When I moved to Ireland in 2007, I began to have skin problems. It began gradually and I attributed it to the move, to stress, to late nights drinking with developers and clients, to travel, to whatever excuses I could think of. The stress was multiplied by the anxiety of being embarrassed about how my face looked, but also because my new job in Ireland involved me being on stage in front of large audiences constantly, often several times a week. A year later my skin was perpetually inflamed, red, full of sores and very painful. When one spot would go away, two more would spring up in its place. It was a tough time. I cried a lot.
Frustrated, I went to see my hometown dermatologist while I was home for holidays. He told me that a) this was completely normal and b) there was nothing I could do but go on antibiotics for a year (in addition to spending a fortune on creams and pills). I didn’t believe either of those things.
I was not interested in being on an antibiotic for a year, nor was I interested in Accutane (my best friend has had it multiple times and it hasn’t had long term results, plus it can be risky). What I was interested in was figuring out why this was happening and changing my life to make it stop. I refused to accept my dermatologist’s insistence that what you put in your body has no effect on how you look and feel.
I began systematically cutting things out of my diet to see how I reacted. First chicken and soy, based on a recommendation from a food allergist. Over the course of a year I cut out sugar, gluten, carbs, starches, caffeine, meat, fish until finally the magical month of December 2010 when I cut out dairy. My skin was my own again by New Year’s day this year.
It took a year to figure it out. It was completely worth it. There’s nothing wrong with Irish dairy, it just doesn’t work for me. I drink Americanos instead of lattes now, I don’t eat cereal; none of that is a huge deal. For what it’s worth, I can drink goat’s milk.
A great example of the power of self-experimentation compared to trusting doctors.
At the end of her post she makes a very important point:
Quantified Self isn’t for everyone, but everyone should feel they have the power to change things in their body and their life for the better.
I agree. By learning about examples of people who have done just that — such as Martha — we will come closer to having that power. Right now, as far as I can tell, most people feel helpless. They do what doctors or other experts tell them to do, even if it doesn’t work very well.
Long ago, hardly anyone could read. This left them in the grip of those who could. But eventually came mass literacy, when the benefits of reading finally exceeded the costs (e.g., because more books were available at lower prices). Reading is primitive science: if you read about things that happened, it is information gathering. It resembles doing a survey. Nowadays, almost everyone (in rich countries) reads, but almost no one does experimental science. This leaves them in the grip of those who can do experimental science (e.g., drug companies). I think my work and Martha’s work suggest we are close to another turning point, where, for nonscientists, the benefits of doing experiments exceed the costs.
Thanks to Gary Wolf.
Seth Roberts is a professor of psychology at Tsinghua University and an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley. This piece is reposted from his blog. He is looking for other stories like this one, where people use science or data collection to improve their own health. His email is twoutopias (at) gmail.com.