Rob ter Horst is a data scientist and post-doctoral researcher at the CeMM Research Center for Molecular Medicine in Vienna Austria. He also has a popular Youtube channel "The Quantified Scientist" where he thoroughly reviews consumer biotracking devices and shares his own quantified-self experiments.
Rob ter Horst's Biohack Stack, Regimens, and Routines
Hello! What’s your name, your background, and what do you do?
My name is Rob ter Horst. I was originally trained as a chemist, with a focus on data analysis. I performed my PhD in bio-informatics, analysing large datasets relating to the immune system. At the moment I am doing postdoctoral research into epigenetics and the immune system.
When did you get into quantified self and biohacking? What was your motivation?
I got into quantified self about 3.5 years ago. It actually started as a way of collecting “fun” data to use for science communication. It later developed into a serious scientific project, which includes weekly brain MRIs, microbiome measurements and sleep EEGs. My main goal is therefore currently pure scientific discovery, whereas as a secondary goal I hope to learn new things about myself.
What’s your general approach or philosophy to quantified self? (How do you decide what to track? How do you determine what is legitimate or what is merely spurious correlation or noise in your N=1 experiments?)
This is not an easy question to answer. I tried to base my questionnaires on validated scientific questionnaires. The commercially available trackers that I use generally measure well established biological characteristics, and the more “scientific” measurements I do (sleep EEG, brain MRI and microbiome) are performed in collaboration with experts of that field. That being said, I cannot always say beforehand which measurements are likely going to show interesting patterns.
In one of your talks you mentioned that you spend 11 hours a week tracking yourself. What biometrics are you currently tracking and what have you learned? Do you have any targets or goals?
I currently get a brain MRI each week (I have had >100 so far), a daily sleep EEG with the Hypnodyme Z-max and I take weekly microbiome samples. Additionally, I fill out questionnaires about my mood, social interactions and food intake each morning and evening. Also each morning and evening, I track my temperature, my SpO2, my blood pressure and some other small things.
Your Youtube channel features the most in-depth tests of sleep trackers that I know of, using medical-grade sleep clinic polysomnography to judge device accuracy. What’s your general take on the different sleep trackers you’ve tested? Can biohackers use or trust the data they give?
My general impression is that most trackers are good at detecting sleep onset and the moment you wake up. These are arguably the most important to track, since these give a first impression of someones sleep schedule and likely correlate with someones overall sleep quality. The actual sleep stages are more difficult. Fitbit appears to have quite a good algorithm, but if you want better sleep stage prediction, you probably need some kind of EEG device (e.g. the Dreem 2 Headband).
What are you thoughts for using personal biotracking in the time of COVID-19?
I think some people might benefit from an Oura ring or Fitbit Sense to track their temperature, which might give them an early warning of flu-like symptoms. However, likely only medium to severe cases of COVID-19 will be detected this way. Additionally, I think in times of lock-down people could benefit from sleep tracking as a way of staying accountable for your sleep schedule.
Tell me about your biohacking stack / quantified-self regimen.
At the moment, I have mostly focussed on tracking, and only implemented minor changes in my life:
One of the main things I recently changed: I take daily finasteride and also use topical minoxidil twice a day (recommended dose 1mg finasteride). These are both to prevent balding. I know that at around 35 my father started losing his hair, and after digging into the science I personally judged these medications to have proven effectiveness and a small chance of side-effects (naturally consult your physician before taking any medication).
I exercise on my spinning bike for 30 minutes every morning before work. I have found this to relieve the pain I experienced in my arms when typing.
I use a standing desk most of the day.
I am vegetarian, and mostly vegan.
I try to drink alcohol only occasionally, and in relatively small amounts
I do weight lifting 3x a week for about 30-45 mins
I wear: an Oura ring, a Fitbit (different models), at the moment also the Withings Scanwatch, I carry around a temperature logger for environmental temp., and I have a necklace that tracks my light exposure
I am currently looking into Creatine supplementation
What’s the one biohack or biotracking experiment that has made the biggest difference for you personally?
Daily intense cardio exercise in the morning. It has helped alleviate pain I was experiencing in my arms when typing. I must admit I found this through experimentation, and do not have a strong scientific basis to recommend this to others.
What biohacks or biotracking practices are you most skeptical of?
I find diets in general to be a tricky thing. Certain companies and influencers might oversell a certain diet/eating pattern. I think one must look well into the scientific literature to be sure what the expected benefits and risks of a diet are, and then try it for yourself. That being said, I think some diets can really be life-changing for some people.
What are you most excited for in quantified-self and biohacking? Is there anything you are looking to add to your regimen?
Elon Musk’s Neuralink project! I mean, it is just amazing. However, this is still highly experimental, and in the short term I am looking into Creatine.
What’s one biohacking or biotracking product or service you wish existed today but doesn’t?
I wish there was a product that could better track my mood/mental state continuously, and especially in the hours leading up to bedtime. I like to be productive in the evening, which often does not interfere with my sleep. But sometimes when I reach a certain mental state, it does. In those cases I could use a warning.