Taking Ownership of Your Health
How to care for your body, understand your health better, and partner with your doctor to design a lifestyle that prevents diseases while ensuring a long and healthy life.
Table of Contents
At the outset, let me clarify that I’m no doctor, nor am I trained in healthcare. But I have been keenly interested in my health since I was a child, and I have always been proactive in learning more about my body and its wellbeing. More recently, when my dog fell sick three years ago, and I became her sole, full-time caretaker, I continued researching her multiple conditions extensively, and understanding the parallels between canine/veterinary and human healthcare. When I was diagnosed with endometriosis earlier this year, I already knew about the condition, and how to take care of myself because I came across it in my journey of understanding my undiagnosed symptoms.
All of my research into health and medicine helps me appreciate the tenacious engine that is life, and motivates me to preserve its wellbeing. Today, my dog is healthy, active, and enjoys a top quality of life, because her conditions have been well-managed for the past few years despite the vets giving her only a few days left to live in 2019. And while my endometriosis is a tricky beast, I’ve been proactive in learning to manage it since the day of my diagnosis, and already my pain is in control.
When I was 18, I began the most productive half-decade of my life. I started college with one of the most difficult undergrad programs in the world, took up a part-time job, started my first company and grew it to success, spent countless hours in community service, won international awards and grants, managed a team of over 50, worked as a TA for a year in my university while I was a final year student, received scholarship all five years, and graduated in the top percentile of the university. In addition, I was also writing exams (scribing) for students with a visual handicap, learning digital marketing, representing the country in international summits, and winning business pitch awards, and a number of other projects that I have lost track of.
All that work led me to where I am today, but it took an untold toll on my body and mind. When you’re young, you can abuse your body this way and get away with it without a scratch. I was consistently monitoring my health, and all my tests came back excellent. My body was willing to do it, and every day it became sort of a compulsion to push it even further than before. Just another hour of work, one more chapter of this book, one more course to understand this better, one more project, one more launch, one more student to teach… just a little more to see what is beyond this point.
It certainly gave me stunning results, and showed me what I could achieve if I just challenged myself repeatedly. My mind was primed for work, and I knew I could reach any goal I wanted if I had enough time. My body was willing, and it didn’t falter despite hours of traveling and other forms of physical work my schedule demanded.
But when I graduated from law school, I consciously stopped myself from abusing my body and mind any further. It was around that time that I started accepting long-term thinking. I was not ready for a burnout that would put a hard stop to my years of hard work, and resolved to slow myself down consciously. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my health and well-being for my professional adventures anymore and started treating my body with gratitude and kindness.
I always knew I was abusing my body and mind with my boundless ambition and drive, but until this point, I was proud of myself for enduring so much without breaking. But when I embraced long-term thinking, I didn’t care about short-term results anymore. I knew what kind of life I wanted to lead, and consciously began shaping the future I wanted. So all my priorities changed.
I began carefully guarding my health, and invested my time, money, and energy in learning to take care of it.
Initially, learning to take care of my body was just learning how not to abuse it. I started taking things slow, and spent time learning to heal after half a decade of running without any breaks in my personal race. Slowly I began learning to make changes to my diet, water intake, and sleep cycle.
In the process, I learned a ton about nutrition, but the most important lesson for me was detachment. I learned to look at food and cravings in the light of habit formation and discipline, and I realized that the main reason we’re unable to incorporate healthy eating habits is because of our attachment to food. At a philosophical level, when we undertake to let go of all kinds of attachments, it is easier to welcome healthy eating into our life.
I also learned about the importance of sleep, and I gradually stopped pulling all-nighters for work. I drank more water, and tried to get more exercise. It was a rocky journey (and it still is), but I learned to own my health and be responsible for the upkeep of my body.
Over the last few years, I noticed that I stopped relying solely on doctors and healthcare providers to understand my health. It first began with frustration of not receiving the right answers for my questions (eight years later, I finally got my endometriosis diagnosis). Women are familiar with the dismissal we’re met when we try to talk about our suffering during periods.
Gradually, I realized that I felt empowered when I knew what I was dealing with, and I saw that I got better results from doctors when I knew exactly what questions to ask. Healthcare providers usually respond better when you’ve done your research and are well-informed (and if your doctor is annoyed at you for googling your symptoms, it’s time to change your doctor).
As a society, we place undue pressure on doctors. They go through a decade of training, and put themselves through ungodly hours of continuous work. They’re responsible for the life of a human being, and kind of pressure leads to unimaginable stress.
But they’re not machines. You cannot expect any human being to go working all day, all their lives, and not make any mistakes. Of course, I’m not talking about outright negligence. I’m talking about small errors that make the difference between the prevention of a serious complication thanks to immediate diagnosis and resulting death from the failure of a timely decision.
Doctors are human beings too, and they will make these mistakes. We can’t expect doctors never to make any errors, ever. We don’t expect that from other professions, and I don’t think we should expect it from doctors either.
With the limited time that a doctor spends with each patient, it is always a good idea to do your research beforehand, be clear about all your symptoms, and be attentive to the doctor’s advice while asking questions. Researching and reading up on your symptoms for your personal education is always a good idea. In more serious cases, you can also point out symptoms that the doctor might have overlooked, and that will change the diagnosis and treatment.
The standard of care we can legitimately expect from doctors is different from concurrently taking ownership of your health. When you are better-informed and do your research, you ask better questions, understand the treatment and prognosis better, and you are more likely to remember their advice and make necessary changes to your lifestyle.
When you place the entire burden of your health on your doctor, at best, you get treated for your symptoms without truly understanding the underlying causes or how to prevent their recurrence. At worst, medical negligence costs lives, or results in lifelong impairments.
But I want to go one step further. There are two unique cases which current healthcare systems are not equipped to handle.
Most healthcare today is symptom-control medicine. What it means is that you go to your doctor when you feel unwell, and your doctor will attempt to treat your symptoms. Medical education trains doctors to control symptoms, and doctors are usually wary of prescribing any medicines unless you present with an apparent problem. The medical profession is oriented towards treating a condition after its symptoms manifest outwardly, to the point of crisis.
So when you rely on your doctor, you usually receive limited guidance on disease prevention. But what we need is healthcare that is designed to prevent problems from arising in the first place.
For instance, if you know that diabetes runs in your family, you don’t wait for the first signs of prediabetes to make lifestyle changes. You design your life from your youth with healthy habits and supplementation to make sure that your genetic condition is not easily triggered.
The next case is the debate between sufficiency and optimality. Doctors rely on national and international standards of biochemical ranges to decide if you are deficient in a vitamin or mineral. But these standards are usually set very low to define deficiencies with a high degree of certainty. So if you’re below this level, you are already severely deficient in the nutrient.
On the other hand, this clearly means that sufficiency is not optimality. The minimum numbers are designed with a view toward ensuring certainty in deficiency diagnoses. So they stand for ‘minimum before it is a serious health issue’, not ‘minimum for optimal health’.
When you get your blood checked, pay close attention to the numbers. Your doctor is likely to dismiss you without any supplements or diet change plans as long as you even barely cross the minimum mark. But for the healthy upkeep of your body, you might need much more of the nutrient, which you can receive through specific dietary changes or supplements. Good health is not merely the absence of a disease, we can set our standard much higher than that.
Doctors are the most important asset you can build in your healthcare stack. Don’t rely only on degrees and years of experience, and ensure that you find yourself a physician who is patient and great at communication.
Make sure that you regularly monitor your body’s biochemistry, and take supplements where you’re deficient. If you have a genetic predisposition towards any diseases, keep tabs on it consistently.
Learn more about your condition through any resources available to you before you visit your doctor. Make sure you have a list of questions related to medicines, supplements, tests, or lifestyle changes when you make an appointment with your doctor so you can make the most of the limited time you have with them.
Finally, store your medical records digitally and securely, so you can produce them at each visit to your doctor. Include any physical trackers and recent test reports with dates clearly visible, so your doctor is updated with the latest information.
Disease comes for all of us. Maybe it is a genetic condition, or a global pandemic such as COVID, or an unexpected bout of flu. Some diseases are temporary, some leave us with crippling lifelong issues. Whatever the health problem, we rely on our body’s immunity and medical assistance to resolve our condition.
What is in our control, then, is to prevent the disease from manifesting as much as possible, build better bodily defenses, and engage in more effective ways with our healthcare providers.
All it takes is a deliberate investment of a little time and effort in learning more about our health and its upkeep.