The starting point is easy enough: Get a grasp of what's natural and usual for you and what isn't; you don't have to meditate on how you're feeling—you just have to raise your general level of self-awareness. As the saying goes, the first step is admitting you have a problem. If you have a headache, for example, don't immediately brush it off with an excuse like "I'm just tired." What you need to note with any symptom is, first, is it new (I'm bleeding heavily each month and didn't in the past); then, is it recurring (the fourth headache of the week?); and is it exacerbated (I used to be bloated a day or two a month, but now it's all the time). Leah Millheiser, MD, who is an instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University School of Medicine (and a women's reproductive health research scholar for the National Institutes of Health), says we all have our own doctor inside of us, and that's what we need to tune in to. She has found in her practice that more and more women are doing so, especially younger women, who are likely to have grown up in a climate of dialogue with their physician rather than the Doctor Knows Best tropes of the past. "Television shows such as House and Grey's Anatomy have helped educate the audience that mundane-seeming symptoms can be hugely important," Millheiser says. "Listening to your internal voice—which we all have, telling us when something is out of whack somehow—should make us all self-diagnosers. It's good to be an advocate for yourself and say, 'I think these symptoms might mean I have this condition.'" Obviously the Web has also played an important role in increasing patient advocacy, as has mass marketing by drug companies. (I can't be the only one who wishes we didn't have to hear about constipation or erectile dysfunction every night at dinnertime.) Consciousness, as we might describe listening to our bodies, is prompted by the current free flow of information. Indeed, a 2006 Consumer Reports questionnaire elicited responses from 25,184 readers about how they gathered information about a medical condition: Fifty-nine percent said they read books or articles, and 39 percent went to the Internet. Those are impressive numbers—the doctor within each of us is an increasingly well-educated specialist.
Where things get trickier, says Millheiser, is when we leap from self-diagnosis to self-treatment. "Here's an example," she says. "A woman who has chronic yeast infections might think, It's no big deal—I work out a lot, and take yogurt for its acidophilus, or grab an over-the-counter medication. But the symptom could indicate diabetes, or an autoimmune condition, or, very worst-case scenario, HIV. So anything that's chronic or recurring or increasing in frequency needs to be brought to the attention of a physician."