I’ve stated in several blog posts that it’s important to “listen to your body”. Each time I do I get comments, so I thought I would devote an entire post to the topic.
As a naturopathic clinic we are focused on identifying underlying factors that contribute to illness and specific lifestyle changes and therapies that can help the body restore optimal function. There are many tools we use to help us do this: taking a thorough medical history, doing a physical exam, ordering lab tests, consulting medical texts or research literature, employing our knowledge of specific medicines and therapies, consulting with our colleagues, etc.
While all of these are important, we can do an even better job if we employ the services of a specialist who is an expert in the nuances of your health challenges and your particular needs. This expert is your body. The trick is knowing how to listen to your body and to understand what it is actually saying.
For some of you, the idea of listening to your body may sound a little too “touchy feely” or “New Age”. You may be worried that I’m about to ask you to light some incense and a candle. Have no fear, I will do no such thing.
The idea that our bodies are providing feedback about our health and our responses to foods and other external influences is grounded in biology. Every animal listens to the feedback their body is giving them and uses that information moment to moment to assist them throughout each day.
How Your Body Talks To You
Our bodies do talk to us, but they generally don’t use the English language. They talk to us in the language of feeling or sensation.
Here’s how it works.
Your brain is continuously gathering information through your sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, etc.). It is also gathering information through internal sense receptors located in muscles, joints and internal organs. As your internal organs and tissues move towards or away from balance and optimal function, these receptors will register the changes and send the information along to the brain. These nerve signals are then perceived at a conscious level as sensations in various locations throughout the body.
Pleasant is Good, Unpleasant, Not So Good
Signals from the body that indicate a state of balance and optimal functioning are generally perceived at a conscious level as pleasant sensations: lightness, calmness, strength, energy, etc. A body in healthy balance feels good to live in! As specific organs and tissues move out of balance and begin to function less optimally, (as inflammation or acidity sets in), the messages sent to the brain will be experienced as unpleasant sensations: pain, pressure, heaviness, fatigue, tension, etc.
These sensations, pleasant and unpleasant, are the language of the body. What you feel from moment to moment as you move through the day is not random. It is serving a purpose. The sensations or feelings you experience are feedback to alert you to the fact that something is right . . . or that something is wrong. If you listen to your body as it sends these messages it is often fairly easy to identify the reason underlying the sensations and to use that information to guide you towards restoring balance.
For example, if you eat a meal containing certain foods and you feel light, refreshed and restored afterwards (all pleasant sensations), and you continue to feel refreshed and restored for several hours afterwards, what do you think those sensations are telling you about the meal you just ate? That’s right, they’re telling you that your body was nourished and not burdened or intoxicated by that meal. This is really how simple it is to listen to your body.
Now if you eat a meal containing certain foods and half an hour later your nasal passages are congested, and an hour later your arthritis pain is worse and you feel heavy and lethargic, what are those sensations telling you about the meal you just ate? I think you get the idea.
This feedback applies to much more than just food. It applies to wether or not you’re getting enough rest, the type or level of exercise you engage in, even whether or not the company you keep or the radio station you listen to is contributing to your wellbeing or detracting from it. The body is always giving you feedback.
And, while there’s obviously a lot of complexity involved in the many types and locations of sensations we have and how to interpret them, at a basic level it’s quite simple: pleasant is good, unpleasant, not so good.
This process of listening to your body and responding to it is a natural and inborn ability. Your cat or dog has it, and so does your parakeet. If you haven’t been doing it, it is because you have lost touch with it somewhere along the way. In general, I think most of us have been taught that the “expert” is out there somewhere, and that we can’t really trust what we feel and think about things. As a result we tend to look “out there” for answers and often ignore the whispers or screams our own bodies are sending us.
I’m not saying that experts and external sources of information are useless. Sometimes they are invaluable. What I am saying is that to varying degrees, most of us have lost touch with this important and reliable source of internal information, and that if we employ it, our lives and health will benefit significantly.
How To Listen To Your Body: The Details
First of all, be patient and allow your natural curiosity to guide you. There are no right answers – only what you discover. Food is an easy place to start, so we will use eating a meal as an example of how to increase awareness of your body’s feedback.
- Before a meal, take a moment to turn your attention towards your body. What do you notice? Do you feel light? Relaxed? Tense? Energetic? Tired? Peaceful? Do you notice particular sensations in any specific locations within your body, such as pressure, heaviness or pain? Do you have sensations that you can identify but can’t really describe in words? If so, that’s fine, not all sensations can easily be described with language. Which of your sensations are pleasant and which of them are unpleasant?
- Now, go ahead and eat your meal. Notice how you feel as you do so. Notice how you feel as you eat particular foods that are part of the meal. Do any of the internal sensations or feelings that you have change? Is your internal state moving towards a more pleasant or unpleasant state?
- Check in about an hour after the meal. How do you feel now? Is your overall internal state more pleasant or unpleasant? Are you noticing any changes in specific sensations or symptoms that you have?
- Check in again about two to three hours after the meal. Ask the same questions as above.
- If you have a more pleasant feeling after the meal, what about the meal do you think or feel it was that contributed to this improved sense of well-being? If you have a more unpleasant feeling after the meal, what about it do you think or feel contributed to this reduced state of well-being? It’s important to trust your hunches with this process. You won’t be right all of the time, but you may be surprised to discover how often your hunches turn out to be right.
If you do this exercise at every meal for a week, you may be amazed at what you discover. You may find that you immediately understand what specific food or other factor lead to feeling better or worse. However, it may also take you some time and deduction to begin to understand what your body is telling you. The more you do it, the more natural it will become and the easier it will be to successfully listen to your body and understand its messages.
Once you are used to the process, you will begin to notice how all sorts of things affect your internal environment and be able to use that information to guide you to make more health promoting choices. In a world where we are continually bombarded by external messages, this can be incredibly refreshing.
Developing discernment As You Listen To Your Body
Some finesse and discernment is necessary in this process.
Sometimes things that ultimately do us harm will make us feel good in the short run. Sugar is a great example of this, so is caffeine. Both of these will give you a boost for a little while but leave you lagging later on and ultimately steal from your health bank account. Similarly, gossiping with coworkers around the water cooler may be fun in the moment, but leave you feeling guilty and uneasy when you find yourself standing in the elevator with the subject of your gossip later on.
Here’s the key. Foods, habits and activities that are truly health promoting have a lasting positive impact on us, not just a short term positive impact that turns into yuck later. That is why I frequently ask my patients how a meal made them feel not only right after they ate it but three hours later as well!
Here is another post that goes into greater detail on this topic: Eat foods that make you feel good, now . . . and later.
Putting Things in Perspective
We live in an age with almost unlimited access to information. Some of that information is excellent, some of it . . . not so much. All good sources of information are useful and important when we are trying to sort out chronic health problems (or life’s other difficulties).
Most widely available sources of health information are, by necessity, somewhat general in nature. The utility of this information is like a one-size-fits-all T shirt. It may cover most people, but it will only fit a small percentage of people well. (This is why, as a naturopathic doctor, I practice individualized medicine rather than medicine driven by standardized protocols).
The feedback that your body gives you as you move through life is a unique and invaluable source of information that cannot come from anywhere else. It cannot be replicated by a lab test, a book, or your doctor. You can help yourself, and your doctor, by learning to listen to your body and becoming an active participant in your own journey towards better health.
A Final Thought
In 1912, Abdu’l-Bahá, the much loved son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith traveled from Palestine, where he had lived his entire life, to the United States to spread his father’s message. He was encouraged by some of those traveling with him to make his passage across the Atlantic on the historic maiden voyage of that magnificent luxury liner, the Titanic. Abdu’l-Baha declined to do so and traveled instead on a much more modest ship, the Cedric. When asked later why he had not chosen to travel on the Titanic his response was “My heart did not prompt me to do so”.
Sometimes, listening to my body is one of those unpleasant exercises mentioned in the post. So, much like my approach to gluten, I avoid listening to my body, punk rock and the Kardashians at all costs. But this post has motivated me to try again, so I’ll listen to my body, accompanied by Beethoven’s 9th which should mask much of the unpleasantness. I also agree with the practice of staying away from Titanic portions of food (I just skimmed the post and may be unclear on the point). Seriously, this is another worthy article, packed with valuable information and wisdom. Thanks Dr. Sandro!!
Dan, It’s true that sometimes we do listen to our bodies and we just don’t like what they’re telling us!
Thank you for this wonderful article Dr. Sandro. For some reason, listening to my body currently does not come naturally to me and requires some work and dedicated attention (at least initially I think) to get into the habit. I believe that our culture and modern lifestyles have us chasing stimulation and things which are instantly gratifying and constantly ignoring or trying to minimize unpleasant feelings/emotions/sensations. This desensitization for me at least is my current norm. Now, I am trying to pay more attention to my body and stop and listen. The messages really are there if I take the time to listen. This article helps greatly.
I want to emphasize that we don’t listen to our bodies’just so we can feel the unpleasant sensations there, but so that we can understand their messages and make changes that will not only improve our health, but shift what we feel in our bodies towards more pleasant sensations. As I said in the post “An optimally functioning body is an ebjoyable place to live”.
For some of us the ‘unpleasantness’ continues to damage. Real trouble. I too believe not only in listening but in talking to my body, and appreciating what it does for me, has tolerated, and tries to overcome. Give it some compassion.
As a nurse, I have hoped to help others learn how to listen, pay attention to their bodies..this article would have been a big help. I’ll use it now.
Thanks Barbara. Compassion towards our bodies could be the subject of a whole other post.