Category Archives: self-experiment

Happy trails, Seth Roberts

Adventures in Nutritional TherapyA very belated farewell to author/blogger/self-experimenter extraordinaire Seth Roberts, who died last April at 61. Seth’s review of my blog in December 2011 increased my traffic by about 19,000 percent and made me think that maybe this blogging thing was actually worthwhile.

At the time he published his review, he hadn’t realized I’d referred to him as “the fella after my own heart” in this post about self-experimenters. One of his readers pointed it out to him. Another of his readers, and a fellow self-experimenting blogger, ambled over here to comment and has since become a good online friend.

Because I was a blogging newbie, and because Seth’s review appeared on New Year’s Eve, and because the majority of the traffic went to my post on how I ended my depression, I assumed the rise in traffic was due to woeful holiday non-revelers gone a-googling. Finally, eight months later, I started rooting around in WordPress’ stats and discovered the truth.

Several months after I ended regular posting, Seth emailed and asked if I’d like to contribute to his blog. I couldn’t manage it at the time, but his reaching out made my day.

He came across as patient, thorough, fair-minded, and as interested in a suburban single mom’s n=1 investigations as in major scientific studies. I was very sad to hear he was gone.

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Image: Remix by MRhea. Photo stolen from the interwebs.

Tips on self-experimenting with nutritional therapy

  1. Don’t worry about proving anything to anyone. If you’re hoping to demonstrate to someone else the validity of nutritional therapy, or prove that your health complaints were not imagined, don’t bother. Save that time and energy and use it on yourself instead.
  2. Evaluate a trial not just on how you feel, but on what you find yourself doing. More than a few times when I assumed a new supplement regimen was having no effect, I later realized I had run twice the number of errands that week, or checked three-year-old items off my to-do list.
  3. Evaluate a trial based on how you feel when you stop a supplement, too. It’s valuable info. You might consider repeating the stop-and-start a few times.
  4. A bad reaction to a supplement is also good info. If vitamin B6 makes your fingers go numb, your vitamin B12 levels might be too low. If zinc makes your sinuses swell up, your vitamin B6 levels might be too low, etc.
  5. Remember that your deficiency symptoms might change over time. Low zinc levels might give you acne now, but next year it just might make you irritable.
  6. Heed that feeling that if you take one more supplement you’ll explode or go insane. It’s your body/brain/liver’s way of saying “enough.” Take a break. (Remember, you gain info from stopping a supplement, too.)
  7. Do what you can and don’t worry about it too much. This advice from one of my acupuncturists has served me well. If you find you can’t tolerate a lot of supplements, if you’re getting nowhere, or if you’re overwhelmed by all the conflicting info or frustrated by the lack of it, join the club. We’re all flying blind, really.
  8. Don’t feel pressured to self-track. By self-tracking I mean choosing a certain number of parameters — e.g., mood, suicidal to ecstatic, or hair loss, none to fistfuls — and assigning a value to each on every day of your experiment. (As distinguished from just writing down your observations so you don’t forget them.) If you don’t feel like doing it, don’t. Whether or not you can illustrate day-to-day progress with a line chart has no bearing on the validity of your experiment. If anyone gives you crap about this, tell them to go back to their Dungeons & Dragons game.

    Other reasons not to self-track:

    • If you have a longstanding, distressing health issue, it might be a psychological drain to focus on it every day. Writing down “15 minutes” on a sleep chart every morning for weeks will suck you dry.
    • If you’re experimenting to see what effects a supplement has, you won’t have parameters. What you discover might be completely unexpected.
    • In theory, self-tracking (aka quantified self) apps can be hacked and your data used against you by insurance companies and employers.

ANT - Nutritional therapy tips

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Image: still of John Barrymore in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” 1920. {{PD-1923}}. Found on the Internet Archive’s Silent Films site.

Specious invocations of the placebo effect argument

Usually for the sake of my mental health I try to tune out the many, many misuses of the placebo effect argument I see online, but after running across a few prime examples I’ve decided to collect the best of them here. I’ll add more as I go. Here are two to start. (Emphasis mine).

1. Comment on a Bulletproof Executive post by Dave Asprey on his off-label use of the narcolepsy drug Modafinil to enhance concentration and alertness.

COMMENTER: “I take modafinil on a semi regular basis (prescribed for a sleeping disorder) – i’m not sure how much effect it has, and neither can you be….It could possibly help, but we’re not sure, your experiences using it are not a reliable guide as to whether it ‘works for you’ particularly for such a subjective and unmeasurable outcome such as sleepiness – if you take a drug believing it is going to be a wonder drug you’re almost certainly going to feel like it is, when you could in reality just be wasting your money and exposing yourself to side effects…I’m a medical doctor, UK…

2. Comment on Daily Strength Insomnia Support Group in response to this post titled “I’m CURED! Finally!”:

ORIGINAL POST: “… I’d take a bunch of supplements that would boost all my [nutrient] levels to normal. When I stopped, those levels would slowly drop and a week later, I’d have insomnia again. I’ve been going through that up and down cycle for a long time…I finally found out why I couldn’t maintain adequate levels of anything and why the insomnia keeps kicking in…The problem was, I was very low on an essential amino acid called L-Lysine…Low Lysine levels lead to body stealing nutrients from muscles to feed brain which lead to fatigue which depleted nutrients from body which meant w/o enough nutrients, not enough fuel to produce brain chemicals to perform sleep cycles which lead to insomnia.”

COMMENTER: “Mmmm, there might be another explanation Galvatron. One of which might be your belief that you would crack it. Trying to crack it has provided such a distraction that finally something else has taken place instead of fears around insomnia etc. Also, insomnia from the literature does seam to run its course.”

Adventures in Nutritional Therapy

Menorrhagia, meet methionine

Adventures in Nutritional TherapyAfter a disastrous niacin self experiment confirmed once and for all that my liver is a shadow of its former self, I experimented with a selection of OTC supplements frequently mentioned in discussion forums on liver damage. Glutathione did nothing as far as I could tell, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) and alpha lipoic acid (ALA) do not agree with me, and I was already taking vitamin B6 in the form of P5P. Methionine was the only other supplement I could tolerate.

Within days the scariest of the liver symptoms had gone. After several weeks it became apparent that it also had a significant effect on my heavy periods. With 1500 mg of methionine, I had a manageable period, like a normal person’s — easier even than what vitamin K2 supplements did for me. Since I had recently taken truckloads of niacin, I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t the niacin that did it, so I stopped the methionine and voila, back to the old Maxi Curse.

The 1500 mg dose turned out to completely stop me sleeping, so I tried 1000 mg. Subsequent periods were indeed easier, although not as easy as on 1500 mg.

For more on my attempts to treat heavy menstrual bleeding, see my posts on Niagarrhagia and sea sponges.

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Illustration: Detail of 1940s American Airlines travel poster by E. McKnight Kauffer.

Epic fail with the niacinamide experiment

I have now poisoned myself three times with OTC supplements, and this last time was a doozy. That’s what I get for not heeding my own suspicions about my liver health.

After coming across interesting info about niacin, it occurred to me that I stopped going out in the sun several years ago because a dark red circle would appear around my neck, a classic niacin deficiency sign. Deficiency is also associated with sugar cravings and insomnia, and that was enough to convince me to try it.

I built up to 2,000 mg/day of niacinamide (which doesn’t cause flushing) and things went fine for about two weeks. My abdominal discomfort disappeared and my ruddy skin lightened. I didn’t notice any change in sleep or cravings. The most interesting change was psychological: some internal concept of myself I hadn’t even known existed, much less that it was lacking, was now more fleshed out and solid. In CGI terms, you could say it went from being a wire-frame model to a rendered animation.

That sensation only lasted about a day before I had to quit the experiment. My hands and feet swelled up, turned yellow and began itching so horribly that before I realized what I was doing I had scratched bloody gouges in them. Tiny, hard bumps could be felt under the skin between the digits. The skin became so thin that my feet were rubbed raw where they rested on the mattress at night. My urine also turned dark brown — aren’t you glad you started reading this?

“Hmmm,” I thought to myself. “Let’s call that liver damage once and for all.”

The only way to stop the itching was to hold my hands/feet under very cold running water for several minutes. 30 minutes later I’d have to do it again. Finally I dug out the milk thistle, that ancient liver tonic. That stopped the itching in 20 minutes and kept it at bay for several hours. The non-itching periods got longer and longer and finally after three days the symptoms disappeared.

My doctor saw me a few days later and said it was an allergic reaction. She did agree to order every type of liver test insurance would pay for — a blood panel and an imaging test. The results were normal, as they always are, even that time when I completely stopped sleeping after two months on flucanazole. I suppose I should research these tests to see if there are differing opinions on what “normal” is, but I don’t know where to begin.

In investigating ways to heal the liver I discovered that one of the recommended supplements, methionine, is depleted by niacin. Sure enough, 1500 mg a day helped very quickly. In fact, two days later, my hands and facial skin were looking about five years younger. Eventually I had to cut back to 1000 mg due to sleep issues. I had to stop the milk thistle after a week or so, because of its tendency to lower my iron levels and turn me into a zombie.

ANT - niacinamide experiment
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Illustration by MRhea.

Six months using a sea sponge tampon alternative

W A R N I N G: Graphic lady-parts talk follows!

Please, Lord, don’t let me accidentally post this on my writing client’s WordPress account, or 5,000 muscle car owners in Texas will get a nasty shock.

In addition to the Niagarrhagia I documented last year, I’ve also been plagued by steadily increasing pain during my periods that started to get distracting a few years ago. It originally started a decade ago, but once I switched to organic tampons it went away for several years.

This isn’t the usual cramping pain, but a something-has-gone-very-wrong inflammation kind of pain. And of course a series of exams and fancy-ass tests with beeping, blinking machines revealed nothing.

For a while the pain would start several days into the period. Then it started at the beginning. Then it got to the point where just thinking about my period made my teeth grind. Another weird development was this spasm thing where I’d have a strong urge to bear down hard with the muscles traditionally used to expel progeny (or belly dance), as if my body was attempting to get rid of the tampon.

Finally it got so dreadful I started looking at tampon alternatives. (Pads are not even remotely an option). The first I found was the Diva menstrual cup, but it seemed too difficult to insert and remove. So I started with a sea sponge — natural sponges from Australia and Thailand (I think) that you can size with scissors. The company that sells most of them calls them sea pearls.

I was intrigued by accounts of women whose heavy periods became much lighter and shorter after several months on the sponge. Some believe that the chemicals used in commercial tampons and pads, designed to make them more absorbent, actually go overboard and start drawing too much fluid from your body.

The difference in comfort was noticeable immediately. It was a huge relief. I actually couldn’t feel it at all. The spasms stopped, too. The sponges are much more absorbent than tampons, depending on how you size them. No odor attaches to the sponge after it’s rinsed; it just smells like a wet sponge.

Other changes I noticed over the next months:

  • The last two days of the cycle became much, much lighter.
  • Horrifically heavy days went down from 2.5 days (and 2 nights) to 1.25 days, but those hours are still pretty heavy.
  • Clots disappeared, but then reappeared a few months later. Not sure what that’s about.
  • The weird odor that started a few years ago appeared later and later in the cycle, then stopped altogether.
  • The lack of accumulated trash in the waste bin is a nice change.

Here are the drawbacks:

  • For me they don’t last as long as advertised — three to six months — but it may be because when I disinfect them in hydrogen peroxide I tend to wander off and leave them soaking for too long.
  • I have yet to change a sponge in public, and I’m not looking forward to it. You sure as heck don’t want to be rinsing that thing in public, so a spare is needed and the used one goes in a plastic bag. (Preferably a firmly-sealed opaque one, to minimize the potential for traumatizing innocent civilians should you end up tripping and tossing your handbag’s contents all over the floor. I worry about these things.) The logistics of all this in an office bathroom freaks me out — keeping your hands and clothes clean during the switch, etc.
  • Figuring out the right size takes some doing. It took me five months of experimenting to get two sizes to work for different flow levels. The instructions that indicate how to shape them were not helpful.
  • Rinsing the sponge when your sink isn’t smack-dab next to your toilet might be tricky.
  • And then there’s the noise factor. I don’t understand why this happens — maybe because the thing is full of holes, and when you cough you become a sort of twisted wind instrument? The only time that happened with a tampon was with much-too-small tampons on very heavy days, when sneezing or during a, uh, sudden flood. It doesn’t happen all the time, and even less when I switched to a larger size, but it only takes one incident during a business presentation and you’ve got PTSD for the rest of your life.
  • Fishing around in your coochie for errant feminine products can induce grunting and swearing, which might have negative effects on your reputation at work.

At this time I’m inclined to say that whatever causes the heavy flow and inflammation is still unidentified, but the sponge lessens the irritation a great deal.

Update 8-28-15: It appears now that these symptoms are due to long-term mold exposure. So far, three months after moving out of my water-damaged apartment building, the inflammation and pain are much improved. Because I’ve been taking vitamin K at the same time, which has controlled the bleeding in the past, I can’t say for sure what effect mold avoidance has had on the flow level, but mold toxin experts say that menstrual “flooding,” as they call it, is a frequently reported symptom of mold poisoning.

Side note: The Period Store carries all sorts of traditional and alternative feminine products that you can arrange to have mailed to you on a regular schedule. I don’t know if there are other similar services out there and I have no experience with this one whatsoever — I just saw a post about it elsewhere (one of the owners has a hairstyling blog) and checked it out. They carry two brands of menstrual cup and two brands of sea sponge, plus washable cloth napkins and even something from FRANCE! Ohmigosh. Each monthly package also comes with chocolate.