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.
For more info, see our article Poor Substitutes (Dec. 2007).
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.