ga('create', 'UA-85088576-1', 'auto');
Article adapted from Care2 JUL 20, 2012
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 cause 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.
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. Many people 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 Centre 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, try drinking sparkling water flavoured with a splash of 100 percent fruit juice, and/or a squeeze of lemon or lime.
You’ve got candida overgrowth…
One likely signal: Itchy ears, throat or mucus membranes
Background: The average Australian is eating 25 teaspoons of total sugars (including natural sugars) a day according to the 2012 report Sugar Consumption in Australia: A Statistical Update. 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 ‘colonises’ everything in its path. Among its favourite environs are the body’s warm, dark nooks and crannies, such as between the toes, under the breasts and 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.
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 ageing 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 fibre…
One likely signal: Constipation
Background: Constipation is the clearest indicator of the body’s need for more fibre. “Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate up to 100 grams of fibre a day and had an average stool weight of 2 pounds (907g),” 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 Australian adult consumes 20-25g of fibre a day, and the average bowel movement is a puny 3-4 ounces (85g-113g).” 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 fibre and other nutrients, making them natural go-to foods. Getting the recommended 35 to 40 grams of fibre 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 Centre 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 fibre on salads or oatmeal. She likes rice-bran fibre because it’s gluten-free and has been shown to help eliminate toxins, such as PCBs. Another one of her favourite fibre 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 fibre-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: Anaemia, low energy, fatigue, skin problems, dark circles under the eyes
How to respond: Your best bet is eating a whole-foods diet and prioritising 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 emphasising B-rich foods should be your first priority.
More Than One Way to Heal…
A multi-pronged 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 organisations that provide lists of qualified practitioners.
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.”