How well would you rate your overall health — and how confident do you feel about your answer? Keeping a health diary might help give you a clearer view of how your lifestyle choices affect how you feel, and give your overall well-being a needed boost.
I firmly believe that things like eating lots of vegetables, getting enough sleep, and staying hydrated are good for everyone. However, everyone is different, and there are many variations within a healthy paradigm.
If you or one of your kids has a medical history of undiagnosed problems, a health journal could work wonders in uncovering hidden triggers or unhealthy patterns. It’s a fabulous tool that, with a little practice and dedication, will only serve you in the end.
Why Should I Keep a Health Journal?
If you or someone in your family suffers from unknown allergic reactions, sudden mood changes, constipation, or other health issues, it’s extra important to keep track of your health with a daily journal. You can decide what’s important to include in your journal entries, and who knows — it might help you discover a hidden health problem or even inadvertently create new healthy habits!
There are many advantages to keeping a health journal. Here are my top seven reasons for starting your health journal:
- You Can Uncover Lifestyle Patterns: Keeping track of everyday health information like diet and sleep might help you consider certain causes and effects you never thought about before. For example, you might notice that you don’t sleep well without a magnesium salt bath before bed, or that your skin rashes ease up when you drink eight glasses of water.
- You Might Discover Aggravating Foods: When you keep a food journal, you’ll be more likely to figure out which foods cause allergy symptoms, bowel disturbances, skin issues, or other problems. Whenever you have a reaction, go back to your record and see what the common factors are. Check your diary to see if you might have eaten gluten, dairy, sugar, nuts, eggs, shellfish, or other common triggers.
- You’ll Know What Needs to Change: There’s a reason bodybuilders and fitness pros keep a detailed record of their meals and workouts. It all comes down to the fact that you can’t change or improve what you don’t measure, and you can’t duplicate success if you don’t know what’s working. Using a tracker to take your food, exercise, and current health info into account will help you get realistic measures of what works best for you and your family, so you can continue the right habits and ditch the wrong ones.
- It’ll Keep You From Falling Into a Rut: Journaling will help you notice when foods or lifestyle factors cause you to fall astray on your health plan. Maybe a handful of chocolate chips leads to food binges, or a lack of sleep encourages poor food choices the next day. If you know this ahead of time, you can prioritize certain lifestyle choices to keep you on track. Bonus: Aside from not falling into a rut, it might even help with your weight loss goals!
- You’ll Stay Accountable: Even if you’re health journaling just a few key things every day, writing things down gives you a solid reason to stay on track. If you really want to stay accountable, keep a journal in a public place so that others can encourage and support you along the way.
- You’ll See How Lifestyle and Diet Factors Intermingle: Diet plays a tremendous role in the quality of your sleep, skin, and bowel habits. Similarly, lifestyle factors like stress, hormones, and exercise play a tremendous role in how much and what type of food your body craves. Tracking both diet and lifestyle choices will help you see which changes are the most important for YOU to make, to become your healthiest self yet.
- It Can Help Inform Doctors: Don’t feel like you have to analyze all of this information by yourself. Take your health journal to your doctor’s appointments so they can help you pinpoint causes of medical issues like allergies, mental health problems, certain heart diseases, high blood pressure, chronic conditions, and more. It will also help you to see objectively over time how certain changes affect your health. I share mine with my SteadyMD doctor regularly.
What to Record
The more information you record in your health journal, the better. If this seems overwhelming, start with a high level of a few key aspects of your health, and then drill down to get super specific on things that you think might help uncover more information as you go along.
There are all kinds of things you can write down in your daily journal. Here are a few things I’ve found most helpful to include:
- Diet. Start with a simple list of all the foods you eat every day. If you want to get specific, you can also include the amounts of food, what time you ate them, or even categorize by food type (like meat, veggie, etc.). This might help you see high-level patterns at a glance — for example, if you’re getting enough protein.
- Vitamins. Record any supplements you take, and go back to record the days you forgot to take your regularly scheduled vitamins. In fact, days you forget to take certain meds might give you some needed insight you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise!
- Water intake. We all know that hydration is very important for your body on a cellular level. Keep track of how many ounces of water you drink every day to see how hydration affects your health. You can use smartphone apps for this, like Daily Water Tracker, Hydro Coach, or WaterMinder.
- Sleep. You can keep this one super simple by recording what time you go to bed, what time you wake up in the morning, but did you know you could also record sleep quality? Certain apps, like Sleep Cycle, can do a deep dive into how well you slept, whether or not you snored, and more to help you understand more about what happened while you were unconscious for the last eight hours.
- Exercise. You don’t need to go to the gym to record your workouts — although that never hurts, either. Note any strenuous activity you did each day, from taking a brisk walk to aggressively cleaning your bathroom. All those hours of physical activity add up quicker than you think!
- Illness, allergies, skin changes or reactions. Now that you’ve recorded all of what you did, it’s time to take a look at what is. Most importantly, take stock of how you feel at the end of the day. Did you suffer from allergies? Did your IBS flare up? Was your eczema more manageable than usual? Write it down.
- Pain or fatigue. Be sure to note any unusual pain points throughout your day, and jot down any feelings of fatigue or brain fog. It’s not a bad idea to give yourself a 1-10 score of how alert and energetic you’re feeling each day.
- Mood changes. It’s easy to overlook your mental health — so it’s extra important to pay attention to those little changes in mood and emotions. They might help you reveal some interesting patterns about what sparks sudden feelings of anxiety or sadness.
- Hormones. Your mood is heavily dictated by your hormones, so be sure to include this information as well. Note where you are in your monthly cycle (I recommend this app for that), or what stage of pregnancy you’ve reached, to get an idea as to what might be going on hormonally on any given day.
- Bowel habits. Are you going twice a day, or have you felt stopped up for the last three? While there are dozens of articles on the Internet about what your poop says about you, all you really need to record here is whether or not you had a bowel movement, and note anything that was out of the ordinary for you.
How to Make Journaling Easier
This might seem confusing, but don’t worry — you certainly don’t have to record all of the suggestions above. Plus, you don’t have to rely solely on your memory or carry your journal around with you nonstop. Dozens of smartphone apps can help you keep track of your food intake, sleep, hydration and exercise — just do a Google search and check out the highest-rated ones out there.
If you haven’t journaled before, I’d suggest trying it for a few weeks. An easier way to get in the habit might even be just to start with a simple gratitude journal and build up to health tracking. You might be amazed by this daily habit can do.
Note: While I think that keeping a health journal is an amazing self-care tool that you might have easily overlooked, it should never replace any medical appointments or serve as a full diagnosis. Remember to talk to your doctor to receive personalized medical advice based on your health journal and overall family medical history.
Check out my conversation with Sarah Kay Hoffman of A Gutsy Girl to learn more about what we both learned to do (and not do) when starting to keep a health journal.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Lauren Jefferis, board-certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Do you keep a journal? What has it helped you discover about yourself?
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- McManus, F., & Waller, G. (1995). A functional analysis of binge-eating. Clinical psychology review, 15(8), 845-863.
- Popkin, B. M., D’Anci, K. E., & Rosenberg, I. H. (2010). Water, hydration, and health. Nutrition reviews, 68(8), 439-458.