Topic Archives: Personal Projects
I have blogged many times about biohacker Tara Grant’s discovery that she slept much better if she took Vitamin D3 in the morning rather than later. Many people reported similar experiences, with a few exceptions. Lots of professional research has studied Vitamin D3 but the researchers appear to have no idea of this effect. They don’t control the time of day that subjects take D3 and don’t measure sleep. If the time of day of Vitamin D3 makes a big difference, measuring Vitamin D3 status via blood levels makes no sense. Quite likely other benefits of Vitamin D3 require taking it at the right time of day. Taking Vitamin D3 at a bad time of day could easily produce the same blood level as taking it at a good time of day.
I too had no idea of the effect that Grant discovered. I had taken Vitamin D3 several times — never in the morning — but after noticing no change stopped. I tested Grant’s discovery by taking Vitamin D3 at 8 or 9 am. First, taking it at 8 am, I gradually increased the dose from 2000 IU to 8000 IU. Then I shifted the time to 9 am. The experiment ended earlier than I would have liked because I had to fly to San Francisco.
When I woke up in the morning I rated how rested I felt on a 0-100 scale, where 0 = not rested at all and 100 = completely rested. I’d been using this scale for years. Here are the results (means and standard errors):
Vitamin D3 had a clear effect, but the necessary dose was more than 2000 IU. If Vitamin D3 acts like sunlight, you might think that taking it in the morning would make me wake up earlier. Here are the results for the time I woke up:
There was no clear effect of dosage on when I got up. Shifting the time from 8 am to 9 am may have had an effect (I wish I had 3 more days at 9 am).
Many people have reported that taking Vitamin D3 in the morning gave them more energy during the day. I usually take a nap in the early afternoon so I measured its effect on the length of those naps:
Maybe my naps were shorter with 6000 and 8000 IU at 8 am. It’s interesting that 4000 IU seemed to be enough to improve how rested how I felt but not enough to shorten my naps.
What do these results add to what we already know? First, the large-enough dose was more than 2000 IU. (A $22 million study of Vitamin D3 is using a dose of 2000 IU.) The dose needed to get more afternoon energy may be more than 4000 IU. Second, careful experimentation and records helped, even though many people found the effect so large it was easy to notice without doing anything special. For example, these results suggest the minimum dose you need to get the effect. Three, these support the value of supplements. Many people say it is better to get necessary nutrients from food rather than supplements. However, supplements allow much better control of dosage and timing and these results suggest that small changes in both can matter. I cannot imagine this effect being discovered with Vitamin D3 in food.
Note from Alex: Gwern Branwen also sent in this detailed post on Vitamin D and sleep.
A New York lawyer named Greg reports remarkably clear evidence about the effect of butter on blood lipid levels: It improved them. For a few years he measured his HDL and LDL regularly with a home cholesterol device. For unrelated reasons, he started eating more butter. He ate a half stick (about 60 g)/day, like me. Here’s what happened.
The first five measurements are from lab tests. The rest are from his home machine.
I asked Greg for details.
I’m 36. I bought the cholesterol meter last July after my doctor said he couldn’t figure out why my numbers were a bit high. We both agreed it was not something to worry too much about and that there was no point charging my insurance company for a VAP test every 6 months. We both also agreed that going on a statin was a bad idea. I picked up the meter out of curiosity. I had previously been monitoring my blood sugar (since 2009) and found it to be very interesting, so I thought I could have some fun with the numbers. The result is all the more surprising because I did not expect it. I was tracking my numbers around the time of the experiment [with butter] to make sure they did not go the wrong way like everyone says they should.
The machine is a CardioChek PA [about $600], which is designed for use in doctors offices, not for the consumer market. The device is “CLIA-waived”, which means that the FDA considers it so simple that the user does not need any special training in clinical chemistry (home glucometers fall into the same category). The machine gives significantly different numbers for different people, suggesting it is measuring something real and not spitting out random numbers.
I asked what the reaction to this data has been.
Most people I’ve spoken to have been receptive to the idea [that butter improves blood lipids], but I got no sense that they would be willing to try it for themselves. Most people I know seem to be quite willing to accept the fact that the old stories about cholesterol are not true. In contrast, one conservative cardiologist said I must have “unique genetics”.
I have finally figured out my mood! After 16 months and 300,000 words of mood tracking data, which I shared with a friend, I have a painstakingly compiled list of hacks that balance my extreme mood swings and make life much smoother for me.
So, like a good QS’er, I’m sharing what I learned. Maybe it will help someone else out there. I’ve broken down the insights into four categories.
1. Accept, accept, accept
The practice of acceptance has been incredibly transformative. If you can accept yourself as you are, accept other people as they are, and accept situations around you, you will be free from secondary layers of emotion that prevent you from just dealing with whatever you need to deal with.
For example, say that someone you love promises to do something for you, and then doesn’t do it. You have a choice here – layer frustration and anger on top of the situation, or accept it and check in with the person to see what happened. Maybe they forgot because they were feeling sick, or are stressed out at work. It probably doesn’t mean they don’t care.
As Zen master Suzuki Roshi said, “It’s like putting a horse on top of a horse and then climbing on and trying to ride. Riding a horse is hard enough. Why add another horse?” Acceptance helps you just ride one horse at a time.
Expectations come into play here as well. What I’ve learned is, the fewer expectations you have, especially about other people doing anything in particular, the easier life becomes. Keep moving strongly towards your inspiring intentions, just don’t expect anything to work out in the exact way you imagine. And if you do have a particular expectation, make sure to communicate it to the people who you’re expecting to meet it!
2. Create social algorithms
I used to have massive social anxiety coupled with an intense fear of abandonment, which often led me to isolation and depression. I was even afraid to go to QS meetups for a long while! Here are three tips I learned to make socializing smoother for me:
- Always have a buddy. Before I go to a meetup or a conference, I always ask someone to be my buddy. It has to be someone I feel safe with and who is also going to the same event (or willing to be invited.) Being a buddy means I can sit next to them, and check in with them for a hug or a quick update on how I’m feeling. At first it was hard to ask, but I soon realized that other people were also often relieved to have a buddy!
- Figure out how you engage best. For me, conference calls and group meetings are death. Coffee shops and most restaurants are too loud. So I suggest one-on-one walks with people, usually in a beautiful park or outside nature space. Again, most folks are happy to have this option of getting fresh air and exercise as well as connection. And I’m more comfortable, so I’m able to listen, give, and connect better.
- Spread out social events. Everyone will have their own balance for this one. I noticed that I get depressed if I’ve been at home for more than two days in a row, and I get a tad too manic if I’m out having meetings for more than two days in a row. This is a simple heuristic that makes it easy to decide when to put things in my calendar.
3. Pay attention to sensory experiences
I became aware of the importance of sensory experience after reading up on sensory processing differences and a sensory theory of autism. Once I tuned in and started noticing my environment, I discovered I could:
- Comfort my skin. Wearing uncomfortable clothes makes me irritable. So I gave away all my jeans, high heels, bras, anything that felt constricting or tight. I’m so much happier wearing comfy clothes all the time.
- Protect my ears. Loud machines are very draining. I noticed that riding on a train or airplane, walking down a busy street, or working at a coffee shop with that grinder going off periodically was tiring me out quite a lot. So I bought myself a pair of Bose QC15 noise canceling headphones, and I wear them every day. It also helps to put me in the zone for productive work, with playlists full of beats (for coding), love songs (for community building), or mellow ambient music (for chats.)
- Improve my sleep. I started tracking sensory experiences that interfered with my sleep, and discovered sound and light to be the main challenges. I now wear blue blockers for the last two hours before bed, have a white noise machine in my room, wear these earplugs, and try to make sure everyone in my house has used the bathroom before I go to bed so they won’t have to come in and turn on the light too often. My sleep is so much better, and my mood is too!
- Have awesome hugs! After hearing about Temple Grandin’s experience of being calmed by a squeeze machine, I started noticing that hugs (especially good, solid, squeezy hugs) really calmed me down too. People who I feel safe enough to hug deeply will notice it after ten or twenty seconds – my body just starts to melt and relax. So I started offering to hug people more, and even proudly broadcast on my social media descriptions and chat status that I love hugs. Now people send me random hugs by chat, which always make me smile. I also get more hugs in person, which further helps me to be comfortable in social situations!
4. Do the opposite from what you feel
This is the final piece that made me feel like I’d finally solved mood. Credit goes to Marcin Kowrygo from QS Poland and Simon Frid from the first QS discussion group for giving me the pieces of this last puzzle.
Basically, if you’re depressed, act as you would if you were excited, and if you’re manic, act as you would if you were depressed.
So now when I’m feeling down, I go for a fast walk in the bright sunshine with loud music, I eat less, try to chat with people more or invite someone out, and try to wake up extra early. When I’m feeling too hyper, I slow down, lie in a dark room with quiet or sad music, eat a bit extra, try to be alone, and try to get lots of sleep.
This is going against what my body feels like doing in the moment, but it definitely works to curb the extreme ups and downs that I otherwise feed and amplify. I like to think of it as CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) without the C.
So these are my distilled insights from 16 months of intense mood tracking, at least an hour of writing a day. If you have any insights or hacks of your own on how you balance mood, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!!
As for my next experiment, I think it might have to do with measuring and modifying time perception. Stay tuned for that…
I’ve been on a health kick for the past year. I’ve lost 25lbs, lowered my cholesterol, increased my core strength and my tennis game is mildly respectable (according to me). During this period I’ve been focused on trying to introduce QS techniques to help motivate and inform me. This started with the basics: FitBit for general activity, Zeo for sleep, Endomondo and RunKeeper for route tracking, and I’ve used the Withings scale for years but added the blood pressure monitor for resting heart rate. Around December of last year I realised my current metrics were showing some sign of wear … the easy weight loss has been lost, the electrical impedance model for measuring body fat is temperamental (especially through foot pedals), and while I measure heart rate when exercising I don’t really use it effectively. I thought it would be useful to get a professionally measured set of “performance benchmarks” that I could use as a baseline and get educated in the process.
On February 16th I got off my duff and got the baseline taken at the Surrey Performance Institute in England.
The primary goal in this exercise was to set a “performance baseline” that I could try to improve on. While I was interested in the broad base of measures that they’d give me, the one variable I really wanted was Lactic Threshold as I felt it would help me tune my heart-rate driven exercise. In addition to this primary goal I also hoped to:
- Learn what measurements a professional institute valued measuring and why
- Ensure there weren’t any lurking problems hidden way
- Get an understanding of how my Withings body fat score relates to a skin fold measurement system. Ultimately I’d like to calibrate the two systems so I get more from my Withings scale.
The tests I signed up for were:
- CPET – Cardiopulmonary Exercise Test. A comprehensive test that uses a Oxygen/CO2 meter, EEG, and heart-rate to measure a variety of factors including:
- Anaorobic Threshold
- Lactic Threshold
- Aerobic Threshold
- Blood Profiles
- Lipids/Cholesterol (HDL/LDL/Total Cholesterol)
- Blood Counts
- Kidney Function
- Liver Function
- Bone Function
- Hormones (Insulin, Testosterone, Free Androgen, Sex Hormone Bind)
- Thyroid Function
- Body Composition
- Using 8-pt calliper measurement system
- Durnin & Walmersley 4 site approximation to get to total body fat
- Hydration Status
I feel the tests were successful in most regards. I know have a much better sense of my “performance baseline.” I was happy to find that the average body fat measurements from the Withings scale matched up almost perfectly with the higher precision calliper-based measurements. And overall I ranked rather well for my age I do have an excess of Ferritin (marker for iron storage) that may need looking into.
So why qualify my success with “in most regards?” Mainly because I see this kind of a service being equally as much about education and inspiration as it is about data conveyance. And while I did get the data, the education process was muted in ways that I felt were not appropriate for what I see as a “luxury product” in the wellness area. Clearly your mileage will vary based on the facility that you go to and the Surrey Performance Institute is substantially less expensive than the London equivalent on Harley Street; this may just be a case of “getting what you pay for”. To be fair, it’s not to say that I got nothing more than numbers, there was some analysis but it was done by 21 year old kids who were experts in executing the tests but not in nuanced understanding. My complaints were:
- In some important areas they completely missed an explanation. For instance, for hormone levels all I got was a normal range and a number for my result.
- In other areas I heard about data verbally or visually inspected on the machines during the testing cycle that then did NOT show up in the analysis.
- Finally, the VO2max test, I was told that there’s really nothing you can do to raise this number … largely it is genetically predetermined. That seems to be true but only for some people and for a majority of people you can raise it or at the very least you can prevent it from declining. I am looking to be inspired and to be challenged to make myself better and I found these kinds of statements misleading and unnecessarily uninspiring.
Believe it or not I still am really glad to have done this and will be doing a follow-up test in 3-4 months to see if I’ve made any progress. Will I do the follow-up at the Surrey Performance Institute? Maybe. Probably not. That said, I have scheduled a debrief session in a few weeks with the Surrey team and I do get the sense that they really do want to become more consultative and learn from their mistakes.
Ken is an American who calls the UK home. He is a regular member of the London QS community and an occasional speaker (although not on this topic yet). You can follow Ken’s QS ramblings on his blog: LifeGadget Blog.
This is a guest post from Ken Snyder of Quantified Self London. Thanks Ken!
I have personally found Magnesium to be a great tool in getting better sleep, although I believe a more common use is to help get more sleep. In any event, I thought it would be interesting to hear from the community IF and HOW they use Magnesium. The survey will only take 5 minutes if you can spare the time (and less than a minute if you’ve not tried Magnesium):
As 2011 draws to a close and we look forward to another amazing year of tracking and learning it’s great to look back and see what people were up to in 2011. I’ve been watching Twitter and it seems like a lot of our friends and acquaintances around the web enjoy breaking down their year numerically. Some highlights:
Buster shared some of his numbers from 2011 over on his personal blog. Of all his numbers I find his email volume to be the most fascinating. Buster created a nifty little application called How’s my email? that helps you keep track of your gmail account (his reasoning for this is here).
Brad Feld has been tracking different aspects of his life since 2009 and his 2011 numbers look amazing! Over 1,000 miles run and closing in on 6,000,000 FitBit steps. What an accomplishment! Brad uses the Daytum app to track and visualize his important data.
Jacklyn, co-founder of SmashRun, posted her year in running to the Quantified Self LinkedIn group. She finished up a great year of running with over 750 miles! Other interesting tidbits? Most of her runs (42%) were during the morning and she ran most often on Tuesdays.
Quantified Self friend and co-organizer of Quantified Self – Amsterdam has been taking pictures every day at 8:36PM. He took the time to stitch them all together into a neat little video:
A quick Google search also turned up some fun posts from around the web:
- Naoko McCraken- My 2011 in Numbers
- Alex Leonard – 2011: A Numerical Assessment
- Technology Review – A look back at 2011′s biggest technology stories, by the numbers.
Do you have some numbers from 2011 you want to share? Let us know in the comments below! Oh, and happy new year!
When I moved to Ireland in 2007, I began to have skin problems. It began gradually and I attributed it to the move, to stress, to late nights drinking with developers and clients, to travel, to whatever excuses I could think of. The stress was multiplied by the anxiety of being embarrassed about how my face looked, but also because my new job in Ireland involved me being on stage in front of large audiences constantly, often several times a week. A year later my skin was perpetually inflamed, red, full of sores and very painful. When one spot would go away, two more would spring up in its place. It was a tough time. I cried a lot.
Frustrated, I went to see my hometown dermatologist while I was home for holidays. He told me that a) this was completely normal and b) there was nothing I could do but go on antibiotics for a year (in addition to spending a fortune on creams and pills). I didn’t believe either of those things.
I was not interested in being on an antibiotic for a year, nor was I interested in Accutane (my best friend has had it multiple times and it hasn’t had long term results, plus it can be risky). What I was interested in was figuring out why this was happening and changing my life to make it stop. I refused to accept my dermatologist’s insistence that what you put in your body has no effect on how you look and feel.
I began systematically cutting things out of my diet to see how I reacted. First chicken and soy, based on a recommendation from a food allergist. Over the course of a year I cut out sugar, gluten, carbs, starches, caffeine, meat, fish until finally the magical month of December 2010 when I cut out dairy. My skin was my own again by New Year’s day this year.
It took a year to figure it out. It was completely worth it. There’s nothing wrong with Irish dairy, it just doesn’t work for me. I drink Americanos instead of lattes now, I don’t eat cereal; none of that is a huge deal. For what it’s worth, I can drink goat’s milk.
A great example of the power of self-experimentation compared to trusting doctors.
At the end of her post she makes a very important point:
Quantified Self isn’t for everyone, but everyone should feel they have the power to change things in their body and their life for the better.
I agree. By learning about examples of people who have done just that — such as Martha — we will come closer to having that power. Right now, as far as I can tell, most people feel helpless. They do what doctors or other experts tell them to do, even if it doesn’t work very well.
Long ago, hardly anyone could read. This left them in the grip of those who could. But eventually came mass literacy, when the benefits of reading finally exceeded the costs (e.g., because more books were available at lower prices). Reading is primitive science: if you read about things that happened, it is information gathering. It resembles doing a survey. Nowadays, almost everyone (in rich countries) reads, but almost no one does experimental science. This leaves them in the grip of those who can do experimental science (e.g., drug companies). I think my work and Martha’s work suggest we are close to another turning point, where, for nonscientists, the benefits of doing experiments exceed the costs.
Thanks to Gary Wolf.
I measure my arithmetic speed (how fast I do simple arithmetic problems, such as 3+ 4) daily. I assume it reflects overall brain function. I assume something that improves brain function will make me faster at arithmetic.
Two years ago I discovered that butter — more precisely, substitution of butter for pork fat — made me faster. This raised the question: how much is best? For a long time I ate 60 g of butter (= 4 tablespoons = half a stick) per day. Was that optimal? I couldn’t easily eat more but I could easily eat less.
To find out, I did an experiment. At first I continued my usual intake (60 g /day). Then I ate 30 g/day for several days. Finally I returned to 60 g/day. Here are the main results:
The graph shows that when I switched to 30 g/day, I became slower. When I resumed 60 g/day, I became faster. Comparing the 30 g/day results with the combination of earlier and later 60 g/day results, t = 6, p = 0.000001.
The change in error rates raised the possibility that the speed changes were due to movement along a speed-accuracy tradeoff function (rather than to genuine improvement, which would correspond to a shift in the function). To assess this idea, I plotted speed versus accuracy (each point a different day).
If differences between conditions were due to differences in speed-accuracy tradeoff, then the points for different days should lie along a single downward-sloping line. They don’t. They don’t lie along a single line. Within conditions, there was no sign of a speed-accuracy tradeoff (the fitted lines do not slope downward). If this is confusing, look at the points with accuracy values in the middle. Even when equated for accuracy, there are differences between the 30 g/day phase and the 60 g/day phases.
What did I learn?
1. How much butter is best. Before these results, I had no reason to think 60 g/day was better than 30 g/day. Now I do.
2. Speed of change. Environmental changes may take months or years to have their full effect. Something that makes your bones stronger may take months or years to be fully effective. Here, however, changes in butter intake seemed to have their full effect within a day. I noticed the same speed of change with pork fat and sleep: How much pork fat I ate during a single day affected my sleep that night (and only that night). With omega-3, the changes were somewhat slower. A day without it made little difference. You can go weeks without Vitamin C before you get scurvy. Because of the speed of the butter change, in the future I can do better balanced experiments that change conditions more often.
3. Better experimental design. An experiment that compares 60 g/day and 0 g/day probably varies many things besides butter consumption (e.g., preparing the butter to eat it). An experiment that compares 60 g/day and 30 g/day is less confounded. When I ate less butter, I ate more of other food. Compared to a 60 g/0 g experiment, this experiment (60 g/30 g) has less variation in other food. Another sort of experiment, neither better nor worse, would vary type of fat rather than amount. For example, replace 30 g of butter with 30 g of olive oil. Because the effect of eliminating 30 g/day of butter was clear, replacement experiments become more interesting — 30 g/day olive oil is more plausible as a sustainable and healthy amount than 60 g/day.
4. Generality. This experiment used cheaper butter and took place in a different context than the original discovery. I discovered the effect of butter using Straus Family Creamery butter. “One of the top premium butters in America, ” says its website, quoting Food & Wine magazine This experiment used a cheaper less-lauded butter (Land O’Lakes). Likewise, I discovered the effect in Berkeley. I did this experiment in Beijing. My Beijing life differs in a thousand ways from my Berkeley life.
The results suggest the value of self-experimentation, of course. Self-experimentation made this study much easier. But other things also mattered.
First, reaction-time methodology. In the 1960s my friend and co-author Saul Sternberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, introduced better-designed reaction-time experiments to study cognition. They turned out to be far more sensitive than the usual methods, which involved measuring percent correct. (Saul’s methodological advice about these experiments.)
Second, personal science (science done to help yourself). I benefited from the results. Normal science is part of a job. The self-experimentation described in books was mostly (or entirely) done as part of a job. Before I collected this data, I put considerable work into these measurements. I discovered the effect of butter in an unusual way (measuring myself day after day), I tried a variety of tasks (I started by measuring balance), I refined the data analysis, and so on. Because I benefited personally, this was easy.
Third, technological advances. Twenty years ago this experiment would have been more difficult. I collected this data outside of a lab using cheap equipment (a Thinkpad laptop running Windows XP). I collected and analyzed the data with R (free). A smart high school student could do what I did.
There is more to learn. The outlier in the speed data (one day was unusually fast) means there can be considerable improvement for a reason I don’t understand.
This is a guest post from Jerry Jariyasunant:
Hi! I’m a graduate student at UC Berkeley in Systems Engineering and I’m part of a team interested in learning about travel behavior. We’re interested in how people get around and seeing how aware people are about their travel habits compared with their peers, and their impact on the environment.
We’ve designed a system that tracks your transportation habits with your smartphone and gives you feedback about how you travel on a website.
If you are interested in participating in our study, are at least 18 years of age, and have a Android phone we would love for you to sign up for our 2 week study! Email me at email@example.com and I will send you an invite to the app, and a link to a webpage where you can see your personal transportation stats. You will be asked to take a quick 5-10 minute before the study starts, and another quick 5-10 minute survey after the 2 week study ends.
If you participate in the study, keep the Android app running for the entire 2 week period, and complete the two surveys, you will be entered into a raffle to donate $2,500 to the charity of your choice!
Once again, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to participate in the study. Thank you!
A colleague I’ll call John has decided to start tracking his mood for a long period of time (years). He explains why:
A few years ago, after a severe manic attack, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The attack was preceded by an intense period of stress, then two weeks of elevated mood, increased social activity (hanging out and meeting people), and racing thoughts (hypomania). Then I skipped a few nights of sleep, wandered down roads in the middle of the night, and eventually became psychotic, in that I could no longer distinguish between reality and imagination. I was chased by cops on several occasions, and was involuntarily committed to the mental health wing of a hospital for a month. It put a massive dent in my life.
Family, medicine, and time helped me recover. Being out of control like that was fun only for the first two weeks. Having my life turned upside down was not fun either. As I recovered I became increasingly interested in finding ways to prevent a relapse. One doctor said: You have a vulnerability. You need to protect yourself. I agreed.
Looking back on the experience, I realized there was a rise in odd behaviors two weeks before I started to skip nights of sleep and fell into psychosis. There was an even longer buildup of stress, anxiety, and fear in the months before the mania hit. During the last two weeks before the mania, my behavior was different from what is normal for me. I felt elated and had a sense of general “breakthrough”. I suddenly felt no fear and anxiety. I felt on top of the world. I was constantly taking notes because ideas and thoughts were running through my head. I scheduled meetings and social activities almost constantly throughout these two weeks and shared my experiences as my new self. As I started to sleep less and skip nights of sleep, others later told me I seemed agitated and down.
Maybe it is possible to catch these early warning signs and take counter measures before they worsen into mania or depression. This is why I have started to track my behavior starting with mood and sleep. If I can get a baseline of my behavior and know what is ‘normal’ for me, it will be easier to notice when I am outside my normal range. I can alert myself or be alerted by others around me who are monitoring me. Long-term records of mood will also help me experiment to see which things influence my mood. This may give me more control over my mood.
Mood tracking might be a good idea for anyone to do, but it may be especially helpful for people with a bipolar diagnosis. Everyone has mood variation. For bipolars, however, mood swings can be more extreme (in both directions, up and down) , have far worse consequences (psychosis on one end and suicide on the other), change more rapidly, and be more vulnerable to environmental triggers like stress. The good news is that the first changes in mood can happen hours or days before more extreme changes. This gives people a chance to take countermeasures to prevent more extreme states.
The project name refers to the fact that Van Gogh had bipolar disorder.