Your anatomy is constantly changing. With the aches and pains that come along with daily wear and busy lifestyles, it can be easy to downplay symptoms that could be indicating chronic conditions. "Black women are caregivers who are always there for others. It is important that you take care of yourself," says Van H. Dunn, M.D., a primary care physician in New York City. Whether it's a simple concern or something more serious, your body may be gently whispering or outright screaming for attention. Here's what she might be trying to tell you.
Having a headache for an hour is normal. Having one that lasts for days is not. "You should see your doctor if your headache lasts an unusually long time or you have other symptoms with it like weakness, nausea, vomiting or blurred or double vision," says Dunn. When a patient has these signs, he usually checks the duration, location and intensity of the pain. "Blacking out can be a result of getting up too quickly so not enough blood reached your brain, low blood pressure or hyperglycemia from not eating all day. It could also be more concerning, like you've had a small stroke or a seizure, or there's a brain tumor." Listen to your body and don't be afraid to talk to a doctor about your symptoms.
Damaging your tresses with extensions, tight braids or weaves can cause traction alopecia. Several other external factors could also be at the root of hair woes. "I see a lot of women of color with discoid lupus, an autoimmune condition that affects the scalp and the skin," says Michelle Henry, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in laser surgery and cosmetic dermatology. Menopausal patients with estrogen loss or women with hypothyroidism—an underactive thyroid gland—can also suffer from thin, damaged strands or bald patches. Typical treatments include topical steroids or oral medications. Henry has also found success with platelet-rich plasma therapy, in which the platelets in your blood are removed and injected back into the scalp to stimulate growth.
If your once-perfect vision is suddenly blurry, it could be a sign that your blood sugar is too high, which causes the lens of the eye to swell and changes your ability to see. Yellowing in the whites of your eyes could mean liver damage or hepatitis, while redness could be anything from allergies to conjunctivitis to glaucoma. "If you notice a dramatic change in your vision or eye's appearance or experience eye pain, see an ophthalmologist or visit the ER or urgent care as soon as possible," advises Dunn.
Since heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, it's vital to know the difference between heartburn, indigestion and a heart attack. "Heart attack symptoms in women differ greatly from those experienced by men," says Dunn. "It's not just one thing, but all of the symptoms combined." Light-headedness, nausea, fatigue and an uncomfortable feeling of pressure or squeezing in the chest or back are potential signs that something is going on with your heart and cause for an immediate doctor's visit. Maintaining a healthy weight while managing your blood pressure and cholesterol can significantly lower your risk of heart disease.
When women come to see Janice J. Aubey, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, and express concerns about breast pain or a palpable breast mass, the first thing she does is congratulate them. "I acknowledge that they are comfortable enough to do their own breast exams and familiar enough with their breasts to know when something is different," she says. "These are your breasts. You have to know whether they feel different." Most breast pain and palpable masses require a full exam, which includes family history, age and a mammogram or a breast ultrasound, to diagnose the problem accurately.
Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhea, stomach pressure or abdominal cramps can be symptomatic of several different types of digestive issues. "Irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are just a few of the conditions that could be behind your discomfort," says Michelle Mitchum, holistic lifestyle counselor and founder of The OrangeMoon Holistic Health and Wellness. "Rather than self-diagnose, talk to your physician about a method of healing, be it clinical or naturopathic," she adds. Along with changes in your diet, your doctor may suggest a probiotic, which will improve your digestion and nutrient absorption while balancing the good and bad bacteria in your gut to keep these bellyaching conditions at bay.
One way to discover what's going on in your body is to check your urine. The color, clarity, smell and even the frequency of your pee can reveal the presence of several conditions including a urinary tract infection (UTI) , diabetes or kidney disease. Typically, an uncomplicated UTI can be addressed with a course of antibiotics and typically takes three days to improve. "If it's a reoccurring UTI, we need to find out what's triggering infections," says Aubey. "Is it anatomic, behavioral or related to sexual activity, or do we need to better optimize hygiene? Discussing the factors will help delineate corrective actions."
Your nails are an extension of your skin and can reveal all kinds of clues about your health. Pay attention to yellowing that can indicate a fungal infection or a chronic illness like diabetes. White streaks are usually a sign of protein deficiency but can also indicate issues with your liver. Darker streaks can be anything from bleeding under the nail to melanoma. "Get a complete metabolic and hormonal blood panel to identify the problem," suggests Dr. Ro, award-winning nutrition coach and author of Lose Your Final 15. Eating foods rich in the B complex vitamin biotin—like liver, carrots, Swiss chard, tomatoes, raspberries, cabbage and cauliflower—can help metabolize fat and protein and result in stronger nail growth.
The top layer of your skin is your body's largest and fastest-growing organ. Creepy, but true. As we get older, it becomes thinner and more vulnerable. If you are prone to unexplained bruising, you may have an insulin deficiency. "Whenever otherwise healthy patients complain about bruising, I do a thorough history and ask about medications and diet," says Henry. Her aim is to determine if a bleeding disorder or something minor is at hand. "I even ask if they drink smoothies and what they are putting in them. Sometimes they don't even realize they are taking supplements that way." Taking daily doses of blood thinners like aspirin and supplements like ginkgo or fish oil could also be to blame.
YOUR FEET AND TOES
After a long day, who doesn't want to put up their tired tootsies? However, swollen feet are something to get worried about if the swelling is not temporary. If that's the case, you could be looking at troubles with your heart, kidneys, liver or blood vessels. Limiting your salt intake and drinking more water can help any puffiness go down. As for cold feet, Dunn believes many people will experience this malady at some point in their lives. "Some causes are temporary and harmless, but others could indicate more serious health conditions like poor circulation, anemia, diabetes or an underactive thyroid. If you've noticed that you have cold feet, you should see a doctor to determine if something bad is going on," he advises.
This feature originally appeared in the Dec 2017/ Jan 2018 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.