AHS Recap: Richard Nikoley

I stuffed my head full of ideas at the Ancestral Health Symposium. Here’s my recap of some of the things I learned in the presentation “Self-Experimentation: The Best Science?” given by Richard Nikoley, the smarty-pants behind FreeTheAnimal.com. For a very comprehensive round-up of other bloggers’ impressions of the conference, visit Richard’s monster post with lots of links to the other bloggers.

You can get your hands on a PDF of Richard’s presentation right here – the brief recap below is really just a brain dump of what he inspired me to think about during his time in the spotlight.

Since the beginning of the great Frankenneck adventure, I’ve had to overhaul the way I think about my life. Learning to be comfortable with self experimentation has been very difficult for me. I like to have a plan with a very clearly-known outcome. Turns out, not much in life actually works that way. Although it’s been a sometimes bumpy ride, there’s also been a lot of freedom in accepting that I will forever be an [ongoing work of art] [experiment in progress] [regular girl] [unique flower] [insert your own descriptor here].

Richard’s presentation was a recap of how he’s tested various hypotheses on himself to lose 60 pounds. But as anyone who’s ever lost a significant amount of weight can attest, while he lost the weight, he gained a new life: funny ideas about soap and shampoo, an affinity for strength training, and a sh*tload of useful advice on how we can experiment on ourselves. I really enjoyed his personal stories about the criteria he’s tested as his own n=1. Alongside my scribblings of the things he said, my notebook also includes a list of future experiments I’ll be conducting on myself. I might even give up shampoo! (That scares me more than when I kicked dairy!)

Things I Liked/Learned In This Presentation

Principles of Self Experimentation
For good results, it’s important to approach self experimentation with the same rigor as your 11th-grade chemistry lab experiments. Richard laid out a checklist for self experimentation, based on the principles of good science:

1. Build a sound foundation.

2. Manage confounders. (i.e., change only one variable at a time)

3. Confront your biases. (I really, really like corn chips, and I still convince myself that “corn doesn’t bother me. LIE!)

4. Be honest with yourself. (See above.)

5. Never stop learning. (This one, for me, translates into, “Be comfortable with experimentation and the not knowing.”)

I’ve been thinking about ways to tweak my habits – nutrition, training, behavior – to not only further wrestle with my body composition but to live a life closer to the one I want: more thoughtful, calm but energetic, centered, fun. In no particular order, these are the areas in which I might experiment a little:

Saying nuts to nuts.
Oh, nuts! So tasty, so problematic with their annoyingly unoptimal 6-3 ratio. I don’t eat nuts regularly anymore, but I do kinda go in waves sometimes: a handful of almonds after work, macadamias before bed. What would happen if I kicked the nuts completely for a while? I DON’T KNOW ‘CAUSE I’VE NEVER TRIED IT. And that’s the point of this presentation, no?

Wash that shampoo right outta my hair.
It was a double-whammy: as I was waiting for Richard’s presentation to start, I read an article in PALEO magazine about a homemade concoction to replace shampoo – then Mr. Free The Animal got all chatty about how he doesn’t use shampoo (and his hair looks just fine, thank you very much). Suddenly, I was thinking about not having to pay for Bumble & Bumble every month. I’m not sure about this one, but an experiment could be fun. The issue: I have a LOT of hair… and I really like to put shiny stuff on it after I use the flat iron. That sentence alone makes me feel like a dumbass.

More leafy greens.
This one feels like such a gimme, it’s hardly an experiment. There is never a bad time to eat more leafy greens. So I guess this one is more of a resolution than an experiment, but I it’s in my notebook, so it shows up here.

I keep trying to make it part of my life, and it just hasn’t gotten a firm foothold yet. Inspired my Richard, I’m going to devise an experiment around this topic, and see if I can’t institute a regular meditation practice for an extended period of time. In the name of science!


What self experiments do you think you want to try?


AHS Recap: Nora Gedgaudas

I stuffed my head full of ideas at the Ancestral Health Symposium. Here's my recap of some of the things I learned in the presentation...

Read More
Ancestral Health Symposium

I'm off to the Ancestral Health Symposium in Los Angeles Thursday morning, and while packing, I realized that I was super-stupid excited. Number one, I'm...

Read More


  • Mellisa. Mellisa. MELLISA.

    Thank you, Your Hotness. I love every word. Humbled. Glad I could offer a bit of inspiration for, it’s a journey, not a commute.

    • Mel says:

      Hey! Thanks for stopping by! And thanks, again, for the prezo. Really good stuff! And I love the indignation on your blog much of the time. Lovely!

  • Stacey says:

    Funny. I used to work for Richard at a financial services company he owned in the Bay Area.

    I can’t imagine giving up shampoo. I wash my hair EVERY day! I’ve tried to go to every other day, but my hair is just too greasy. Hmm, maybe if I REALLY clean up my diet for a while and stop letting certain things sneak back in, my oily scalp will clear up and I won’t need to shampoo. Might just have to be an experiment. Maybe.

  • jj says:

    If you’re interested in ditching shampoo and you’re a girly girl who likes your hair to look nice, there are some good alternatives to just ditching the wash. I’ve used a weekly rhasshoul clay mask (a bag of plain clay is cheap and lasts forever) and it works pretty well for me… but my hair is lighter colored than yours and it still gets a bit of a greyish cast. There’s also some indian herbal powders that some people use in lieu of shampoo and they might work better for very dark hair.

  • Marla says:

    I sucessfully gave up soap about a year ago, but the shampoo experiment did not last long!! Great post, thanks for sharing!

  • Meghan says:

    Hey Mel,

    A good way to transition to no shampoo, or at the very least cut out the nasty stuff in conventional bottles, is to go with something like Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap. I’ve been using it to wash my face and body for awhile and just started using it on my hair. Yes, there is a transition period of a week or so (ponytails/buns) but I like it because it smells good and it gives you a “lather” – unlike other “no-poo shampoos” that are out there. And there are like, 5 ingredients.

  • Jos says:

    I haven’t given up my shampoo and soap yet but at least I already gave up my deodorant by making my own (baking soda & coconut oil). Also I reduce my shampoo usage like only use it once a week, while I do wash my hair with water everyday b/c I always sweat a lot after working out in the morning.

  • Leah says:

    Hi Mel: I haven’t used shampoo or conditioner for a couple of years now (because of chemical sensitivities: flakey, itchy scalp) and my hair is long and dark. I transitioned by using baking soda paste as a shampoo (alkaline) and diluted apple cider vinger as a conditioner (acidic). As part of my N=1 experimentation, I did try just rinsing – after about 6 months of the above regime – and it was ok but my hair got “dusty” after a while. Now, I just rinse whenever I shower and use the baking soda and ACV to wash out any accumulated dust and grime (about weekly). As a result of ditching the chemicals, my scalp has settled down, and people can’t tell I don’t use shampoo etc. I don’t know if this would work if you wanted to keep using *hair product* 🙂

  • Sonya says:

    Well, I’m totally vain and color the gray out of my hair so shampoo-less is not an option for me, I’ve tried. Besides that, I have an addiction to water aerobics, zumba and laps. I do only wash my hair every 3 days or so, though, and hardly use any product at all.

    My first N=1 is going to be the Whole 9 and then I’ll be thinking very carefully about the things I decide to add back. What I’d like to be more consistent in is the Donna Eden energy medicine tapping techniques she recommends.

    Nuts, oh Nuts! I would do well to limit those better! Hopefully, this first try at Whole 9 will help with that!

  • Caroline says:

    Love the timing of your experiments – I am trying for 3 out of 4. Have xome to the same resolution about uts – they dnt satisfy hunger, just mindless snacking, so on,y plan to use them in cooking etc rather than as snacks on their own. Leafy greens as you say should be a no-brauner, but harder to implement than what you think. I wuld love to hear about your meditation experiment. From what I read, I would no doubt get some benefit, but struggling how to start – I am not used to sitting quietly. The only one I can’t relate to is the shampoo. Save that for another time!

  • Lydia says:

    Whee! I call this approach to life “My Body, My Science Experiment” and it’s pretty much how I’ve lived with my own weird health issues for the past ten years.

    Have fun with it! It’s actually quite liberating once you get past the need for planning (which which I completely sympathize). And as a bonus, treating yourself as an ongoing experiment meshes nicely with the idea of The Best You.

    I look forward to hearing about your experiments and their results.

  • Adria says:

    I tried the no-shampoo experiment, too. I lasted about three months. I color my hair, but I don’t use products.

    My conclusion? Using just water, my hair never got totally clean. It always felt a bit dusty (thanks to Leah for the perfect word!). It looked fine, I had crazy fullness, when I put it up it actually stayed up, it held a curl. But touching it was not the same experience. When I went back to washing my hair it felt softer and silkier. I only wash my hair once or twice a week, now.

    I may try again, keeping in mind the baking soda/ACV idea, but I need to figure out how I feel about that. In my own head, using baking soda/ACV as cleaning products is related to the idea of taking herbs to get a drug effect instead of taking a drug. In other words: how different, really, is using baking soda or ACV vs. using shampoo? None of them are truly “natural.”

  • Mel says:

    I’m SO loving this conversation… and now I feel like I need to come clean (ahem). I’m a little hung up on the idea of kicking my shampoo and conditioner because it seems both arbitrary and maybe hypocritical because there is NO WAY I’m giving up my lovely chemical-infused hair dye or my flat iron or the shiny stuff I put on my hair every day. VANITY WINS! Also, I have so few vices left, I refuse to give up cussing, push up bras, liquid eyeliner, and, apparently, my Bumble & Bumble.

    Perhaps if I keep thinking about it, I’ll evolve into a better person. But for now, I’m kind of in love with my cosmetics.


    • Janice says:

      HA! Come clean! I’m a sucker for puns. Dammit! I’m a great candidate for giving up shampoo because I shave my hair down to some fraction of an inch pretty regularly, but I love love love the feeling of bubbles against my scalp. I guess I can cut down, but right now a life without bubbles feels really bleak.

      I love the Principles of Self Experimentation. I’m a physicist that teaches high school. I often treat my job (plus a lot of my hobbies) like a series of experiments because it creates space for learning, risks, fun, and forgiveness. My current fitness self experiments deal with speed and deception. During any WOD with runs, I work on improving my form and on being OK with the discomfort associated with running FAST. In karate, I’m working on figuring out a few good combinations that have flow and that open with a shoulder or a hip fake followed immediately by some attack targeted at an opening created by the fake. I love this project because it enables me to use my head to create opportunities while sparring partners who are longer and quicker than me.

      • Mel says:

        Ok. You’ve thrown down the gauntlet. I’m going to try the “run FAST” thing in my running WODs. I have to (guiltily) admit, I usually use the runs as active recovery, but next time, dedicated to you, I’ll run my butt off. Which will still be kinda slow but fast for me 😉

        • Janice says:

          While doing sprints at CFA, I use scenarios to push through the discomfort. If someone fierce is coming up behind me, I think of myself as prey and run for my life! If I want to catch up to someone, I imagine myself as a predator and run for my next meal! No worries, I’ll never bite a workout partner, but thinking about it can be surprisingly productive.

  • dana says:

    I love this blog, but THAT’S IT!!!!!! My hair is straightened w/ a flat iron and I use some shiny chemical stuff to help it be that way !


    “When they came after my sweets I said nothing…..when they came for my caffeine I said nothing….But then they came for my styling tools…………”

    • Mel says:

      GENIUS! “When they came after my sweets I said nothing…..when they came for my caffeine I said nothing….But then they came for my styling tools…………”

      Thanks for that. Totally awesome.

  • Laurie D. says:

    It seems likely that someone with a short ‘do like Richard’s can do without the shampoo long term but those of us with longer locks might have to use products once in a while. I drastically cut back on my everyday shampooing. I wash my hair with just a touch of shampoo about once a week (maybe more if the week contains hot, humid workout days). I usually concentrate the shampoo (about a dime-size portion) in the root areas and just rinse it through the rest of the hair. On the other days ( I shower daily), I just rinse and thoroughly scrub my scalp with warm water. I usually apply a little dab of conditioner to the ends to help with combing out. After blow-drying, I use a little bit of coconut oil to smooth any stray hairs. With this routine, my scalp and hair have never looked better. I tried the no-poo routine for a couple of weeks but did not appreciate the kind of dull look the hair got around the roots. As it is, I use very little shampoo and conditioner now – the stuff lasts forever!

  • Dauphine says:

    I have a 66 day meditation challenge. Time spent each day is only 5 minutes. Let me know if you would like a copy. 🙂 Good luck with your meditation practice now matter how you start it. 🙂

  • Amanda says:

    Love the idea of self-experimentation and this has made my brain start turning with a lot of ideas. One question: did Richard indicate the length of time he performed an experiment on himself before concluding the effect it had? I know that Whole9 does the Whole30 and I’m curious as to whether 30 days is a “good” length of time for an experiment. Thanks!

    • My presentation is now up at the Vimeo link, so you can see it. But I believe I pointed out that in terms of the weight loss, it was clear that resistance training, paleo eating and then IF each had profound contributory effects because I began with the first for a few months, saw a pound per month come off — and more importantly, it stopped the gain, even though I was not doing much different diet wise, just lower carbs.

      Then when I cleaned up the diet, loss increased to about 3-4 pounds per month and this was again for a couple of months. When I added IF, I was losing 4 pounds per week for the first five weeks. This was two 30 hr fasts per week with my two 30-min training sessions done at 24 hours or so into the fast.

      I have always trained fasted since. In fact, I can not stand to lift weights if I have eating anything sooner than 12 hours.

      • Mel says:

        Richard! You. are. good. I was just writing you an email with Amanda’s question and bang! there you were.

        Thanks so much for getting back to us.

      • Noble Savage says:

        Richard, you made a wise choice not to speak at AHS 2013.

        Your appearance in Atlanta would only have caused acute embarrassment, both to yourself and to the conference organizers. The sight of your ballooning belly on that stage would have caused the audience to erupt into laughter, exposing you as a fat fraud and revealing Paleo as the steaming crock that it is.

  • John says:

    BTW Macadamia nuts are low in Omega6 fatty acids.