The human body speaks a “foreign” sensory language. It would be nice if it could speak English, and say, “That pasta you ate last night is fermenting a lot of fungus, and I’ve told you before about your auto-brewery problems, so take extra probiotics today, and eat very lightly, and please, no carbohydrates.” Instead of speaking English, the body speaks with sensory symptoms such as gas, bloating, discomfort, fatigue and loose stools.
Like translating Russian into English, as a functional medicine physician I serve as an interpreter, so that my patients can begin to listen to their body’s messages. Later, as they learn the language, they can listen to their own "body-speak."
What Symptoms Can Mean
Symptoms are attempts to communicate and an attempt to heal and make things better, regardless of how unpleasant symptoms are. We have been indoctrinated to believe that symptoms are diseases, that they should be medicated with something to anesthetize (numb) or control them. Sometimes symptoms can be so severe that they actually pose a health risk, such as severe diarrhea which can cause dehydration. Most of the time, symptoms are not life-threatening and it helps to pay attention to what your body is trying to say and do. Diarrhea, cough, urgency on urination and a runny nose are attempts of the body to rid itself of toxins. Blindly medicating such symptoms frustrates your body’s attempts to rid you of toxins and infections and to heal.
Pain is a symptom that basically informs you about resting a part of your body so it can heal. Here is a possible cause of the so-called "opioid epidemic” – a healthcare system that never teaches people how to tune into their body and listen to what it’s trying to tell them. Instead, patients are taught to fear pain, to fight it, and medicate it as if it is a disease. In childbirth, supposedly one of the worst pains imaginable, women are taught the Lamaze method, which is based on accepting discomfort and not fighting pain or trying to control it. What do Lamaze instructors know about pain management that our entire healthcare system fails to understand? Answer: fighting pain, worrying about it (AKA awfulizing, catastrophizing) and medicating it winds up making it worse.
How to Listen to the Body
Mindfulness is a great tool to mitigate pain. Paradoxically, when we stop resisting pain and put our attention on it in a sustained way - sensing the sensation, feeling the feeling - essentially tuning into precisely what the body is expressing with its body-speak, 90% of pain usually dissipates. In psychology language this is called “letting go.” What is actually happening is that the very act of sustaining mindfulness on a symptom enhances the activity of the prefrontal cortex, our executive function, which brain neuro-imagery studies have shown can markedly alleviate pain.
Mindfulness is the faculty of consciousness that is required to learn how to interpret what the body is saying. My functional medical practice is devoted to first of all interpreting body-speak for my patients, alleviating the causal factors such as toxicities, GI problems, nutritional deficiencies, hormone and neurotransmitter issues and genetic variables, etc., then teaching them through mindfulness practice, how to interpret the remaining body-speak themselves. Ultimately, the payoff for sustained awareness on unpleasant symptoms is that one’s brain, which has dormant, million-year-old programs that can help to fix most medical or psychiatric problems, is switched on. Often, symptoms, regardless of their severity, may be markedly alleviated. If you don’t believe me, ask any woman who has used Lamaze child-birthing. Ask them, “When you resist the contractions, what happens to the pain?” “What happens when you breathe through the contractions, accept them, and just observe your body’s communications?”
When your body is complaining, think of it as if it were a baby, crying out in the night, asking to be held. Who would ignore a baby crying to be held and nurtured? Well, that’s exactly what we do when we ignore body-speak. Of course, if you are having crushing chest pain, your body is saying “get me to an ER right away.” But most of the time, you can apply the faculty of mindfulness to any discomfort, which is analogous to putting your loving arms around a crying baby and snuggling it. Mindfulness can be used as a way of lessening the need for pain medication for serious diseases like cancer, and it directs the immune system to go to the cancer which is trying to evade the immune system and deal with it.
The next time your body starts to complain, just open your heart to it in a sustained, non-judgmental way, feel the pure sensation of the discomfort, and see what happens. Hold your body in the loving arms of mindfulness. You will probably notice the pain diminishing, unless you are taking psychotropic drugs, which unfortunately numbs our prefrontal cortex so that it remains dormant. Mindfulness can alleviate cravings and mood symptoms as well. Whenever pain returns, just switch gears out of our perpetual thinking into a sensory mode, tune in and feel it, and give your body permission to talk to you in the only language it knows.
Charles Gant, MD, PhD, is a physician, educator and author, specializing in functional medicine, genomics and precision medicine to identify and treat the root cause of medical disorders and the biochemical causes of mental/emotional disorders and addictions. He practices in Washington, D.C. at National Integrated Health Associates and is the author of End Your Addiction Now.