Of all the personal pledges you can make in any given year, determining to take care of yourself is, hands-down, the most vital resolution you can make. Nutrition, exercise, sleep, relaxation—all are essential components to optimal health, and all may require some extra fortitude to get in tip-top shape.
But peak health goes beyond these basic necessities. Poor digestion, for one, can impact everything from your energy levels to your ability to sleep restfully, while your weight can influence blood pressure and your vulnerability to diabetes. In other words, resolutions—while admirable—can only get you so far.
One of the first steps in achieving complete wellness? Learning to befriend—and really understand—your body. You know, that temple you govern that tells you when it’s excited, hungry, sad or spent. By mindfully performing a self assessment on a regular basis, you’ll reap a number of benefits—from nipping a health issue in the bud before it develops into a full-fledged illness to detecting physical changes that may point to a psychological malady.
With that in mind, here are 6 tips on how to assess—and address—your health:
1. Check your tresses
Your hair says more about you than just your ethnicity and personal style. Check your strands—and the brush you use to comb them—to see where you stand on the spectrum of wellness. Locks looking lackluster (and your skin seems the same)? You might need an oil change.
Not one at Jiffy Lube, mind you, but an honest evaluation—and possible alteration—of the oils you’re putting in your body. Some oils, like the saturated fats in cheese, butter, and milk, can increase inflammation and lead to acne and thinner, less lustrous hair. “I believe that inflammation is negative for the hair follicle, that it can accelerate stress shedding and compromise growth,” confirms New York-based dermatologist Dr. Doris Day.
The solution? Swapping those animal fats for friendlier oils, such as those found in salmon, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, avocados and flaxseed, all of which naturally support thicker tresses and clearer skin—and decrease inflammation by working on a cellular level to encourage more robust health overall.
Additionally, if your hairbrush needs to be cleaned more often than usual, take a good look at how you’ve been managing stress: telogen effluvium is a period of hair thinning generated by psychological and physical stressors, like a divorce, pregnancy or depression; address its side effects with stress-busting activities and do your best to get rejuvenating rest.
Bonus tip: consider incorporating more zinc into your diet. Zinc is not only crucial for immune health and hair growth, but it also plays a part in the conversion of testosterone to DHT (dihydrotestosterone)—an instigator of blemishes and a culprit in both male and female hair loss.* Chickpeas, chicken, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and cocoa powder possess ample supplies of this imperative mineral.
2. And check your nails while you're at it...
Many women take great pride in their nails when they’re long and strong. But when they crack, split, peel—or appear discolored? There’s a possibility you need more than a mani/pedi: nails can be a mighty-reliable indicator of your overall health.
Weak nails, for instance, may be a health symptom of lower stomach acid and inadequate absorption of nutrients. Its sister, “spoon nails”—a condition in which the nail becomes concave—may be a sign of iron deficiency, while white spots could be a warning that your levels of zinc aren’t where they should be. Note horizontal ridges that weren’t, well, painted on with polish? It could be indicative of a more serious illness, in which case you’ll find these pleats on more than one nail.
The reason, Health reports, is this: “When your body is working overtime to combat an illness, it saves its energy for the important stuff. ‘Your body is literally saying, I’ve got more important things to do than make nails and pauses their growth,” says Cleveland Clinic dermatologist Dr. John Anthony.” And should you see dark stripes or experience a painful growth? Seek a medical opinion immediately—it could be symptomatic of melanoma, particularly in people of Hispanic, Asian and black origin.
3. Observe your elimination
The vast majority of us don’t need a reminder to pay attention to our digestion—after all, it lets us know when something’s up pronto. Nevertheless, take note. Are you having a bowel movement every day? If so, great! If not, consider yourself one of many—constipation and infrequent bowel movements affect nearly eighty percent of the population at some point.
Joining the legions, however, doesn’t render you in the clear: consistent elimination is critical for overall health, as well as for maintaining gut homeostasis. What’s more, infrequent bowel movements can generate a number of distresses, from a distended tummy to uncomfortable gas. Increasing your fiber intake, staying hydrated and getting regular exercise could help you become more regular—if nowhere else than behind the bathroom door.
4. Don’t blow off bloating
Too much wine with dinner, Mexican feasts, that gallon of seltzer you consumed since waking—all can make your stomach swell and create frustration, embarrassment, wardrobe malfunctions and a ton of discomfort. While we’ve all been there, there’s no reason to suffer through it—or to endure it more often than you should have to.
The reasons behind bloating vary widely, from consuming too much fiber to consuming too little. Overeating, dining on rich, fatty foods, chewing gum, dairy products, alcohol—all are possible perpetrators. The key is being sensible about your diet overall (such as resisting the urge to inhale that whole box of cheese crackers) and by using the process of elimination.
For example, you may have gluten intolerance or an autoimmune disorder related to gluten consumption known as celiac disease that can produce everything from joint pain to fatigue. Your doctor can test for celiac disease through a blood test. But many people who don’t have celiac disease don’t digest or tolerate gluten well and it can cause digestive symptoms as well as inflammation in their bodies. The best way to find out if you react to gluten is to go gluten-free for a month to see if you feel better and undergo less bloating.
Another possibility for those achy abs (and the sudden inability to zip up your favorite pants)? A bacterial growth in your small intestine. Otherwise known as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), this condition occurs when the bacteria in your gut gets out of whack and, well, overgrows. Often found in those with diets high in alcohol, refined carbohydrates and sugar, SIBO can generate a world of heartache that moves beyond mere bloating, including cramping and chronic fatigue. Rule it out—or receive help for it—by requesting a test from your doctor.
5. Cue into chronic nausea and stomach stress
There’s nothing fun about waves of nausea and abdominal pain, both of which can make an otherwise fit and healthy person weak and rather fearful. If it happens often enough, you may be due for a trip to your GI. Both tummy troubles could be a sign of gastritis—a condition in which the lining of your stomach becomes inflamed, irritated or eroded. Caused by one too many martinis (or any other excessive alcohol consumption), stress, chronic vomiting and certain medications—even aspirin—gastritis can lead to blood loss and stomach cancer if left untreated. See your doctor for a thorough evaluation and replace acidic foods (vinegar, tomatoes, citrus) with soothing forms of sustenance like well-cooked rice, soup and squash.
6. Mind muscle cramps and eye twitches
Experiencing inexplicable muscle cramps or eye twitching (such a peculiar feeling, isn’t it?) Investigate how much water you’ve been drinking. Both conditions may be symptomatic of dehydration, a complication that can trigger lethargy, excessive sweating, diarrhea, vomiting and fever (as well as major issues when severe like seizures and hypovolemic shock). Because thirst isn’t as reliable of an indicator of dehydration as we may think, aim to consume at least half of your body weight in water daily.
Furthermore, consider this: dehydration often depletes electrolytes—a certain set of nutrients that end with “um” (including sodium, calcium and potassium) that regulate essential functions like heartrate and mental clarity. Reach for an electrolyte-rich drink such as coconut water to replace fluid loss after an intense workout (or during an intense hangover), or mix up your own brew at home: mix 1 tsp of salt with 1 tsp of sugar, 1 cup of juice and 2 liters of water.
And go for foods high in magnesium—not getting enough of this key mineral may lead to tender muscles, facial and eye tics and poor sleep—by filling your plate with yogurt, bananas, leafy greens, dried fruit and dark chocolate. Who knew monitoring your health could feel—and taste—so decadent?
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.