Ten Interesting Things I Learned From Adventures in Nutritional Therapy

A blog called Adventures in Nutritional Therapy (started March 2011) is about what the author learned while trying to solve her health problems via nutrition and a few other things. She usually assumed her health problems were due to too much or too little of some nutrient. She puts it like this: “using mostly non-prescription, over-the-counter (OTC) supplements and treatments to address depression, brain fog, insomnia, migraines, hypothyroidism, restless legs, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a bunch of other annoyances.” In contrast to what “the American medical establishment” advises. Mostly it is nutritional self-experimentation about a wide range of health problems.

Interesting things I learned from the archives:

1. Question: Did Lance Armstrong take performance-enhancing drugs? I learned that LiveStrong (Armstrong’s site) is a content farm. Now answer that question again.

2. “If you return repeatedly to a conventional doctor with a problem they can’t solve, they will eventually suggest you need antidepressants.”

3.  “When I mentioned [to Dr. CFS] the mild success I’d had with zinc, he said it was in my mind: I wanted it to work and it did. When I pointed out that 70% of the things I tried didn’t work, he changed the subject. Dr. CFS’ lack of basic reasoning skills did nothing to rebuild my confidence in the health care system.” Quite right. I have had the same experience. Most things I tried failed. When something finally worked, it could hardly be a placebo effect. This line of reasoning has been difficult for some supposedly smart people to grasp.

4. A list of things that helped her with depression. “Quit gluten” is number one.

5. Pepsi caused her to get acne. Same here.

6. 100 mg/day of iron caused terrible acne that persisted for weeks after she stopped taking the iron.

7. “In September 2008 I started a journey that serves as a good example of the limits of the American health care system, where you can go through three months, 15 doctor visits, $7,000 in medical tests, three prescriptions and five over-the-counter medications trying to treat your abdominal pain, and after you lose ten pounds due to said pain, you are asked by the “specialists” if you have an eating disorder.” I agree. Also an example of the inability of people within the American health care system to see those limits.  If they recognized that people outside their belief system might have something valuable to contribute, apparently something awful would happen.

8. Acupuncture relieved her sciatica, but not for long. “By the time I left [the acupuncturist’s office] the pain was gone, but it crept back during my 30-minute drive home.”

9. Pointing out many wrongs does not equal a right. She praises a talk by Robert Lustig about evil fructose. I am quite sure that fructose (by itself) did not cause the obesity epidemic. For one thing, I lost a lot of weight by drinking it. (Here is an advanced discussion.) In other words, being a good critic of other people’s work (as Lustig may be) doesn’t get you very far. I think it is hard for non-scientists (and even some scientists) to understand that all scientific work has dozens of “flaws”. Pointing out the flaws in this or that is little help, unless those flaws haven’t been noticed. What usually helps isn’t seeing flaws, it is seeing what can be learned.

10. A list of what caused headaches and migraines. One was MSG. Another was Vitamin D3, because it made her Vitamin B1 level too low.

She is a good writer. Mostly I found support for my beliefs: 1. Of the two aspects of self-experimentation (measure, change),  change is more powerful. She does little or no self-tracking  (= keeping records) as far as I could tell, yet has made a lot of progress. She has done a huge amount of trying different things. 2. Nutritional deficiencies cause a lot of problems. 3. Fermented food is overlooked. She never tries it, in spite of major digestive problems. She does try probiotics. 4. American health care is exceedingly messed-up. As she puts it, “the American medical establishment has no interest in this approach [which often helped her] and, when they do deign to discuss it, don’t know what the #%@! they’re talking about.” 5. “Over the years I’ve found accounts of personal experiences to be very helpful.” I agree. Her blog and mine are full of them.

Thanks to Alexandra Carmichael.

More Her latest post mentions me (“The fella after my own heart is Seth Roberts, who after ten years of experimenting . . . “). I was unaware of that when I wrote the above.

13 Responses to “Ten Interesting Things I Learned From Adventures in Nutritional Therapy”

  1. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    Reading your (Seth’s) blog has convinced me of the value of self-experimentation. But I have doubts about the validity of the conclusions that are presented in “Adventures in Nutritional Therapy” (and other, similar blogs/articles I’ve read).

    The author of the “Adventures” blog seems unaware of — or at least unconcerned with — possible confounding factors like regression to the mean, placebo effects, and various cognitive biases. She also lacks skepticism with regard to such dubious things as blood tests for neurotransmitters. And, as Seth pointed out, she make little attempt at making measurements and keeping careful records of them.

  2. Seth Roberts Says:

    The author of the “Adventures” blog seems unaware of — or at least unconcerned with — possible confounding factors like regression to the mean, placebo effects, and various cognitive biases.

    She’s aware of the possibility of placebo effects — see Point #3. I don’t know what cognitive biases you are talking about. Regression to the mean is rarely a good explanation when Possible Solution #7 worked and Possible Solutions 1-6 did not work.

    On the other hand, I agree about the numerical measurement, in the sense that if she made numerical measurements and made graphs and so on, you and I and others would probably find her conclusions more convincing.

  3. HelenMarie Says:

    Hi Seth,

    Blessing today and all the days of 2012.

    Please don’t stop taking D3 up the B vitamins. It has helped me through a winter without a serious depression. By depression I mean when it is too much trouble to even take a shower or brush my teeth. When the normal activities that I do without notice become so burdensome that every move is like moving through tar.

    The western medical system shines if you have broken your arm or have been in a gun fight.

    The eastern medical system shines for chronic conditions. Nutrition and diet are the last bastion of the snake oil salesperson.

    Nutrition changed my life, finding out I am allergic to diary changed my life, restricting gluten seems to be doing the same thing. I gave that up for the holidays and guess what I am sick and……I realized I am sick more often than not during this period and I also noticed I allow myself unrestricted access to all my favorite cookies, tarts, and anything else with lots of sugar and lots of wheat.

    Happy eating, continued nutritional adventures.
    hugs, hm

  4. Seth Roberts Says:

    The western medical system shines if you have broken your arm or have been in a gun fight.

    I think it has other strengths as well. Vaccination greatly reduced polio and tuberculosis. Delivery of babies has gotten much better.

  5. Tom Says:

    Re #4, Curing Depression, while she put ‘quit gluten’ as number one, she says that zinc supplementation (50 mg/day for a year) helped the most.

    (Not sure why she didn’t put zinc first on the list.)

  6. Caleb Coop Says:

    Of _supplements_, zinc was the most helpful.

  7. john Says:

    One thing I don’t like, which you kind of mention, is that she doesn’t seem to try actual foods. Almost every isolated nutrient I’ve tried has had a neutral or negative effect (Mg, vitamin K complex, alpha tocopherol, gamma tocopherol, D3). I feel like one always runs into problems with comparative deficiencies when not using real foods.

    #9 is an excellent point that has caused me to stop reading several blogs.

  8. spacenookie Says:

    personally, I look at a self-experimentation anecdote as a source of ideas to test, and ideas about testing. A persuasive, data-driven approach would lend an air of false authority, after all this is just a random internet person making health claims. Well-designed self-experimentation is “cheap, easy, and quick” so I suggest going directly to replication if you find an experiment interesting.

  9. Jay Says:

    “I think it is hard for non-scientists (and even some scientists) to understand that all scientific work has dozens of “flaws”. Pointing out the flaws in this or that is little help, unless those flaws haven’t been noticed.”

    Put this on a plaque.

    Every time I go to a journal club (I’m a scientist), the participants basically masturbate over their ability to recognize such “flaws.”

    When this behavior is taken to excess, I usually take it as an indication that the person lacks abstract reasoning, or at least difficulty in understanding the concept of parsimony.

    For example, a mathematical model might be reduced description of some phenomena, such that the equations are capturing the “essence” of the phenomena, and omitting the irrelevant details–i.e. if the details *were* included, the model would be nevertheless be “isomorphic” to the original, simpler description.

    Many people get high on their ability to point out flaws without understanding the underlying framework.

  10. Seth Roberts Says:

    Every time I go to a journal club (I’m a scientist), the participants basically masturbate over their ability to recognize such “flaws.”

    Yeah. At UC Berkeley I attended a journal club about animal behavior. The other faculty, like me, thought the pointing out of flaws was greatly excessive. Now and then we would say this but the graduate students couldn’t stop themselves. Or so it seemed.

  11. Jazi zilber Says:

    Impssive blog!

    It also shows how formidable is the task of changing health by playing with all these things (basically fine tuning of multiple parameters)

    One needs lots of erudition. you can see how much she knows on all miniscule effects bioavailability and relationships.

    Lots of work and persistence,

    And a high level of clarity as for the outcome measure.

    I have no idea how such feats can become commonplace.

    (it is OTOH strange. Because in ICU the system does the idea of fine tuning multiple parameters forcefully. It is doable. Just so formidable a task. But if someone manages to make it more practical for the masses……)

  12. Aaron Says:

    Just a short comment about fructose:

    Isn’t it possible that the effect of fructose follows a J or inverted U curve? No fructose is irrelevant or bad, a little amount of fructose (say, from fruits) is beneficial (faster resynthesis of liver glycogen) and only large amounts (from excessive sugar/HFCS) are bad for your health?

  13. Sara Says:

    I like her attitude. You can’t take no s**t from the medical profession. If they can’t ‘see’ it (either physically or in tests), they will say it’s ‘in your mind’. I had a very lengthy health battle with a difficult to diagnose health problem (funky kidney – a congenitally ‘spiral’ ureter, the kidney would block and swell up to the size of a football (major bump in my front), but randomly empty). No doctor believed me that I had a randomly appearing lump. After three years I was progressively told I was stressed, depressed and perhaps even schizophrenic (like my father). Finally the kidney permanently blocked and I went in there to show off my ‘alien baby’. Immediate action/surgery. What’s that Foucault said about the ‘medical gaze’? I lost 80% of kidney function on that side (thank goodness for having two kidneys!), but did I get an apology for being called insane? Nope.

    Fructose – I was just blogging a bit about this because I’m doing Lentzner’s junkfree jan and was confused about it. I think the demonisation of it is an over-reaction to the acknowledged problems of HFCS and sucrose – high intakes could certainly exceed the liver’s ability to deal with it as the usual metabolic control systems don’t work with fructose. I haven’t found any studies that use fruit, fruit juice, dried fruit or crystallised fructose though. As far as I know, all the research has been done using HFCS (which brings in issues of GM, amongst other things). Somebody put me right if that’s not the case.