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Self Monitoring - a "Medical Revolution"

Publication date: 26 August 2013

In a recent BBC Horizon documentary, Dr Kevin Wong described the self-monitoring movement as a "medical revolution" that can help us live longer, healthier lives. It's a revolution based on technology, as you might expect, but what I found most interesting is that (i) the technology is very cheap and everyday, and (ii) the technology doesn't actually do anything to you. How is it that it can make such a difference?

We're used to a mainstream medical model in which we patients are the relatively passive recipients of treatment - pills or surgery or radiation. But the self-measurement movement doesn't fit with that at all. The revolution happens through behavioural change inspired by self knowledge. The technology simply measures personal physiology to create that self knowledge.

As a simple example: one of the Horizon programme participants notices that she doesn't sleep so well after drinking alcohol, after monitoring her sleep with a phone-based app. Appreciating the value of good quality sleep, she decides to drink less.

It's not the answer to every medical disorder - far from it. It's a revolution in preventive health care -  not merely by early detection which is not truly preventive. Having said that, another of the programme participants, Larry Smart, discovered that he had a serious gastrointestinal condition. Larry is a computer scientist and according to the programme, the most monitored man in the world. He regularly has stool tests done, and it was this that led to his discovery.

In my practice I use stool testing as a form of functional laboratory testing. Not designed to diagnose or treat medical conditions, functional tests show you how well or how optimally your body is functioning, so that you can make changes that may improve functioning, if you so wish. In my experience gut health is the basis of optimal health of the whole body. If the gut isn't working well, nothing else will (including the brain), so gut health is well worth optimising.

Biofeedback fits perfectly with the self monitoring movement (also known as the quantified self movement). Biofeedback offers real-time self measurement of physiology, and is the basis for training the skill of physiological self-regulation. Because mind and body are intimately connected, biofeedback is a form of mind training. (Most parameters commonly used relate to mental and emotional state.) Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback based on measurement of brain activity - so it trains the brain directly at the physiological level. Neurofeedback can improve focus, cognitive function, and emotional balance.

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