Sometimes, deciphering symptoms is a no-brainer: an itch that’s caused by a mosquito bite, sore muscles as a result of yesterday’s workout, blisters thanks to that new pair of shoes. At other times, it’s not so straightforward. What’s to blame for a headache? What’s making your skin so dry? And why do you keep getting mouth ulcers?
Symptoms like these can often be your body’s way of letting you know something’s not quite right, and it’s tempting to ask Dr Google for answers. Across the ditch, a 2016 survey found nearly 60 per cent of Australians use the internet to source health information to avoid seeing a GP, and we’re probably no different.
But, while nothing can replace the opinion and advice of a qualified health professional, if you do want to interpret your ‘body language’, it’s important to use credible, research-backed information.
To help you out, we’ve dug a little deeper into common health symptoms. Find out what they might mean, and how a few small additions to your diet can help you turn things around.
The symptom: Insomnia
Around a third of us experience insomnia from time to time, experiencing difficulty falling or staying asleep. The knock-on effects include fatigue, difficulty concentrating and low energy levels.
It could be because of a number of things including stress, side effects of some medications, illnesses, persistent pain or you might be low in vitamin D. More than 30 per cent of New Zealand adults are, and emerging research suggests that’s linked to an increased likelihood of poor sleep.
Eat to beat it with ‘vitamin D mushrooms’. The best way to boost vitamin D is through sunlight exposure on eyes and skin. But you can also try mushrooms exposed to sunlight. They naturally generate vitamin D, so try putting them in the winter sun for an hour before you eat them.
The symptom: Sneezing and a runny nose
If it’s accompanied by watery, itchy eyes, rather than a fever and aches and pains, it’s probably hay fever rather than a cold. Officially called allergic rhinitis, around 20 per cent of us get hay fever.
It could be because you’re allergic to something at home, such as dust mites, mould or animal hair or fur rather than pollen, if you’re experiencing symptoms now that it’s winter. While hay fever is typically associated with spring, when airborne pollen from grasses and trees are at their peak, hay fever can occur at any time of the year.
Eat to beat it with a probiotic yoghurt or fermented milk. Research shows that probiotics may help improve physical symptoms, including itchy eyes, for hay fever sufferers, perhaps by changing how cells that line the nasal passages react to allergens like dust and pollen.
The symptom: Recurring UTI
Around one in two women, and one in 20 men, experience a urinary tract infection (UTI) at least once in their lives. But one study found more than 50 per cent of women experienced another one within 12 months of their first infection.
It could be because the bacteria that caused the first UTI is still present and prevalent. Around 80 per cent of UTIs are caused by E. coli, a type of bacteria that are common in the digestive system.
Eat to beat it with berries, tea, coffee and dark chocolate. According to US researchers, these foods encourage the production of substances called ‘aromatics’ during digestion, which help to deprive E.coli of an essential nutrient they need to thrive and survive. You can also try increasing the number of ‘alkaline’ foods in your diet – fresh vegetables and fruit – to lower the acidity of your urine. The same US researchers say less acidic urine contains higher levels of a protein that inhibits the growth of UTI-causing bacteria.
The symptom: Mouth ulcers
It’s not uncommon to develop one of these after you’ve bitten your cheek, slipped with your toothbrush while brushing or even suffered a minor burn from hot food. But around one in five people experiences unexplained recurring bouts of ulcers.
It could be because you’re rundown, stressed or your immune system isn’t firing on all cylinders. Some women also experience mouth ulcers regularly during their period.
Eat to beat it with eggs, fish and dairy foods such as milk and cheese. They’re all good sources of vitamin B12, low levels of which have been linked to an increased risk of mouth ulcers. In fact, when people suffering with recurrent ulcers took a daily B12 supplement as part of a study, 74 per cent of them were symptom-free six months later, compared with 32 per cent in the group taking a placebo.
The symptom: Headaches
They’re incredibly common and it’s thought around 15 per cent of us could be taking painkillers for a headache at any given time.
It could be because you’re dehydrated, your posture is putting strain on your back and neck muscles or because you’re stressed. Hormonal changes, eye strain and sinus problems can also lead to headaches. But frequent or severe headaches can also be a sign of something more serious, so be sure to see your doctor if you’re concerned.
Eat to beat it with nuts and seeds to deliver a hit of magnesium. Some people who get migraines and other headaches have been found to be low in magnesium, and stress can increase our need for this mineral. Magnesium is thought to help to prevent the brain’s neurons from falling into a specific pattern that’s been shown to increase the risk of headache.
The symptom: Dry skin
We all experience it from time to time, but when regular moisturising doesn’t provide a ‘fix’, it’s time to look elsewhere.
It could be because your diet is lacking in essential fatty acids. But, if it’s also itchy, red and persistent, there’s a chance it could be eczema. If you’re concerned, see your doctor.
Eat to beat it with flaxseed oil and canned or fresh salmon. Research has shown that flaxseed oil, which is rich in essential fatty acids, can decrease how much water is lost via the skin, as well as helping to reduce redness, roughness and scaling. And salmon contains significant amounts of marine-sourced omega-3 fatty acids, one of which is DHA. According to German researchers, people’s eczema improved after a two-month trial consuming daily DHA.
5 symptoms you should never ignore
Some symptoms require expert attention as soon as possible, including:
- Chest pain
Along with discomfort in your arms, shoulders, neck, jaw or back, chest pain can be a warning sign of heart attack. If you experience the warning signs for 10 minutes, or if they’re severe and get progressively worse, call an ambulance immediately – it could save your life and limit damage to your heart. For more information about heart-attack warning signs, visit heartfoundation.org.nz.
- Unintentional weight loss
This can be an indication of an underlying illness that needs treating. So, while your weight can naturally fluctuate, if you experience unintentional weight loss of more than 5 per cent of your body weight over a six to 12-month period, get it checked by your GP.
- A change in bowel habits
If you notice an unexpected change that lasts for several weeks, see your doctor. And likewise, if you notice bright red or very dark blood after you’ve been to the toilet. Both changes and bleeding can be caused by a variety of medical conditions, but they are also common symptoms of bowel cancer. Visit beatbowelcancer.org.nz for more information
- A lump
If you find one in your breast or your testicles, see your doctor as soon as possible to rule out the possibility of cancer. While most breast changes aren’t symptoms of cancer, and many testicular lumps are harmless cysts, if you notice a lump, getting it diagnosed, as soon as possible, is imperative. To find out more, visit breastcancer.org.nz or testicular.org.nz
- Abdominal or pelvic pain
Women who experience this multiple times over a four-week period are advised to see their GP, as abdominal or pelvic pain is one of four common ovarian cancer symptoms. However, if the pain is sudden and severe or lasts for several hours, you should go straight to your doctor or the emergency department of your nearest hospital. While most abdominal pain is harmless, it can be caused by something needing immediate attention, such as appendicitis.