Is a certain food healthy? Which exercise burns the most fat? Will this supplement boost my energy? How many hours of sleep do I need to feel my best? To get answers to questions like these, we often look to science. When it comes to health and wellness, we often look to science for answers, because it is science where we will find the truth. But we have to be careful with how we define science.
The gold standard for proof these days is the double-blind randomized controlled trials. But our reliance on published studies, research, and presented data has left us vulnerable and at risk for ever-increasing rates of chronic illness, sickness, and disease. There are so many reasons to be skeptical and critical of published medical data, but the bottom line is that it is impossible to design a perfect study that can be applied to you.
Because we are all so different and unique, there never has been, nor ever will be, one drug, procedure, therapy, supplement, or natural remedy that works well for everyone. Your friend may get great results from a therapy, while it may not help you. A family member may see benefits from a drug therapy, yet that same drug may only harm you. And a co-worker may rave about a new herbal supplement, which you find useless.
I read studies, I analyze data, and I value science. But I do so with a critical eye. And the one thing I do is A LOT of self-experimentation. Why? Because what works for you might not work for me, and what works for many others may not work for me. And I might find something extremely effective and helpful for me and my health, even though data or studies do not support it.
We know that high-carbohydrate foods are known to spike blood sugar. Most people who eat a cup of white rice, white potatoes, or ice cream, will see a rapid spike in blood sugar. So, most people who are concerned about these big fluctuations in blood sugar will avoid these foods. What I find fascinating is that some people will have little, or even no spike in blood sugar after eating these foods… even the ice cream. A general statement you have likely heard is that these foods spike blood sugar. But what if it doesn’t spike yours?
Well, there is one way to find out. Do your experimentation. You will hear this type of experimentation referred to as N=1, which means there is one participant (you) in the study. In the blood sugar case, you could wear a continuous blood sugar monitor and check it before and after each meal and experiment with individual foods to see how you respond to these foods.
N=1 studies are great because doing them removes a lot of variables that occur in general studies–variables that might make it not apply to you. Would you have more energy during the day if you ate breakfast, or if you did intermittent fasting and skipped breakfast? You’ll read articles, listen to podcasts, and even read studies that will say eating breakfast is critical, while others say it is detrimental. For you, personally, there is one way to find out… try eating breakfast for a week, then try skipping breakfast for a week… and note and record your findings.
Do you feel better, think clearer, have more energy, and are you in a better mood if you get up earlier or later? If you get seven hours of sleep versus nine hours? If you exercise in the morning, afternoon, or evening? If you meditate or if you don’t? How can you know? Simple… do self-experimentation.
The reason some drugs that were approved by the FDA as being safe at one time are later pulled from the market is because no matter the size of the study group, or design of the study, there are always variables that cannot be accounted for. You are unique. No one knows you like you know you. No study can ensure that its results can be applied to you. And how you respond to a new exercise, a new work schedule, or a new drug will be different than how other people respond. If something is not feeling right for you, stop. If you are struggling with anything, experiment with it. N=1 is a great way to help optimize your function and life.