What does it mean to "listen to your body"?

Ever notice how you can't read a paragraph of health advice these days without being told you should "listen to your body"? Your body knows what's good for it, so just listen and it'll tell you how to eat and exercise for optimal health. Easy, right? Well, maybe not exactly. The advice to listen to your body is so trite that it's easy to read right past it without even registering the phrase. What does "listening to your body" even mean?

Given the state of the nation's health, it appears as though our bodies are asking for Mountain Dew and Cheetos, or maybe Frappucinos and gourmet doughnuts—not exactly ideal choices for healthy humans.   

How do you listen to something that doesn't talk?

First, let's clear up one issue. Your body does communicate, just not by sending written messages via a spider named Charlotte or through some other mystical pathway. It does give signals when all is not well, though, and if you don't realize they're signals, you'll probably miss them.

Many people misinterpret signals of distress as signs of aging. Heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, rashes, achy joints, fatigue, and swelling are not signs of normal aging. They are signs that your body is reacting poorly to something, sometimes a food you've eaten, sometimes when you ate or the conditions under which you ate. (In the car? Standing in the kitchen while on a phone call and packing your kid's lunch?) Unrelenting stress, lack of healthy movement, or a combination of factors may also be the culprit. 

The bottom line is that healthy people don't have symptoms on a daily basis. Many of us do, though, and our culture enables us to see symptoms as normal by giving us remedies for them. The companies that make Advil, Tylenol, Maalox, and Prilosec have made billions of dollars by helping people ignore their bodies. 

Now, I'm not anti-medication. It's wonderful that we live in an era where we have antibiotics for serious infections and anti-gas tablets for emergencies, like when your date-night dinner festers in your stomach and you're afraid to move for fear of fumigating the car on the ride home with your objet d'affection. 

Emergencies are one thing, but when we start relying on medications to make our daily lives more comfortable, well, that's a problem. Our bodies are smart, and we shouldn't habitually silence them with medications. Taking a proton-pump inhibitor may (or may not) improve your heartburn, but it does not address the reason you're having heartburn. So you continue living life the same way, eating the same food, and dousing the heartburn with a prescription medication. That's like putting your hand on a hot stove, realizing it hurts, and taking a painkiller so you can keep putting your hand on the hot stove. The damage is still being done in your body, but you aren't feeling it anymore. 

Think that might have consequences down the road? Mmmhmmm. 

To listen, start asking questions

Listening to your body could look something like this:

  • Asking yourself, "When do I have heartburn?"
  • Asking yourself, "Why do I have heartburn every day, starting around 4:00 p.m.?"
  • "Do certain foods or activities exacerbate it?"
  • "If so, what happens if I modify that food or activity?"
  • "Are there related symptoms that I haven't noticed before?"

Basically, you become a health detective. In my experience, it's important to look beyond conventional wisdom about a problem to find solutions. Conventional wisdom is often wrong, in part or in full. For example, most people think heartburn is caused by excessive stomach acid, but in reality it's usually too little stomach acid (along with other factors). Conventional wisdom also says cutting calories is the way to lose weight, but you only have to ask how many of your friends have done Weight Watchers more than once to know that's not actually true. (We'll talk more about calories some other time.)

How can you find good, reliable sources of information to help with your detective work? Good question. You really have to vet your "experts" when it comes to good health information. Doctors who practice integrative or functional medicine are a good place to start. They focus on finding the root cause of a problem instead of medicating the symptoms like most conventional doctors do. (If you happen to suffer from heartburn, and judging by prime-time TV commercials, A LOT of you do, check out Chris Kresser's six-part series on heartburn and GERD. He offers some valuable, evidence-based, and nonconventional wisdom-y information.) 

Things my body told me about me

Here are some thing I've learned about myself by listening to my body:

  • I start waking up in the middle of the night after two or three consecutive days of coffee drinking.
  • Working past 8 p.m. keeps me awake and alert until 11 or later. I take a long time to wind down.
  • Going to sleep at 9:30 or 10 p.m. and sleeping eight hours is more restorative for me than going to bed at 11 or midnight and also sleeping eight hours. 
  • My most common trigger for headaches, especially migraines, is feeling overwhelmed. Rest is the best remedy.
  • I feel most energetic and balanced when I eat my largest meal around noon and a smaller meal around 6 p.m. Skipping lunch or eating something inadequate makes my late afternoon a grumpy yawnfest.
  • Any amount of alcohol disrupts my sleep. The more I drink, the more disrupted it gets. 

 I try to adjust my life to put these observations to use. I love coffee* and red wine, and a good martini is bliss, so I won't swear off these indulgences; I simply try to indulge wisely, not when I'm feeling worn down and in need of rest. Though my impulse after a stressful day may be, "I need a drink!" or "I need chocolate!", I know what I really need is a stress reliever like yin yoga or a long walk, or maybe an early bedtime. Sometimes I have the drink or the chocolate (or both!) anyway, but the point is that there's great power in knowing yourself well enough to prescribe your own cures. You may not always choose to use them, but knowing them is invaluable.

*A note about coffee: Most people I know use coffee as an energy boost, but for me, that doesn't work. It ends up making me more tired in the long run, so I stick to drinking coffee every now and then when I feel like drinking it. For an energy boost, I rely on non-caffeinated stimulants like exercise, water, rest, and breathing exercises.

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