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).
For more info, see our article Good Bacteria Welcome (July 2007).
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.