From earning enough miles for a trip around the world to getting free goods at the grocery store, these days it seems like you can hack nearly anything to get the most bang for your buck. If only we could hack our own bodies, right? Figure out just how they tick so that we can feel our best and have our bodies performing optimally all the time. What a treat that would be.
Except … it already exists. Welcome to the world of biohacking.
What Is Biohacking?
Biohacking is the process of making changes to your lifestyle in order to “hack” your body’s biology and feel your best. You know the saying, “You are what you eat”? That actually applies to humans in a broader sense: everything we put into our bodies — our foods, our thoughts, our physical movement — all affect how we behave. By biohacking yourself, you can actually transform your body so that you feel more energized, be more productive and, overall, feel like the best possible version of yourself.
It doesn’t have to involve being a mad scientist and running crazy experiments with your body. Instead, it means using various hacks to see what works best for you (which could be very different from what works for Susan down the street!) and using it to #liveyourbestlife (unironically!).
Now, some people will tell you that all sorts of gadgets and measurements are necessary to biohack yourself, but I prefer the good old-fashioned way: making small changes to your lifestyle, giving your body time to adjust and then seeing how you feel. You stick with the things that work for you, and ditch the ones that don’t. After all, when it comes to how your body feels, you’re the expert!
History of Biohacking
“Biohacking” is a broad term that refers to a number of different things. Historically, the term was mentioned in a 1988 article in the Washington Post discussing biotechnology being brought to the masses in the form of “fiddling with the genetic code of a living organism.” (1)
More recently, experts like Ben Greenfield and Dave Asprey have developed an art when it comes to biohacking. By sharing their experiences, “hacks” and products, they hope to help followers manipulate nutrition, fitness and lifestyle to improve their health.
Types of Biohacking
Typically, biohacking falls into three categories: nutrigenomics, do-it-yourself biology and grinder biohacking.
Nutrigenomics is simply the study of nutritionally manipulating the activity of your body. (1) This is also related to other sub-categories in biohacking like sleep manipulation, exercise, attention hacking, adjusting environmental triggers (like sound and light) and stress management.
This type of biohacking is really just building on the concept that our bodies are ever-changing, and using these discoveries to live better. Food, activity and various stimuli alter your body’s function and nutrigenomics involves learning how these interactions work.
Do-it-yourself biology (DIYBio) is a biohacking subculture of people who conduct biological experiments and study life sciences outside of conventional means, a movement started in the early 2000s. Many “teachers” in this crusade are formal educators or scientific researchers who want to show the average Joe how to conduct experiments. While this is a fascinating movement, this subset of biohacking is focused more on studying and testing unproven science and is often criticized for having no official oversight.
Grinder biohacking is a subset of DIYBio that fixates on technology implants or chemical manipulation of the body. Grinders attempt to push the limits of technology and the human body to their limits, practicing body modification to improve their “hardware.” These are typically very risky techniques, and I don’t personally recommend this habit.
What is biohacking good for in your life, though? Here are multiple ways to biohack yourself.
8 Ways to Biohack Yourself Today
1. Try an elimination diet
If you struggle with food allergies, have trouble digesting foods, experience skin issues like eczema and acne or find yourself constantly fatigued, it’s probably time to biohack yourself with an elimination diet.
An elimination diet sounds scary, but it’s just a short-term eating plan to figure out if the foods you’re eating are playing a role in whatever issues you’re experiencing. Here’s how it works: for 3–4 weeks, you’ll remove foods that are known allergens, giving any inflammation time to go down and giving you a clean slate. Gluten, soy, dairy, peanuts and corn are all foods to cut out during this time.
Then, slowly, you’ll re-introduce the banned foods, paying attention to how you feel and how your body responds physically. If you suspect a food you’ve added back into your diet is an irritant, you’ll remove it again and see if symptoms clear up. The goal is to pinpoint whether you’re less tolerant of some foods than others, and then make informed decisions about what you’re eating. For instance, if it turns out you don’t respond well to cow’s milk, you might want to use coconut milk in your coffee or try goat cheese as part of a dairy-free diet.
An elimination diet is one of the best biohacks you can do for yourself. Some people don’t understand how good they can truly feel until they remove some of the worst food offenders from their diet.
Want to spend a little money to figure out exactly what you’re reacting badly to? Many naturopaths, integrative physicians and even some biohacking fitness centers offer an option to take a blood or urine test to pinpoint food allergens or sensitivities. This might be a great idea for you if an elimination diet doesn’t seem to reveal any clear perpetrators.
2. Kick sugar to the curb
I never said this would be easy! Giving addictive sugar the boot is one of the best things you can do for your overall health. It can be a pretty tough biohack, but one of the most rewarding.
Now, I don’t mean you have to eliminate naturally occurring sugars, like the ones you find in fruits and dairy, from your diet. Added sugars are the ones you want to worry about. You’ll find those in products like soft drinks, processed foods and sweets, but also in foods like flavored yogurt, condiments (check those barbecue sauce and ketchup labels!) and energy drinks.
What makes sugar so bad for your body? It increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, it leads to mood swings, it increases inflammation in the body and lowers energy — and that’s the abbreviated list! (Read more about the benefits of a sugar-free diet.) How to reduce your sugar habit? Learn how to measure sugar, look for it in all its forms on labels (hint: anything ending in “ose” and natural sweeteners like honey, molasses and fruit juice still count) and limit processed foods.
3. Change when you’re eating
Did you know that by simply changing when you’re eating, you can biohack your body? Intermittent fasting is gaining popularity as a method of losing weight and normalizing insulin sensitivity, which can help prevent chronic diseases like diabetes. It also regulates ghrelin levels, more commonly known as the hunger hormone, which tells your brain when you’re hungry, and leptin, which signals to the brain that you’re full and should stop eating.
The cool thing about fasting is that there is more than one way to do it. Some people opt for alternate-day fasting, where on fasting days, you limit your calories to 25 percent of your normal intake, and then eat your usual amount of calories on non-fasting days.
There’s time-restricted eating, where you only eating during a certain window during the day (psst: if you eat dinner early and tend to have a late breakfast, you’re already doing this!) and a more spiritual approach, the Daniel fast. Though intermittent fasting can take some time to get used to, dependi
ng on your health goals, it may be a good biohacking option.
4. Sleep more
Sleep is often missing from conversations about losing weight and improving your health and mood — and that’s a major mistake. If you’re not getting enough zzz’s each night (usually between 7–9 hours) and suffering from sleep deprivation, you’re putting yourself at risk for a host of health problems, including a higher risk for chronic disease, a weakened immune system, depression, trouble concentrating, irritability, an increased appetite and out-of-whack hormones.
There’s one step to biohacking your sleep: get more of it! Of course, I know it’s not always that simple. These 7 natural sleep aids can help. Some of my favorite suggestions are sticking to a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends, to keep your circadian rhythms in check.
Keeping electronics out of bed is important, too; the lights from your smartphone tell your brain it’s time to wake up, not drift off to sleep. If you’re still struggling from insomnia, a DIY essential oils sleep aid just might do the trick.
5. Eat fat — lots of it
Looking for a diet where eating a lot of fat isn’t just encouraged, it’s required? The keto diet might be for you! While the keto diet is experiencing some serious popularity right now, it’s not a fad diet. In the keto diet, you’re trying to get your body to ketosis, a metabolic state where the body uses mostly ketones, not carbohydrates, for energy. This happens when fat, not glucose (carbohydrates), provide most of body’s calories. (It can also be induced by multiple-day fasting, but that’s not a long-term option for most people.)
On a keto diet, you’ll seriously restrict carbs and sugar, and instead eat keto-friendly foods like healthy fats (coconut oil, ghee, nuts, etc.), non-starchy veggies (goodbye, potatoes) and foods that are high in protein but have no or low carbs, like grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish and eggs.
The keto diet is very effective at promoting weight loss, especially if you are very overweight. It can reduce heart disease markers like high cholesterol and could even fight brain disease — in fact, the keto diet was originally used as a way to manage seizures in people with epilepsy. If you’re already eating relatively well but want to challenge yourself even further, biohacking your diet and going keto could be what you need.
6. Zone out with meditation
What we feed our minds is just as important as what we feed our bodies. Meditation is the ultimate brain hack. The benefits of meditation are huge: from reducing pain and increasing sleep quality to lowering inflammation and boosting productivity. If you’re suffering from stress or anxiety, meditation can also be a really effective way of naturally dealing with symptoms. Establishing a daily meditation practice is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health.
If you concerned that you can’t stop your brain from buzzing long enough to meditate, don’t worry. Guided meditation can help you get into the habit. There are also dozens of smartphone apps you can use; some will alert you at the same time each day or have specific meditations for different purposes, like starting the day with a clear head or helping you unwind. Healing prayer is another option that might speak to you.
7. Kick off your shoes
How often do you walk barefoot in the grass or feel the sand crunch between your toes? If the answer is “not enough,” may I suggest you introduce grounding as your next biohack?
Grounding, also known as earthing, means allowing your feet to connect with the surface below them and the powerful energy that brings. When we spend time barefoot on the earth, our feet act as electrical currents, allowing the natural electrical charges that the earth produces flow through us. Grounding can improve your sleep, reduce inflammation and encourage you to enjoy nature more and get your dose of vitamin D — plus, it’s free!
Try it by taking a short walk sans shoes to the mailbox, strolling on the beach or even barbecuing barefoot. As the weather gets colder, minimalist shoes can help keep your feet in closer contact with the earth.
Active people often enjoy biohacks like “rewilding,” similar to the thought process being earthing. Many biohacking experts teach that we should fight against our natural “domestication” and, instead, spend more time outside, eat less processed foods, drink better water, be exposed to sunlight and learn to love the outdoors. We were made to thrive using these methods, so it makes sense to do your yoga routine in the backyard tomorrow — where you can not only benefit from the exercise, but also from just being outside under the sun.
8. Get up, stand up
Most of us spend our days going from sitting in our cars to sitting at a desk to sitting in the car some more. Rinse and repeat, and we’re spending an extraordinary amount of our lives seated. All that sitting is harming our health, and might even be as dangerous as smoking.
But there’s an easy fix to that: stand more. You don’t need to invest in a standing desk (although they’re helpful!). Instead, it’s how often we stand, not how long we stand for, that matters. Biohack your way to better health — see my piece about various exercise hacks, too — simply by getting up and talking to colleagues instead of sending an email; taking the stairs instead of the elevator; standing up and pacing during long phone calls or even setting a reminder on your phone for every 60–90 minutes to take a quick lap around the office.
Other Biohacking Techniques
More cutting-edge biohacking principles include things like nootropics (“smart” drugs), neurofeedback, heart rate variability training and inversion therapy.
Nootropics are cognitive-enhancing drugs and supplements, some of which are relatively healthy, safe and well-investigated (turmeric and vitamin D supplements, for example) and others which are often considered dangerous or available on with a prescription, like amphetamine and eugeroics.
The simple definition for neurofeedback is taking advantage of the plasticity of your brain by retraining it how to respond to various emotions. This typically involves EEG monitoring and then playing “games” that give you positive and negative feedback based on your desired result. This process is claimed by many to increase creativity and even IQ.
Using heart rate variability training involves using technology to sense when your heartbeat changes to reflect stress — you go from a varied amount of time between each beat to a fixed rhythm when you’re under duress of some kind. Typical technology used for this would then warn you and walk you through what to listen to and how to breathe to avoid giving into the stress.
Some biohackers also like to practice inversion therapy, the complex process od hanging upside down. The simple function of forcing blood to your brain supposedly strengthens capillaries within the brain and can increase mental performance. Proponents of this technique also claim it changes blood pressure regulation when done on a regular basis.
There are also ways to maximize workouts using biohacking. Some of these are very straightforward, like tracking your exact workout times, specific exercises and results to develop a schedule and a routine that is exactly right for your body or practicing breathing exercises as part of your regular workout.
Other workout biohacks are a little more complex — and potentially expensive. For example, Ben Greenfield says that lifting weights underwater in the cold is one of his favorite biohacked workouts. The concept of these types of routines is to use very exact methods to achieve maximum results, but they should be done with caution, particularly because biohacked workouts can be tricky and potentially unsafe if they are done incorrectly (or designed without reliable scientific results to support them).
Precautions, and Why the Silicon Valley Method of Biohacking Isn’t a Good Idea
Biohacking is really fun: figuring out what your body prefers and how to get it feeling its best can even feel addictive, particularly if you’ve been struggling with health concerns and are finally getting answers. But it’s important to remember that we’re more than just the number of calories we eat or burn.
A biohacking movement is growing in popularity in Silicon Valley, where tech execs are tracking what they eat, ketone levels, body composition and more daily. They also fast for days at a time, increasing their risk of missing out on critical minerals and infection — and likely creating an obsession and anxiety around the food (orthorexia) they’re eating.
While some medical professionals and scientists practice standard biohacking and even get involved in DIYBio studies, many scientists and doctors are skeptical of these practices. The ones that fall more in line with ancient nutrition principles (my personal favorites) are sometimes scoffed at because of the mistaken idea that nutrition doesn’t have as much impact on your body as medicines or medical therapies might. Of course, we know that to be a false assumption.
However, many biohacking techniques that go “off the beaten path” are untested and can cost a lot of money to achieve, just two of the reasons why mainstream science and medicine may be skeptical of them.
While it’s exciting to see how people may be able to enhance or maximize their physical potential through natural means, there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the concept of biohacking, particularly when it comes to pushing your body to unknown limits or using chemical and technological enhancements to do things your body may not have been designed to do.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to biohack yourself to be at your best, but I am concerned about the obsessive behavior around hardcore biohacking practiced by grinders (and, apparently, some Silicon Valley execs). It can really quickly lead into unhealthy territory or fuel an eating disorder.
Instead, I recommend taking a holistic approach to your biohacking. Grab a journal and jot down how certain foods make you feel or whether you find yourself reaching for certain meals when you’re feeling down. If you find that eating in a certain window of time makes you a superstar at work, stick to that schedule. It’s a journey, not a science!
*This article is a repost which originally appeared on the Dr. Axe website.
July 6, 2018