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How to know what your body really needs (not just what it wants)

It all started with a little itch on my neck. I’m lifelong enemies with eczema, an annoying skin condition that’s prone to break out during drier months, so itchy skin is normal. But weeks went by, and the dime-sized rash had spread all over and become a literal pain in my neck.

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There were times when the itchiness and redness would recede—oh, the relief! Then a day or two later, eczema would come roaring back. One day, while my eczema was particularly angry, I remembered I had eaten peanut butter the previous day. Thinking it might be related to my eczema, I decided to cut it out. My hunch was right: no peanut butter, no eczema.

It was a startling success that birthed a battery of mad scientist-like self-experiments to figure out a possible dietary connection to my skin condition. What I found blew my mind: tomatoes, eggplants, dairy, and peanut butter all triggered my eczema. As soon as I eliminated them, my skin calmed down, the itchiness gradually disappeared, and oddly enough, my sleep also started improving. All this time my body had been screaming at me, but I refused to listen. The advice to “listen to your body” sounds noble, but in practice, it’s about as useful as telling someone, “Don’t think of a tap-dancing bear in a top hat.” Much of it has to do with modern distractions. “In the 21st century, we’re surrounded by things that are louder than our body’s cues, or disrupt those evolutionarily-based feedback loops,” Dr. Krista Scott-Dixon, Ph.D., Director of Education at Precision Nutrition, told me. Now you don’t need eczema to realize your body might be unhappy with what you’re doing. Take sleepiness, for example. We’re surrounded by artificial lights and technology that disrupt our natural rhythms; if we feel a little groggy, it’s a jumbo-sized coffee to the rescue! Pretty soon this becomes the norm, so even if the body whines a bit, we power through.

So what exactly are some of these body signals? Dr. Scott-Dixon cites your energy levels as a big one, noting, “This isn't just about absolute levels, but also about swings. Do you have ups and downs, or is your energy fairly consistent? Do you feel ‘wired and tired’?” Other powerful indicators include recurring pain, how often you get sick, mood, sex drive, digestion, and weight gain. Sometimes, however, these signals could be “normal” if you’re trying something new. “We often don’t know what’s normal or not normal,” Dr. Brian Wansink, author of “Slim By Design”, adds. He notes that if you change the types of foods you eat, it might be normal to get a headache, feel a little more tired, or have more cravings for a few days as your body gets adjusted. But if you get dizzy when you stand up, for example, that’s the kind of symptom you need to watch out for. Paying attention to your body is one thing, but learning to take its feedback and turn it into something actionable is another. It took me a bit of sleuthing to figure out my own signals (like my eczema), so it could be helpful to keep a journal. Record what you ate, when you fell asleep and woke up, your mood and energy levels, etc. “Sometimes patterns will pop out immediately, like ‘every time I eat food X, I can't stop eating’ or ‘Every time I eat food Y, I get a headache’,” notes Dr. Scott-Dixon. Your body’s signals can be difficult to decipher, but just like anything else, it’s a skill you can get better at to improve your quality of life. This piece was produced in partnership with Nike Training Club. To get started on your fitness journey, download the NTC app here.

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