What Your Body Is Trying to Tell You: 9 Signs You Shouldn’t Ignore

What Your Body Is Trying to Tell You: 9 Signs You Shouldn’t Ignore

The body is a magnificent machine. When things go awry, it generally  doesn’t  just shut down without warning, like an incandescent light bulb  popping its  filament. Instead it sends us little signals (think of them  as gentle  biological taps on the shoulder) letting us know that  something is amiss.

“Physical signs and symptoms are ways your body  tries to alert you to deeper  imbalances,” says Elson M. Haas, MD, a San  Rafael, Calif., physician with a  natural-medicine approach and author of  Staying  Healthy with Nutrition (Celestial Arts,  2006). “Taking the  time to decipher the body’s codes is always better than  simply popping a  pill and hoping the symptoms just go away. Ideally, we want to  get to  the causes of problems, not just suppress the end result of ill health.”  But interpreting the body’s quirky Morse code requires a deep level  of body  awareness that, like any skill, takes time and practice to  perfect. To that  end, we recruited a handful of the country’s leading  integrative health  practitioners to help identify nine of the most  common conditions underlying  frequent, and sometimes mysterious,  symptoms. Read on to clue into your body’s  messages.

You’re  drinking too much diet soda…

One likely signal: Headaches

Background: Artificial sweeteners, particularly  aspartame   (found in Nutrasweet and Equal), can trigger headaches, even  migraines.  At  highest risk are people with a genetic disorder called   phenylketonuria (or PKU  for short); they lack the enzyme needed to   metabolize a substance  (phenylalanine) that is created when the body   breaks down aspartame. But even those without the genetic  disorder may   find that drinking diet soda results in brain fog or  headache. Why?  Animal  studies have shown aspartame to be a potent  neurotoxin, at least  in young  rats. I’m concerned about whether  aspartame might cause nerve  damage in  humans, as well — or at least  disrupt the nerve signaling that  enables the  brain to register  satiety,” says Sharon Fowler, MPH, a  faculty associate at  the  University of Texas Health Science Center at  San Antonio who studies  the  health effects of artificial sweetener use.  One of the prime  suspects is the  methanol in aspartame, which is broken  down into  formaldehyde, a known  carcinogen. People who are sensitive to   formaldehyde may experience headaches  after ingesting aspartame.

Other signals: Intense cravings for sweet or salty  foods,   inability to focus, irritability

How to respond: When the urge for diet soda strikes,  Kathie  Swift, MS, RD, LDN, chief nutrition adviser for the online-based  sites   MyFoodMyHealth and My Foundation Diet, suggests drinking  sparkling  water  flavored with a splash of 100 percent fruit juice and a  squeeze  of lime.

You’ve got candida overgrowth…

One likely signal: Itchy ears, throat or mucus   membranes

Background: The average American downs nearly 150  pounds of  sugar and high-fructose corn syrup a year, according to the  United  States Department of Agriculture. And if you’re eating anywhere  near that much  sugar, you may have more than just a sweet tooth — your  body may be hosting an  unhealthy overgrowth of Candida albicans.  A small amount of this  common, yeast like fungus living in the gut is OK  when its numbers are kept in  check by healthy flora. But when an  intestinal imbalance allows it to run amok,  it acts like kudzu,  colonizing everything in its path. Among its favorite  environs are the  body’s warm, dark nooks and crannies, such as between the  toes, under  the breasts and, yes, in the ears. As it infiltrates, it irritates  and  inflames the skin, leading to the telltale signs of itching and  redness.

Other signals: Mood swings, fatigue, weak immune  system, weight gain, frequent yeast  infections

How to respond: If you think you have candida  overgrowth,  the quickest fix is to starve the little buggers. Candida  flourish in the  presence of both refined and unrefined sugar, such as  fresh fruit, dried fruit  and fruit juice. Cutting off their food supply  can bring their numbers back to  a healthy level. They also love refined  flour products and anything fermented,  such as alcohol and soy, so if  you have a serious overgrowth, you may need to  cut out all of the above  for a number of consecutive weeks.

You’re  dehydrated…

One likely signal: Chapped lips

Background: Lips are a reflection of the health and   hydration of the entire body. “If you are well hydrated, then your lips  will be  well hydrated,” says Elizabeth Lipski, PhD, clinical  nutritionist and author of  Digestive Wellness (McGraw-Hill,  2004). Less water  in the body means less moisture for the skin– the  body’s largest organ. The  delicate tissue of the lips is extra sensitive  to drought. “If you are  constantly using lip balm or lip gloss to sooth  chapped lips, it’s a sign you  need to drink up,” says Lipski.

Other signals: Headaches, infrequent urination, dark  yellow  or smelly urine, dry skin, slow turgor (meaning that if you  pinch the skin on  the back of your hand, it doesn’t snap right back into  place). Although the  aging process slows turgor down somewhat, even in  older adults it still should  return to normal within a second or two.

How to respond: Drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of  water a  day can be intimidating, says Swift, so if you’re not able to  quaff that  amount, you can still get hydrated by sipping herbal tea and  working additional  servings of fruits and vegetables into your daily  diet. “The transition to a  more whole-foods diet puts us on autopilot to  get more water because they are  naturally high in moisture,” says  Swift. And, make sure to include whole foods  that are rich in essential  fatty acids, such as nuts and seeds, avocados, and  anchovies and  sardines, which help maintain healthy cell membranes and hold in   moisture.

You’re  not getting enough fiber…

One likely signal: Constipation

Background: Constipation is the clearest indicator  of the  body’s need for more fiber. “Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate up  to 100 grams  of fiber a day and had an average stool weight of 2  pounds,” says Mark Hyman,  MD, the editor of Alternative Therapies in  Health and Medicine and  author of The UltraSimple  Diet (Pocket Books, 2007).

“Today, the average American eats less than 8 grams of fiber a day,  and the  average bowel movement is a puny 4 ounces.” That’s a problem, he  says, because  the bowels are key to the body’s elimination process.  When traffic is backed  up, toxins from the bowel leach back into the  body and can cause a multitude of  inflammation-based health problems in  everything from your  digestion and skin to your heart and brain. They  can also disrupt hormonal  balance and immunity. The bottom line, Hyman  says: “If stools are hard and hard  to pass, you’ve got a problem.”

Other signals: Frequent hunger pangs, energy slumps,   digestive trouble, skin problems, inflammatory conditions

How to respond: Eat more legumes, vegetables, fruits  and  whole grains. All are chock-full of fiber and other nutrients,  making them  natural go-to foods. Getting the recommended 35 to 40 grams  of fiber a day not only improves bowel health, but it also  lowers the  risk of diabetes and heart disease, says Andrew Weil, MD, director  of  the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine of the College of Medicine  at  the University of Arizona in Tucson.

If you want other ways to sneak extra roughage into your day, Swift  suggests  sprinkling rice-bran fiber on salads or oatmeal. She likes  rice-bran fiber  because it’s gluten-free and has been shown to help  eliminate toxins, such as  PCBs. Another one of her favorite fiber  boosters is a seasoning she makes out  of crushed pumpkin seeds, ground  flax meal, sesame seeds, kelp flakes and sea salt —  basically, a riff on  gomasio, which is used as a salt alternative in Japanese  cuisine. Put  it in a wrap, sprinkle over brown rice or use to garnish soups,  she  says. “The nuts, seeds and ocean veggies are a nutrient- and  fiber-licous  powerhouse.” (Keep it in the fridge to lengthen its  lifespan.)

You  have a B-vitamin deficiency…

One likely signal: Cracks at the corners of the  mouth

Background: “You see nutritional deficiencies first  in  those  tissues that turn over the quickest, such as the tongue and  lips,” says   Lipski. Studies show that cracks or sores that appear at the  corners  of the  mouth (a.k.a. cheilitis) may be a sign that your body  isn’t  getting enough B  vitamins. “Deficiencies of one or more of the B   vitamins may occur fairly  easily,” notes Haas, “especially with diets   that include substantial amounts  of refined and processed food, sugar or   alcohol.”

Other signals: Anemia, low energy, fatigue, skin  problems,   dark circles under the eyes

How to respond: Your best bet is eating a  whole-foods  diet and prioritizing foods high in B vitamins.  The richest   dietary source of B vitamins is found in brewer’s yeast or  nutritional   yeast (although, if you have candida issues, you’ll want to skip  those).   Other solid picks include wheat germ, whole grains, legumes, egg   yolks,  sweet potatoes, salmon, red meat, liver and poultry.

Taking a good B-complex vitamin  supplement can also be helpful  (particularly if  you’re a  vegetarian). Under the care of a nutritionally  inclined health   professional, you may also be prescribed a supplement  for a specific B  vitamin  (or even given a vitamin B-12 shot) to help  correct a  significant deficiency.  But be careful mixing up your own  B-vitamin  cocktails. When taken in excess  and out of balance with other  B’s,  certain B vitamins can wind up leaching  nutrients out of your  system.  That’s why emphasizing B-rich foods should be  your first  priority.

You’re eating something that doesn’t agree with you…

One likely signal: Eczema

Background: First a little background about food  intolerances. When the body doesn’t tolerate a food  well, ingesting that  food creates a chronic, low-level irritation or  inflammation in the  gut. Over time, with regular exposure, the irritation  worsens and  creates fissures in the spaces between the cells. (Picture the  walls of  the gut, once tightly knitted together, looking more like an old   afghan.) These holes allow bacteria and their toxins, as well as  incompletely  digested proteins and fats, to “leak” out of the gut and  into the bloodstream.  Called leaky gut syndrome (or increased intestinal  permeability), this  condition sets the stage for myriad health  problems, including rashes and skin  problems, like eczema.

The skin is the body’s largest elimination organ, notes Lipski, so  it’s not  surprising that it comes under assault when toxins careen  through the  bloodstream. “A skin rash or eczema is a sign that the body  is trying to slough out  these toxins,” she says. “It’s trying to  eliminate the problem the best way it  knows how.

Other signals: Gas, bloating, fatigue, sinus  congestion,  foggy thinking

How to respond: An elimination diet is the best way  to  pinpoint the offending food. “Start with one or two foods you  suspect,” says  Swift, who prefers to call this the “illumination diet”  because its focus is on  “illuminating your health.”

Don’t know where to start? Foods that are most likely to wreak havoc  on the  gut include wheat and gluten-containing products, dairy products,  sugar, soy, eggs, corn and yeast. If you’re  uber-motivated, take Haas’s  advice and go off what he calls “the big five” for  a week: wheat,  dairy, sugar, caffeine and alcohol. “It’s not easy to do”, he  admits, “but you’re guaranteed to learn a lot about your body’s signals.” You  might also consider keeping a food journal. Spend a week or two  writing down  what you eat and how your body feels in the minutes, hours  and days afterward  (e.g., an hour after you eat dairy, you feel  bloated). “It’s about pattern and  symptom recognition and connecting the  dots,” says Swift, which in turn helps  you decide which foods to  eliminate first.

You’re  drinking too much caffeine…

One likely signal: Fatigue

Background: “Caffeine goes to an already low energy  bank account and  tries to lend it a little extra energy for the short  term,” says Haas. “But  it’s getting that energy from your own stores,  meaning you have less and less  on reserve, leaving you less able to  generate your own energy on an ongoing  basis.”

Caffeine works by stimulating the central nervous system.  Specifically, the  chemical gooses the adrenal glands into releasing  hormones — namely cortisol  and adrenaline that tell the body to go  faster. The short-term result can be  increased focus and better hand-eye  coordination. But overdo caffeine on a  regular basis and, eventually,  the central nervous system runs out of gas. “If  you don’t restore  yourself with sleep, nutrients and relaxation, you’ll quickly get into a   cycle of whipping a weakened horse,” says Haas.

Other signals: Jitters, agitation, insomnia,  heartbeat  irregularities, frequent urination

How to respond: Weil advises limiting your daily  dose of  caffeine to less than 300 milligrams (mg). As a reference, a  12-ounce cup of  Starbucks brewed coffee packs 260 mg of caffeine, while a  12-ounce Americano  (two shots of the coffee chain’s espresso added to  hot water) contains 150 mg.  A 12-ounce cup of black tea, on the other  hand, contains roughly 100 mg and  green tea only 50 mg. “If you’re going  to indulge,” advises Swift, “think about  the quality of the source. Are  you drinking green tea or a chemical-laden energy drink? What’s a   healthy amount for you? Most people know what amount their system can  handle,”  she says. In the meantime, support your adrenal glands with B  vitamins  (especially B5/pantothenic acid), vitamin C and licorice. Also,  fuel up on  healthy, whole foods that boost and maintain your energy.

You’re low on stomach acid…

One likely signal: Burping and indigestion

Background: If you’re low on stomach acid, your body  won’t  digest foods efficiently, especially dense foods like fats and  proteins. When  food sits in the stomach, so does the air you naturally  swallow when you eat.  The air has only two options — get pushed down the  digestive tract with food or  catch the next flight up the esophagus and  out the mouth. The longer food  loiters in the stomach, the more likely  you’ll burp.

Other signals: Gastric reflux, weak immune system,  cracked  fingernails, chronic infections, gas

How to respond: Boost the first phase of digestion by becoming a more “sensory-based eater,” says  Swift. “That means enjoy  the sight and smell of the meal before you dig in so  that your gut has  time to release digestive factors, such as hydrochloric acid,  in  anticipation of a meal.” Then, eat more mindfully. Chew your food so  that it’s easier for  the gut to digest, especially proteins and fats.

If you still feel like your food sits in your stomach like a rock,  Haas  recommends trying digestive enzymes, which can help you better  digest your  food. For example, he says, you might try a product called  betaine  hydrochloride with pepsin (a time-released protein digestant),  found at  health-food stores.

Hydrochloric acid is the main ingredient in stomach acid. By taking  it as a  supplement, you’re basically giving your stomach a head start,  especially with  proteins and fats, which are the hardest food stuffs to  digest, meaning they  require more stomach acids than carbs. After you  begin eating a meal with  protein and fat, for instance, take one  capsule. See how you feel after a  couple of meals. If you feel OK, you  can try two capsules and gradually  increase to three or four. If you  have any sensation of burning or acid  indigestion, cut back to a level  where you didn’t experience any negative side  effects.

You’re  short on good flora…

One likely signal: Frequent colds

Background: The immune system‘s command center is  housed inside the gut.  “An ecological imbalance of organisms in the gut  means the body can’t defend  itself against unfriendly microbes,” says  Swift. “The result is we get sick a  lot.” Ironically, says Hyman, it’s  often medicine, such as antibiotics, that  wipe out the gut’s supply of  good bacteria. “When we wipe them out again and  again with antibiotics  and then eat a poor diet, it’s a disaster for the gut.”  That, in turn,  can spell trouble for the rest of the body.

Other signals: Intestinal gas, bloating, loose  stools or  constipation, vaginal yeast infections, urinary tract  infections, skin rash,  athlete’s foot, nail fungus

How to respond: The experts agree that one of the  easiest  (and most delicious) ways to restore the gut’s healthy flora is  to eat more  foods rich in good bacteria, such as miso, sauerkraut,  kombucha (a fermented Japanese tea),  yogurt that contains live bacteria,  and kefir (a fermented milk drink). “The  gut houses 5 pounds of  beneficial bacteria,” notes Haas. “We have to feed this  stuff.”

If you think your gut needs more than food can deliver, Weil  recommends  taking a daily probiotic that contains Lactobacillus GG or  Bacillus coagulans (BC-30).

Although many of the body’s messages can be decoded with a little  guesswork  and a lot of active listening, it’s important to remember that  some of these  same symptoms can be signs of more serious illnesses. If,  after a couple of  weeks of self-care, things don’t improve or resolve,  it’s best to consult a  health-care professional.

“A chronic ache or pain is an invitation to stop and take a look at  your  life,” says Lipski. “Your body is telling you it’s time to make a  change.  Respect its request and odds are you’ll be heading off a greater  health issue  down the pike.”

More Than One Way to Heal

A multipronged approach to health-care — seeking advice from both  alternative medicine practitioners as well as Western  doctors — can help  you decode your body’s warning signals before they cascade  into  something more serious.

Western medicine has many strengths: stamping out infections;  treating  emergencies, like heart attacks; and swooping in with trauma  care after an  accident or disaster. But when a condition is hard to  diagnose, or is chronic  or nagging, like poor digestion, insomnia or  general fatigue, going outside the  doctor’s office may be your best bet.

“Most medical-school curriculum focuses on acute care and doesn’t  adequately  train for chronic health issues — which constitute the most  common troubles for  most of the patients they see,” says Elizabeth  Lipski, PhD, CCN, and author of  Digestive Wellness (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

As both a medical doctor and a naturopath, Elson M. Haas has a foot  in each  world. He tends to agree with Lipski’s take, and he also sees  limitations in  the way that Western medical practitioners typically try  to snuff out the  body’s attempts to heal.

“Many symptoms, such as sinus congestion, allergies and excess mucus,  are  ways it’s trying to rid itself of excess toxins,” he says. “Western  medicine  tries to control these symptoms, by suppressing the fever or  drying up the  congestion, instead of supporting the body’s natural means  of elimination and  detoxification.”

Alternative practitioners come in many forms. In addition to your  primary  care physician, consider seeing a chiropractor or osteopath if  your condition  is skeletal; a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner  for hormone imbalances; or a  naturopath for overall wellness, digestive,  immunity and dietary advice. All of  these modalities have regulating  organizations that provide lists of qualified  practitioners.

Catherine Guthrie is a freelance writer based in Bloomington,   Ind.