Interoception: The secret to better mental and physical health?
Could the magic of interoception help you get fitter, healthier and happier? Ali Roff Farrar shares her research on interoception from her book The Wellfulness Project and explains how you can learn to tune into it...
Interoception is the word used to describe the information sent by our body to the brain, and perception of that information, which in turn leads to how you feel, whether that's hungry, thirsty tired or threatened in some way. Your body sends signals and messages to your mind all the time, whether you're awake or asleep. It is constantly communicating with you telling you what it needs. Yet we often fail to notice what our bodies are telling us.
For example, you might reach for a packet of biscuits when what you actually need is a glass of water - only to find yourself waking up from thirst in the middle of the night.
In more severe cases we can, for example, misread the body telling us that it is tired, pushing on with a job, without allowing ourselves to rest. This overworking can lead to negative emotions in the mind, which might then be misinterpreted as feelings of depression, when all we really need is to rest and get some sleep. This disconnection between body and mind has been studied in depth, and weak interoception is common in mental health disorders*. It has also been shown that those with greater ability to interpret interoceptive messages from the body have more potential to respond to those messages in appropriate ways that lead to better mental health*.
You might habitually and mindlessly eat foods because they taste nice, yet make your body feel sluggish, simply because you always have, and have never stopped to weigh up which one you are happy to compromise on. You might, like me, reach for a snack when actually you're just thirsty, or deprive yourself of food on a diet when your body is calling out for nourishment. It's as if you're not quite tuned into the same frequency that your body is broadcasting on. You get the odd fuzzy message now and then, but the subtler messages are lost in transmission.
It will often take a bigger signal, or a call for help, from your body to get vo attention. After finding one too many flecks of gray in my hair, I started taking a copper supplement, having read that it was great for preserving natural hair colour. I took my first tablet, then felt a slight pang of sickness. But it passed and I didn't think about it again. The next day I took another tablet I immediately felt sick again, and this time, my body truly let me know about it. I then remembered having felt sick before. It was as if my body had tried to tell me once and I hadn't quite got the message, so the second time around my body made sure I noticed and understood what it was telling me. I thanked it that day and marvelled at its inner wisdom, feeling compassion for how it takes care of itself and vowing to listen more closely in the future.
But the signals your body sends you aren't always that obvious. At work, regularly ate an apple after lunch. I'd look forward to it all morning. Then, every evening, l'd drive home and, without fail, have to loosen my clothes and my seatbelt, as my stomach was so bloated and painful. I didn't get it? I ate healthily, I exercised. So why did my belly get so bloated? Going to bed every night, having visually put on about two stone, started to really get me down. But I couldn't figure out why my bloating was happening. This went on for years. without my even realizing that perhaps my body was trying to tell me something, until it got so painful that my body demanded my attention with stabbing stomach cramps every night.
I realised I had to do something and, after a little research, I discovered that fruit is digested fairly quickly, releasing gases into your gut. So when it is eaten after a meal, these gases can become trapped by other food that take longer to digest. It is the trapped gases that then cause discomfort and bloating. My body had sent me signals that my lunchtime apple was not serving me, but it was only when gained the knowledge about how fast fruit is digested that I was empowered to change my habit.
However, the real problem was that I hadn't really listened to my body's inner wisdom. Only as I became more mindful and began to tune into my body, my mind and my heart in a deeper way, was I able to tune into the subtle messages that I had missed for years. Every time I ate an apple, my mouth had itched, my stomach had churned and the bloating had appeared until, finally. I understood what was happening and began to realize that I was slightly intolerant to apples. After so many small adjustments, I learned through listening to the wisdom of my body that the food we fuel our bodies with has a huge impact on how we feel. I don't know about you, but I want to feel great, so it's important that I know which foods work for me and support me.
So often we are caught up in the mind's chatter that we are tuned out of the conversation our body so desperately needs to have with us. Interoception is that conversation. It can help us listen to what foods nourish and energise us, and which foods make us feel sluggish and bloated. It can help us know when we are approaching burnout. It can help us prevent injury, regain body confidence, and even improve our mental health.
3 ways to develop your interoception
Practice a daily Body Scan meditation
Try mindful and intuitive eating
Keep a food diary - not just around what you eat, but also adding how you feel physically, and mentally too
Practice yoga, which has been found to enhance interoception.
Get a mindful massage - focus on the sensations mindfully and tune into how your body feels and responds to touch.
Adapted from The Wellfulness Project (Aster, £12.99) by Ali Roff Farrar.
*Study citations can be found in The Wellfulness Project bibliogrpahy.