I went to see the University's nutritionist today. I wanted to learn how to experiment more rigorously with my diet in order to increase cognitive function. Specifically, over the past few years I've noticed these foods have some effect on my ability to think clearly:

  1. Gluten.
  2. Lactose. (Yogurt/kefir/cheese seem to be fine as long as I don't go nuts.)
  3. Meat. (Red meat more than white meat, white meat more than seafood.)

I'm not allergic to any of these, but I do appear to be sensitive - it's almost as if those three substances each has a slowly-draining reservoir (for engineers: look, it's an integrator! For Oliners: look, it's a bathtub!) somewhere inside me, and if I "fill" the reservoir by eating that substance faster than it can drain, my brain starts doing funky things. Actually, it's not "as if" there were a reservoir - there is. It's called my bloodstream.

The usual procedure for an experiment goes something like this:

  1. Reset environment to known control state.
  2. Introduce the intervention.
  3. Record results.

The human body's a funky thing, though. It depends on your mood, how much sleep you're getting, how dehydrated (or not) you are, whether you had a big paper due that week, if you exercised, whether it's cold outside... and there's no reboot button. So finally we ended up with this little guide to food challenges - that's what they're called, "food challenges." Sounds like a reality TV show! Anyway:

Reset environment to known control state. Have a "safe food diet" - a bunch of dishes that I like to eat, are nutritionally balanced (protein, carbs, fat, vegetables, fiber, all the stuff your mom told you when you were small), and don't contain any of the stuff I'm trying to test for. So for me, a bowl of rice and black bean chili works - or curry over quinoa, or... you get the idea. Eat this for long enough that your system "clears out" whatever substances you're testing; in allergy/immunization studies, this is usually 1-2 weeks. (Allergy and immunology journals, by the way, are nice sources of procedures for experimental setup; check out PubMed if you have access.) I'm going for 2 weeks, which lets me set approximately one food experiment up per month.

Introduce the intervention. In other words, "eat gluten, lactose, and/or meat," while making sure my meals remain nutritionally balanced (so that any effects won't be the results of, say, not eating fiber). In controlled doses, depending on what I want to test. Also, watch out for the placebo effect. Nutrition and food science journals are most useful as models for this segment of the study.

For instance, I think I have some gluten sensitivity; if I eat bread at every meal, my brain goes fuzzy. But if I'm on a gluten-free (or, since gluten is everywhere and I'm not vigilant enough about it, almost gluten-free) diet and have a slice of bread, I'm fine. So what's the tipping point - how do I get a better model of that reservoir? How big is it (3 bread-slices?) and how fast does it drain (1 bread-slice per day, meaning that I could eat 2 slices of bread today and 1 tomorrow and be fine, but not 3 today?)

Record results. Since I'm looking at my brain state here - neurochemical changes, in other words -I want to look at how other researchers have measured "effects on thinking." I tend to notice effects commonly associated with ADHD (yep, I have that too) - lack of focus, physical restlessness - so things like the Conner Scale or Hyperscheme (another scale) might be worth looking into; PubMed has plenty more that I don't know about just yet. Again, watch for the placebo effect. Whenever possible, I'll try to measure things somewhat less subjective than my opinion... but sometimes you just have to use your thoughts as an imperfect, messy instrument because that's all you've got.

Neurochemical changes can happen fast. Stomach-brain communication is pretty quick - the "I'm full, stop being hungry!" signal takes maybe 20-30 minutes. So it's possible I may be able to record these things during the meal - or at the very least, at the end of the day. Some food effects can take as long as 3 days to show up... but for mental-performance tracking, I'm likely looking at a shorter scale.

So that's my lifehacking braindump for the day. Hopefully it'll be useful to others experimenting with similar stuff (I'm looking at you, Matt Ritter). And many thanks to Dr. Annie Mahon for helping me geek out with her this morning!

Also, I need a lot more calcium than I'm getting. As a fairly skinny Asian woman who's not big on lactose (milk), I'm at risk for osteoporosis; I eat yogurt on some days, but at best that gets me about 500mg of the stuff, and I need 1000. But you can only absorb 500mg at a time, and shouldn't go over 2500mg in a day. No problem; I'll just get a supplement in 500mg increments and pop one during lunch if I have yogurt for breakfast, and pop one during breakfast and one during lunch if I go yogurtless for the day. Must build strong bones! Do weight-bearing exercises! Mel smash!

I've decided to think of my life as a 125-year project. (Because I think medical science makes it feasible - and also because I like cube numbers.)  The plans you make for the future look way different when you think of it as "wow, 100 years to go."