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What is body literacy and how can it help you improve your health?

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Body literacy is about building knowledge of your body to understand what it may be telling you about your health. Here, a Livi doctor who specialises in gynaecology and obstetrics, explains why it’s important and how to improve your own body literacy.

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Tuning into our bodies and how we’re feeling is nothing new – you might have tried mindfulness to feel more present or meditation to help with relaxation. But body literacy can take your understanding of how and why your body works a few steps further.

What exactly is body literacy?

Body literacy is about listening to and learning more about your body’s natural rhythms, changes and signals so you can understand and feel more empowered when it comes to your health.

Simply put, body literacy involves understanding your body better. Body literacy is the combination of three key stages:

  • Observing

This means giving time, thought and attention to your body, including noticing when something is different or changing. We notice when we have a fever, feel hungry or are tired.

  • Learning

The learning phase involves taking your observations and drawing patterns from them. This helps you respond to changes you notice – you rest when you’re sick and eat when you’re hungry.

  • Understanding

When you understand your body, you can receive the ‘messages’ it sends you. It also means you know what to do about those messages. This gives you the opportunity to gain better control over your health because you can use the information to make healthy decisions.

When combined, these phases enable you to create a bank of knowledge that helps you live more in sync with your body.

‘Improving your body literacy means you can actively take responsibility and control of your wellbeing and your health, so you become healthier and happier,’ says Dr Elisabeth Rosén, a Livi doctor who specialises in gynaecology and obstetrics.

Why is body literacy important, especially for women?

‘The female body is complex. Women experience changing hormone levels on a daily basis across their entire lives,’ says Dr Rosén. Yet experts are only just beginning to uncover the benefits of really understanding these changes.

For instance, women can struggle with peri- and menopausal symptoms before seeking help, due to a lack of understanding of how their bodies and hormones change during later life. Under-researched and misunderstood conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome can also take years to identify.

The good news is that better body literacy can help more women access the support and treatment they need quicker. It can also help to improve the relationship between patients and doctors.

‘Medicine is based on observations and reports from the patient,’ says Dr Rosén. ‘So, becoming more aware of your body will make it easier for you to detect changes and abnormalities, share useful information with a doctor and seek help earlier on.’

How can I improve my body literacy?

How we relate to our bodies is personal and different for everyone. But there are some simple ways you can start to improve your body literacy now.

1. Identify cause and effect

Discovering what causes certain reactions in your body or mind can help you feel more in sync with your body – whether it’s a certain food, exercise or sleep routine. For example, if you’re regularly feeling bloated and uncomfortable, make a note of what you’re eating for a short period to help you identify and change potential triggers.

2. Try cycle tracking to understand your menstrual cycle

‘The menstrual cycle is very sensitive and one of the first systems in the body to react to imbalances and physical and psychological problems,’ says Dr Rosén. ‘Understanding your cycle will therefore help you detect potentially important changes at an early stage.’

Using a tracking app will help you tune into and understand your menstrual cycle. It can help you understand why your motivation or energy is low or manage symptoms like pain or PMS, and it can even help you plan a pregnancy. With this new understanding, you might adapt what you eat, how much you rest and how you exercise to help with the symptoms you experience throughout your cycle.

3. Listen to your breath to help you manage stress

Your nervous system is closely linked to your breath. When you feel stressed, your breathing tends to become shallow. This can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and trigger the ‘fight or flight’ stress response.

Recognising this and focusing on breathing in a slow, controlled way can help you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes feelings of calm and relaxation. Learning some simple breathing techniques can help you adjust the way you breathe and influence your emotional response for the better.

It can also help to think about your breathing patterns during the day. Do they change depending on your workload, the time of day or who you’re interacting with? Tuning in will help you get to know what puts you in a positive or negative mental space.

4. Map your workout to how you’re feeling

Exercise is also closely linked to your stress response. When you become active it triggers both your stress hormone cortisol and endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals. If you push yourself too hard during an already busy or overwhelming day, it can cause your stress hormones to spike.

This means an intense run or workout may not always be what your body needs. Similarly, when you’re feeling tired, you might benefit from an energising yoga class or a lower-intensity long walk outside. Starting to respond to what your body needs rather than what it wants is a good first step to supporting your mood and hormones with exercise.

The bottom line

In a busy world, focusing internally and recognising how our bodies feel can be challenging. Your body speaks its own language and it takes time to learn it, so start small and gradually when it comes to improving your body literacy.

It’s always important to speak to a doctor if you’re experiencing any worrying symptoms, especially if you’re:

  • Struggling with stress or sleep problems
  • Experiencing irregular or painful periods
  • Struggling with menopausal symptoms

This article has been medically approved by Dr Elisabeth Rosén, a Livi doctor who specialises in gynaecology and obstetrics.

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