Key takeaways

We believe that you are the master of your health. No test, no specialist and no doctor can possibly know your body the way you do. If your health isn’t as good as you want it to be, I’d love to introduce you to personal health literacy so that you can add this to your toolkit.

What is health literacy? 

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare describes health literacy as “relating to how people access, understand and use health information in ways that benefit their health. People with low health literacy are at higher risk of worse health outcomes and poorer health behaviours”. 

At Melbourne Functional Medicine we appreciate that understanding how to access and use health information is valuable. We also know that understanding your own body and interpreting its feedback is a fundamental health skill. 

What is personal health literacy?

From a health coach’s perspective, personal health literacy is perhaps the skill most worth developing in order to be the master of your health. 

The simplest way to describe personal health literacy (let’s refer to it from here as health literacy) is an understanding of your body, what makes it feel and perform optimally, as well as understanding what the triggers of poorer health are. 

It's not unlike the broader definition (of health literacy), with the subtle, but meaningful shift towards an internal focus. When you know your body intimately, and pay attention to the feedback it gives you, you’re in an optimal position to make the best decisions for your health.

Other words that can be used in this context include self mastery, intuition, instinct, knowing and self-awareness.

Before we get into the strategies of building your health literacy, why does it matter?

It matters because without it, you’re ‘driving’ blind. If you’re not able to tune into your body and understand the feedback it gives you, it is significantly more difficult to make optimal health decisions. 

The short-term cost is discomfort with symptoms such as pain, bloating, inflammation, aches, and fatigue. The longer-term cost is the outcome of those symptoms not being attended to. Symptoms are feedback that something is wrong and needs attention. If you ignore the symptoms, you do so at your own risk. 

Health literacy sounds great, but how do you do it?

We live in a busy world full of distractions. There is SO MUCH NOISE. 

When I think of good health and how we are designed to navigate it, I think back to a simpler time. Not necessarily caveman times, but all of man’s history up until perhaps the industrial revolution, at which point the pace of life increased dramatically (and hasn’t slowed since). 

The key principles of health were simple: eat seasonal, ‘real’ food, eat slowly (chewing well), sleep when the sun sets and wake with the light of day, move often throughout the day, physically move stress out of your body when it occasionally happens, live in tribes for connection and purpose, use nature for remedies…and so on. Simple. Life was largely informed by nature and the natural rhythms of seasons.

Let’s throw some contrast on this and think about what life looks like in 2022, appreciating that we still have all the same wiring designed to keep humans functioning in a less complicated world. 

Now we eat food all year round (even when it should be out of season), packaged or refined and processed food makes up a lot of modern ‘nutrition’, electronics keep us stimulated long past our natural sleeping rhythm, we spend most of our time indoors sedentary, stress is present and constant in myriad ways, we are distanced from our tribes and we rely on manufactured pharmaceuticals to overcome simple and complex health issues (of which we have more of now than at any other time in history).

The reason I show the contrast is because one of the factors that can make accessing health literacy so difficult is the noise and distraction of the modern world. It can be really difficult to notice what is happening in your body when there are so many things going on, pulling your attention ‘out there’. 

Many patients tell me they just thought their symptoms were ‘normal’. That is not true, but is widely accepted.

There are three key parts to developing health literacy:

  1. Developing both a willingness and the skill to listen to and hear the feedback your body gives you (symptoms)
  2. Understanding what to do with that information (what contributed to this symptom?)
  3. Trusting that what your body is telling you is true

When you first learn about health literacy, if you have never paid attention to your body’s signals, it can seem untenable. I recommend you approach it in 3 steps, and graduate as you become more attuned.

Step 1: Collect data

Collecting data is a great first step to understand what is happening in your body. 

Some of the ways you can do this include:

  • Using a tracking device like Oura Ring, FitBit, Garmin, Apple Watch to collect data and report on heart rate variability (HRV), sleep, movement, resting heart rate, active heart rate, etc.
  • Using apps or a tracking/food and symptom diary to record what you’ve eaten and make a note of any symptoms (energy, digestive symptoms like fast of slow bowels, pain or bloating, skin reactions, mood changes, joint pain, brain fog, and so on)
  • Keeping a nightly diary of your day, reporting on things like where you are in your monthly cycle (if applicable), noting any significant stressors, perhaps things that occupied your mind

Do this for weeks or months until you are becoming familiar with what your ‘normal’ looks like or what patterns might be emerging with your symptoms.

Step 2: Start to pair the data with your symptoms or how you feel

This is an exciting step and the one that has potential to massively elevate your health literacy. This is also where we move into the body (and out of the head). You’ve spent some time data gathering, now we want to start to tune into the body and pair up the data with the ‘feels’. 

When you look at your symptom diary or HRV report, start to recognise how you felt in your body. 

Earlier we touched on the noise of the world - it might be helpful to create small windows of quiet time to allow for this introspection. 

When you are reviewing your insights, see if you can recall the feeling in your body. What symptoms were you experiencing? What patterns begin to appear over time? What are you able to sync up between how your body feels and the data you’ve been collecting?

Step 3: Lose the data

You’ve now been collecting data long enough to use that as a baseline. Then you’ve spent some time marrying up the data with the cognitive check-in with your body. 

The third step is to tune in often and hear what your body is telling you. 

The vision here is to be so intimately aware of your own body that you no longer rely on an external informer. What you choose to do with the information is of course up to you, but the powerful piece here is that you know what elements are contributing to your wellbeing and you are informed when making choices like:

  • What is the right kind of movement for me today? It definitely won’t be the same every day and might be impacted by life events, stress, alcohol, poor sleep, over exertion in a previous session or lack of recovery. When you create a ‘set and forget’ plan for exercise, you lose the ability to train in an appropriate way for how you are today
  • If stress is higher or life is busier, how much more sleep or restorative time does my body prefer or need to function well?
  • When I eat….my body tells me…..
  • I know that when I’m more emotionally stressed I need to increase/decrease….

Deciding that you want to invest in and refine your health literacy is a skill for ‘future you’. 

When I’m discussing health literacy with patients, it's important to know that it’s never about being perfect or living a life of deprivation. Rather, you’re able to make informed choices. 

How do you use health literacy?

In every way! 

The first part of using health literacy is to know what your important health metrics are. Using these metrics, you can monitor when/if you go ‘off track’, and find ways to support your body knowing there might be a price to pay.

Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1: Let’s say you experience fatigue. You appreciate that sleep is one of the key pillars you need in order to feel well. Normally, you cap how many social events you attend on any given week, you practice good sleep hygiene, take magnesium and you ensure that sleep is a priority. One week your social calendar is a little more active than normal. Because you know your body well, you know what else you can do to support your body in that circumstance, so that you don’t fall back into a fatigue state. You might increase how many times you meditate. You might do more regular breathwork and perhaps ensure that you’re really on point with nutrition. Or, you might even eliminate one of those social commitments, appreciating that the cost might be too high for you right now (see how you can find compassion for yourself in this).

Example 2: You know that your body doesn’t love gluten and dairy (because of the symptoms you experience when you eat foods that contain either ingredient). You receive an invite to an Italian restaurant. Buono! You go and have a fantastic time, but you know there might be a cost to digestion, mood, brain fog and energy in the days ahead. Perhaps you take digestive enzymes to mitigate an element of the digestive distress. You increase water intake and make sure in the days before or after, your vegetable intake is high and you don’t have any other highly processed foods. Or perhaps at the restaurant you don’t go for the full pasta experience, but choose a delicious vegetable dish or you opt for a dairy free dessert.

The other part of health literacy, and an incredibly valuable part of it, is the ‘tuning in’ and listening to the feedback you’re getting from your body. 

I mentioned earlier the noise of the modern world. When you begin to build your health literacy, there are a few strategies you can use to tune into the signals your body is giving you:

  • Creating quiet moments - Finding regular opportunities to find quiet time opens the door to better understanding both the subtle and obvious signals your body is giving you
  • Reducing or eliminating common inflammatory food groups - such as dairy, gluten, sugar, caffeine, highly processed foods and alcohol.  These foods can, for some, generate symptoms like brain fog, tummy problems, fatigue and it is those symptoms that make it difficult to hear the body’s more subtle feedback
  • Reducing stress - Another cause of inflammation is stress (work, kids, money, relationships, traffic lights, pollution, overtraining, chemicals and toxins, emotional stress/burdens, social media, etc.).  Stress can direct the body to pay most attention to survival. When you’re in this state, your body will preferentially pay attention to ‘managing the threat’ and not digestion, healing or hormonal health. This stress is another ‘noise’ that makes it tricky to hear what your body is telling you

It's not about ‘never again doing the things you love’ but rather, when those things happen, how do you balance it out so that the impact on your body is minimised or you can optimise the experience? 

Health literacy, once developed and refined, becomes an incredible health skill and one that you can employ for the rest of your life. I hope you feel inspired by the possibilities of health literacy because you are, after all, the real master of you.

bee pennington health coach wearing teal dress standing smiling
Bee Pennington
Being fascinated by the impact of our thoughts and words on our wellbeing, Bee has a professional interest in mindset and behaviour change, emotional health, and the art of maintaining healthy boundaries.
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Bee Pennington
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Have something to add, or want to ask
something? Join the conversation in the comments below and we'd be delighted to chat.
{ "datePublished": "Oct 13, 2023" }