One of the best things you can do for your health is getting to know yourself better. Think about when you visit the doctor for a check up. Through a set of questions, an examination, and some lab testing, your doctor will learn things about you that will help guide your care. When these are geared toward helping you identify diseases and health conditions before there are symptoms, they’re called screenings.
Screenings can help you catch potentially life-threatening health issues before they cause serious harm. They can also help you know your risk of having a disease early enough to be able to stop or reverse its progression. Over the long-term, they can even help you tune into subtle changes in your body that might signal important actions to take for your health. This is what I mean when I talk about getting to know yourself.
While your doctor needs to be the one screening for some things, there are others that you can and should be screening for on your own. A doctor’s visit only happens once or twice a year if you’re in good health, and that means you’re just getting an isolated snapshot or two. But when you’re screening yourself between visits, not only will you be able to give your doctor(s) more information when you do see them, but you can also start to really tune into those subtle changes I mentioned earlier.
Here are some home tracking tips and tools to get you started:
If you put your fingers on your pulse, it should feel generally very regular, almost like a metronome. However, the time between each beat is not actually the same. There are very subtle time differences (in the order of milliseconds) that vary depending on how well and balanced your autonomic nervous system is. The autonomic nervous system regulates almost all of the functions of your body—from your digestion to your immune response.The more astute and flexible this system is to change, the healthier you tend to be. Heart Rate Variability is what we use to measure this.
Elite HRV, Heartmath, the Oura Ring, Whoop, and even the Apple Watch are some commonly used apps and devices that can help you start measuring your HRV. They each have their own unique way of measuring, but whichever you choose, once you get your baseline values, you can gain insight into how daily actions and environments may be impacting your health.
Most people focus on diet and exercise for health, but sleep is critical, too. That’s because sleep is when the body builds and repairs itself. However, not all sleep is created equal: You may sleep 8 hours and still not feel rested because the sleep you got wasn’t restorative.
Restorative sleep means that you cycle through the different stages of sleep, like deep and REM sleep, each of which have their own health supportive functions. In order for this to happen, you need to be able to stay asleep for a certain amount of time and also to be relaxed enough so that your body will drop into deeper states of consciousness. Some of the tools that measure HRV, such as the Oura Ring and Whoop, can help keep track of the number of hours you’ve slept, as well as to what degree your body has recovered from the previous day’s activities and stressors (by using parameters such as heart rate overnight, breathing rate, time in bed, etc.) They give a rough idea of the stages of sleep you’ve cycled through (though not as accurately as medical grade sleep monitors).
If you snore, chances are that you aren’t getting adequate restorative sleep. It can also mean that you’re not getting enough oxygen to your heart or brain overnight. Disordered breathing during sleep can come from anything from mild airway blockages to full-blown sleep apnea. Unaddressed sleep apnea can be a cause of high blood pressure, inflammation, diabetes, and more—and all these things increase your heart disease risks. If you're unsure whether this is an issue for you, SnoreLab is an app that can help you find out if you snore, as well as how frequently and loudly you do it. If you do find out you snore, simple sleep tests can help your doctor assess if sleep apnea is present. From there, you can strategize all the options you have to take care of it.
Our weight fluctuates by a few pounds throughout the day, the week, and the month depending on hydration/water retention, food consumption, menstrual cycle, bowel movement amount and frequency, and more. So while it’s good to know your weight, unless you are specifically tracking any of the above, a weekly measurement is probably adequate to get an idea of where you fall.
Importantly, measuring weight alone doesn’t tell you anything about where you may be carrying excess fat or how risky it may be. Carrying excess belly fat is a high risk for heart disease, diabetes, and inflammation. Even if you’re on medications to treat these, the stress of fat on your midsection can be a risk in and of itself. A 2018 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that a waist-to-hip ratio measurement—with bigger waists relative to hips—was a strong indicator of heart disease risk.
You can measure your waist circumference with a tape measure by wrapping it around your belly starting just above your hip bones at either side across the belly button and around to complete a circle. Do this over bare skin and after an exhale, when your belly is not full of air. To measure your hip circumference, wrap the tape measure around your buttocks over the bony prominences called the greater trochanters at the upper outer legs. If you find that your waist measures bigger than your hips, you’ll want to consider checking your nutrition, exercise, stress levels, and sleep to see how changes in any of them can help reduce the ratio over time.
Tracking your cycle isn’t just for encouraging or trying to prevent pregnancy. If you're a menstruating woman, keeping track of where you are in your cycle can help you understand any emotional and physical fluctuations you may have through a month. Hormones play a large role in how we feel. You can use this to your advantage, especially when understanding how to fuel, when more rest may be needed, and when you may have your best energy. An app like MyFlo helps you do this and offers tips throughout the calendar. It also helps you keep track of how heavy and regular your flow is, both of which are important information to discuss with your doctor at check-ups.
Tracking the quality of your bowel movements can be one of your most important and simplest insights. The purpose of having bowel movements is to eliminate waste from the body—parts of food we don’t use, bacteria, cells, and toxins. If you’re not having consistent bowel movements, these things can then build up and create an internal environment that is essentially being “polluted.” If you’re experiencing diarrhea, on the other hand, you could be losing valuable nutrients. To see where you stand, ask yourself the following questions:
When you brush your teeth and your gums bleed, this can often mean that you have inflammation of the gums. While this may seem relatively harmless, it can, in fact, be a sign that certain types of troublesome bacteria are thriving in your mouth. That, in turn, puts you at risk for progressing to a more destructive disease called periodontitis, which can lead to tooth loss. It also increases your risk for coronary artery disease or autoimmunity. This occurs when bacteria travel through the gums into the bloodstream, triggering widespread inflammation. In fact, mouth bacteria has been found in the plaque of the heart’s arteries and even in the brain blood clots of people who have had strokes. The great news is that bleeding gums can be easily noticed, and acted upon early. Great dental hygiene with regular flossing, regular dental check-ups, and frequent cleanings can keep things in check.
There are so many opportunities to get to know yourself better from a health and well-being perspective. Becoming an expert at your body doesn't just set you up for good physical health, it's also empowering because it helps you see the pieces of how everything fits together—and that, in turn, puts you in control of your health experience. When you learn where to focus, you head towards your healthiest self.
Ilana Zablozki-Amir, MD, is the co-founder of UPstream-Health, an initiative that gives people the tools and resources to advocate for and navigate their health concerns. She holds board certifications in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Integrative-Holistic Medicine, is fellowship-trained in Sports and Musculoskeletal Medicine, is a certified Functional Medicine practitioner, and holds a level 2 Coaching Certificate from Precision Nutrition.