Signs from your body
Maybe you’re losing more hair or gaining some extra weight. Perhaps you’re always tired or your partner says you snore. There are probably harmless reasons for these everyday happenings. But maybe there’s something more serious going on. From gassiness to sleepiness, muscle cramps to weirdly coloured nails, here’s a look at some hidden signs you might not be as healthy as you think.
Just because you follow doctor’s orders – you eat your greens, choose organic when you can, exercise regularly, and get eight hours of sleep each night (err, most nights) – doesn’t mean that your health is in the clear. You may think your post-dinner bloat is totally normal, but sometimes a subtle symptom like that can signal a more serious health issue.
Simple reasons for bloating include constipation, overeating, or reflux. More serious causes include infection, inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and some medications.
“When you eat too much, or you eat food you’re not supposed to eat, you’ll have temporary discomfort, and you might not feel good for 20 or 30 minutes,” says Dr Tasneem Bhatia. “But then it usually dissipates, as the digestive system takes over.
“A one-time thing is easy to ignore as long as the pain isn’t lasting,” says Dr Bhatia. But “if it happens more than three times, or if the pain lasts more than 12 to 24 hours, you need to be examined by a physician.”
Snoring happens when air can’t move freely through your mouth and nose as you sleep – the muscles in your throat relax and your tongue can slip back in your throat – and can be caused by adenoids, nasal polyps, or even just a stuffy nose. If you’re overweight or have had a lot to drink, you’re more likely to snore.
“Snoring can also be a sign of obstructive sleep apnoea,” says Dr Albert Wu, from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. That’s when your upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly while you sleep, causing you to partially or completely stop breathing for a few seconds. “The resulting disruption of sleep can lead to daytime sleepiness, crankiness, difficulty concentrating, high blood pressure, and heart conditions.”
How to know if your snoring is cause for concern?
“If your partner notices that you stop breathing for long periods of time, you should consult a specialist,” says Dr Wu. “Treatments for simple snoring include losing weight, treatment for allergies, sleeping on your side instead of your back, and avoiding alcohol before bedtime. If snoring is caused by sleep apnoea there are dental mouthpieces that keep your airway open, and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) masks that direct pressurised air to keep your airway open during sleep.”
Believe it or not, passing gas 13 to 21 times a day is normal. A lot more or a lot less than that could indicate a problem.
“Not passing gas indicates that your bowels aren’t functioning properly, but passing gas too much or too often can indicate a food intolerance, or a digestive disorder like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD), Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or coeliac disease,” says Dr Wu. “You should see a doctor if you have persistent and unexplained flatulence. You should also do so if you have symptoms along with it, such as abdominal pain, a swollen stomach, vomiting, diarrheoa, constipation, unintended weight loss, severe heartburn, or blood in your bowel movements.”
You’re always tired
If you always feel lethargic (no matter how many hours of shut-eye you get), it’s definitely worth talking to your GP. Unlike drowsiness, which is the need to sleep, fatigue is lack of energy and motivation. It can be a normal response to lack of sleep, lots of physical activity, stress, or even boredom. But fatigue can also be a sign of a number of health problems.
“Missing sleep, almost any illness, and many medications can cause temporary fatigue,” says Dr Wu. But “persistent fatigue can be caused by a number of serious conditions including anaemia, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, cancer, thyroid disorders, chronic infection, and arthritic conditions. It can also be caused by depression and anxiety disorders.”
You can’t sleep
It’s one thing to have trouble falling asleep when you just aren’t tired, but if you can’t get any Zzzs despite feeling exhausted, it’s worth bringing up with your doctor. Acute insomnia is short term and can be brought on by stress at work or at home or a traumatic event.
Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, “is a common problem, and can simply be a sign of ageing, lack of activity, or consuming too much caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol,” says Dr Wu. “It can also be caused by medications like cold remedies that include stimulants, some antidepressants, and medications for asthma or high blood pressure.”
Other causes of insomnia include “mental health problems like anxiety and depression,” says Dr Wu. “It can be a sign of some medical conditions like chronic pain, overactive thyroid, GORD, heart disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.”
You have bad breath
Bad breath – or halitosis – is the most common reason for dental referrals, after tooth decay and gum disease, according to a review of studies published in 2018 in The Open Dentistry Journal. Sure, the culprit could be all that garlic you consumed at your last meal. But sometimes bad breath is a sign of something more serious.
Usually caused by bacteria on your teeth and tongue, bad breath can be linked to poor brushing and flossing habits, or oral issues like dry mouth, gingivitis, or periodontitis. In some cases, sinusitis, bronchitis, tonsillitis, and some gastrointestinal issues can also trigger bad breath. If brushing and flossing doesn’t help, see your doctor or dentist.
You get headaches regularly
Besides being a pain (literally), headaches are often pretty harmless. But some headaches are more serious than others. Talk to a doctor if a headache is sudden and severe or is accompanied by a stiff neck or follows a blow to the head or pain in your ear or eye. Get medical attention if you have a headache and fever, convulsions, confusion, or pass out or have a fainting episode. If you’ve never had a headache before and suddenly have your first, it’s time to ask your doctor what’s up.
Your muscles cramp up
Everyone suffers from a muscle cramp now and then, especially after a tough workout; in fact, a review of studies, published in 2018 in Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, suggests that exercise-associated muscle cramps are the condition most often requiring medical treatment during sports.
But some conditions can increase the risk of having leg cramps, like being dehydrated, having low levels of electrolytes, taking certain medications, having a nerve disorder, or an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism). A review of studies published in 2019 in European Journal of Neurology found that many aspects of cramping are not completely understood. Pay attention to when and how often you have muscle cramps so your doctor can determine the potential cause.
Your nails are a funky colour
Nails are supposed to be pink, so if yours are venturing into any other colour category, speak to your doctor. Funky-coloured nails could be harmless but it could also be a sign of various skin disorders, if not something more systemic, according to research, including a study published in 2015 in Indian Dermatology Online Journal.
Blue nails can mean you’re not enough oxygen in your bloodstream. White can signify liver disease or diabetes. Yellow nails can signify a nail infection or liver disease. Dusky red half moon could be a sign of heart disease, arthritis, lupus, alopecia areata (an autoimmune skin disease), or an inflammatory disease known as dermatomyositis.
You’re losing weight
Of course this doesn’t apply if you’ve started a new diet or exercise program. But “if you’re not trying to lose weight and you’re losing more than two kilos without any effort then you need to see a doctor,” says Dr Bhatia. “The two-kilo rule is a pretty safe guide – almost everyone I know fluctuates that amount – but if you’re having progressive steady weight loss, that’s something bigger and needs to be seen.”
You can blame weight loss on all sorts of disorders – from stress and chronic illness, to digestive disorders and infections, to chronic anaemia and cancer, says Dr Bhatia. See a doctor if you’ve lost more than 5 kilos (or 5 per cent of your normal body weight) over a span of six to 12 months or less, and you don’t know why.
You’re gaining weight
Just like unexplained weight loss, unexplained weight gain is also something to see a doctor about. “Many people will dismiss it,” says Dr Bhatia. “They think they can get a handle on it and before they know it five kilos has turned into ten has turned into 20.”
It could be a sign of an underactive thyroid, polycystic ovarian syndrome, or Cushing’s syndrome. Did you start a new medication? Lots of drugs – like corticosteroids, birth control pills, diabetes meds, and some drugs used to treat bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression – can cause you to gain weight. “If you see your doctor at the four- or five-kilo mark, it’s much easier to reverse it,” says Dr Bhatia.
You have a low libido
If you never feel like getting frisky between the sheets, you might want to talk to a healthcare provider about it. You wouldn’t be the first. “It’s a common complaint I get from women, but it’s increasingly common in men,” says Dr Bhatia. “Women are overwhelmed and exhausted, and since libido is tied into emotions, we see libido go down if there’s a disconnect from themselves or their partners.”
As for men, Dr Bhatia blames what she calls “the oestrogenisation of men,” which happens when there’s “a convergence of high stress, very poor lifestyle habits, and weight gain,” she says. As a result, “it’s almost like men are dropping their testosterone level faster than they did in the past and that’s affecting their libido.”
Having a low libido can be totally normal, but it can also be caused by a hormone imbalance, depression, or certain medications.
You’re losing a lot of hair
Shedding between 50 and 100 strands of hair per day is normal. But if you’re losing more than that, “you should call your doctor,” says Dr Wu.
“Hair loss can be a normal consequence of ageing, heredity – especially for men – or hormone changes, but it can also result from medical conditions,” he says. Those include “scalp infections, thyroid disorders, immune disorders, and sudden traumatic events. Certain medicines can cause hair loss including some for cancer, arthritis, high blood pressure, or heart disease.”
You’re not regular
If you’re eating a high-fibre diet and drinking a lot of water, and you’re not pooping regularly, take note. “The digestive system needs to empty to reset for other things and when it doesn’t there’s a shift in bacteria that then drives inflammation, which leads to chronic disease,” says Dr Bhatia. “So the gut is ground zero for health.”
Of course, “regular” means different things to different people – the Continence Foundation of Australia defines regular as one to three movements per day to three per week – so a change in pattern is what matters. “Chronic constipation or trouble emptying could be a sign of colon issues, thyroid disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, hormone imbalance in women, autoimmune disease – the list is pretty long,” says Dr Bhatia. “If you go three or four weeks without having a bowel movement, you need to talk to your doctor.”
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