If you’re familiar with the self-quantification scene, you may remember the days when you had to go to a fancy place like the Princeton Longevity Center or some other fancy anti-aging facility if you wanted a deeper understanding of the state of your body in order to take a more proactive and precise approach to your health. Even now, the benefits and possibilities of self-quantification aren’t largely known.
Sure, most people these days are tracking some area of their life, whether by wearing an activity tracker like a FitBit or counting calories with an app like MyFitnessPal, but is this data really giving you a clear way to gauge if you’ve truly improved your fitness or nutritional status? Perhaps you’ve dialed in your calorie and macronutrient requirements and you’re hitting your 10,000 steps per day, but you can do so much more.
Let’s say these vague parameters have given you a taste of how you can take control of your health, but now you’re wanting to get more detailed and measure other aspects of your life that affect your body composition, nutrient status, cognition, energy levels and more. Or perhaps you're dealing with chronic fatigue, sleep issues, or gut problems and can't seem to get to the root of the problem. So you start doing some digging and realize that there is a dizzying array of gadgets and tests at your disposal.
Now’s where it gets confusing. What’s important to measure and track? What’s the best way to do it? And then what do you even do with all that data?
Although the answers to these questions largely depend on your specific concerns and goals, there are certain things that will give you the most bang for your buck, without giving you unnecessary data.
The point of self-quantification is essentially self-knowledge through self-tracking. By gathering data on specific metrics, you are then able to manipulate variables and track the outcome. This gives you real, measurable data you can use to evaluate whether you are making improvements in specifics areas of your life.
So with that, let’s move into some of the best things you can track if you’re looking to optimize how your body is functioning or address specific concerns and exactly how you can do that.
The Best Self-Quantification Tests
These tests will give you the data you need to analyze how your foods, supplements, fitness routine, stress and more are affecting your health. By gathering baseline data, you’ll then be able to determine what needs improvement, how you’re going to make that change, and through repeated testings, you’ll be able to track your progress.
1) Blood Evaluation
Gone are the days of needing a doctor’s order to get blood tests. You can now order your own blood tests online and choose exactly which biomarkers are assessed. Companies like WellnessFX and DirectLabs allow you to choose the tests you want, order them online, and then either prick your finger at home or make a quick visit to a nearby lab to collect your blood sample. You’ll then get your results in about a week and many services offer professional consultations to help you understand the numbers.
Blood tests allow you to assess your nutrient status, hormone levels, thyroid function, risk factors for heart disease, blood sugar, systemic inflammation, and more. Gathering your data is not only useful as a preventative medicine approach, it's often used by people who aren’t getting the answers they need from doctors who may be ordering standard tests based on symptoms to address some trickier situations.
Take thyroid hormones for example. Most physicians will order a blood test for what’s called TSH, or thyroid stimulating hormone, if they suspect thyroid dysfunction. TSH is made by the pituitary gland in your brain and triggers the thyroid gland in your neck to produce hormones—triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4)—that are crucial for your use of energy (aka your metabolism). Thyroid hormones give your brain feedback as to how much TSH to release. If, for some reason, your T3 isn’t being converted into active T4 (poor liver function), or you have a lot of thyroid antibodies circulating in your bloodstream (poor diet), or your cell receptors aren’t very responsive to thyroid hormones (high stress), your body just keeps churning out more and more TSH to no effect. But just measuring the TSH doesn’t give you a clear picture of the root cause of dysfunction.
One study suggested the elevated TSH levels and hypothyroid status are related to higher blood lead and cadmium levels, which can result in thyroid autoimmune conditions in women. Another stated that thyroid dysfunction may simply be the result of your personal genetic makeup. You may also be having a simple allergic reaction to something. Or, perhaps you’re experiencing a magnesium or iodine imbalance that’s preventing the thyroid from being activated properly. This is an instance where you’ll get a way better idea of what’s wrong if you test all of the thyroid hormones, markers of inflammation, certain nutrients, and cortisol.
Most labs offer different baseline tests, but a comprehensive panel testing your thyroid levels (just TSH will do if you don’t suspect a thyroid problem), lipid markers (total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, triglycerides, ApoB, Lp(a)), inflammation markers (hs-CRP), protein markers for liver and kidney health (BUN, Creatinine, AST, ALT, globulin, albumin, serum protein), blood sugar markers (fasting glucose, hemoglobin A1c), iron, vitamin D and magnesium levels will give you a great idea of your baseline health status. If you’re struggling with any health issues, then speaking with a physician or functional medicine practitioner or doing some research will help you determine additional tests to run or just choose specific biomarkers to have measured. Based upon your results, you can determine how often you'll repeat these tests to track your progress, with once a year being a good minimum.
2) Stool Tests
This test isn’t glamorous, but understanding your gut health is wildly important for overall health. There are yeasts, bacteria, fungi, parasites, and all sorts of things living in your digestive tract and this whole microbiome has a massive impact on how your body functions. A lot of the bacteria in your gut is good and healthy: as much as five hundred species and three pounds of bacteria live there, helping you digest food, regulate hormones, excrete toxins, and produce vitamins and other vital compounds. But your gut bacteria can get out of balance, especially with the prevalence of anti-bacterial soaps, antibiotics, poor diets and more.
Unfortunately, bacteria imbalances aren’t your only concern. If you swim in certain bodies of water, like a nasty freshwater lagoon, there’s a good chance you’ll come out of it with some kind of critter in your gut. Well rather than just feeling “off” for a long time, you can order a stool test to determine exactly what the invader is and how to get rid of it.
Another issue you can run into is SIBO or “small intestine bacterial overgrowth”. A lot of physicians aren’t even aware of this condition. It’s basically where the bacteria normally found in your colon and large intestine move out towards your small intestine, causing bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and food intolerances, among other issues. Once established there, they take over and feed on the food passing through, especially any kind of excessive carbohydrate intake, leading to poor nutrient absorption and other problems.
By investing in a stool evaluation, you can identify that state of your gut microbiome and any imbalances, the presence of any harmful yeasts, fungus, or parasites, gut inflammation, food sensitivities, and other parameters for digestion and absorption. With this knowledge, you’ll know what’s out of whack and what to do about it, whether that’s increasing probiotic intake, eliminating certain foods, or looking to herbal remedies to effectively combat certain harmful organisms.
For example, if your stool test shows a parasite, candida overgrowth, or Staphylococcus aureus, then you can begin an oregano oil regimen. Oregano oil has been found to fend off bacteria, including the common foodborne illness culprits, E. coli and salmonella, kills off intestinal parasites, and provide defense against candida,
There are a number of at-home stool test kits you can order, with this three-day comprehensive stool panel being one of the more thorough ones. The latest, and possibly most exciting “complete” gut microbiome testing service is called Viome. It applies artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze your gut microbiome and recommend personalized nutritional recommendations that balance the gut microbiome inside the body for the goal of better digestive health, improved weight control, longevity, skin quality, brain function, and any other physiological parameter correlated to your gut bacteria.
3) Urine Test
Your urine can tell you a lot more than just your level of hydration. Urinalysis can indicate infections, liver problems, ketone levels, raised blood glucose, kidney problems, gallbladder dysfunction, rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown), and even hormone levels. You can get urinalysis test strips to use at home to measure markers pointing to most of these issues, but to measure your hormones, you’re going to need to order a urine steroid hormone panel or DUTCH test.
A DUTCH panel measures hormones and their metabolites, including cortisol, progesterone, estrogen, testosterone, and melatonin. This test can be especially enlightening for those struggling with chronic fatigue, poor sleep, and hormonal imbalances. For instance, a DUTCH test can determine the types of estrogen you are making, showing your risk for certain estrogen-dependent cancers like breast and uterine, as well as the methylation pathway of estrogen, which can point to nutrient deficiencies and MTHFR gene mutations. The DUTCH test also gives you a much clearer picture of HPA axis dysfunction (commonly called adrenal fatigue) by measuring free cortisol, diurnal patterns of cortisol, and metabolites, something blood, and saliva tests can’t do. Understanding these hormone levels will allow you to make the necessary diet and lifestyle changes to get back in balance.
4) Saliva DNA Test
This one is even simpler than the urine and stool tests because you don’t even have to unzip your pants and you only have to do it once in your lifetime. You just order your test, get a kit in the mail, swab your cheek, stick the sample in a test tube and send it back to the lab running the evaluation. You'll then have a picture of your genetic makeup.
You can order a DNA test from companies like 23andMe for a simple and inexpensive test or DNAFit, which will give you personalized diet and fitness recommendations based upon your genetics. There are also services like Promethease that will assess your raw data to give you a detailed report of how your individual genes influence the function of your body.
This is the one test that will allow you to make personalized health decisions for both lifetime body function optimization and prevention of deficiencies and disease. Your data will tell you how best to customize your diet, what nutrients you may need to pay special attention to consuming, your body’s adaptation to certain training, and even things like how fast you metabolize caffeine and if you're lactose intolerant. This means your genes can tell you whether your body may respond better to a high-weight, low-rep workout versus a low-weight high-rep workout, your ability to produce antioxidants, and your need to supplement antioxidants and vitamins like vitamin C, vitamin E, or glutathione.
Your specific gene mutations will also allow you to see your disease risks so that you can proactively minimize them. For example, if you have a higher than normal risk of prostate cancer, you can start getting more lycopene from a fresh tomato every day. If you have a high risk of type II diabetes, you can lower your carb intake or start monitoring your blood glucose.
These tests even determine your ancestry, which can turn up some unexpected and intriguing results. This one test is a great place to begin your self-quantification journey.
Self-Quantification Wearable Devices
Selecting the best self-quantification device for you depends upon your goals. They can be as simple as a step tracker, but there are now much more sophisticated wearables that can track your sleep cycles, heart rate, heart rate variability, level of recovery, body temperature, calories burned, and more. Many of these come with sleek apps and dashboards so that you can easily track and assess your data, and some even give you recommendations for how hard you should train that day based upon measurements of recovery or how much you should sleep that night.
One such device is the OURA ring. It tracks your sleep, heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV), activity, body temperature, movement, respiration, and more. To measure your sleep, it tracks the micro-movements of your finger and your heart rate to determine the amount of time you spend in each sleep period: waking states, REM (rapid-eye-movement) and NREM (non-rapid-eye movement, which includes deep and light sleep). It then tells you how mentally prepared you are for the day, as well as how much physical activity you should partake in for that day. Sleep tracking is incredibly important for athletes, but could really benefit anyone, especially those with sleep issues.
In addition to tracking sleep, another daily measurement taken by a wearable that gives you highly valuable data is your heart rate variability (HRV). In a nutshell, HRV is the measurement of heart rate irregularity (yes, your heart beats at irregular intervals). A high HRV has been correlated to improved athletic performance and training adaptation and a low HRV indicates risk of overtraining and injury. A low HRV can also be indicative of high stress, oncoming illness, or a lack of sleep.
If you’re well rested, haven’t been training excessively and aren't in a state of over-reaching, your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) interacts cooperatively with your sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight) to produce responses in your heart rate variability to respiration, temperature, blood pressure, stress, etc. And as a result, you tend to have really nice, consistent and high HRV values, which are typically measured on a 0-100 scale. The higher the HRV, the better your score.
But if you’re not well rested (over-reached or under-recovered), the normally healthy beat-to-beat variation in your heart rhythm begins to diminish. While normal variability would indicate sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system balance, and a proper regulation of your heartbeat by your nervous system, it can certainly be a serious issue if you see abnormal variability – such as consistently low HRV values (e.g. below 60) or HRV values that tend to jump around a lot from day-to-day (70 one day, 90 another day, 60 the next day, etc.).
To measure HRV, you just strap on a Bluetooth heart rate monitor for five minutes first thing in the morning, like the Polar H7 Bluetooth Heart Rate Sensor, and then you'll ideally use an app to track your measurements, like the SweetBeatLife phone app.
To get started with self-quantification, these four tests – blood, poop, urine, saliva – are easy to run and available to pretty much anyone. Once you have baseline measurements and know exactly what areas need improvement, you can begin implementing changes and actually track how your behavior is affecting your health. This becomes much easier and more rewarding than simply tracking steps or calories and will boost your health status exponentially.