Self-Experimentation Update: Science vs Instinct, and The Stress Factor

testtubeAs regular readers know, I have embarked on a self-experimentation program to discover (I) an optimal therapy regime, (II) an optimal flare-up prevention program, and ultimately (III) the cause of and (IV) the cure for my new affliction, ulcerative colitis.

To do this, I have started testing a hypothesis that ulcerative colitis (and perhaps all auto-immune hyperactivity and deficiency diseases — AIHDs and AIDDs) are actually caused by a combination of

  1. what I am calling “modern malnutrition” (lack of variety of natural micronutrients and non-nutritional microorganisms in what we eat, drink, breathe and otherwise continuously take into our bodies),
  2. overexposure to antibiotic environmental toxins (poisons in our water, food, soil, air, pills, and deliberately sprayed on our gardens, our lawns, and on every surface of our homes), and
  3. endemic musculo-skeletal distress caused by our unnatural lifestyle.

I would not argue with the overwhelming amount of data that suggests that stress is the catalyst, in the presence of these three causes, that actually precipitates the symptoms of AIHDs and AIDDs. Stress management therefore needs to be part of the therapy regime and flare-up prevention program once you get these chronic diseases (my goals I and II above), but is unlikely to be productive in discovering the cause or cure for them (my goals III and IV above).

Science vs Instinct: Self-Experimentation Philosophy and Methodology

I had a long conversation with Seth Roberts, the self-experimentation guru, yesterday. While he put it very gently, he clearly has some concerns with my program. For a start, he thinks I have far too many variables in play at one time to be able to accurately determine which treatments and circumstances are working to alleviate or exacerbate the symptoms of my ulcerative colitis. Some of the people on his self-experimentation forum have recommended techniques like principal component analysis to add discipline to my tracking and the mass of data I am compiling. But I’m not so sure that this kind of rigour is either possible or necessary in dealing with a system as complex as the digestive system (or any ecological or social system, for that matter). Seth used these techniques to hone in on his Shangri-La diet formula, and treatments for his insomnia and acne. He changed the variables one at a time and measured the results with as much precision as possible.

But his real genius is his combination of great imagination and a deep understanding of human nature and human evolution. For three million years our bodies have slowly adapted to changes in environment, diet and human activity. But they just can’t accommodate the breakneck pace of change required by and imposed on them by modern human culture — changes like processed foods, a sedentary lifestyle, psychological stresses etc. We need somehow to adapt our modern behaviours to give our bodies a break, to help them figure out what to do by reference to what they’ve done for those three million years. Seth successfully hypothesized, for example, that since we spent an average of ten hours a day on our feet for most of our human evolution, one way to treat insomnia might be to work standing up at a desk all day instead of sitting down.

Once he had that stroke of genius, he then used rigorous scientific and statistical techniques to test the ‘work standing up’ hypothesis and hone the optimal standing-up behaviour. But it’s his imagination and understanding of how we evolved and behaved in prehistoric times that gave him this brilliant hypothesis to test in the first place.

I guess what I’m admitting is that I trust my instincts, that coming up with plausible, imaginative hypotheses is more important than trying to impose a great deal of scientific or statistical precision to testing them, and that an unrigorous self-experimentation program that seems to work and intuitively ‘makes sense’ is good enough. Maybe that betrays my impatience or lack of attention to detail. But, in my case, if I:

  • get off these damned steroids and stay healthy, and I
  • substitute high Omega-3 foods and supplements for chemical anti-inflammatories and they seem to work just as well, and I
  • the probiotics* seem to make my gastrointestinal system function better, and I
  • never have another flare-up, or I
  • get another flare-up and upping my probiotics and Omega-3 dose quickly suppresses it without drugs, and I
  • feel healthier and more resilient when I exercise, practice stress management and improve my posture and musculo-skeletal health, then maybe that’s enough, and all I can hope to get from self-experimentation in these circumstances.

Am I letting the world down by not subjecting my intuitive sense of what’s working to more scientific and statistical verification? Maybe, but I’m just one person, and we’re all different. If all of us self-experimenters just shared our stories, our imaginative hypotheses, and our instinctive feelings, and leave others to interpret and use them in their own personal context, I wonder if that might not be more valuable for our collective health than a ton of scientific data about what worked precisely and unarguably for one person?
Seth also has some doubts about whether self-experimentation can accomplish all four of my goals (I-IV) above. Perhaps I can find the optimal therapy program, for me (goal I) through this process, but, if I never have a recurrence, how will I know whether I’ve consciously hit upon the optimal flare-up prevention program (goal II), or whether my body has instead figured out its own program, or whether because of less stress in my future (hah! as if that’s likely) or an improved ability to manage that stress, a recurrence has simply not been catalyzed — in other words I’m just as vulnerable, just as malnourished and full of toxins and musculo-skeletally distressed as ever? And with all this self-experimentation focused on the effectiveness of therapies (treatments) and (maybe) prevention, how can I ever hope to get past that to the holy grail of finding the cause and cure of the disease (goals III-IV)?

After all, to test the hypothesis above (that ‘modern malnutrition’, toxin overexposure and musculo-skeletal distress together damage our immune system) I first need some objective, quantitative measure of how many micronutrients and probiotics I’m consuming (and missing out on), how many are making it through my gastrointestinal tract to the place where each does its particular magic, how healthy my probiotic ‘flora’ are that process the micronutrients, how much of which toxins I have in my body, and how healthy my musculo-skeletal system (posture, tone, rigidity etc.) is. And then I need to monitor and correlate these things versus the health (i.e. balanced, hyperactive or suppressed) of my immune system (itself hugely complex). This is a herculean task — a huge number of measures that required instrumentation not available to me (or maybe to anyone — medical understanding of GI and immune system function is still medieval). So how can I hope to find the causes and cures of this disease?

I guess the truth is that I am already persuaded — instinctively and because it just ‘makes sense’ — that modern malnutrition, toxic exposure and chronic musculo-skeletal distress are not good for us; that they are all modern phenomena that correlate strongly with the current epidemic of AIHDs and IADDs; that these potential causes were apparently absent in gatherer-hunter cultures that had low incidences of such diseases and are apparently absent in modern cultures (Japan, Greenland) that have low incidences of these diseases today; and that therefore, as long as science and medicine are unable to come up with any other credible causes, my hypothesis is very likely to be correct.

If so, what we need are programs — changes to our execrable profit-not-health-driven food system (more on this tomorrow), zero tolerance and use of the precautionary principle when it comes to ingested toxins, and changes to furniture, home/office design, footwear etc. that will virtually eliminate modern malnutrition, toxic exposure and chronic musculo-skeletal distress. Let’s not wait, as we’re doing now with global warming, for the impossible scientific certainty that our food system, pollution and our modern lifestyle are killing us.

And then, once we’ve rectified these three health scourges, let’s celebrate the next generation’s astonishing health and well-being. Let’s trust our instincts and act now.

I know, that’s hopelessly idealistic and naive, and we’re not going to do it. But what if:

  • We were to create a grass-roots bottom-up model — a series of intentional communities that rejected utterly the modern food system and replaced it with their own self-sufficient one, monitored and minimized the toxins they ingested, and introduced tools, furnishings and behaviours that allowed their musculo-skeletal systems to operate much as they were designed to for three million years? And what if…
  • The people of these communities turned out to be much healthier, happier, and longer-lived than everyone else, to the point they didn’t need doctors for AIHDs or AIDDs, and didn’t need Big Pharma at all?

Wouldn’t the rest of the population then overcome their learned helplessness and demand the same right to health and wellness as these model communities?

That’s the kind of collective self-experimentation we need, I guess, to know with enough certainty the cause of and cure for our modern epidemics, and to do what we must to end them.

The Stress Factor

I referred in my Saturday links post to a lecture by Robert Sapolsky on why some people handle stress so much better than others. In summary, he said:

  • Four factors predispose us to handle stress badly (i.e. get sick because of it): (i) lack of control over stressful situations (learned helplessness), (ii) lack of an outlet to discharge stress (such as displacement aggression), (iii) lack of predictability of stressful situations (frequency of unpleasant surprises), and (iv) lack of support and other social coping mechanisms for stress. We can do some things to manage factors (ii) and (iv) but not factors (i) or (iii).
  • The traits that excellent stress managers exhibit include (a) optimism and perspective in determining the social meaning of stress situations (not overreacting), (b) ability to take the initiative and exercise self-control, adaptability and resilience in coping with stress, (c) ability to assess the stress situation accurately, (d) availability of social outlets to discharge the stress, (e) affluence (as it provides access to stress management resources and assistance), and most important (f) sociality (ability and propensity to seek comfort and support with others, rather than retreating into isolation when stress occurs).

In a previous article I indicated that, largely unconsciously, I have changed in ten important ways: (1) Paying more attention to, and taking much better care of, my body, (2) Having more fun, (3) Caring more about other people, (4) Letting go faster, (5) Being more physically affectionate, (6) downshifting my career and other ambitions, (7) Pursuing new, down-to-earth hobbies, (8) Going slower, (9) Being less anxious, and (10) Enjoying the passage of time. I am not sure how I am doing these things, since when in past I have consciously tried to do these things I have failed — it just wasn’t in my nature. My sense is that my body is now in control (the neural complexity and neural processing throughput of the digestive system, the body’s ‘second brain’, is comparable to that of the ‘first brain’), having ‘decided’ that my mind was doing a poor job and needed to be relieved of its duty. Simply put, it (my body) did what it had to, to get me back in balance and well, and is continuing to do so.

These ten changes map well to Sapolsky’s identified ‘excellent stress management’ traits (my groupings and terminology):

Perspective: (a) and (c) optimism, dispassionate assessment, and not overreacting — maps to (4) letting go faster, (9) being less anxious and (10) enjoying the passage of time;
Let-Self-Changeability: (b) exercising self-control/adaptability/resilience — maps to (1) listening to and taking care of my body, (4) letting go faster, (6) downshifting my career and other ambitions, (8) going slower, and (9) being less anxious;
Outlets to Discharge Stress (including sociality): (d) and (f) finding and employing outlets that discharge stress — maps to (2) having more fun, (3) caring more about other people, (5) being more physically affectionate and (7) pursuing new, down-to-earth hobbies;

Perspective, let-self-changeability and outlets to discharge stress aren’t, however, enough to help us cope in situations where the cause or source of the stress is something over which we have (or believe we have) no control (e.g. an asshole employer), or where the stress is caused by unpredictable situations and unexpected surprises (e.g. natural disasters). You don’t have to look far to see situations where even people with excellent stress management ability have been devastated by stress caused by either uncontrollable or unpredictable circumstances. There is therefore an all-too-human propensity (perhaps, as I argued recently, pathological in the case of conservatives) to try to impose control by force, to try to make the uncontrollable controllable. Indigenous cultures know better, but our modern imperialist culture has yet to learn this important lesson. The very fact that we think it might be possible — to control and predict nature absolutely, to exterminate all diseases, to make our body strong enough to be ‘immune’ to stress instead of making it resilient to cope with it — can actually exacerbate the consequences of the stress when this foolish and futile attempt to control it fails. So perhaps we should add a fourth category of stress management traits to Sapolsky’s list:

Acceptance: the wisdom to appreciate that complex systems are inherently uncontrollable and unpredictable, not try to impose control or predictability on them, and not to worry about things over which one has no control.

Hugh Brody’s story about getting caught in a terrible blizzard with two old Inuit hunters, and then having their food supply suddenly destroyed, is a compelling example of this. While Brody went into panic and fury over this situation, his Inuit colleagues were calm even when they were near death from starvation, because they knew (intuitively, rationally, emotionally, culturally) that stress reactions would only make the situation worse. They just accepted with complete equanimity that what would happen would happen, that it was beyond their control. That acceptance might well have saved their, and Brody’s, life.

One could argue that a lifetime is not nearly long enough to engender this capacity for acceptance, and overcome one’s lifelong cultural indoctrination. My response: We do what we must, and if we must acquire this capacity, to cope with stress that will otherwise kill us, we will. Maybe in time, maybe not. And probably unconsciously, with our bodies, not our minds, telling us how. I’m getting there, I think. I wish I hadstarted a lifetime ago.

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5 Responses to Self-Experimentation Update: Science vs Instinct, and The Stress Factor

  1. cindy says:

    Hello Dave,I am reading your self-experiement treatment with interest since my health has ‘ not been good ‘ for a much longer time. I also recognized the 3 points that you listed as causes towards your illness are actually inline with what I think why I went from a healthy person to someone that have not been able to work for the past 4,5 years. Anyway. The reason I write: ‘Acceptance as 4th catagory to stress mgmt’ … I thought you are a buddist? The story of the two old Inuit hunters should not be a stranger to you? Cindy

  2. DaveYour talking about this is so helpfulThanks Rob

  3. Mariella says:

    Acceptance : Some time ago I began a mind game, trying to validate opposite values at the same time. I began to realize that (when it was possible) the result left me with a neutral feeling…. that made me feel a little uncomfortable.. it was like a passion killer….. if I followed that path, I could end like a Buddist monk…Serendipity took me to Wolpe and his technique called in spanish “inhibicion reciproca” and also to this technique used in brief therapies called “anchors collapse”….. The new state, (could be acceptance, or a neutral state) is achieved because our brains can´t process at the same time the possitive and negative…. It is a very interesting self experinment game….—— My guess is that the Inuits of your story were able to validate life and death at the same time as equally valuable.

  4. Dave,I have had psoriasis for 20 years and have gone down the “physical route” that you emphasise as part of my own program of self-experimentation. While all the factors you mention are valid I think that much of the stress we cause ourselves because of imbalances in our thinking processes.I am working with some ideas that are on my website.

  5. Abbas Abedi says:

    Dave, thanks for sharing your experiments.I have been experimenting with different stress relief techniques, including affirmations and belief structure for about 10 years, and it continues to fascinate me. If you get a chance I would be honored if you would try out my little meditational system that I have developed over the years.Best Wishes,Abbas Abedi

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