Updated: 3 days ago
Became a bio-hacking superhuman! The quantified-self refers to the collection of data on your own health and lifestyle in order to make changes to improve quality of life.
We all know someone who counts their daily steps or measures how many calories they think they have burnt off (well, more of a rough estimation) but with the recent eruption of wearable technology, we can now measure heart health, auditory capability, menstrual cycles, analyze sleep quality, track mood and many more. Even the curious times of COVID have forced tech companies to create tracking devices that monitor where you have been and who you have come into contact with.
Now anyone can easily test and track their more complex biomarkers such as hormones, blood, saliva, hair, urine, gut bacteria, and feces. You can even get your telomere test to measure your biological aging processes, and at the end of this article, you will find 3 Actions you can take to start self-quantifying. But if you are skeptical, read on.
It's going to happen whether you do or not... before we know it, our homes will be a hub for self-health checks! Just imagine, our toilets will be analyzing our stool to let us know if our gut microbial friends are happy and healthy, and maybe Alexa 2.0 will be monitoring our bodies and behavior and offering feedback and health advice (if this scares you, then sorry to be the bearer of bad news, this technology is already well underway 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
Self-quantification or quantified-self is a recent movement of self-tracking and self-measurement with technology and sensors that enable individuals to collect data on several aspects of their life, and in most cases, if you can measure it, you change it.
Self-quantification goes way beyond counting calories or standing on the scales each morning. Trackers create journals and records of many factors such as mood, health, finances, diet, personality, symptoms, and treatments (and more) with the goal to improve each and overall quality of life.
Once upon a time, self-trackers were individuals with chronic health conditions (i.e, diabetics) or carers of someone with a condition 11 but the world is changing, and now people are taking to self-quantification for general health improvement, and maybe you should too. But it's possible your just curious about your own body, life, or mental state and want to know how to better yourself. If you have no interest in the evidence then feel free to skip ahead to the 3 Actions you can take to start enhancing.
OK, so let's look at the research. We can safely assume that improving individual physical and psychological health factors can improve quality of life, but the practice of self-quantification is a whole other ball game. One opinion piece suggested self-testing can be empowering and has the potential to improve patient engagement, as long as the regulatory systems are of a high standard and high-quality information is available. Other research on home testing found people can properly perform most tests and understand when to seek advice, however, users had trouble dealing with blood-based tests.
According to one article the quantified self comes in five different practices; private, pushed, imposed, exploited, and communal, for more on these, follow the link. Private practice is collecting data for your own use, where pushed practice is when the data serves another such as a healthcare professional. We are interested in private practice, as for the other practices, It is likely the individual is not doing it for themselves, and that quality of life is not going to be achieved. Further to this, a scoping review indicated that quantified self practices can transform an individual's relationship to their health and body and empower the individual to gain control of their health-related behaviors.
Self-quantifiers are always evaluating themselves by seeking information feedback from their environment (i.e, exam results, or health checks) and a meta-analysis suggested that informational feedback was more effective than other forms of feedback. It could be argued that self-quantifiers are intrinsically motivated, meaning they perform a behavior for the sake of satisfaction acquired from this behavior itself, as opposed to extrinsic factors (extraneous motivation). The experience of affective feedback such as flow and pleasure is associated with intrinsic motivation and is likely to increase the users engagement and quality of certain health behaviors. A recent study found quantified-self to be positively correlated with experiencing both affective and informational feedback.
It's important to point out that the self-quantifiers are likely to already be highly motivated individuals who put high importance on health motivation and performance, so they already may have higher standards of living than compared to individuals who need help to improved their psycho-social state. In other words, it's hard to say whether these strategies benefit pathological populations, and using quantified-self sample populations for research may not generalize to the wider population because of prior motivations.
The Downside to Self-Quantification
If we focus on bettering every aspect of our selves, then what's the downside? Some researchers have highlighted the dangers of self-tracking, particularly in fertility tracking women, who reported increased levels of anxiety and It has also been reported as distracting.
Seth Roberts, a self-quantifier, claimed eating half a stick of butter a day enhanced his cognition, this nutrition advice is also promoted by Dave Asprey (not to the extent of half a stick a day though). This might be true, as no research has disputed it, but is there a trade-off? That is a vital question to anyone making serious health choices... to gain the boost, what is the negative effect on your physical/psychological health? There is always a trade-off, sometimes its worth the risk, other times you pay for it.
Obsessive behaviors may be one drawback of practicing self-quantification. In other words, at what point is too much, too much? As the research suggests, obsessive health behavior can have adverse effects.
Also, when did we stop listening to our bodies? If we allow the technology to have unlimited access to our biomarkers, then will we lose the ability of interocoption, or pay attention, and have insight. We could become over-reliant on technology, although the argument could be made for this being a strength (i.e, technology could free up time and energy for other practices). And not to mention the huge access to data that would be available.
The research around quantified-self practice and quality of life is very small, therefore drastic conclusions cannot be made, and maybe the next step is a gold-standard experiment of a randomized double-blind placebo control, to gain a better understanding of causation/correlation relationship between self-quantification and quality of life. But, overall it seems like people are savvy enough to monitor their own bodies and make improvements, especially when the biomarkers are well-understood.
Should we be worried?
Let's face it, the future is already here, and by the time people realize the technology has already taken over, we will be worrying about the next technology initiatives, so maybe its time to embrace it.
In less than five years, we are going to see devices installed into people's skulls that will substitute neural connectivity. The early uses of Neuralink will aid with conditions like epilepsy by detecting attacks in real-time and then firing a counter pulse to stop the epilepsy, and then if (or when) they realize its potential for cognitive enhancement, it will become the next 'everyday' technology.
AI symbioses.. scary word right? It could change everything we consider typical human interface. In some ways this has already happened, think about our phones, laptops, tablets, Alexa, and another wearable tech. Me personally, I'm freaked out by this but also excited at the same time.
By the way, initiatives like Neuralink are not going to happen overnight, rather a gradual process, think about the smartphone, and how it progressively got smarter until it became an extension of our body. The same will apply to the technology embedded in our homes or our skulls, by the time version 7 Neuralink is available, this kind of tech will be the norm. And by then, you will be worrying about the next technology. At some point, we are going to have to just accept and embrace.
Let's face it, it's happening anyway, so you may as well get ahead of the game.
Somehow, it doesn't feel natural, right?
If quantifying the self is of interest to you, then go for it... that would be my advice. Start slow, and then think about the areas that need improvement (I recommend sleep) and then monitoring and collecting data about what affects you and how you can improve.
Maybe your goal is to get that athletic body, but you're not lucky enough to have a food and fitness coach like Patrick Murphy who was basically Zac Efron's own personal quantifier for Baywatch. If this is your goal, then self-quantification is for you. Health advice is often too simple; "eat more vegetables, less sugar, run more, sit less, blah blah blah". You could see quantified self as a way to gain a baseline measure of the machine you live in that can potentially lead to behavior change strategies.
Upmanship values evidence-based strategies to enhance human performance. Taking up self-quantification is definitely something you can do to step up your game. If your goal is quality of life, then why not start tracking and making changes to improve psychological, physical, and social factors. But, as a word of caution, the research is in its infancy, so like most things, moderation is probably sensible (so don't start swallowing large amounts of butter just yet). Here are 3 actions you can take if you're interested in self-quantification:
Action 1 - Start simple.
There's no need to do the math yourself. Pick something that gives you immediate feedback that is simple and straightforward to use. For example, track your food intake with something like MyFitnessPal, the research suggests that keeping a diary could double weight loss. Or how about investing in a smartwatch to monitor your distance or calories. Nowadays, these types of technology are the norm and have very little input required from you.
If this step is too easy, step it up with Action 2.
Action 2 - Up your game.
Maybe, your bored of knowing how many steps you've done in one day, and you're ready for the next challenge. Now its time to start getting serious with personal analytics and informatics.
Start by picking a few behaviors across different domains that you want to improve in your daily life activities and record the data in a digital spreadsheet (Excel is fine, but there are other available). You may want to focus on physical health targets, nutrition, and mood, and once you have been collecting for a week, try to analyze the data for patterns or trends. This is easier than it sounds... here are a few examples:
Lower glycemic variability (blood sugar) could improve sleep quality.
Exercising too close to bed might decrease sleep quality.
Eating a certain food lifts your mood or sharpens your cognition.
If your goal is biological health and longevity, then why not go for some of the most useful biomarkers to measure overall health;
Glycemic index (blood sugar) - Assess your blood glucose response to the environment and the things you put in your body.
Hormone variability - Try this dry urine test that measures your hormonal variation throughout the day.
Action 3 - Become a full-on bio-hacking superhuman
Understand the machine you have been given by turning it into pure data!
Test whatever you can measure;
Test blood for magnesium, HsCRP, Testosterone, HGH, Micro-nutrient deficiencies, blood glucose, and Insulin.
Test your urine for hormonal fluctuation (cortisol for example).
Test your stool for gut health
Track your sleep quality - Oura ring is a great way to measure sleep, as well as readiness and activity.
Collate all your data into digital spreadsheets and start to analyze trends and correlations between factors such as nutrition and mood, or sleep quality and heart activity. This will enable you to maintain robust management of things like your macro-nutrients to things that will impact fatigue, mood, and energy.
As a final point, if you're serious about self-quantification, then make sure you do the research before messing around with your body's biomarkers. Safe practice will help you gain control of your nutrition, performance, and recovery concepts, but be warned, its a fine line between passion and obsession.