Solvitur ambulando: when you use a practical experiment to test if something is true
This could be my motto, but is especially true about how I treat my body. I often say that I use my body as my laboratory: it is where I test claims about many things but the most common one is dietary supplements.
About 7 years ago I began to experience severe cognitive decline. I was absurdly distracted and constantly forgetting everything. Focused, continual reasoning went from easy to horribly difficult. I stopped being able to read non-fiction because it was too much work, and even my fiction reading decreased sharply. To put that in context -- I started reading when I was four and have read thousands of books. Reading has always been easy for me. I was at a loss for what was causing the problem.
Then I came across something like this:
[image: a photo of three molecule-shaped pendants, each labeled with the name and function of the molecule. Dopamine: reward and pleasure. Acetylcholine: learning and memory. Serotonin: happiness and satisfaction.]
I thought "there is a memory molecule???" and went on a deep dive into wikipedia, which told me that acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter made from choline. So I looked that up and discovered that choline is primarily available in fatty meats, which I hadn't eaten in many years. At that point I had been a vegetarian for about 3 years, but even before that I ate almost exclusively lean meat because I dislike the taste of other meat.
I was pretty well convinced I had found the cause of my cognitive decline, so I went and ordered choline supplements immediately. I noticed that my dreams got more intense but otherwise didn't notice much change until I ran out -- when my thinking got worse again. Then I thought back over the past month and realized how different it had been! I wasn't half as absent-minded or forgetful! I began ordering them regularly.
I have since learned that almost every currently available dementia medication works by increasing the choline available in the brain, and that supplementing choline can be protective of memory. Conversely, medications that work by decreasing choline can cause dementia-like symptoms. And even in populations without dementia, supplementing choline is beneficial for cognition. I keep an eye on dementia studies for what they reveal about the functioning of choline and memory.
I got super lucky with that first brand, because I tried other brands and they did not help even a quarter as much. Since supplements are not classified as food or medicine, they are not regulated for effectiveness and it is often the case that they do not contain what the bottle says they do. I am glad I didn't get that null result at the beginning because if I had, I would never have known that it was true that lack of choline was causing my cognition problems. Nowadays I check all supplement brands on labdoor.com or at least make sure that they are tested by a third party.
After this first experiment proved my guess correct, I made it a practice that if I have a health symptom that could be explained by a vegetarian-diet-caused deficiency, I'll answer that question by testing it in my body. I started taking b12 because I was getting numbness in my legs: then it went away. I started taking glutamine after learning that it is primarily available in meat and it is the amino acid that allows for quick muscle healing; it makes a HUGE difference in whether or not I ache after working out. My lips and skin were dry, so I supplemented E and evening primrose: now I almost never need chapstick. Small cuts were taking a long time to heal, so I supplemented beta carotene (vitamin A): now they take a shorter time to heal. My hair was thinning, so I supplemented biotin: now it is back to normal. Taking zinc regularly keeps me from catching colds from my coworkers -- and if I stop taking zinc I become susceptible.
I've learned I need amino acids (especially glutamine and lysine), vitamins A, B5, B6, B12, E, Niacin, Biotin, iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, and calcium. Some of these I supplement because if you supplement one you have to supplement the other. For example, if you supplement zinc (primarily available in meat) you must supplement copper in order to prevent deficiency. In order to metabolize iron you need copper also. Calcium and magnesium compete so if you supplement for one you should supplement the other.
Proving any theory with a practical experiment is always my preference, and I enjoy having this organic laboratory to work with.