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Trust Yourself to Know What You Need for Your Health

When something about your health concerns you, you may decide to visit your doctor and get help. But if you’re like the countless Americans who feel that traditional medical doctors have failed them, know you are not alone.

You’ve heard it time and again: There’s nothing wrong with you. But the truth is, you have innate intelligence and intuition about your health. If you really feel something is wrong, don’t be falsely reassured by well-meaning traditional MDs without proper investigation. None of us can fully understand health until we look at the complete interaction of genetics, lifestyle, and environment and how each of these communicate with our bodies—something traditional medicine often overlooks. The key is to know the difference between normal and healthy intuition about health, and unhealthy anxiety.

How do you know?

Step 1: Start with your heart. More specifically, check in with yourself by measuring your heart rate variability (HRV). Your heart is at the center of your health, as reflected by HRV.

Your HRV is the pattern of your heart rate—if you have a resting heart rate of sixty, you might think that’s one beat per second, but that would be very low HRV. You actually want variability between the time of each heartbeat; for example, the first gap between heartbeats is 1.00 seconds, and the second is 1.02 seconds, and the next 1.05 seconds, and so on, in order to indicate good HRV.

I think of HRV as a measure of stress resilience, or more precisely, the flexibility of your nervous system, and more flexibility is better. A certain level of variability is considered healthy and advisable. The variability results from several factors, including external (lifestyle, behavioral, and environmental) and internal (neural reflex, neural central, hormonal and other humoral influences). Think of a low resting heart rate and increased HRV as being associated with longevity.

You can measure HRV several ways. I measure mine with my Oura ring, or WellBe bracelet. You can also use a heart rate monitor (a chest strap) connected to a smart phone app like Sweet Beats. I check my HRV in the morning to determine what type of exercise I can accomplish that day – could it be a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) day or do I need more adaptive exercise, like yoga or Pilates or a walk? I’m a warrior type and maybe you are too. I’m not the best at tuning into my body, so my HRV helps me.

Loss of variability is a sign of inner emotional stress and anxiety, and waning adaptive suppleness as well as heart disease. Check early and check often.

Step 2: Test your genes and biomarkers. Genomic testing is a great way to measure your health status and determine what kinds of lifestyle changes are integral to your success. An integrative healthcare practitioner with a focus on functional medicine can help you understand your unique genetic code and recommend dietary and lifestyle changes that will make a lasting difference in your health.

Here are the top seven genes to consider when discovering your genome:

  1. Fatso gene (associated with BMI and risk for obesity)
  2. Methylation/detox gene (responsible for an enzyme that processes vitamin B9 and amino acids and helps detoxify alcohol)
  3. Alzheimer’s and bad heart gene (how you deal with cholesterol and your risk for Alzheimer’s)
  4. Breast cancer genes (susceptibility)
  5. Vitamin D gene (how well you absorb it)
  6. Clock gene (circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle)
  7. Longevity genes (cell growth and survival)

Understanding where you fall with each of these can help you choose the right course of action for your unique body type.

Identify environmental triggers

Although genome mapping is helpful, genetics account for only 10 percent of diseases; the other 90 percent of it is due to environmental exposures. That’s why scientists have developed an important complementary concept called the exposome—the sum of all exposures in an individual over a lifetime from diet, lifestyle, and behaviors and how the body responds to them based on genetics. Your genetics produce specific biomarkers that can be detected in your blood, urine, and hair, which indicate the effect of an exposure and susceptibility factors. They can even help identify the best treatments in some diseases.

Biomarkers include testing for:

  • Blood sugar
  • ALT (liver enzymes)
  • IL-6, hsCRP, homocysteine
  • Heavy metals
  • Metabolic waste products/hormones
  • Immune modulators
  • Persistent organic pollutants
  • Telomere length (timekeepers in your cells that naturally shorten with age, but typically at a slow, healthy rate)

Although biomarkers help your healthcare practitioner accurately measure exposures and their effects, you don’t necessarily need to pay for expensive testing to start bettering your health. Certain lifestyle changes, such as limiting your exposure to toxins, can reverse negative trends and help increase your healthspan.

Own your anxieties

It’s important to differentiate anxiety and healthy intuition—especially when it’s telling you something about your health state. Anxiety may be a sign of a deeper problem, too, such as food intolerances or toxic exposure. These can create unnecessary stress and high cortisol levels, which is why it’s so important to look back at your lifestyle whenever things don’t feel right. Remember: Your genetics, diet, activity levels, thought patterns, and exposures all play a role. If you’re one of the hundred million women who suffer from foggy thinking, anxiety, depression, addiction, forgetfulness, overwhelm, exhaustion, and other seemingly brain-related problems, I encourage you to check out my new book, Brain Body Diet, which is available now on pre-order before publication March 5, 2019.

Take care of you

Self-care requires contemplative inquiry and self-reflection. Without it, it’s hard to become healthy, both inside and out. If caring for your health has not been your focus, ask yourself why. Perhaps your focus has been on your children, partner, or work. But I am here to remind you: Investing in your health is the most important thing you can do—for yourself and for your loved ones. These are a few simple ways you can start.

Dr. Sara Gottfried is a Harvard-trained MD, bestselling author, and leading expert on hormones. For more information, click here:

This essay was featured in the Jan. 13th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.