Naturopathic Medicine, The Wild Collective

Body literacy: the key to health empowerment.

I want to help YOU build a bank of knowledge that helps you live more in sync with your body.

I call this body literacy, and it’s something I hold dear to my heart.

Body literacy is about building knowledge of your body to understand what it may be telling you about your health. This is a necessary step in being able to take responsibility and control of your well-being and your health, so you can become – or stay – healthy (and therefore, happy!).

Have you ever heard the saying from Confucius, “A healthy man wants a thousand things, a sick man only wants one.”? Illness needn’t control our happiness, but I’ve witnessed patients so tangled up in discomfort or pain that it’s tough to experience happiness and the fruits of their labour.

Body literacy can be broken down into 3 stages: observing, learning, and understanding.

  • Observing: noticing when something is different or changing.
  • Learning: explore what your observations mean so that you can respond, e.g. rest when you feel a cold coming on (or before you hit burnout) or eat when you start to feel your blood sugar go south, rather than pushing through and tanking.
  • 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 is important, especially for women…

Hello, hormones!  Is there anything they don’t affect? We aren’t small men. We have to navigate our monthly cycles, daily hormone fluctuations, then there’s perimenopause and postmenopause. Yeesh. Understanding and supporting your body through these natural rhythms so that they can work for you and not against you, is just really helpful on a practical level.

Here are 4 tips to begin increasing your body literacy, starting with observing (aka increasing your awareness):

  1. Pay attention to triggers. Are you really anxious every morning or is it because you’re drinking coffee (or coffee on an empty stomach)? 

Bloating: is it all the time? Only after meals? All meals or just certain foods? 

I love watching patients’ awareness increase over time while working with them. At first it can be a lot of, “I don’t know’s”, or “no’s” but then patients return to a follow-up exclaiming that they do have undigested food in their poop after all (yes, you should be looking at your poop!). 

[Aside: I like to think of the period and BMs like 5th vital signs.]

  1. Map your menstrual cycle. You may have heard of ‘cycle syncing’, which is when you change lifestyle habits like your diet, exercise routine, and life commitments to match the phases of your menstrual cycle. If that feels either overwhelming or like overkill, simply start tracking your cycle on an app. [Aside: I personally love Clue, which was named the top free menstrual tracking app in a study released by the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, based on its accuracy. Most menstrual tracking apps are inaccurate.] 

You don’t have to be rigid about how you live in each phase of the cycle to ‘cycle sync’ your life. Small changes to support your body in each phase can have big impacts. Even if you change nothing, the awareness (and self-compassion that comes with that) is eye opening.  

For example, feeling unmotivated or having a hard time checking things off your to-do list and beating yourself up about it you were slaying like a Queen last week? Oh, hi, entering the late luteal phase. But dang, you felt like a boss near ovulation. 

With this new understanding, you can adapt what you eat, how much you rest, how you exercise, and how much you add to your plate which can all help with the symptoms you experience throughout your cycle.

  1. Pay attention to your breath. The state of your nervous system is intimately linked with your breath. When we feel stressed, we tend to take shallow breaths into our upper chest (or hold our breath altogether), which triggers the sympathetic nervous system (aka the fight, flight, or freeze response). It’s a feedback loop, shallow breathing is a symptom of stress and says to your brain that you are stressed/under threat. 

So pay attention: do your breathing patterns change at certain times of day? What are you doing (or about to do), and who are you interacting with? Tuning in will help you get to know what puts you in a positive or negative mental space and may clue you into whether a boundary is being crossed.

  1. Mind your workouts. Exercise should make you feel good. If it’s not, it could be a sign that your adrenal gland function is suffering. [Aside: I’m not saying that exercise can’t feel hard AF and challenging, it should! At least some of the time.] 

Stress hormone cortisol (made by our adrenal glands) is produced when we exercise, and along with endorphins which makes us feel energized, alert, and happy. 

However, if you’re already riding a chronic state of high or low cortisol (it’s about having a balance, cortisol isn’t bad), exercise could make you feel bad. Think: tired, foggy, moody, diminished strength or prolonged healing times, and reduced immune function when burnt out OR anxious, tired but wired, disrupted sleep, and so on when riding the cortisol high. 

What is the result of body literacy here? By observing and understanding what your body is telling you, you may be able to decipher that an intense run or HIIT workout may not always be what your body needs. This can be especially true for women depending on where they are in their cycle. Definitely still do the things you love, but maybe just don’t plan a max effort lift in your late luteal phase and expect to PR. 

You could plan your week ahead of time to incorporate a yoga session or lower the intensity of your workout instead depending on how you’re feeling and where you are in your cycle. Although if you’re seriously burnt out, let’s talk, because you may need to adjust your training more than I’ve suggested here. 

For people who have experienced trauma, which most of us have, we may have disassociated from our bodies, possibly from a very young age, as a means of coping with feelings and body sensations that were too much to bear. When trauma is involved, this work can be deeply uncomfortable (please seek out the guidance of a professional when needed).

I think having a basic understanding of your anatomy is a pre-requisite for body literacy. The fact that we don’t learn this stuff in school is mind-boggling to me. In our home, we’ve been teaching our daughter the proper terms for everything: from vulva to clavicle (ok, maybe collar-bone would suffice 😂). 

Let me tell you a story:

I had a patient once, let’s call her Nancy, who was bummed that she was going to be on her period during her upcoming beach vacation. I suggested a menstrual cup, which she wasn’t familiar with. When explaining to her how it is used, she asked me how she would urinate with it in. In her 50s, she didn’t know the basic anatomy of where her urethra was.

This is not ok. When you don’t understand your body parts, where they are, and have a basic understanding of how they work, how are you supposed to have autonomy over your own body and health? It’s much easier to give that power away to any doctor/health practitioner when you feel completely lost in the weeds of your symptoms. 

If you don’t understand what your body is asking for, how are your supposed to honour and give what it needs?

How are you supposed to feel at peace with your bodiy, instead of at war?

How are you supposed to advocate for yourself with your health care practitioners if you’re not confident in your bank of knowledge combined with your inner wisdom?

Body literacy is the foundation for taking long-term steps toward lasting health and getting off the hamster wheel of self-sabotage with regard to making the diet and lifestyle changes that promote health.

Dr. Willow

P.S. Interested in joining the waitlist for Wild Collective, click here!

- Dr. Willow

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I help women achieve optimal digestive and hormonal wellness through a root cause, individualized approach to medicine that utilizes functional lab testing, diet and lifestyle modification, nutritional and herbal medicine, and acupuncture to re-establish lasting health.


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