This post is part of our Autoimmune Health Journal series. The rest of the posts in this series include:
Back in the days of high school and college, I spent many (too many) hours in the chemistry laboratory. Among many of the skills I learned, there was one in particular that was emphasized over and over again.
And it drove me CRAZY.
Keeping a lab notebook.
I despised it. We weren’t allowed to erase anything (even mistakes), the pre-made graphs and tables never had enough spaces to accommodate the data I was collecting, and every single detail/step/observation needed to be in layman’s terms so that the experiment could easily be followed by anyone.
I also had some serious OCD issues with color-coding all of my data… and using white-out when I wasn’t supposed to.
It was a nightmare!
Why couldn’t we just follow the printed lab procedure and write down our calculations at the end?
While I do think that some of the rules were a bit unnecessary, I will admit that I did learn to appreciate the thoroughness. Without it, I would have forgotten and missed many of the details I needed to problem-solve when my calculations didn’t quite add up… (which was quite often).
Fast-forward 5-10 years, and surprisingly, I find myself still using my (awesome) lab notebook skills not for chemistry… but for HEALTH! More specifically – to help me manage all my autoimmune conditions.
If you aren’t convinced on the benefits of keeping a health journal, be sure to read 10 Benefits of Keeping a Health Journal. A few might surprise you.
How to Start a Daily Health Journal for Your Autoimmune Disease (that You’ll Actually Use)
One of the best ways to get ideas rolling is to see examples. So, for this tutorial, I will walk you through the steps of creating the daily health journal I personally use to track my autoimmune disease symptoms.
If you follow the steps I have outlined, it will allow you to create a health journal (or a health diary as some like to call it) that is completely customized to what you want.
This means it can be a health and fitness journal, or a food tracker journal, or a symptom tracker (which is what I use mine for)… whatever you need for your current situation.
It will be well-organized so that you can really focus on the content that you are recording each day, knowing that you have the exact data you need. As a result, you will be able to make your daily health journal one of the best and most effective tools in your arsenal.
In case you DON’T want to make your own, and would rather use a printable health journal template instead, fill in the form below and I’ll send you the same template I use for free!
Step 1: Pick your journal.
Yes, this is an obvious first step. But I made sure to include it because there are some things to think about:
- Do you want a physical journal? If so, graphing paper or lined? Spiral-bound or perfect-bound? Big or small?
- Would you rather make your templates on the computer using Word or Excel, print them off, fill them in on a daily basis, and then 3-hole punch them into a binder?
- If you use a daily planner, do you want it to be separate or part of your planner?
Before making a decision, I suggest you read through the rest of the steps for setting up your journal. They may give you a better idea of what you think would work best.
For me, I prefer simplicity:
I like hand-written because it keeps me off of my phone or laptop where I am easily distracted.
I use a smaller, lined notebook that is easy to take with me on the go. The notebook is spiral-bound so that I can easily flip the pages back behind the cover.
I make sure it is a completely separate notebook from my planner because I do not want to mix all of my to-do lists, appointments, and events with my health data. It is distracting and makes evaluating patterns / seeing the overall picture much more difficult.
And I also use my absolute favorite erasable pens because unlike chemistry lab, I CAN erase my mistakes.
Step 2: Take Your Case
Without a starting point, it is hard to gauge improvement. So, before you start symptom and detail tracking, you need to acquire a thorough understanding of your current health status, just like a good doctor would at the beginning of an appointment.
This can be pretty tedious, but I encourage you to take the time to really think it through. Use the following tips to help you get started.
- Reflect on your current lifestyle and daily habits. What is your diet like? Exercise schedule? Sleep schedule? Stress level?
- Are there any patterns that you can identify in relation to your current lifestyle choices and symptoms? Do you have any intuitions of foods, products, habits, etc. that could be contributing to specific ailments?
- Talk with a family member or close friend who knows you well. Sometimes, the observations of those we spend our time with can help us pinpoint symptoms and specific behavioral tendencies that we do not notice (or don’t want to admit).
- List all of your current ailments/symptoms and rate them on a scale of 1-10 (or 1-5 to make it simpler). Include frequency, description, and any variations you may notice. This is very important for tracking progress.
- Take pictures of any visible symptoms, such as skin issues. This is also very helpful for tracking progress.
- List all of your current supplements, prescription medications, and OTC drugs. Be sure to include brand, frequency, and dosage.
Below are two pages from my current health status. I included details of my diet, exercise schedule, sleep, and stress level, as well as a detailed description of my two current symptoms: eczema and vertigo.
Step 3: Set Your Goals
Now that you have an overall picture of your current health, you may have thought of some goals that a health journal may be able to help you with.
Is it to find food intolerances while you follow The Autoimmune Protocol diet? Or to find out if caffeine is one of the culprits behind your poor sleep at night? Or possibly just to find out if the lifestyle choices you are making are correlated in any way to your symptoms?
Regardless of what you are looking to find out, my advice is to pick 3 goals or less. Otherwise, you may be too overwhelmed which can discourage you from a) sticking to your goal and b) maintaining your health journal.
Remember, we want this to be a tool, not a burden, so be honest with yourself about what you can handle. If you’re unsure, steps 4-5 may give an indication as to whether or not you are taking on too much (or too little).
I started my journal with two specific goals in mind:
- To find the triggers of my eczema and resolve it.
- To find the triggers of my vertigo and resolve it.
I added in one more goal, which was to try and optimize my sleep and energy levels in preparation for an upcoming doctor’s appointment. If I am still tired after really focusing in on my sleep, it is going to be something I would like to get further testing on.
(A picture of my “Goals” page is in the next step.)
Step 4: Decide on Your Initial Plan of Action
Set a plan of action for each of your goals. Think about data, details, observations, etc. you’ll need to collect, as well as any actions you’d like to take to help get you there.
Your plan of action may end up being too tedious to maintain in your journal on a daily basis if it requires too much information to write down (speaking from personal experience…), so remember that you can always go back to simplify and make changes later.
My plans of actions are pretty straightforward. When it comes to my previous experiences with eczema and vertigo, they have almost always been tied to a specific food or supplement. So, by carefully tracking the foods/supplements I consume, as well as the time of day, I am hoping to zero in on a few patterns.
Step 5: Brainstorm and Pick a Page Template
It turns out that there was actually a purpose behind making data tables and graphs before performing my chemistry lab experiments. Not only did it help me to read through the steps beforehand, but it also helped me to think about the best way to organize my data with the end goal (and calculations) in mind.
This step may seem unnecessary, but a hodgepodge of random information written in no specific order is very difficult to use when evaluating patterns.
If you don’t think about how you are going to organize the information you collect in your health journal, then you are adding more work and stress that can easily be avoided.
With your 3 (or less) goals in mind, think about how you want to collect supporting details.
Remember to keep it simple!
For example, you can use a 1-10 number scale (or a 1-5 scale to keep it simpler) to help rate the severity of any symptoms you may be tracking. Or, an hourly daily calendar to record what foods you ate and when.
After you have decided on the best way to organize your information, create a page “template” that you can easily duplicate every day. If you require a ruler, colored pens, highlighters, or other tools to help you create your page, you might be setting yourself up for failure (…ask me how I know…).
You also have the option to create this template using Microsoft Word or Excel. Then, your template is already made and all you have to do is print off a bunch of copies and insert them into a binder. This saves a ton of time each day, but still gives you a customized health journal for your needs.
I decided on a two-page template which outlines the details of the day, severity of symptoms, and an hourly calendar to help me track food, naps, exercise, etc.
Step 6: Collect Your Data, Track Symptoms, Record Questions, etc.
This, to me, is the fun part! This is where the magic happens.
It can take some time and work every day to fill out your health journal, but there are plenty of opportunities to make it happen. It may mean skipping social media, reading, watching TV, etc. for 5-10 minutes while you write down the details.
After consistent daily recordings though, it will become second nature.
Remember that a health journal can be used for more than just tracking symptoms and collecting data. It can also be a hub for all things related to your specific health journey.
For example, you can have a separate page dedicated to questions you’d like to ask your doctor next time you go for a visit, and another page dedicated to blog posts, resources, doctors, etc. that you found and want to look into further.
Step 7: Evaluate Patterns – Make Graphs, Tables, etc. Using Your Data
Yes, making graphs may seem nerdy or excessive for something like a simple health journal. This step can definitely be skipped if you aren’t into it. (Fortunately, if you feel this is too much, you can try out some health journaling apps that do it for you.)
But, collecting all of this data can really give great indications, so make use of its full potential!
Every month or so, take some time to look at the big picture.
If you have been numerically rating your symptoms on a daily basis, make a graph (either by hand or in a program like Microsoft Excel) to look for variation.
Your data may indicate high or low severity to certain triggers over time. By seeing the results in a chart or graph, you can quickly figure out what could have caused your issues, or what worked to get rid of them.
In my graph below, you can see that I had a bit of a flare up around 5/13, indicating that I should take a look at some possible contributing factors around that time.
For some health goals, this step may not always apply. Not all data can be charted or graphed to evaluate patterns. Plus, you may notice that you can easily pick up on a few things without any further analysis.
For example, after just 3 days of observations, I was able to find that my vertigo only occurs in the morning between the hours of 9 and noon. This observation gave me some clues on what to zero-in, such as what I ate for breakfast or which supplements/vitamins I took during the morning.
Use Your Daily Health Journal to Take Charge of Your Autoimmune Disease
I hope you can now see the full potential of keeping a health journal. I know that reading over these steps may make it seem time-consuming, but I promise, the investment into your health is more than worth it.
The hardest part is always getting started. But once you begin to pick up on certain triggers or patterns, the motivation to keep going will come naturally.
If after months of keeping a health journal, you are feeling more lost than ever – can’t seem to find patterns and can’t seem to get a grasp on your symptoms, please don’t be discouraged.
Use this opportunity to find another set of eyes to look over your data and help you pick up on things you may have missed. You can even start by seeking help from friends and family. If it’s looking like you need a professional, then begin building your team of health practitioners to guide you.
Remember that regardless of your progress, your efforts alone put you one step closer to finding the answers you’re looking for and maximizing your health!
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Hi! I’m Anna, co-founder of Healthy Habits Reset. After managing my own autoimmune diseases using lifestyle, habit, and mindset changes, I now work to teach others how to navigate the treacherous and confusing journey of chronic illness living. I firmly believe YOU hold the power to question, think critically, and become your own rock-solid advocate in a world full of unhealthy habits. Consider me, and my husband, Frank, your autoimmune disease health coaches. Are you ready?!