In slightly-less-short: first, practice perceptive skills of intuition, interoception, and mindfulness; then, keep a record that accurately reflects your food, feelings, exercise, and experiences; then, identify health patterns at your baseline and after making changes, to see whether and where those changes are having effect.
In these articles, I’ve described the process in a middle way: it could be done more formally, or less. You could measure and track your health parameters as closely as time, money, and technology allow—or you could rely more on general impressions, making note only of particularly exceptional feelings and events. It all depends on your personal inclinations and on the severity of the health issues you’re hoping to address.
Here are a few pointers that can help make the process go more smoothly:
- Get a small notebook for your record, something you can always have with you. Keep it near you so you can always write down what you notice and do throughout your day.
- Stick with your changes long enough to know if they’re working (unless you find yourself experiencing adverse effects). Giving up after too short a period will give you false negatives, the mistaken impression that something wasn’t working when it actually was. The body needs time to readjust to the “new normal”. In general, when eliminating a potential food allergen, you need at least a month, preferably two. When starting an exercise regimen, two weeks. Herbal medicines vary widely in their time to effect, but one month should be enough in almost all cases.
- Once you get a good result, don’t drop your recording habit. Keep it going for another period, even if you don’t change anything further. Particularly in the case of herbal medicines, you may find that constitutional effects build up over time, and the herb that was at first very helpful with one problem is starting to create another, e.g. a warming, drying herb can be helpful to bring balance to someone who is constitutionally cold and damp, but if taken continually it could begin to heat them up or dry them out. Watch that you don’t overshoot the mark!
- When eliminating possible food allergens, and getting inconclusive results—or struggling with psychological resistance and doubt—try a rechallenge. After you’ve strictly eliminated the food allergen from your diet for a full month or two, try eating it again and observe your body’s reaction carefully. You may find symptoms start to re-emerge which you didn’t have while you avoided the allergen.
- If you find something that really works for you, remember that self-experimentation means your conclusions go no further than your own experience. Don’t give in to the temptation to generalize. Be open to new information. If you’re solid in your own experience, you don’t need to feel challenged when others react differently.
For clinicians, the problems of insufficiently disciplined experimentation cut deeper. In this case, it’s you who has to keep track of things for the client—you’re the experimenter. (Ideally, you’re working to track these things together, but you should look on it as your responsibility to the client to make sure you do your part thoroughly.)
Make sure these tools are part of your client tracking process. Teach perceptive skills and strategies. Try to get clients to keep records when making dietary or other lifestyle changes, and spend the time to teach how to use them effectively. Get symptom scores on intake and all follow-ups, so you have some clear evidence to show that progress is being made, and help the client see the patterns in their health at baseline and after making changes. This will help you identify when your recommendations are having good results, when they’re making little difference, and perhaps most importantly, when they’re having undesirable side effects.
Self-experimentation is a valid and valuable tool—but only if you do the perceptive, reflective, and connective work required. Mindfulness and intuition, sensory perception, record-keeping, and pattern recognition are essential skills for making your "n=1" experiments successful.
Other articles in this series:
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