Quantified Self: What am I tracking and why?

Quantified Self

If you aren’t familiar with Quantified Self, it’s basically a group for people who are tracking information about themselves such as the number of hours they slept or how many calories they have eaten each day.  Some people do this to solve tricky health problems, others are trying to optimize their own health or behavior.  Some just love lots of data and graphs and such.  QS was started by Wired founder Kevin Kelly as an informal group meeting in his living room but has grown into an international phenomenon.

Why do I track?

I am not as into self-quantifying as some people are, but I do want to optimize my health and my behavior to some extent.  I don’t really like the word optimize in this context, but I am already relatively healthy and functional so I guess it fits.  Supposedly you can manage what you measure, so it makes sense to measure things that are important or that you suspect or correlated to important things.

What is important to me?

A big motivation for my own tracking came from wanting to write more.  I don’t want to just be an IT guy for the rest of my life, so I wanted to change my own behavior to include more writing.  That is why I got into Habit Design and willpower.  I am also interested in longevity and intelligence.  I want to extend my bodily and cognitive health span as much as possible.

What do I track and how?

Currently, I am using a Fitbit One to track my physical activity.  I’ve used simple pedometers before but this new Fitbit is crazy.  It records steps, distance, flights of stairs climbed, and even sleep.  Sleep?  Well it records how still you are in bed anyway.  It’s not as cool as a Zeo, but it seems less intrusive to strap on the Fitbit wristband than the Zeo headband.  Fitbit has a free website to view your data, but you can’t export it without paying.  Self-tracking gadget vendors that make it hard to access your data are a big pet peeve of QS’ers.  It’s our data, how dare anyone try to sell it back to us or worse yet, prevent us from accessing it in a raw format.  We want to manipulate it and chart it and stroke it, etc.  Therefore, I was happy to jump through a few hoops to get my fitbit data exported to Google docs.

So physical activity is obviously important for physical health.  But more evidence is accruing that it’s important to cognitive health as well.  See, embodied cognition.  Also, there is that study that suggests your longevity is better improved by not sitting than even by exercising.  I do have a standing desk now, but I am not ready to add the treadmill to it just yet.

Since I am trying to write more, I use WordPress to tell me how many words I am writing each day.  Many writers say that the best way to improve your writing is to simply write as much as possible.   I loosely subscribe to the 10,000 hours approach to mastery as promoted by Gladwell in Outliers or Colvin in Talent Is Overrated (loosely I say.)  So it’s good to get the raw numbers: words per day.  Now I just need to a plan, a coach, feedback, and to push myself further and harder.  Ahem, moving on.

I track how many calories I’ve eaten each day using LiveStrong.com.  Frankly, though, this is a tough one to keep up with.  Livestrong has a good food database and it’s fairly easy to get accurate nutritional information, but you have to manually enter each thing you eat.  The holy grail of self-tracking is the tracking that happens automatically.  There are some apps out there that help by letting you snap photos of your food to tell you how many calories it contains, but I am skeptical of the accuracy.

Calories have an obvious effect on health.  Calorie restriction and intermittent fasting are two well supported strategies for health extension.  I am especially attracted to the idea that fasting may be helpful even without calorie restriction.  However, I have always had a tendency to neglect eating (I forget to eat), so I don’t need to strive for that.  I am more interested in the idea that eating more calories might make me more productive.  When I first started tracking calories, I found that eating a breakfast with carbs and protein seemed to be correlated with more billable hours.  (Being a consultant, I have tracked this metric over the years for it’s financial benefits.)  So I wonder what the correlation will be between calories and words written.

Another metric I am trying to track is social events.  I have found that a good social event inspires me to write.  Also, I heard a speaker at QS claim a correlation between blood sugar stability and socializing with weak links (i.e. acquaintances as opposed to loved ones.)  I have often found it easier to delay meals when hanging out with acquaintances myself.  Maybe it’s a thing.

I was inspired by a guy from QS who complained that Dual N-Back cognitive training tasks were too exhausting.  They certainly are.  I did it for one-month according the to the Jaeggi protocol, but I had trouble doing it on an ongoing basis.  So I signed up for Lumosity instead which offers much shorter and more varied exercises that work on your speed, memory, attention, flexibility, and problem solving.  I track that Lumosity score as a proxy for cognitive health.  However, quantified-mind.com is a platform explicitly designed to test cognitive performance changes in response to specific interventions.  So I will try to get into that at some point.

These preceding metrics can all be collected daily (in theory.)  But I am also tracking my lab results for things like cholesterol and c-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker.)  I would like to track these more frequently, but I get queasy around needles, and Kaiser is stingy with gratuitous tests demanded by healthy people like myself.

Now crunch the numbers.

Well actually that’s a problem I hear a lot of QS’ers complain about. We gather all this data (or fail to gather it and have huge gaps as the case may be) but now what?  Many of us lack the time or statistical know-how to do a proper analysis and suss out the interesting correlations.  Luckily for me, I was asked to help demo this statistical analysis tool called Wizard for Mac at the next QS meetup.  It looks like just the thing to walk statistical neophytes like myself through a regression analysis to determine a calories eaten to words blogged correlation.

What next?

There are a number of other things I would like to track, but I haven’t gotten around to it.  Given how important heart rate variability is, and the fact that I went and got a Wahoo heart monitor and SweatBeat IOS software, I should be tracking my HRV score each morning, right?  Well, the strap IS a bit cumbersome…  Never mind, I’m doing it starting tomorrow morning, I swear.

Since reading Kurzweil’s Fantastic Voyage and Transcend on life extension, I have been supplementing irresponsibly.  I just pop a bunch of supplements and don’t really track the physiological consequences (aside from the occasional liver function test.)  Ideally, I would find a good concierge doctor (that wasn’t a quack) who would help me determine which nutrients I am actually deficient in and which supplements I might actually benefit from.  However, I am getting the sinking feeling that supplements might not be very helpful at all.  Study after study is throwing cold water on the quick-fix-by-popping-a-pill approach.  Dammit, it’s hard work to stuff your face with vegetables day and night.

Finally, I would love to track how many words I’ve read each day.  In theory, my Kindle has some of this information.  But I would probably need to embark on an epic hacking voyage to gain access to this knowledge.  I played with RescueTime for a while, which gives you in-depth analysis of your time spent online, but I got a little bugged out by the privacy implications.  I would prefer a local database.

At the end of the day, I feel that self-tracking is worthwhile for it’s own sake.  The unexamined life is not worth living.  I agree with Kevin Kelly when he says that QS helps us expand the very definition of the self.  Even if I never nail down that correlation between X and Y, I still have a better sense of who I am and what I am doing by paying attention to them.

American Gut Study on Indiegogo

If you are like me, the feast of Thanksgiving naturally calls to mind the importance of gut flora.  As I mentioned before, gut flora has received a lot of attention lately and has been implicated in many health conditions from diabetes to autism.  I myself have signed up for Melanie Swan’s gut flora study on Genomera.  This is a fairly in-depth study to track gut flora population response to probiotic intervention.  However, we are still waiting for it to attract enough participants to go forward.

If you are interested in a quick and, err, dirty way to get some basic info on your microbiome, check out this American Gut study on Indiegogo.  For as little as $99 you can have a single specimen sample analyzed and receive a report:

This PERK includes DNA extraction and 16S rRNA sequencing of one stool sample (or an oral or skin sample – the same kit works for any of these), and shows which bacteria and archaea were present in that sample along with how much of each kind. You will get a certificate suitable for framing with a readout of your microbes and a view of your microbes in the context of other people’s.

Suitable for framing?  Really?  Not even I am that out of it.

If you want to really go nuts, why not splurge and plop down $25k:

“Hundreds of genomes from your gut.”  Be among the first in the world to get the most detailed map of your gut microbiome and help us push the state-of-the-art in high-throughput sequence technology of microbial communities. We will perform ultra-deep sequencing of your microbiome sample aimed at generating as many individual bacterial genomes as possible (We can’t tell you how because the details of the technique are still under wraps prior to publication.). Includes a private consultation with project scientists to discuss the genomes with you. Only serious need inquire, please email:americangut@humanfoodproject.com to express your interest before signing up for this one.

I am not sure what you can do with this information immediately.  It’s unlikely that your physician will be of much help unless you have some serious resources at your disposal and can afford a “concierge” doctor.  I am assuming that you will at least be able to determine which of the two primary “enterotypes” your gut flora population falls into.  From there, I imagine that you could try some interventions to improve your health.  As I mentioned in my previous article on gut flora, this article makes me skeptical that probiotic supplements will have much affect.  However, if you have been forced to take antibiotics recently, this study suggests that probiotics might reduce your risk of certain problems.  Going forward, the decreasing cost of gut flora analysis will make it easier to contrast the effects of say, sauerkraut and Jarro-Dophilus.

UPDATE 11/27/2012:

I was notified that there is yet another microbiome study on indiegogo called uBiome.  This project is similar to the American Gut study, but there are a couple of key differences.  uBiome is open to international participants, so if you aren’t a Yankee, you are still welcome.  Also, it seems to be more more longitudinally oriented (for samples taken over time.)  I for one am interested in the “Quantified uBiome” package which provides three time points and a web app to assist with experimentation.  The uBiome site seems to suggest that the microbiome can be “easily changed.”   I was initially skeptical about this, but compared to the human genome, that is probably true.  These projects will certainly help us to gain more insight into how easy it really is to domesticate your microbiota.

Gut Flora and Cognition

You may already know this, but I was surprised to hear that the microbes living in an on our bodies outnumber our own cells 10 to 1 and collectively contain orders of magnitude more genetic information.  I guess that’s not necessarily saying much since the common potato has almost twice as many genes as a human.  There is actually a huge effort in the EU to sequence the DNA of the human microbiome called MetaHIT.

MetaHIT discovered that there are 3, err 2  distinct microbiome population types callled enterotypes.  One enterotype is dominated by the Bacteroides genus of microbes and is related to high fat or protein diets. This the one a lot of fat people have.  The Prevotella enterotype is characterized by high carb diets and I assume is related to better metabolic health.

Gut flora have been implicated in everything from  mood regulation to diabetes.  The fecal transplant stories are pretty freaky too.  This is a treatment for bacterial infections (primarily Clostridium difficile?) that involves transferring fecal matter from a healthy relative into the colon of a person desperately ill with a bacterial infection.  Once the gut flora is fixed, it takes care of the other bad bugs hanging around.  Some people also think there might be a connection between autism and gut flora problems.

I don’t want to get all Larry Smarr about it, but I am interested in getting my gut flora sequenced.  So I joined this study on the Genomera citizen science platform organized by the smart and cool Melanie SwanMicrobiome Profiling Response to Probiotic in a Healthy Cohort.  Here is the description:

Critical to digestive health, the microbiome is a newly available personal health data stream. Join this first-ever participant-organized citizen science microbiome project! Second Genome will provide microbiome sequencing to analyze potential shifts in the gut microbiome before and after 4 weeks of a daily dose of an OTC probiotic such asCulterelle® (Lactobacillus GG). A personalized report will be provided to each participant with the global shift in microbiome bacterial abundance by individual and study group, and a personalized profile of ratios pre and post intervention of Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, Helicobacter pylori, and the most abundant 10-15 bacterial taxa at the phylogenetic family level (DRAFT of sample report). Human genetic SNPs related to Ulcerative Colitis andCrohn’s Disease are optionally requested to see if they may have a connection with microbiome profiles.

It’s $800 for the sequencing from Second Genome (which I hear is a good price) and I encourage anyone interested to join up.  We need more people to join before we can begin the study, so spread the word.  Check out Melanie’s blog when you get a chance, she covers a lot of QS, Futurist, and other modern topics.

Sorry, I know the title is Gut Flora and Cognition, but I don’t have much to say on that since the data isn’t in yet.  I suspect he work on mood or autism might pan out.  Those are cognitive things.  Also, I intend to recommend people track their cognitive performance with Quantified Mind during the probiotic study to see if this gut intervention makes you smarter or stupider.  Though I think that this article makes a good point when the author questions “the ability of a single strain of bacteria to impact on the vast inner ecosystem of the human gut.”  So a tiny dose of just a few strains of bacteria taken orally seems unlikely to have much impact.  Still, we shall see, we shall see.