“If You Lie on the Sofa and Do Nothing, Pills Will not Help You,” Pioneer of the World’s Biggest Quantified Self Experiment Stanislav Skakun
Participants of the Quantified Self movement regularly track their performance and a variety of health parameters.
Stanislav Skakun is an experienced biohacker. Since 2014, he has been running a quantified self experiment, which is considered one of the largest in the world.
After the Biohacking Conference Moscow, Stanislav gave a comprehensive interview to the team of the event. He explained the main idea of his experiment, what devices measure health parameters, and how often one should undergo medical checkups to control all processes in the body.
Interviewer: Biohacking Conference Moscow (ВСМ)
Respondent: Stanislav Skakun (S.S.)
ВСМ: How do you understand the term of biohacking?
S.S.: I understand biohacking as the use of scientifically grounded methods of influencing the body in order to extend human capabilities, prevent age-related or other illnesses, or eliminate some natural health restrictions. “Scientifically grounded” are the key words here. Of course, biohackers do not do science. They aggregate and apply available scientific knowledge. Today people have studied many methods of influencing our bodies. The application of such scientifically grounded recommendations makes the essence of biohacking.
ВСМ: How many biomarkers do you measure in your quantified self experiment?
S.S.: I measure around 800 parameters, which I have chosen to assess my body in general, every organ, and every system. Is it many or not? In my opinion, it is still insufficient. To obtain a comprehensive picture, you need not only biochemical values, which are widely used in medical practice (they are mainly different protein biomarkers) but also metabolomic biomarkers and genomic data. Besides, it is necessary to work with transcriptomic data that allows defining which genes are actively participating in translation now. In general, the number of biomarker tests that you do is like optical power of the microscope. If you look through a poor microscope, you do not see much. If you look through a powerful microscope, you see various details. You can compare the number of used biomarkers with the resolution of the instrument that you work with.
My message is that it is important to work on the creation of a multi-omics panel that would include millions of biomarkers. A panel of several hundred biomarkers helps to ensure only a basic approach to measuring yourself, and what I want to achieve in my experiment is the gradual integration of the omics technologies in everyday life. Multi-omics measurements are needed to monitor the body at the lowest molecular levels, where aging and the development of age-related diseases take place.
ВСМ: What can you say about the existing genetic tests? Are there differences between them? What tests are worth doing?
S.S.: As for genetic tests, I recommend such an approach as genotyping. Laboratories that apply this technique, analyze hundreds of thousands of DNA points precisely in those locations of your genome where it may differ from other people (these points are called polymorphisms). These tests are especially valuable, as apart from clinically researched meaningful points, based on which you will get a report about your genetic traits, you will also get the so-called raw data, i.e. several megabytes of information on your DNA, which has been hardly researched for now. With the arrival of new genetic researches, you will be able to take those test findings and find out how newly revealed data relates to you. These tests are cost-competitive. Their price ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 rubles.
ВСМ: What devices are the best option to measure body parameters?
S.S.: I mainly recommend using fitness trackers that can monitor the variability of the heart rate during the day. This parameter helps to define the levels of stress and the rehabilitation of the nervous system. Such devices will help you to plan workouts, optimize sleeping and rehabilitation.
Besides, I advise that you always use devices that measure pulse-wave velocity – the speed that the blood goes through the abdominal aorta. This parameter allows assessing the so-called biological age (stiffness) of vessels – the higher the pulse-wave velocity, the bigger the age. There are different form factors of such devices. They can be pulse oximetry devices or simply floor scales that are good for measuring weight, of course, among other things.
If you do sports, you may find useful a breast pulsimeter, which measures and records all main parameters of your workout such as running pace and pulse. If you go running, do aerobic activities, you should train in specific pulse ranges. If you do interval training or CrossFit, you should monitor the load and subsequent rehabilitation of the body.
Use of pulsimeters during workouts, use of devices that measure pulse-wave velocity and intra-daily monitoring of the stress level are three perhaps most important things that you can measure.
If you want to improve air quality at home or your workplace, I recommend installing meteorological stations that track the levels of carbon dioxide, ultra-disperse dust, and formaldehyde. Of course, taking measurements is not sufficient, you should have air-cleaning systems to remove dust, ventilate premises, and remove formaldehyde. Monitoring all these parameters is important for the ecosystem of your home or workplace to be optimally favorable.
ВСМ: How can users analyze the collected information? Which methods to use?
S.S.: I have already mentioned devices each of which has a profile in a mobile app or, at least, a user manual. People often think that biohackers have some secret norms for all health parameters. In fact, this is not right. Not more than 10% of parameters have optimal (narrower) values of the norm that differ from common values recommended by physicians.
Therefore, it is sufficient to know that every device has a manual, a standard that specifies the optimal value of the measured parameter.
Our main task is to digitize our body and the environment we live in at least preliminarily. In the process of solving this task, we will understand what is optimal, what we want to achieve. However, for a start, a standard methodology, verified and recommended by device manufacturers and physicians, would be sufficient.
ВСМ: How many health risks have you detected during the experiment? How many of them have you already eliminated?
S.S.: The next four-month cycle of my experiment is ending now. I am checking what is going on, take stock of risks. For now, I have detected 43 risks based on biochemical screening (not taking into account genetic traits). They are kind of weak points of my body, characteristic for me. Today two of 43 risks remain in the “red” zone. So, I have eliminated around 95% of them. The number of risks known to me will grow if I manage to expand the research methodology. I am working on it now, but most probably, I will be able to increase the scale of my research the next year, when I get extra opportunities thanks to the collaboration with new laboratories.
ВСМ: What steps should you undertake after you detect a health risk in order to eliminate it?
S.S.: First, you should confirm the risk. For this purpose, you can measure this parameter 2 or 3 times more to make sure it is deviant. You should not take any actions during this period, as the existence of the risk cannot be named proven this way. It is also desirable to confirm every risk by five or more different parameters rather than one. It will help to prove that you have this risk. In such a way, you will define the trouble in 3-4 months, decide whether you want to regulate this risk, and find a solution.
In some cases, when we speak about let’s say bone density, more time is needed to document the risk. If you detect reduced bone density, it makes sense to take another measurement in 6 months. Therefore, you will need 6 months instead of three to confirm the risk and its dynamics.
During the research, you should talk to the doctor, of course, show him the obtained data, consult and find out his opinion regarding the necessity to take action. Today patients sometimes know their organism better than physicians that treat them, as they read a lot about health and know many things. However, success is more probable if there is a union of the patient and the doctor aimed to prevent diseases.
ВСМ: What interventions do you use as part of the quantified self experiment?
S.S.: Currently, I am using a four-month protocol that rests upon recurrent interventions related to my genetic traits or, for example, the place where I live. For example, almost all people living in Moscow lack vitamin D or iodine. Therefore, I take relevant supplements every month and track related biomarkers.
I gradually made up a protocol of around 20 drugs that address my personal risks and, for example, the geographic location where I live. Apart from this basic protocol, I use a four-month protocol where I give a month to the digestive tract, a month to the heart, a month to the brain. For one month, I focus on immunity; in fact, this month is aimed at cancer prevention.
In such a way, my four-month protocol relates to main age-related diseases and manages my health risks connected with these diseases.
ВСМ: What interventions have turned out to be efficient? What interventions did not give the expected results?
S.S.: The best interventions are sports and diet. Perhaps I should also mention good-quality sleep here, but not all people can afford it in the modern pace of living. Unfortunately, my sleep is not always of high quality, as I cannot always afford to sleep the required amount of time or go to bed when required. However, sports and diet are the best and strongest interventions for our body. They are a kind of a basis to start with. Further, you need to work with those risks that you cannot get rid of even when you follow a healthy lifestyle.
Not taking the insane amount of drugs should be the basis but building healthy lifestyle habits. Only after you do this, you will probably wish to add something else to your protocol.
Many people imagine biohackers as someone who believes in some fairy drugs that do everything instead of the person, that a pill can make people immortal, ever young or super sportsmen, etc. In fact, if you lie on the sofa and do nothing, pills will not help you. You will achieve results if you follow the general principles of a healthy lifestyle. Only in this case biohacking will help you to achieve the best results in healthy living.
ВСМ: Were there any cases when interventions negatively influenced your health?
S.S.: During the whole experiment, all 5 years, my state has been gradually improving. Of course, sometimes drugs cause side effects. For this reason, it is desirable to take a blood test every month in case you change something. If you start taking some new drugs or somehow change the schedule, you need to check the body response and track long-term side effects, as there are no safe drugs. Even vitamin D can lead to calcification of kidneys and arteries, and green tea extract can be hepatotoxic for you, as the high concentration of compounds contained in the extract is toxic for the liver.
It happened that once I chose the dose incorrectly and it caused side effects. For example, when I was experimenting with metformin, IGF1 (insulin-like growth factor – the main parameter regulated by metformin) went below 100. At that time, my scratches stopped healing, as this growth factor is connected to regeneration and speed of cell division.
This kind of side effects may happen, but it is normal and we take this risk during the experiment.
ВСМ: Did you encounter inaccurate results of medical research?
S.S.: It happens rather rarely. In general, it is impossible to counterfeit a panel of 800 parameters. This is another reason why I measure so many parameters. It is impossible to make a mistake in this panel or counterfeit it. Such mistakes are always noticed easily.
ВСМ: You said you took blood tests every month. How often do ordinary people have to undergo medical checkups, do genetic testing?
S.S.: Genetic testing is done once per life. As for other types of screenings, you should not take blood tests once per month, of course. If you do not change anything, do not deliver interventions, you can take blood tests once per year. If you deliver some interventions but do not change anything in your protocol, it makes sense to take blood tests once per six months to check how the body is changing. In my case, as something changes every month, I have to take blood tests monthly. It is a general approach.
As for instrumental examinations, there is no point to undergo them often. For example, abdominal ultrasound or densitometry are useless to make more often than once per year without medical indication. There is no use in doing food intolerance tests more often than once per six months, as it takes our body a long time to respond to a diet. When we change the diet, the body accumulates the effect within a long period. There is no sense in doing a bioimpedance analysis of body composition once per month. It makes sense to do it once per three months, for example, when a person does sports.
In the general case (as part of preventive care), you should undergo instrumental examinations once per year. However, if you do something and try to change your health state, you should do some checkups once per six months.
ВСМ: What is the main point of your experiment?
S.S.: Strange as it may seem, the main point of my quantified self experiment is not about eliminating health risks. Although I believe I got control over 95% of them, this is only the by-product of the experiment. The core idea is the detailed measurement of body parameters and accumulation of relevant data. The more information about the body you have, the better you can interpret it. The more profound skills of data collecting and processing you have, the better is for you.
The main result of my experiment lies in the fact that I am one of the most quantified people in the world. This is valuable personally for me, not for anyone else, as this data helps me to take well-grounded decisions. Nobody will do anything for your health instead of you unless you take well-grounded decisions on your own.
ВСМ: How do you think is it really possible to prolong life to 100 or more years using biohacking tools and methods?
S.S.: If we speak about biohacking and healthy lifestyle together, I think yes. Sports prolong life by 12 years, refusal to smoke by 5 years. Drugs and pills perhaps can prolong life by 2 or 3 years. Compared to sports, it is not much.
However, the quantified self approach (self-measurement, detection, and elimination of risks under the guidance of physicians) helps to prevent different unpleasant situations with health and consequently is probably able to prolong life. I hope we will see this in experiments similar to mine.
On September 19, Stanislav made a presentation “Quantified self – what is it and why do we need it?” at Biohacking Conference Moscow. He explained how to organize your own experiment and shared what health parameters are important to measure.