How To Keep a Health Diary and How It Has Empowered My Life
This year I started keeping a health diary. That is, I bought a physical, hard copy, real in my hands diary and every day I have been recording notes about my physical and mental health.
As I bought a new diary this week to use as my next health diary (the previous one ended up having months missing – helpful) and mentioned this on my Instagram stories, I found I was inundated with messages about it. I hosted my first Instagram Live video to answer everybody’s questions and delve into a bit more detail about the why’s, what’s and how’s of my health diary. Unfortunately some bug in the system meant my live video did not save anywhere!
So here I am doing what I do best, blogging about my health diary and hopefully answering any questions you might have if you’re curious about doing the same.
Why do I keep a health diary?
I keep a health diary so I can track my physical and mental health on a daily basis. I primarily chose to do this so that I could look back over previous weeks and months and note any patterns in my health, in particular to my female hormonal fluctuations, but also to keep an eye on my mental health. I wanted to understand what symptoms are hormonal and what are related to other health issues.
I also wanted to become more aware of my body and how it worked.
I have been diagnosed with severe anxiety in recent times and by keeping a health diary I am able to become more present and rooted in myself. The act of sitting at my desk and reflecting on my health for that particular day is quite a mindful act.
How to keep a health diary
I like to use a week-to-view diary. This is a personal preference and I recommend choosing what works best for you, how you think, and how much detail you want to record. For me, a week-to-view diary offers to right amount of space for the health observations I want to record, and I like to see an entire week at a time.
If you have a female reproductive system and currently experiencing menstrual cycles I recommend starting the process by numbering the days of your cycle. Day 1 is your first day of your period (this is when you experience menstrual flow, not spotting).
If you know roughly how long your cycle is go ahead and number each day for the following few weeks.
I am fortunate that I have a 28 day cycle but I tend to number up until about day 25 as that is the shortest cycle I’ve had, I then continue the numbering until menstruation begins.
Of course, those with other conditions such as PCOS or endometriosis, or those experiencing menopause, or peri-menopause, will want to figure out their cycle numbering in a way that works best for them.
For me, tracking my monthly cycle is the first priority as I’ve come to realise that hormones play an enormous role in our physical and mental health. My body has a monthly rhythm and by tracking it I have come to know my body better than I ever have in the previous 20 years of menstruating.
What else to track in the health diary
I tend to be fairly fluid with what I note in my health diary. That is, I open my diary and allow my mind to reflect back on the day and write anything of note. This means my observations vary and I try not to be too strict about what I record.
In general I always note the following in my health diary:
Basal body temperature (or BBT)
Quality of sleep
Moon cycle (I note the new and full moon days)
Other things I note in my health diary from time to time include:
Physical conditions of note – headaches, skin condition (spots, etc), aches and pains, tummy upsets, digestion
Bowel movements – if different to usual
Energy levels (lethargic? buoyant? motivated? relaxed? sociable? introverted?)
Cravings for a particular food (usually chocolate but sometimes red meat, eggs, nuts, broccoli or pasta)
Ovulation fluid (usually of note around day 10 to 16 of cycle)
Period quality (spotting, light, medium, heavy flow)
Mental health (anxiety, depression, unhealthy thoughts, etc)
Location (if different to usual – i.e. travelling, work trip, etc.)
Weather (if significant)
Further health diary notes you could make:
Any medical interventions / procedures
Health condition tracking
Health diary apps
Alongside my physical health diary I also used to use a women’s cycle app daily. I find it useful to input my basal body temperature and period in the app on a daily basis. The app then allows you to see a chart of your temperature over your monthly cycle, this is helpful to see when you ovulate and which your fertile days will be.
This can be useful for fertility awareness whether that is for those trying to conceive and those who want to avoid it. It’s essentially a modern rhythm method form of contraception and as such not totally reliable as our body’s are not clocks – they are not accurate. I’ve found that the app predicts an ovulation date and then retroactively updates the day once the temperatures have been input.
For me, I like to be able to see my hormones at work and know that my cycle is working as it should (I can clearly see the fortnightly rise and fall in BBT, it’s fascinating stuff really).
If you prefer you can use the app (or any other health apps if you find one you like) to record all of your health diary observations. As I said before, I like to see a week to view and see my observations all at once.
Benefits of keeping a health diary
Overall I have found that the key benefit to keeping a health diary is that I’ve become more mindful of my body and mental state. As such, I feel more present in my body and health.
After a few months of keeping a health diary I was able to see patterns in my health. I can now flick back through the months and look at a particular day or week in my cycle and see any symptoms that are similar. Those that are similar reassure me that they are hormonal symptoms, and anything else that is different I can investigate.
By keeping track of weather, season, social occasions, sex, sleep quality, mental health, etc. I have started to see links between certain feelings or bodily reactions.
It’s incredibly reassuring and empowering. I am understanding and knowing my body and health in a way I never did before.
Importantly for me, I am owning my menstrual cycle now. For the longest time a period was something we kept hidden, we didn’t talk about it, we hid tampons up our sleeves, covered up our monthly cramps, thought we were going crazy when we felt the world was ending (in that the day or two before we bleed).
By hiding our periods and not talking about them I found I didn’t take too much notice of my period, my cycle, or my health.
Now, by tracking my cycle I feel in control, and I understand exactly what my wondrous body is doing. I actually start looking forward to my period because I now understand what a gift it is to have a body that can do these incredible things. My period makes me feel powerful, strong, and capable… that’s something I never thought I’d feel. (And I must give a shout out to Claire Baker for sharing her knowledge via Instagram and reinforcing the idea of this whole tracking process I’ve been going through this year).
As for my mental health, it’s proving important during my therapy process to track and allow my mind and emotions to go through what they need. By having a handle on my physical health, I am giving space to my brain to go through therapy in a healthy and meaningful way.
Choosing to keep a health diary is a personal preference and I imagine we each take away something different from it. If by sharing my experience with you has resonated with you I encourage you to give it a try for at least 3 months to see if it’s for you. I think you need at least a season to form a new habit and see if it makes sense for you and your life.
I find keeping a health diary is empowering, and I highly recommend giving it a go.
Let me know if you decide to give it a go, I’d love to know how you experience keeping a health diary.
And if there’s anything else I should add to the list, please let me know!
Please remember: I am not a medical or health practitioner, I am just sharing my own personal experience and what works for me. Do be mindful of what will work for you, and as always seek professional help if you have any health concerns.