From Self-Observation to Medicine

June 24, 2008

The art of constant self-awareness and self-experimentation is essential to the habit of self-metrics. Occasionally a trained scientist can take a small signal from their own life and turn it into a falsifiable result. I found the following note of such self-observation on the website for The People’s Pharmacy. This center for patient submitted alternative remedies has been run by Joe and Terry Graedon since the 1970s.  Among the many recent examples of self-awareness leading to quantifiable medical results they list this story:

This is one of the most bizarre discoveries we have ever heard about.

Aspartame For ArthritisA scientist noticed that when he got up out of his chair after watching a football game, his arthritis pain was greatly diminished.

During the course of the game he had consumed a six-pack of diet soda containing aspartame. Putting two and two together, he thought this artificial sweetener might have contributed to his relief.

He organized a placebo-controlled trial involving aspartame (aka Equal, NutraSweet) and confirmed that doses of 76 to 152 mg did indeed provide pain relief, roughly comparable to anti-inflammatory agents.

This research was published in the very respectable scientific journal, Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics.*

*Edmundson, A. B., and C. V. Manion. “Treatment of Osteoarthritis with Aspartame.” Clin. Pharmacol. Ther. 1998; 63:580-593.

Detailed quantifiable self-observation has a new handle. It is called ODL or Observations of Daily Living. The idea is that if you monitor your body in your daily life over time you’ll have more than just a snapshot of your health, you’ll have baselines and long-term trends.  As Project Health Design suggests:

..The importance of observations of daily living (ODL) [is] moving toward next-generation personal health records and health management. 

Things like:  Does my chronic pain spike when the temperature dips below a certain threshold?  What effects might a particularly stressful month, with long hours at work and marginal sleep, have on my eating and activity behaviors, and hence my diabetes?  Can the fact that a 17-year-old with a chronic illness is regularly self-reporting his or her mood to be bad or sad play a role in the self-management of his or her disease?  And, if today’s pollen counts are really high, can my PHR device send me an alert in the morning to remember my inhaler, and then delete that point-in-time data capture because it may not be useful if conditions change tomorrow?

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