In several blog posts I have made reference to the idea of “listening to your body”. Each time I do I get comments, so I thought I would devote an entire post to the topic.
Restoring health involves identifying those things that are contributing to illness and correctly identifying lifestyle changes and therapies that actually help the body to return to optimal function. In naturopathic medicine we have many tools at our disposal 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 and useful, 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 and your particular needs. This expert is your body. The trick is knowing how to listen to this expert and to understand what he or she is 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 bodies are giving them and, to my knowledge, none of them light incense to do it.
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.
Our brains continuously gather information through our peripheral nerves and sense organs (eyes, ears, etc.). They also gather information through internal sense receptors associated with our muscles, joints and internal organs. As our internal state moves towards or away from balance and optimal function, these receptors will register the changes in organs and tissues and send the information along to the brain. These messages will be perceived at a conscious level as a variety of 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 in the body. A body in healthy balance feels good to live in! As specific organs and tissues move out of balance and 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 vocabulary of the body. What we feel from moment to moment as we move through the day is not random and it is not without purpose. The sensations or feelings we experience are feedback to alert us to the fact that something is right . . . or that something is wrong. If we pay attention to what our bodies are telling us it is often fairly easy to identify the cause of changes in how we feel and use that information to guide us in the future.
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? . . . pause for time to reflect . . . . That’s right, they’re telling you that your body was nourished and not burdened or intoxicated by that meal.
Now if you eat a meal containing certain foods and half an hour later your nasal passages are considerably more congested, and an hour later your arthritis pain is worse and you feel heavy and lethargic (I’m being a little dramatic for emphasis), 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 we’re getting enough rest, the type or level of exercise we engage in, even whether or not the company we keep or the radio station we listen to is contributing to our wellbeing or detracting from it. The body is always giving us 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 receiving feedback from the body and responding to it is a natural and inborn ability. Your cat or dog has it, and so does your parakeet. If we haven’t been doing it, it is because it has been educated out of us in some 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 what our own bodies are telling 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 Do It
First of all, be patient and allow your natural curiosity to guide you. There are no right answers – only what you find. 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 any particular sensations or symptoms 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? 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 eat the meal. Do any of the internal sensations or feelings that you have change as you eat the meal? Is your internal state moving towards a more pleasant or unpleasant state?
- Check in again 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?
- 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 feel more unpleasant after the meal, what about it do you think or feel contributed to this reduced state of well-being?
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, or it may take you some time and deduction to figure it out. The more you do it, the easier it will become and the better you will get at it.
Once you are used to the process, you can begin to notice how all sorts of things affect your internal environment and use that information to guide you to make more health promoting choices.
Wolves in Sheep’s clothing
A little warning: 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.
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.
Putting Things in Perspective
We live in an age with many sources of information, some of them excellent, some of them . . . 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 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 we practice individualized medicine rather than medicine driven by standardized protocols).
The feedback that our bodies give us moment to moment as we move through life is an 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 the language of your body and becoming an active participant in your own journey towards better health.
Food for thought
In 1912 Abdu’l-Bahá, the much loved son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith traveled from Palestine 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”.