12 pounds, my internal temperature up several degrees, and my frustration immeasurably higher. Simple blood tests at the emergency room revealed that I had a serious case of mono all along, developing fluid in my chest (pneumonia) in the meantime. Had the doctors probed a little further, an earlier catch could have prevented the infection.

I suffered for a total of two months with these illnesses, which stemmed from a weakened immune system. As Samaya Holmes, a Nanaimo-based registered nutritionist later told me, immense stress levels, sleep deprivation, and malnourishment had compromised my immune system, causing a chain of subsequent illnesses.

It is clear that Holmes and her team at the Nanaimo Health Shop are passionate advocates for holistic nutrition and natural remedies. Holistic nutrition connects the mind, body, and spirit to achieve personal wellness and fend off illnesses. Holmes referred to these components when assessing my needs during my visit.

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Holistic medicine and supplements are natural alternatives to medicine and can be used as precautionary measures when trying to avoid illness—something which I wish I had taken to avoid my fate last April. These remedies found in local health and wellness centres can help maintain a healthy immune system to combat sickness during highly stressful times.

With school back in session and stress levels soon to be (if not already) on the rise, I decided to take my health into my own hands to avoid the same fate. Students like me are more susceptible to the gamut of viruses caused by contagions and weakened immune systems than the general population. Listed below are five underrated, cost-effective essentials that Holmes recommends students carry in their book bags to take control of their health.

Complementing the list below with a nutritious diet, regular physical activity, and as much sleep as the demands of homework and extra-curriculars will allow, will help prevent or manage symptoms of the cold and flu, and, in more serious cases like mine, mono. I hope my experience encourages others to invest in their immune systems and remember their bodies during a whirlwind of academic obligations. Talk to your naturopath or physician before beginning a holistic treatment.

1. Probiotic

“Eighty per cent of the immune system is in the gut,” Holmes said. The live bacteria in probiotics are an important digestive aid, preserving the health of the gut environment. Probiotics also help the body absorb nutrients and minerals, increasing immune function, and even easing depression, according to Holmes. Probiotic supplements can be found in the form of capsules, or as an active ingredient in organic yogurt. To maintain a healthy balance of probiotics, Holmes recommends taking one tablet a day, with a dose of two million colony-forming units (CFUs). After my diagnosis, I was prescribed antibiotics. Under this circumstance, it is also important to take probiotics for yeast infection prevention.

2. Colloidal silver

Colloidal silver doubles as a natural anti-bacterial agent and an immune booster, Holmes says. Silver can be used to prevent illness and treat eye and sinus infections. This product can be sprayed directly in the eyes, nose, and mouth. “Silver is tasteless when ingested in good health, but has a metallic flavour when taken during an infection,” Holmes said, comparing the taste to “licking a nickel.”

“The great thing about silver is you can never take too much,” she adds. Three sprays to the infected area three times daily is recommended until the symptoms disappear.

3. Medicinal mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms are gaining momentum among health critics and consumers, as they are recognized for their numerous nutritional properties, Holmes says. Shiitake, reishi, maitake, and hybrid mushrooms are the best immune boosters to fend off illnesses. Among several other benefits, mushrooms support immune function, regulate cholesterol and blood sugar, and function as an aid with sleep and stress, says Holmes. Viral infections, for instance, can be treated with the use of the reishi mushroom. Practitioners recommend mushrooms be taken daily during times of the year when they are more susceptible to the seasonal flu and viruses. These mushrooms can be obtained in liquid form from the local health food store.

4. Rhodiola

Rhodiola is a plant-based medicine used to combat stress and anxiety. Rhodiola is used to promote energy, stamina, and improved mental function, said Holmes. The rhodiola root stores most of the plant’s nutrients, which explains its alternative name, “arctic root.” Stress reduction, improved learning, and memory are key benefits attached to the rhodiola supplement, Holmes says. Rhodiola can be obtained in pill form from a local health and wellness shop, and can also be found in grocery stores. The benefits of rhodiola are particularly useful during final exams and times of high stress. Consult a health care practitioner for dosage, as this can vary depending on stress level and the use of other supplements.

5. Homeopathic medicine

Homeopathic tablets function as an alternative to the use of prescription drugs, Holmes says. These tablets are rich in tissue salts and minerals, which the body produces naturally. “Sometimes, the cause of illness is related to mineral and tissue salt deficiency,” said Holmes. “This is where homeopathic medicine comes in.” Allopathy differs from homeopathy, as the treatments used in allopathy produce side-effects that are different from the illness being treated. Homeopathy treats adults and children by responding to cold and flu symptoms rather than preventing them. “Homeopathics are trending among parents,” Holmes said. With an increasing awareness of prescription drugs posing a threat to children’s health, homeopathics are becoming more widely recognized as a natural alternative to medicine. Homeopathic tablets provide instantaneous results, and can aid with nasal issues (runny nose), and other symptoms, such as fever, cough, and sore throat. Holmes recommends that individuals “follow labels for proper dosage. This varies depending on age and symptoms presented.”

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