Self-tracking experiments

Clearly, the various tracking tools and devices out there (whether it’s a handwritten list or something like a FitBit) function to reinforce certain behaviors. You set goals, like walking a certain number of steps or getting a minimum amount of sleep. But the promise of the quantified self idea is that tracking devices can also be used to generate data sets that will reveal unexpected correlations, pointing to causation, and creating new insights about your health and wellbeing. Which allows you to tweak and fiddle and optimize.

This was an alluring idea. I’ve tracked for a long time but never really used the data for anything but self-discipline. So I tried to figure out how to use it to optimize myself. However, the problem from the outset was that there wasn’t a ton wrong with me. I was almost a bit envious of the people who had big issues to fix, serious health conditions or some kind of metabolic derangement.

Potential tweakable issues:

I’ve never really had a ton of energy. Enough to get me through the day (and walk eight miles and work and go to Crossfit and hang out with my family and friends), but I’m not one of those people who wake up and bounce around with boundless energy.

I’ll occasionally have days when I wake up with a headache and feel a wee bit nauseous, and generally depleted. Usually when I haven’t had a good night’s sleep or have had as little as one glass of wine or beer the night before.

Even though I’ve been doing Crossfit for a year and a half my strength has plateaued early on and have barely made any gains in the last year. Visually, however I’ve changed a lot, for the first time in my life, and somewhat to my surprise, I have visible abs and arm muscles. Body fat is anyone’s guess since my scale has such a broad range.

According to 23andme and Promethease I have two genetic conditions: issues with Gs224 (double CAT), and the MTHFR gene mutation complex. People with either condition often experience a multitude of symptoms from the mild to the debilitating. In my case, none of the symptoms seemed to correspond, apart from potentially some dopamine issues (relative flat response to stimuli other people find rewarding, like food, winning, praise etc).


After 18 months of looking at data and trying to identify causes I’ve come to the following conclusions:

Energy: increased by good quantity and quality of sleep. Other factors such as what I eat, how much I eat, macro ratios or exercise make no difference. A second coffee can help. Supplements like rhodiola rose didn’t make any difference. Melatonin sometimes helps a bit with sleep but gives me wacky dreams and can make me sad the next day. Magnesium didn’t do anything.

Headaches: appear to be caused by not enough quantity or quality of sleep, especially if two or more days in a row. Also, drinking a glass of wine on an empty stomach the night before can cause them (um, lightweight hangover).

Strength: I am guessing it’s partially a Crossfit problem – too many diverse exercises so that no skill or lift is trained consistently. If I really focused on just a few lifts I might see progress. I also think that I am in that part of the bell curve that doesn’t respond well to training and exercise for genetic reasons. Also, my technique has never been great; aggravated by poor spatial coordination (I’m a klutz).  I’ve experimented with pre and post-workout nutrition, glucose and carbs, and this has not made a difference. I’ve considered creatine in my insaner moments, but then reminded myself that for me strength is not a goal in itself. If I really wanted to make significant strength gains I would be to take private lessons and focus on just a few lifts. But I am perfectly happy with just getting a good workout in the company of good people and spend what’s left of my energy on other things.

Gene stuff: I’ve tried lots of supplements, from the MTHFR protocol (fancy B12 and methylfolate/Metafolin), potassium and zinc, to mood-boosters like tyrosine, 5-HTP and tryptophan. Nope. Nothing. Made not a blind bit of difference.

So, in summary, what did I learn? Good sleep prevents feeling lousy in the morning and boosts energy. Not much of a revelation, is it? It’s the kind of thing my grandma would have told me if she was still alive.

I guess I’ll leave the experiments to the people who really have issues to resolve. But even there, it might not always work out. I was very taken by a recent post by the always astute Michael Allen Smith who gave up on zeroing in on the exact causes of his headaches:

“On September 1, 2013, I ended the hunt. I’ve given up for now. It is time to take a long break from this experiment. I have enough data to know MANY things that aren’t causing the headaches. Besides obvious headache triggers such as gluten and alcohol, which I avoid completely, I know that caffeine plays a prominent role in my headaches. Collecting more data isn’t going to change that.”

That’s where I am right now. Collecting more data isn’t going to change anything for me right now, and might actually get in the way of doing something more useful.



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