By Alicia Potee
Before I begin, let me be clear about one thing. The simple DIY screening methods I’m going to share with you today aren’t substitutes for a formal diagnosis. For real answers, you need a complete health evaluation. And only your doctor can do that for you.
That being said, let’s talk. No one wants to waste hours waiting at the doctor’s office over five extra pounds, a few cases of indigestion or a lost pair of reading glasses. And that’s exactly where these simple at-home “tests” come in.
They’ll help you to identify three common conditions that can chip away at your health at best—and potentially kill you, at worst. They’ll give you a better idea of just how soon you need to be scheduling an appointment with a specialist. And they’ll arm you with some basic but vital information about your body in the process.
Simply put, these tests could save your life. So whether you suspect a problem or not, I hope you’re paying attention.
Test #1: Surefire Signs of a Slow Thyroid
First up, hypothyroidism—the technical term for an underactive thyroid gland. New mothers and women over 60 are particularly prone. But anyone can suffer from low thyroid function. And while weight gain may be the most well known side effect, it’s certainly not the only one—or even the worst.
Over time, hypothyroidism can also lead to severe depression, nerve damage and pain, infertility and heart disease.
So how do you know if your thyroid is sluggish?
- Is your hair thinning?
- Do you often have cold hands and feet?
- Chronic constipation?
- Persistent facial puffiness?
- Frequent fluid retention?
- Dry skin?
- Hoarse voice?
- Fatigue, stiffness or pain?
- Depression or memory problems?
- Is your menstrual period heavy or irregular?
- Have you lost the outer third of your eyebrow?
If you answered yes to most or all of these questions, there’s a fairly good chance that you’re dealing with hypothyroidism.1
Putting Your Thyroid to the Test
This “test” is called the ankle jerk. And it couldn’t be simpler.
Sit down with one leg crossed over the other, such that your calf is resting on your opposite knee. Take a spoon or other hard object and firmly tap the Achilles tendon—that’s the spot on the back of your ankle, just above your heel—of your top leg.
If your ankle doesn’t flex right away, that’s one potential red flag for hypothyroidism—and a sign that it’s definitely time to ask your doctor to test your thyroid levels.2
Keep Your Sluggish Thyroid in Check
A lot of hypothyroidism cases are the result of largely unavoidable circumstances—like autoimmune disorders (specifically, Hashimoto’s disease) or pregnancy-related hormone changes.
This makes prevention challenging—and awareness of the signs, along with appropriate treatment, even more important.
But there are still plenty of things you can do to protect your thyroid. And in some cases, hypothyroidism can be prevented, or at least improved, with dietary changes.
For starters, take a look at your iodine intake. Iodine deficiency is a major contributor to hypothyroidism. And while the introduction of iodized salt largely eliminated this problem in developed countries, it’s been on the rise in recent years, nevertheless.
On the other hand, consuming too much iodine can interfere with thyroid function as well. So if you suspect hypothyroidism, be sure to test your iodine sufficiency. If necessary, start supplementing with this trace mineral. (Eating plenty of sea vegetables, fish and eggs can help too.)
While you’re at it, watch out for goitrogens. These are compounds that block thyroid function and interfere with iodine uptake. And they feature prominently in a long list of otherwise healthy foods—most notably cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
For even more ways to boost your thyroid function, check out this clip from Dr. Oz. He discusses five foods that can speed up a sluggish thyroid, including dulse flakes and miso soup for iodine, cantaloupe and sweet potatoes for vitamin A and Brazil nuts for selenium.
Test #2: Decoding Digestive Problems
The symptoms of any digestive issue are pretty self-evident. There’s also a lot of overlap across the wide array of conditions that could be causing your gut problems. So how do you know if you need to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist?
- Do you have abdominal pain or cramps?
- Bloating and gas?
- Diarrhea and/or constipation?
- Blood or mucus in your stool?
These symptoms could point to anything as innocuous as mild IBS or as dangerous as colon cancer. So if you’re dealing with any of them on a regular basis, then you’re due for a formal gut check.3 In the meantime…
Keep a Better Eye on Your Bathroom Habits
As odd as this may sound, start taking some notes. For one thing, you’ll want to pay attention to your bowels’ transit time—that is, the amount of time it takes your food to pass through your digestive system.
Roughly between 12 and 36 hours is the norm. If your food is moving through you much slower (or faster) than that, it definitely points to a potential problem.4
Your doctor can evaluate your transit time using special capsules and x-rays. But you can get an idea of your food’s transit time just as easily on your own, by eating indigestible foods (like corn, for example) and seeing how long it takes to make its way into the toilet.
Just be sure to look before you flush. This can also give you an idea of where your stool falls on the Bristol scale. This is simply a range of stool characteristics—from small and hard to loose and watery—that will give you an idea of the quality of your digestive health.
The National Institutes of Health website offers an illustrated chart of the seven types of stool on the Bristol scale. You can consult this chart to see where your stool falls—and whether or not you might have a problem.
If your bowel movements closely match types 1 or 2, you may be constipated. Types 3 and 4 are what healthy stool looks like. And types 5, 6 and 7 represent varying degrees of diarrhea. So if you’re passing bowel movements outside of types 3 and 4 on a regular basis, you’re dealing with a chronic digestive problem.
Keep Your Digestion Running Smoothly
Specific strategies for combating digestive difficulties are going to depend largely on your particular problem. But there are a few basic steps that can help to keep your gut in top shape, no matter what you’re up against.
The first one is to eliminate problem foods from your diet. Common allergens like wheat, dairy, sugar and soy are natural places to start. But more comprehensive screening for hidden food sensitivities will give you a better idea of what you need to stop eating in order to start feeling better.
Watch your fiber intake while you’re at it. If you’re struggling with constipation, extra fiber can help to get things going. But if you find yourself in the bathroom a little too often, reducing fiber—even from healthy sources, like greens and raw veggies—may be necessary. (Either way, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water as well.)
Finally, the single best thing you can do for your gut is to get more good bacteria. But don’t bother with all those so-called probiotic yogurts. Take a high-quality probiotic supplement featuring healthy, clinically researched strains of bacteria like Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus sporogenes, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium longum and Bifidobacterium infantis every single day.
Test #3: Early Markers of Mental Decline
Like digestion, the signs of cognitive decline are unmistakable. And if your mind is beginning to fail you, you’ve probably already noticed them.
But how can you tell if you’re experiencing normal age-related “senior moments,” or if your lapses are a sign of something more sinister?
- Is memory loss disrupting your daily life?
- Are you having problems executing plans or dealing with numbers, like following recipes or keeping track of bills?
- What about difficulties completing familiar tasks, like driving home or following the rules of a favorite game?
- Do you find yourself getting confused about times and places—like not remembering how you got somewhere or what year it is?
- Are you having trouble judging spatial cues like distance and color?
- Do you have problems using once-familiar words or speech?
- Are you constantly misplacing things and unable to retrace your steps to find them?
- Are you withdrawing socially or experiencing personality changes?
Obviously, there’s a big difference between occasionally forgetting where you parked your car and forgetting how to get back home. So if any of the above scenarios sound familiar, make an appointment to see your doctor today.5
Taking the “Mini-Cog” from Your Couch
Receiving a complete neurological exam, brain imaging and mental status test—like the mini-mental state exam (MMSE) or “mini-cog” test—is the only way to definitively identify Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
But you can replicate at least part of this standardized assessment at home. One challenge is to have someone name three common objects for you to remember and repeat a few minutes later.
You can also attempt to draw the face of a clock, including all of the numbers in the appropriate place. Then have someone give you a time to illustrate with the hands of the clock.
This clock challenge is a main feature of the standard “mini-cog” test.6 And if you’re unable to complete it, you’re up against more than simple age-related brain changes.
Keep Your Memory Razor Sharp
Luckily, there are a lot of ways to keep your memory sharp well into your retirement years. Staying mentally active by reading, doing puzzles and maintaining a strong social network is chief among them.
But exercise and diet have a lot to do with your brain’s health too. Research shows that 150 minutes of physical activity per week—that’s just over 20 minutes a day—can deliver significant improvements to mental activity in subjects with mild cognitive impairment.7
Studies also suggest that following a Mediterranean diet—rich in fish and lean protein, veggies, fruit, nuts and healthy fats from sources like olive oil and avocado—can help to stall memory declines as well.8
And don’t forget to take your vitamins—especially vitamin E. Research suggests that your status of this antioxidant nutrient is closely linked to your dementia risk. One recent clinical study showed that taking 2,000 IU of vitamin E daily could fend off Alzheimer’s progression by a full 10 percent.9
Just note that the dosage used in that study is much higher than usually recommended, so make sure you work with an experienced practitioner if you’re going to experiment with a protocol like this.
- Mayo Clinic. “Hypothyroidism.” http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypothyroidism/basics/symptoms/con-20021179.
- Allison, Lynn. “Lifesaving medical tests you can do at home.” Newsmax Health. 2 August 2013.
- Mayo Clinic. “Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome/basics/symptoms/con-20024578.
- Medline Plus. “Bowel transit time.” http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003887.htm.
- Alzheimer’s Association. “10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s.” http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10_signs_of_alzheimers.asp.
- Alzheimer’s Association. “Tests for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.” http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_steps_to_diagnosis.asp.
- Smith JC, et al. J Alzheimers Dis. 2013;37(1):197-215.
- Sofi F, et al. J Alzheimers Dis. 2010;20(3):795-801.
- Dysken MW, et al. JAMA. 2014 Jan 1;311(1):33-44.