Holistic Nutritionist Rhiannon Lytle on maintaining mental and physical health in university

Natural wellness tips for students

Image courtesy of @eatingbetweenlines on Instagram.

By Emma Jean, Staff Writer

The back-to-school season is upon us and at this point, you know what that means: exciting change, neverending deadlines, job applications, faulty internet connections and, God forbid, a life outside of them. In other words, academic life can bring on more stress than we can handle sometimes. That’s where Registered Holistic Nutritionist and wellness educator Rhiannon Lytle, who also leads education and product knowledge at Organika (a Canadian health and wellness company) can offer some relief. In an interview with The Peak, Lytle shares advice on how to identify unknown causes of stress, the impact of your diet on mental and physical health, and how taking time to be patient with yourself can be a game-changer for your mental and physical health. 

The Peak: Do you have any tips to help students identify the unknown stress triggers in their lives?

Rhiannon Lytle: When we’re looking at stress, one thing we do as a society is we exist from moment to moment to moment without really checking in with ourselves — and we just live this surface-level life a lot of the time. You know, we’re sad and we don’t cry, because “we can’t cry, that’s not right.” What we’re seeing more is that people need to identify those stressors by doing things like taking a few deep breaths. 

When people feel like they can’t breathe, there’s a reason for that! Take a deep breath and tune yourself inwards so that you’re not just moving from moment to moment. Write down some of those things that come so that once you start to be aware of it, you start to notice the things you realize are really bothering you. Your roommate snoring may not have been something you thought was really bothering you, but when you look at it, it’s almost the root because you haven’t been sleeping properly! So write these things down, take deep breaths — not even to calm the stress, but just to look inward for a minute no matter where you are. We’re all told this stuff, [but then] when you try it, you go “oh, yeah! That does work!”

P: What are the most common harmful habits you see in students when it comes to managing their stress, and what strategies can they adopt instead?

Lytle: Definitely one of the most harmful habits we gravitate towards [very quickly is] coping mechanisms. These can be a physical thing, and that can be: a cup of coffee when you’re tired, or alcohol when you’re really stressed, or working out really consistently because we assume that high-intensity physical activity is going to be that one thing that changes the way our body looks [ . . . ] Identifying what you use as a coping mechanism is going to be really important to identifying how you manage the stress, and then deciding whether or not it’s something you need. So, if someone is having a cup of coffee three times a day, see if you can swap out one cup of coffee for maybe something like maca, which is an adaptogen, which helps us adapt to stress, [blended with] cacao powder and a little bit maple syrup or oat milk — something that’s going to balance your cortical, or what balances your stress hormones, so you’re not just riding this high of stressful moment to stressful moment because caffeine does act like stress in our bodies at the end of the day. It wakes us up, sure, gives us a bit more brain power, but it just creates a little more stress that we don’t necessarily need. 

P: Based on your work as a nutritionist, what can students integrate into their diets (or take out of them) to help their mental and physical health? 

Lytle: The first one I’m going to say, most people are probably going to hate me. If you can limit caffeine intake, that’s number one. If you can limit alcohol intake, that’s also really great, because both of them can really stress our systems. If you are dealing with a hormone imbalance, and your stress levels are skyrocketing and decreasing, and you’re just living from hot coffee in the morning to ice coffee in [the afternoon] to beer in the evening at the pub, can you cut it down to just one coffee in the morning and swapping it out for that maca or an adaptogen latte or herbal tea even? That’s going to be a great option for you. In the evening, have the beer, but instead of maybe excessively drinking, balance it out with some water, or swap it with some flavoured waters, or use an effervescent tablet and make yourself a mocktail — no one’s really going to notice, plus it’s flavourful and has vitamins! 

Doing that and also, when it comes to our fitness, you don’t always have to go so hard. If you can go for an hour-long walk and listen to a podcast, that’s going to do just as much for your body, especially when you’re stressed, than doing a high-intensity workout or a spin class. I absolutely love my spin class, but say you do that first thing in the morning, you leave and get a cup of coffee, then what happens? That stress hormone, that cortisol, is going to be super high and then, by three o’clock, you’re crashing hard. You’re probably moody, you’re probably going to reach for something sugary, so those things can all work together to be not the best for yourself. 

P: Do you have any advice on how students who menstruate can limit it from interfering with their stress levels and overall wellness? 

Lytle: Totally. I’m very passionate about this work, if you can tell, mainly because I personally dealt with a lot of issues, especially during university, around the menstrual cycle [ . . . ] and ignored it because that’s what we’re told — that periods are a burden, we don’t want to have them. They’re annoying, they’re painful, we get moody. That’s not necessarily the case, and you don’t have to deal with it. 

The first recommendation I give to anyone who is stressed about menstruation is to learn or figure out ways to embrace it more. Are you taking your temperature every morning to learn about your base-level body temperature? Are you adding in different herbs, like the maca, so you can help manage that a little bit better? Are you tracking your cycle on an app and learning about how it works? When we learn more about it, it’s kind of freakin’ cool! Our body’s temperature changes because of when we’re on our cycle. Learning about it can be, well, I say exciting, other people may say interesting! [laughs] Another thing I would say is, can you manage it through breath work? Can you add in those adaptogens that I talked about because that can help manage the stress? When we talk about painful periods and mood swings, those adaptogens are going to be great, but also things like liver [supportive herbs]. If we’re talking about something like milk thistle, or chlorophyll, or dandelion roots, like those are all really good options for you to try, especially if you’re dealing with period issues. 

Lytle can be found at Integrative Naturopathic Medical Centre in Vancouver. Interview edited for length and clarity.