This graph shows recent results from the test I used to track my brain function. The test is a choice reaction task done on my laptop: see a digit (e.g.,”2″), press the corresponding key as fast as possible. The x axis shows the time of the test. The ticks (“Sat”, etc.) mark the beginning of the associated days. The y axis shows the average percentile of the reaction times. Higher percentile = faster. (Let me explain what “percentile” means: Each reaction time is compared to earlier reaction times with the same stimulus, and its percentile is computed. For example, a percentile of 60 means that 60% of previous responses were slower.) An average of 60 is quite good and 40 is quite bad. I usually do two tests per day, one right after the other, in the late afternoon (e.g., 4:30 pm). (more…)
Archive for the 'personal science' Category
An article about DIY medical devices — devices created outside of big companies — does illustrate the predatory nature of our health care system:
It can still be difficult for inventors to break into the medical-device market. Amy Baxter, a pediatrician specializing in pain management, found this out firsthand. When her four-year-old son developed a fear of needles, Baxter set up shop in her basement and created Buzzy, a vibrating ice pack shaped like a bee that numbs the sting of injections. . . She says, “I decided to use my solution as a mother to be a better — more globally impactful — doctor.” Baxter held randomized controlled trials comparing the device to ethyl chloride spray and published the results. But when she launched the product in 2009, she found it nearly impossible to get her product into hospitals.
“It’s the nature of the system marketing to hospitals to pad prices and make items disposable to ensure repeat sales,” she says. Medical sales reps paid on commission will only take the time to push a new product if it is very expensive, with a high profit margin, or if it’s a cheap item that has to be reordered often, she says. “A reusable, low-cost product doesn’t work.”
On the other end, she says, hospitals’ complex budgetary processes often disconnect the physicians who order products — and pass the price on to patients and insurance companies — from their true cost. “Decisions to buy aren’t as straightforward as looking at a catalog,” she says. “There is no easy way to comparison shop, and less incentive in the medical environment.”
The result of all this inefficiency [which curiously works only in one direction -- to make things worse for consumers and better for health care professionals], Baxter says, is not only notoriously inflated hospital prices — like $36.78 for a $0.50 Tylenol with codeine pill and $154 for a $19.99 neck brace — but also a high barrier to entry for devices like Buzzy, which is currently available only online, with no marketing beyond word of mouth.
A predatory relationship is one where one side is much more powerful than the other side and uses that power to take from the other side.
The article says nothing about science — better understanding of the connection between environment and health. Science is so poorly understood by so many people that even a doctor, such as Baxter, fails to understand that it exists:
The more people become involved in medical making, says Baxter, the less the human body will seem like a mysterious black box whose problems and solutions are only within the realm of experts. [Not true. Making is not science. There is still a great need for science -- Seth] “The truth is,” she says, “the place where the body interfaces with the rest of the world is just engineering.”
No, it isn’t just engineering. There is a vast amount we don’t know about the world’s effect on the body. Even a small improvement in understanding how environment (including food) controls health (e.g., how to sleep better) can easily be worth billions of dollars per year, more than all DIY medical devices put together. And knowledge (and the associated benefits) spreads at no cost at all, in contrast to medical devices.
Engineers assume people will get sick. Scientists do not.
Thanks to Alex Chernavsky.
After I finished The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk, I thought of something a graduate student in English had told me: A little Derrida goes a long way and a lot of Derrida goes a little way. It was literally true. A few sentences by Derrida, you could think about for days, maybe productively. A whole book by him was baffling and irritating. A lot of Jeffrey Sachs goes a little way, I thought.
When it came out (2005), I thought The End of Poverty by Sachs was the ravings of a lunatic. Munk’s book shows I was right but I had to admit that George Soros giving Sachs $100 million or whatever to put his ideas into practice (to “test” them) was considerably more interesting than the activities of the other billionaires Munk had written about before Sachs. Soros had an advisory boards whose reaction to Sachs’s ideas was the same as mine but Soros overruled them. Soros was right. A tiny bit was learned from spending all that money, which is better than learning nothing. Certainly I learned more than if the money had been used to buy a private jet.
As an assistant professor doing animal learning experiments, I saw over and over that it was incredibly hard to learn anything. Anything. No doubt all science professors who are honest learn this. But then I saw something that is less easy to see: If doing the “right” thing pays off worse than we expect — Sachs’s flamboyant failure in Africa is an example — then doing the “wrong” thing should pay off better. If spending an enormous amount of money we learn less than expected, then when we spend very little money we should learn more than expected. This is the upside of ignorance. The less you know, the easier it is to learn more. And we know much less than famous professors, such as Sachs, say we know.
My personal science is the polar opposite of what Sachs did. He tried to help others (poor Africans), I try to help myself. He tries to help people he knows almost nothing about, I try to help myself — and I know a lot about myself. He tried to do something big (end poverty). I try to do something small (e.g., sleep better). What he did cost millions of dollars. What I do costs nothing. I can test a new idea about how to sleep better in days. Sachs took years to test his ideas. For me, failure costs almost nothing. Sachs’s failure cost him years of his life. You have to be an extraordinary person with great talent to do what Sachs did. Whereas anyone can do personal science.
Journal of Personal Science: L. Planturum-Rich Fermented Foods and Supplement Prevented/Cured My EczemaWednesday, February 12th, 2014
At some point during the last decade, while living in Washington D. C., I began to suffer from hand eczema. Painful red itchy inflamed dry skin covered most of my hands. It was usually triggered by cold dry weather in the fall and winter. It also flared up after a lot of cleaning — when my hands were exposed to a lot of water and soap, which dried them out. I was in my twenties when it began. (more…)
A reader writes:
I suffered from moderate acne as a teen, which continued well into my adult years. In my early forties, I sought help from a dermatologist, hoping that progress had been made since my teenage experience which included tetracycline and sunlamp therapy to induce drying and peeling. I was disappointed to have this doctor recommend basically the same treatment twenty five years later. I declined.
Fortunately, a friend recommended drinking lots of water, and I began doing so, attempting to drink eight glasses a day. This was in December. The acne actually got worse . . . but I received a Brita water filter pitcher for Christmas and began drinking filtered water. Within a week my skin was totally clear, and remained so with minimal exception thereafter, even when my water consumption waned over the years. I was delighted and grateful to have found such a simple and healthy solution, and annoyed that no doctor had even suggested it.
But about 15 years later — about a year ago — I began to experience significant breakouts again, this time confined largely to my nose. I assumed that I needed to simply up my water intake again. This time it didn’t help. Maybe the filter was overdue for a change, I thought (we’d long since upgraded to a reverse osmosis filter), so I had it changed but still no improvement in my skin.
I began cutting out various foods, eggs, coconut oil, whey protein, things I was eating lots of, thinking maybe I’d developed a sensitivity. Nothing worked, although I did see immediate improvement when visiting family in the states, which made me wonder if it was the change in the water. So back home I tried to drink bottled water or club soda exclusively and it seemed to help maybe slightly.
I continued to search for a more complete solution. While perusing several online blogs devoted to acne treatment, I read a comment from a self-described longtime sufferer who claimed to have recently discovered a cure for his acne — milk thistle and NAC [n-acetyl-cysteine]. I got some milk thistle, took a few capsules a day for maybe three days, and voila, clear skin again. I never had reason to add NAC since the milk thistle worked so well.
I have reduced water consumption to normal levels (meaning I try to drink several glasses daily but don’t bother to track), take a few milk thistle capsules a week (don’t track that either), and only start to get breakouts if I happen to miss taking any for about a month, which I did just recently over the holidays. I still don’t know what causes the acne, and I don’t know why the milk thistle “cures” it, but it works wonderfully for me.
Here is more evidence for the effectiveness of milk thistle for acne.
In a review of biographies of Charles Dickens I found this:
In 1849 he showed a short account of his early years to his close friend John Forster, revealing a story he never told his own family: the shame-inducing months he spent, while his father was in a debtor’s prison, as a 12-year-old “laboring hind” in a factory that bottled shoe-blacking.
Suddenly I understood why he wrote Oliver Twist and why it is so good. Budding writers are told write what you know. They should be told write what you feel bad about.
The work of James Pennebaker has shown the benefits of even small amounts of self-disclosure. No doubt this is why all sorts of psychotherapy, supposedly based on enormously different theories, help roughly the same amount: All involve self-disclosure. I see this effect as something built into us by evolution to increase self-disclosure. Talking about bad experiences helps your listeners avoid what happened to you. To motivate such disclosures, evolution has built into us something that causes us to feel better after we talk this way.
Scientists are not told study what you know and they are especially not told study what you feel bad about. Scientists are mostly men, of course, and that sort of thing makes men uncomfortable. My personal science, however, suggests the correctness of this idea.
by Nathanael Nerode
I have an inhalation allergy to polyester and acrylic dust that caused no end of trouble, especially nasal congestion. It took 20 years to figure out.
I live in Ithaca, NY. My nasal congestion started after a multi-month trip to China in 6th grade, in 1988. The air in Beijing was truly awful, and literally everyone had nasal congestion while there. But my congestion didn’t go away when I came back.
To figure out why it hadn’t gone away, a doctor (allergist) back in roughly 8th grade did prick tests. The “dust” test was said to use actual dust collected from houses. In retrospect, it presumably included polyester dust. It was the only prick test, other than the control histamine injection, to show an allergic response. The idiot doctor proceeded to claim that I had a dust mite allergy even though the “dust mite” prick test was negative. I told him no, I didn’t, and he should learn to read his test results. I asked what was in household dust other than skin, hair and mites. He somehow did not manage to come up with “fabric”. If I’d been bright enough to think of that then, I might have been able to figure this out much sooner.
In some ways my nasal congestion was quite bad. I got secondary sinus infections repeatedly, due to the airways never, ever clearing out. I carried Kleenex with me everywhere, and bought it by the case. I had to mop my nose a few times every hour. When I caught a cold, the frequency would increase to every couple of minutes.
The congestion lasted continuously through multiple living quarters at college and back in Ithaca — of course, at all those locations I had brought a full set of clothes, and had a typical polyester bed, and most had carpeting. It mysteriously cleared up once — during a trip to North Carolina. Only in retrospect did I realize that on the trip I was sleeping on a futon in a house with no carpeting, with nothing but cotton clothes.
The allergies were definitely triggered more indoors than outdoors and were worse in fall than spring. I quickly eliminated the possibility of detergents by repeated changes of detergent with no result. I was then stuck with no further ideas for 20 years.
After 20 years, I moved into a new house while bringing very little with me (only a couple of sets of clothes). Suddenly my allergies went away. I realized the cause was something in the old house but not the new house.
I could keep stuff at the old house, and I moved in really slowly, so I was able to do challenge-response experiments, with a multi-week test time for each.
I had had work done on the new house. I first eliminated wood dust, tile dust, drywall dust, and grout dust as possibilities, because they were all over the place while I was there. Then I moved in huge piles of books. Still no allergies.
Then I moved in my clothes. (Still no bed, latex futon.) My allergies came back instantly. I moved the clothes back out, sorted them by fabric, and waited four weeks for my symptoms to clear.
Then I moved the clothes back in one fabric at a time, with a two-week testing period to see whether symptoms developed for each. Luckily I was not allergic to the first thing I tried, which was cotton.
After finding the polyester allergy and moving the polyester out, I waited four weeks for symptoms to clear up before moving the next set in. Eventually I found the acrylic allergy too.
I also had to stop testing for a month or so at least three times when I caught colds, as determined by additional symptoms or by family and friends developing the same symptoms.
This took a long time — about a year — and is not a straightforward option for most people. I haven’t tested every fabric yet. I stopped after I got through all the common ones.
After I was “detoxed”, I started having a noticeable mild contact allergy to polyester and acrylic, which confirmed the conclusions. I think this wasn’t noticeable before due to constant exposure creating suppression of the response.
So I solved the problem from a combination of luck (moving into the new house showed that it wasn’t generic “dust”) and pure grinding testing, much like most science.
I’m not sure many people would have the opportunity to test the way I did. I modeled what I did on the hardcore “challenge” protocol used for food allergies where you start with a very limited diet and “challenge” it with one thing at a time. How many people can do that with fabrics? You need a place to store the rest of your clothes. You may need to buy all-cotton socks or underwear or shirts or pants if you didn’t own any (luckily I did) — and you need to have no carpet and remove your BED from the house (which I had done anyway coincidentally).
This graph shows my brain test reaction times over roughly one year. Each point is a different test; I usually do two tests per day back to back. I assume faster = better. In February 2013 I returned to Berkeley from Beijing. In August 2013 I went back to Beijing. When I returned to Berkeley, my scores got worse (slower). I was shocked. Surely Berkeley is healthier than Beijing. At first I thought it was jet lag, but the scores stayed worse long after that made sense. Then I thought it might be some difference in diet, even though I eat similar food in the two places. I tried to make my Berkeley diet closer to my Beijing diet. This might have helped. I noticed accidentally that chocolate improved my score and started eating chocolate frequently. This artificially reduced the difference since in Beijing I had not been eating chocolate. In Berkeley I started doing two things I hadn’t done in Beijing: alternate-day fasting and whole-body vibration. I don’t know if they made a difference. When I returned to Beijing in September, my scores got better, even though I was not eating chocolate. Eventually I improved my sleep in Beijing but that seemed to make little difference. The comparison is far from perfect — many things varied — but by and large my scores got worse when I went from Beijing to Berkeley and improved when I went from Berkeley to Beijing.
What might have caused this? There are a hundred possibilities but one stands out. In both places, I brew and drink several cups of tea every day. In Beijing, everyone, including me, drinks water from big plastic bottles that are delivered to your house. You can choose pure water or “mineral” water, which has added magnesium and potassium. In Berkeley I use tap water (Brita filtered). I don’t think potassium affects brain function — for example, eating bananas makes no difference — but there is plenty of evidence that magnesium improves brain function. In Beijing I had tested a magnesium supplement and found no effect, consistent with the idea that I was already getting enough. Magnesium is also believed to improve sleep. In Beijing I seemed to sleep better than in Berkeley. Again, this is consistent with a difference in magnesium levels (more in Beijing). If ordinary magnesium-enriched water improves brain function, it would be significant because it is so easy, in contrast to other ways of increasing magnesium levels.
Stephen Hsu, who has an excellent blog, recently became Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. Before that, he was a professor of physics. At a dinner for faculty promoted to full professor, he said:
When an attorney prepares a case it is for her client. When a Google engineer develops a new algorithm, it is for Google — for money. Fewer than one in a thousand individuals in our society has the privilege, the freedom, to pursue their own ideas and creations. The vast majority of such people are at research universities. A smaller number are at think tanks or national labs, but most are professors like yourselves. It is you who will make the future better than the past; who will bring new wonders into existence.
In this blog, in thousands of posts, I have argued a much different view: everyone can make the future better than the past in the way Stephen is talking about, by adding to our understanding. In particular, anyone — not just professional researchers, such as professors at research universities — can increase our understanding of how to be healthy. This has already started to happen. Some examples: (more…)
by Bill Mitchell
Chronic right-side sinusitis came as a shock in November 2008, at age 42. For weeks both sides (left and right) were blocked. I lost my sense of smell even after my left sinus cleared. An incapacitating headache lasted months. My right sinus was often totally blocked. I had previously been in very good health. I had never been to a hospital, never taken medication, no drugs, slender, athletic, normal blood sugar and pressure, no dental fillings, etc. Some hay fever, but no other allergies.
The breakthrough was finding out about baby shampoo. In less than a week of shampooing my nose, a six-month headache was gone. It recurred occasionally until I fixed environmental causes. I tried many things, but the two that mattered were replacing the household carpet and vacuuming my mattress every couple of weeks. A couple of years later, my sense of smell returned. When you regain a sense you thought was lost forever, you appreciate even the stinkiest odors! (more…)
- Stephen J. Gould, evolutionary theorist: appearing to be smart
- “A revolution is when you change your thinking.” I agree. Via Danielle Fong.
- Brain glycogen. Not all glycogen is in the liver.
- Ethiopians (in Ethiopia) don’t eat dessert. Evidence that traditional diets may not be optimal.
- Katherine Reid on how dietary changes eliminated her daughter’s autism (talk)
- The Floyd Leg. A shockingly simple great idea.
- Eric Lander, a professor at MIT and Harvard, says we should spend a lot of money on genomics without providing examples where it has been helpful. “The rate of progress is just stunning,” says Lander, again without examples. Perhaps he borrowed this style of argument from the Nobel Prize press office. I am sorry to see James Fallows, the interviewer, be so credulous. Dear Dr. Lander: Why is it that doctors have no clue what causes heart disease or diabetes or depression or a dozen other major diseases — but think they do? Is more money for genomics going to help with that?
Thanks to Edward Edmonds and Bert Sutherland.
It isn’t well known that eggs (large amounts) can cause insomnia nor that caffeine — in special cases — can reduce insomnia. But a reader named Baeo Maltinsky recently made those discoveries:
Back around July 2012, I was trying to improve my diet but I didn’t want to give up my vegetarianism, so I started to eat a LOT of eggs, usually in the range of 10 to 14 per day. Not long after, I started having awful insomnia. I could lie awake all night just unable to fall asleep. There were suddenly just too many thoughts buzzing through my head keeping me up. I assumed that it was a result of ketosis disturbing sleep. I tried reintroducing carbs, but when that didn’t work I gave up on dietary modifications. I started cycling through OTC sleep aids, but I developed tolerance to anticholinergics very quickly.
By October 2013, I was going crazy. I couldn’t sleep well. It was making me depressed and seriously impairing my academic performance. I was exhausted constantly, but then I noticed something. I slept better when I consumed a lot of caffeine in the morning. I noticed there was a clear dose dependent relationship between how much caffeine I consumed and how well I slept. I had a hunch that the caffeine was depleting my acetylcholine levels, serving a similar function as OTC anticholinergics like diphenhydramine and kava.
I wondered what would happen if I sharply reduced my intake of acetylcholine precursors. A lot of people advertise eggs as “choline packed”, so I cut back to less than 3 per day. Suddenly, I was sleeping much better. Now, it could be something else in the eggs (I’m not really attached to my choline hypothesis), but either way I feel confident blaming them for my sleep troubles. My insomnia returns whenever I start eating them again.
I asked him why he hadn’t realized earlier that eating so many eggs was the problem. He replied:
I just didn’t think there was anything special about the eggs. I googled around for it and the only things I could find were about ketosis induced insomnia, so it didn’t occur to me that eggs specifically were likely to be problematic. I tried consuming enough carbs to knock myself out of ketosis, but when that didn’t improve the situation, I just assumed that something else was going on aside from diet. Eggs seemed like the perfect food. Cheap, nutrient rich, paleo, easy to prepare, and compatible with my (then) vegetarianism. It would have been hard for me to find a suitable replacement, so while the idea of testing it probably occurred to me, performing the test itself wouldn’t be trivial and the results wouldn’t be actionable.
As it got worse, I tried treating it more aggressively with OTC sleep aids, and that worked well enough that I stopped worrying about it. I wasn’t sleeping great, but it was enough to get by. Eventually they stopped working, but not long after that I made the caffeine connection and decided to try removing eggs. It was easier to do at that point because I had given up on paleo and vegetarianism and could just substitute chicken and sprouted lentils, and I had a (probably
incorrect) neurochemical explanation to support it. Moreover, it had become VERY difficult to eat the eggs. My body just didn’t want to consume them and I had to slowly force them down. Something seemed to know it was bad for me, but I wasn’t listening to the signs. My behavior was not at all rational, and believe me after I discovered eggs were the problem I was kicking myself for not trying it sooner.
I asked him what he learned from this, apart from how to sleep better. He replied:
- Costly experiments sometimes need to be performed.
- Sometimes your values are bad for your health.
- Don’t give up just because there’s no evidence to support a hypothesis.
- Simple things can easily go unnoticed.
Those are good lessons.
Six years ago I started using a reaction-time (RT) test (a test where you press a key in response to something as fast as possible) to track my brain function. I took the test daily. It must use only a small part of the brain but I assumed that something that made me faster would probably improve overall brain function. Behind this belief, which I call better RT, better brain, were countless studies of brain anatomy and physiology, which had shown that neurons and glial cells all over the brain share many features. Cells in different parts of the brain are much more alike than different. More support for this assumption was that certain doses of flaxseed oil improved both RT and other measures of brain function, such as balance.
I also assumed that changes that improved RT would probably improve overall health — what I call the better RT, better body assumption. It was less plausible than the better RT, better brain assumption because the cells in different organs of the body differ so much. They have many similarities but also many differences. I believed it for two reasons. (a) Flaxseed oil not only improved several measures of brain function, it improved my gums, no doubt because it reduced inflammation. It had been far from obvious that improving gums was so easy or that flaxseed oil (in the right dosage) would do so. The assumption better RT, better body had made a surprising prediction, you could say, that turned out to be true. (b) The brain gets much the same blood as the rest of the body. (Not exactly the same, because of the blood-brain barrier.) In the same way, all plug-in electrical appliances use the same house current. Just as all appliances have been designed to work well with that current, all our organs should have been shaped by evolution to work well with same mix of nutrients. You can’t feed your brain differently than your heart.
When I discovered that butter improved RT, the better RT, better body assumption made a second even more surprising prediction: Eating more butter improved my health. This contradicted the claims of all mainstream health experts, who say saturated fats cause heart disease. I stuck with my assumption — I still eat a lot of butter. The data I’ve seen since then has supported my conclusion. For example, my Agatston score got better, not worse, after a year of eating lots of butter. The Agatston score is currently the best predictor of heart disease.
I recently found more support for the better RT, better body assumption. Several studies have found that RT is a good predictor of health (better RT, better health). Even more impressive, it is a better predictor than many of the predictors we already know of. The RT test used in these studies is close to the test I now use, which I developed independently. The RT test in these studies involves showing a digit (0-4), after which the subject presses one of five keys (labelled 0-4) as fast as possible. My current RT test is very similar but uses 7 digits instead of 5.
A 2005 study looked at the oft-reported correlation between higher IQ and lower mortality. The IQs and RTs of about 900 persons were measured in 1988. Deaths until 2002 were noted. RT was associated with lower mortality, even after taking out associations with smoking, education and social class. RT and IQ are correlated (better RT, higher IQ). When the RT-death association was removed, IQ no longer predicted death. So RT does a good job of capturing whatever it is about IQ that predicts mortality.
A 2009 study compared RT to more conventional health predictors (“risk factors”). About 7,000 subjects were followed from 1984 to 2005. RT in 1984 was a good predictor of all-cause mortality compared to classic risk factors. Smoking was by far the best predictor, followed by RT. RT was a better predictor than physical activity, blood pressure, a questionnaire measuring “psychological distress”, resting heart rate, waist/hip ratio, alcohol intake, and body mass index.
A third study, based on the same subjects as the 2009 study, found that amount of decline (slowing) in RT (from one test to a second test seven years later) predicted death. People with more decline were more likely to die.
All this supports studying how your RT is controlled by your environment, especially what you eat. You have to choose wisely what to study. The point is not to be as fast as possible regardless of everything else. Lots of drugs (stimulants, such as caffeine) decrease RT for short periods of time. I doubt they improve health. (If they harm sleep, they probably worsen health.) What makes sense is to look for two things: 1. Poisons. Things that slow you down. I discovered that tofu did so. I gave several reasons for thinking that tofu affects many people this way, not just me. Billions of people eat tofu, unaware of this possibility. 2. Deficiencies. Study things that are missing from your life now but were likely to be present when we evolved. It is quite plausible that our ancient ancestors ate more omega-3 (in fish, but also in flaxseed) and more animal fat (from big animals, but also in butter) than we do now. My data suggest omega-3 and animal fat are nutrients necessary for health whose importance mainstream nutrition researchers have not fully appreciated.
My RT data have shown me there’s a lot I didn’t/don’t know about how my food affects me. Maybe everyone can say that. Unlike almost anyone else, however, I can reduce my ignorance myself. I don’t need to rely on experts.
One reason personal science is a good idea is it is simple and immediate (in the sense of near). You study one person, you do experiments (easier to interpret than surveys), you can easily repeat the experiment (so you are not confused by secular trends — big changes over time — and implausible statistical assumptions), you are aware of unusual events during the experiment (so you are less confused by anomalous results and outliers), you are close to the data collection (so you understand the limits and error rates of the measurements). These elements make good interpretation of your data much easier. Professional science generally lacks some of these elements. For example, the person who writes the paper may not have collected the data. This makes it harder to understand what the data mean.
I hear criticism of (professional) science more now than ten years ago. Lack of replicability, for example. What I rarely hear — actually, never — is how often science critics make big blunders. As far as I can tell, as often as those they criticize. This is not to say they are wrong — who knows. Just overstated.
An example is a critique of salt and blood pressure studies I read recently. Many people say salt raises blood pressure. The critique, by Michael Alderman, a professor of epidemiology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said, not so fast. The title is: “Salt, blood pressure and health: a cautionary tale.” It’s a good review, with lots of interesting data, but the reviewer, at the same time he is criticizing others, makes a major blunder.
He describes a study in which people were placed on a low-salt diet. Their blood pressure was measured twice, before the diet (Time 1) and after they had been on the diet for quite a while (Time 2). Comparison of the two readings showed a wide range of changes. Some people’s blood pressure went up, some people’s blood pressure stayed the same, and some people’s blood pressure went down. Alderman called this result “enormous variation between individuals on the effect of salt on pressure”. Oh no! He assumes that if your blood pressure is different at Time 2 than Time 1, it was because of the change in dietary salt. There are dozens of possible reasons a person’s blood pressure might differ at the two times (leaving aside measurement error, another possibility). Dozens of things that affect blood pressure were not kept constant.
Had there been a second group that did not change their diet and was also measured at Time 1 and Time 2 — and had the subjects given the low-salt diet showed a larger spread of Time 2/Time 1 difference scores than the no-change group, then you could reasonably conclude that there was variation in the response to the low-salt diet. To conclude “enormous variation” you’d want to see an enormous increase in difference-score variability. But there was no second group.
This is not some small detail. Alderman actually believes there is great variation in response to salt reduction. It is the main point of his article. Spy magazine had a great column called Review of Reviewers. Such as book and movie reviewers. Unfortunately there is no such thing in science.
Here are some especially notable results (most notable first).
1. Bedtime honey greatly improved sleep. Stuart King found this after many other things had failed to help him. He got the idea from Dave Asprey, who got it from The Honey Revolution (2009) by Ron Kessenden and Mike McInnes, but Stuart made by far the best case that the effect was important and determined some boundary conditions (e.g., don’t eat a lot of sugar during the day). The improvement is so big and easy (honey tastes good) that it’s quite possible this is why evolution shaped us to enjoy sweets after dinner — to improve sleep. In the future, I believe, it will be understood that sugars (at the right times in the right amounts) are a necessary nutrient — exactly the opposite of what all nutrition experts, including paleo ones and Weston Price, say. When this stunning reversal will happen I don’t know — but no one will have foretold it more than Stuart. (more…)
Yesterday I posted Kristen Marcum’s list of general rules she’d learned from this blog. (For example, “be skeptical of experts.”) Behind her list, I think there is one idea, slightly hidden from view:
non-experts can discover important things about health
By non-experts I mean people who are not health professionals. People who do not make a living from health research. By discover I mean learn from data for the first time, actually discover — in contrast to learn from an expert. By important I mean stuff that matters to many people. (It’s obvious that studying yourself you can help yourself.) I haven’t heard anyone else say this, although it isn’t far from the Quantified Self movement.
The first example of this rule was the work of Richard Bernstein, an engineer with diabetes. In the 1960s, he pioneered home blood glucose testing, now enormously important. Another example, I hope, is my work. I used self-tracking and self-experimentation to find important new cause-effect relationships in several areas — new ways to sleep better or lose weight, for example. I believe my conclusions will turn out be true for many people, not just me, because they fit well with research done with other people and animals. I’m a professional scientist, which obviously helped, but not a health researcher. (more…)
Kirsten Marcum told me she had “put a number of [my] findings to use in [her] own life.” I asked how. She replied:
I’ve put a few of your specific recommendations to work (SLD, standing on one leg each day, omega-3s, more animal fat/pork fat, butter tea, fermented foods)…but in thinking about this, I realized I’ve gotten even more use out of general principles I’ve drawn from your blog over the years: (more…)
During the last week I have looked into the possibility that my sleep can be further improved — in addition to the bedtime honey improvement – by eating a similar amount of sugar (fructose and glucose) a few hours before bedtime. After I accidentally slept better than usual (or even better than usual), I tried to determine why. Several things had been unusual the day before. Two tests (here and here) pointed to the sugar (honey or banana) a few hours before bedtime.
Last night (Christmas Eve) I tried again. I ate a banana (132 g, peeled) about 3 hours (7 pm) before I fell asleep (10 pm). I fell asleep within a minute and woke up, after an apparently dreamless night, feeling perfectly rested. On my 0-100 percentage scale (100% = completely rested, no detectable tiredness), which I have been using for about 8 years, it was the first ever 100%. I had slept about 6 hours, a good amount of time.
To celebrate, I had a cup of black tea. I didn’t need it to wake up but I like the taste. I reflected that countless people had drunk tea or coffee to wake up. I had found a better way.
Discovery that an hours-before-bedtime sweet improves sleep (in addition to bedtime honey — that’s what’s interesting) is significant not just for the obvious practical reason (better sleep) but also because it is the confirmation of a prediction. After I slept unusually well, I thought of six possible reasons. The notion that sugar improves sleep pointed to one of them. The results of every test I’ve done (three nights) have agreed with that prediction. I believe the only real test of a theory (such as an explanation) is whether it makes correct predictions — especially, whether it leads to the discovery of new cause-effect relationships. Many things people say haven’t passed that test. An example is weight control. That low-carb diets cause weight loss has been known since the 1800s. Many explanations have been proposed; not one has made correct predictions, as far as I know. In contrast, my theory of weight control led me to three new ways to lose weight (sushi, low-glycemic foods, and fructose water).
I doubt it’s a placebo effect because the sleep improvement has happened whether I expect it or not. A commenter named Paolo Paiva, after reading my posts about this, realized something similar had happened to him:
Today I told my wife how deep I had slept and connected it to the 1 tbspoon of honey and 1 tbspoon of apple cider vinegar mixed with half a cup of water before bed (it tastes really good). Then I saw this post and remembered that yesterday I had had banana flour pancakes topped with honey 3 hours before bedtime!
Thanks, Paolo. May you continue to sleep well. May the rest of you sleep equally well.
To recap: Three days ago I slept extremely well, better than usual. I wondered why. What had made the difference? That day (the day before the night I slept so well) had been different from previous days in at least five ways (e.g., chocolate, new brand of honey). I repeated four of them, and did not sleep better than usual. That suggested the remaining difference — I had eaten yogurt, blueberries (125 g) and honey (8 g?) a few hours before bedtime — was responsible. (Every night I had 1 tablespoon — 20 g — honey at bedtime. It wasn’t that.) Then I repeated all five elements, including yogurt, blueberries (125 g) and honey (14 g) two hours before bedtime. I woke up wired (jittery). Very rested, but wired, which wasn’t pleasant. Too much sugar, perhaps.
The next night I had a banana roughly two hours before bedtime. (In addition, I repeat, to 1 tablespoon honey at bedtime.) A banana has about 6 g glucose, 6 g fructose, and 3 g sucrose, similar to 1 tablespoon honey. I had a strong craving for something sweet at that time, which was new to me — I almost never eat dessert. In the evening I had more brain power than usual. Yet at bedtime I fell asleep quickly, in about a minute.
The next morning I woke up and felt great. Almost perfectly rested, neither tired nor wired. Even though I’d only slept 4.7 hours, a bit low for me. It really was the yogurt, blueberries and honey — almost surely their sugar, which is almost all they have in common with a banana — that had made me sleep so well.
Conclusion: For the best sleep, have sugar after dinner and sugar at bedtime. By sugar I mean a glucose/fructose mixture but for all I know sucrose would work, too.
Last night I slept great. I woke up feeling very rested. I can remember only three situations when I woke up feeling more refreshed. (a) On a certain camping trip. (b) When I was on my feet for ten hours. (c) After eating a lot of pork fat. I cannot simulate camping trips, and standing ten hours/day was very hard. The pork-fat effect was repeatable, in the sense that I slept better after eating pork fat, but I never ate that much pork fat again. It was too much.
Why did I sleep so well? I can think of several possible reasons.
1. Random noise. Let’s say there are 20 factors that affect my sleep and they just happened to all line up in a good direction.
Another set of possible reasons derive from what was unusual about yesterday. I can think of five things:
2. I had yogurt and blueberries and honey about 6:30 pm. (In addition to 1 tablespoon honey at bedtime.)
3. I forgot to hang a blackout curtain that darkens my bedroom. Usually I hang two. Last night, by mistake, only one.
4. I started eating dark chocolate daily two days ago. Maybe the good stuff in it (the flavones) accumulates in the brain so that the good effects get larger day by day.
5. I watched faces in the morning a half-hour later than usual. Usually I start watching them at 6:00 am. Yesterday I started at 6:30 am. I had forgotten about this difference until I looked at my records.
6. I switched to a new brand of honey (from a German brand to a Canadian one).
#1 is unlikely. #2 vaguely corresponds to the idea that honey helps us sleep because it supplies energy. Maybe honey at 6:30 fills up the liver (with glycogen) and honey at bedtime goes into the blood. But I’ve eaten plenty of meals at 6:30 without any obvious effect. Maybe they were too low-carb. I don’t know if making my room very very dark (two curtains) is better than making my room dark (one curtain) but there is no obvious reason making my bedroom less dark would improve sleep (#3). I have never heard anyone say chocolate (#4) improved their sleep. Morning faces did improve sleep but the mood improvement was much more obvious (#5). I’ve tried several brands of honey; there was no obvious difference between them, arguing against #6.
As the day wore on I found myself in a good mood but not a great mood, arguing against #5.
I’d say #2 is the most plausible, the rest less plausible, with #1 the least plausible. But I will test all of them.
More (a day later) I did #3 (only one curtain), #4 (chocolate), #5 (later faces), and #6 (new honey) again. I did not sleep exceptionally well. That makes #1 and #2 more plausible.