Biohacking refers to the pursuit of human optimisation by improving your nutrition, sleep, exercise, stress management, environment and other factors.
Biohackers will often use technology to help collect data about their biology so they can measure the impacts of the various “hacks” used. Examples of this include heart rate variability monitors, sleep trackers, mood apps and auditory stimulation.
Dave Asprey, the creator of the Bulletproof blog and Bulletproof Coffee, defined biohacking in a 2014 TedX talk as “The art of controlling your biology and performance by changing the environment inside and outside your body.”
The main difference between general self-improvement and biohacking is that it’s a systems-based approach. This treats the body as a system with inputs such as food, sleep and exercise and outputs such as mental performance, physical performance. Biohackers improve the inputs to get better outputs.
Why would you become a biohacker? Goals can include things like better memory, increased focus, better physical performance in sports or longevity.
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be referring to biohacking in the ‘wellness’ sense as mentioned above. There’s also a growing subset of biohackers known as “grinders” who use implants and chemicals to change their bodies. Examples of this include implantable RFID chips. This guide will not yet delve into this side of the definition.
The beginner’s guide to biohacking: start here
- How the ‘quantified self’ relates to biohacking
- Where to start with biohacking
- Biohacking communities
- The best biohacking blogs and social profiles to read
- Wearables to consider when starting out as a biohacking
- The best biohacking apps
What is the “quantified self” and how does it relate to biohacking?
Self quantification is the tracking of different personal metrics in order to obtain knowledge about yourself. You can then use this information to improve yourself.
Metrics can include your heart rate, mood, weight, hours slept, food and anything else you can measure about yourself or your environment. The quantified self movement often utilises technology to help capture these metrics, with popular examples including wearables such as the Oura ring and Fitbit, and apps like Daylio and Sleep Cycle to record mood and sleep respectively.
Self quantification is often used by biohackers to monitor the inputs and outputs of their human ‘system’ to see how they can improve themselves.
For example, a biohacker may log their mood and activities each day for a month, and then use this to find out what activities are making them unhappy, and what activities are making them happy. They could then (hopefully) remove the activities dragging them down, and do more of the activities that make them happy.
More information: The term ‘Quantified Self’ was actually coined by two journalists: Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly. They now run Quantified Self Labs, a company that runs conferences and other meetings for the quantified self community.
Where do I start with biohacking?
Biohacking and self-quantification can be tough for some to begin because the human body is so complex.
The easiest way to narrow it down is to first ask yourself what your goal is. For example, my own biohacking goals are to be more focused at work, perform better in my favourite sports, and finally increase my overall health and longevity.
Once you decide on this, you can look at some popular hacks in each area to begin with. As mentioned above, self-quantification is an important activity in this space because it can help biohackers learn how their hacks are actually impacting their body.
Because of this, before trying out a new change, some biohackers will take baseline measurements of the outputs they wish to improve and obtain more general information about their body. This is usually in the form of a DNA test like those offered from 23 and Me, Ancestry or MyHeritage, and/or blood tests from a medical professional or services like i-screen (Australia), or WellnessFX (USA).
Here’s a roundup of some popular hacks to conduct further research on, as well as some tools and apps to help with measuring the impact they have.
Biohacking cognitive abilities e.g focus, memory
How to measure:
- Productive hours. You could measure this with RescueTime, which is an app and browser extension which categorises the time spent on your devices. It’ll give you a basic reading of the time you’ve spent on entertainment sites, social media etc. Hopefully a successful focus hack will see the number of productive hours increase while unproductive time spent decreases.
- Mood. You can use Daylio if you use an Android, or Moodnotes or Reporter if you use an iPhone. This will help you log your mood and activities each day to evaluate later. You can then track your mood and activities after implementing a new hack.
- Brain response. You can use brain training apps to see the before and after results of your biohacks. For example you could measure the time spent to complete an activity, or the score obtained.
Biohacks to consider:
- Auditory stimulation. BrainFM is an app and web application that you can use to boost your focus, sleep quality or meditation (hence why it’s repeated below). According to the BrainFM website, they’re in the process of producing peer-reviewed studies about its effectiveness, but their pilot study claims it can increase attention and reduce mind wandering.
- Nootropics. Nootropics, otherwise known as ‘smart drugs’, are substances that specifically work to increase mental function. These can be natural or synthetic, and can be either over-the-counter supplements or perscription drugs. The most widely known include caffeine and creatine, all the way through to Modafinil and Adderall. The Get Hapi blog has a great infographic talking about what makes a good nootropic, listing the properties of a good nootropic including: having at least three double-blind placebo-controlled studies showing safety and efficacy, and having few side effects or toxicity. Joe Rogan’s famed ‘Alpha Brain’ supplement from his company Onnit is an example of a nootropic. Other popular examples include Mind Lab Pro and Qualia Mind.
- Meditation. You’ll see this repeated a few times on this list, but the benefits of meditation have been verified in many scientific studies. Some have shown that it reduces memory loss in older adults and can increase your attention span. There are many different ways to meditate. My favourite and one of the easiest for me personally is mindfulness meditation, where you simply become aware of your breath and then gently remind your mind to refocus on it whenever it wanders.
How to measure:
- Sleep Cycle. Sleep Cycle is an app for both Android and Apple which tracks your sleep quality using your phone. You turn the app on and it then records your sleep quality and wakes you up at a period in your sleep cycle which is your lightest.
- Oura ring. The Oura ring is an amazing piece of technology (at the time of writing I’m eagerly waiting for my ring to get here!) which tracks your sleep, resting heart rate, HRV and body temperature. It then stores this information and uploads it to the cloud where you can analyse it. What most excites me about the Oura ring is that it’s much smaller than many other wearables, and you can wear it while working out as it’s made from titanium and is water resistant.
- Beddit. Beddit is a sleep monitor strap which you fit to your bed. It then records data such as your heart rate, snoring, breaths per minute and sleep quality. It was acquired by Apple in May 2017, so is now available through the Apple store.
Biohacks to consider:
- Blue blocking glasses and Flux. Lighting has a big impact on the brain. Blue light in particular can disrupt melatonin production which stops our body from receiving the usual signal that it’s time to go to bed. Blue blocking glasses, as the name suggests, removes blue from entering your eyes. Flux is a free app which you can install on your phone, tablet or computer which removes the blue light from your devices after a certain time (mine is set to activate at about 7pm). New phones and tablets today will also include a ‘night shift’ setting which does the same.
- BrainFM. As mentioned above, BrainFM has a sleep mode which they claim in their pilot study increases slow-wave sleep (SWS) activity by 24-29%. SWS is the sleep which move your daily memories into long term memories.
- Cutting down on caffeine. After listening to Matthew Walker’s podcast with Kevin Rose about sleep, I realised just how much of an impact caffeine has on sleep quality. It has a half-life of five to seven hours, meaning that even if you have a coffee in the late morning or afternoon, a good portion of the caffeine could still be in your system come sleep time! At the time of writing I’ve been caffeine-free for almost two weeks, and have felt a massive jump in my alertness and restfulness.
Biohacking your diet
How to measure:
- Bodyfat percentage. There are a number of ways to measure body fat. Calipers can be a cheap and easy way to get your body fast tested, although they rely on the skill of the person using them. A more accurate method is a DEXA scan, which can cost between $40 – $100 depending on where you go.
- Blood work. Companies like i-screen and iMEDICAL (Australia) and WelllnessFX (USA) offer a range of blood tests to help monitor the success of any dieting biohacks. With these services, you carry out your test at a regular blood collection center and then get the results sent to you.
- Calorie counters and food logs. MyFitnessPal allows you to enter in the foods you eat each day to get a calorie amount.
Biohacks to consider:
- Cut out sugar. Some research is starting to show that sugar has many negative effects on the body, including inflammation, increased risk of type 2 diabetes, less energy, and maybe even links to dementia and cancer. I have personally limited sugary drinks in my diet to one per week, and limit my desserts or sugary treats to once or twice per week (usually on the weekend).
- Ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet. This in turn forces your body to start using fat as its main food source instead of carbs. Some studies have found ketogenic diets to have positive benefits on losing weight and some diseases. It’s a big change, so be sure to do plenty of research before trying it.
- Intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is simply when you fast for a certain interval. There are many different splits and ways to do intermittent fasting, such as the 16/8 fast, where you don’t eat for 16 hours and restrict your eating to the remaining 8 hours. In the past I’ve done this by having my last meal at around 9pm and then eating again at around lunchtime the next day. Intermittent fasting has been shown to have some benefits such as stabilising blood sugar, helping you to lose weight, reducing oxidative stress and more. As I mentioned above though, seek medical advice and conduct your own thorough research before making a change like this.
Biohacking your recovery after sports
How to measure:
- Heart Rate Variability (HRV) monitor. Heart rate variability is the difference in the time interval between your heart beats. Contrary to what you would assume, it’s healthy to have irregular intervals between heart beats. Research has also shown that more regular time intervals can signal stress, while a healthy irregularity in intervals can signal a more relaxed state. A HRV monitor can take the form of a phone app, wearable like the Oura or Fitbit, or even a finger or earlobe monitor. By measuring your HRV every morning you can tailor the intensity of your daily activities to your state. If your HRV shows you’re in a stressed state for the day, it might be better to preference relaxing or low intensity activities for example.
- Sleep monitor. As mentioned above, sleep monitoring could show you the quality of your sleep and whether or not you’re getting enough deep restorative sleep. You can then implement changes to improve it.
- Mood logs. A mood log with one of the apps mentioned above could be useful to track how you feel each day to note whether or not you’re feeling recovered.
- Exercise/activity logs. A simple spreadsheet could be used to track your performance in your chosen sport or activity to plot how you’re performing.
Biohacks to consider:
- Recovery training. Trainers like Joel Jamieson also use active recovery methods like Tempo training, where you do 10 seconds of work at a moderate intensity (about 70% maximum intensity and speed) and then 60 seconds active rest period. Joel actually has a ‘rebound’ protocol for helping with recovery including recovery breathing and then going into other phases including the active recovery above.
- Sauna. Joel Jamieson also recommends athletes with a HRV score above their regular baseline can use sauna treatments to help with recovery. Dr Rhonda Patrick’s sauna report has a great collection of research showing that sauna use is also beneficial for muscle growth.
- BrainFM. BrainFM also has a setting for calm and meditation.
- Meditation. World-renowned trainer Joel Jamieson recommends athletes with a HRV score below their baseline average can use relaxation strategies like meditation or even floating to help prevent overtraining.
Other biohacks to consider
One biohack I’m a huge fan of is using a standing desk. This is common news to many in the wellness space, but to quickly summarise, constant sitting has been linked to many health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure and more. Alternating between sitting and standing can reduce this. I now have a standing desk both at home and at work. Recent research in Australia has even estimated it could save $84 million in healthcare costs by reducing the risk of certain diseases.
Unless you’re on a strict budget, I highly recommend getting an affordable motorised standing desk like the IKEA Bekkant. This cost me just over $600 AUD and about an hour to put together.
Bulletproof or butter coffee is coffee with added butter and MCT oil. It’s claimed by Dave Asprey that the butter and MCT oil can provide a great source of ketones, which gives you sustained energy when compared to glucose. I love the taste of butter coffee and find it gives me a nice burst of energy, but it should be noted that many of the claimed benefits associated with it aren’t accepted by all. There’s a great analysis on Gizmodo about the claims which have been made about it.
Where are the biohacking communities on the internet?
There are quite a few thriving biohacking communities on the web if you’d like to get started. Below is a list of active communities depending on your platform of choice:
- Biohacking Australia
- Nootropics and Biohacking Australia
- Quantified Self Group
- Biohacking and Genetic Design Network
- Quantified Self
- Nootropics (This subreddit also has a great directory of other subreddits which may be of interest to biohackers)
What are some good biohacking blogs, social profiles and podcasts to pay attention to?
Below are some good places to start to get into biohacking.
Ben Greenfield Fitness. Ben Greenfield is a biohacker I found out about from his appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast (1069 and 1120). He experiments with many crazy methods for increasing performance or health, but he also writes extremely detailed guides to important key areas such as sleep, anti-aging, self quantification and more.
Quantified Bob. Bob Troia is an entrepreneur, biohacker and quantified self proponent. Bob runs many experiments on himself to test hypotheses. He even offers API access to his data!
The Quantified Body. The Quantified Body podcast explores the use of data and technology to improve your health. It’s a great podcast and includes guests such as Ben Greenfield, Dom D’Agostino and Aubrey De Grey. Topics range from the ketogenic diet, fasting and meditation, to heart rate variability and wearables.
Smart Drug Smarts. This podcast primarily approaches biohacking from a nootropics perspective, but actually has great episodes on all facets of human optimisation. It’s also a high quality show, nicely produced and edited to cut out filler.
Kevin Rose. Kevin Rose is an entrepreneur most well known for creating Digg. He now also runs an awesome newsletter and podcast which is full of ideas for biohackers to explore. Notable guests include Dr Valter Longo on longevity, Tim Ferriss and Ben Greenfield.
Dr Rhonda Patrick. Dr Rhonda’s Found My Fitness blog is the headquarters for her podcast and genetic reports. It’s also where you can find her awesome reports on topics such as sauna use.
Bulletproof Blog. Dave Asprey has made plenty of contributions to the biohacking space, and his Bulletproof blog continues to give helpful tips for topics including diet, exercise and more.
Robb Wolf. A personal favourite author and blogger of mine because of his realistic applications of biohacking concepts, particularly relating to diet. Robb Wolf is a biochemist-turned blogger who is also a powerlifting champion, amateur kickboxer and BJJ purple belt. His blog and podcast covers many topics: paleo and keto diets; anti-inflammatory lifestyle tips; and fitness and sleep.
Chris Kresser. Chris Kresser is an author, acupuncturist and health blogger with years of experience. His popular blog cover topics including the paleo diet, ancestral health, gut health, low carb diets and much more. He also has some great books about alternative medicine and the paleo diet.
Healthline and Examine.com. When trying to evaluate the benefits of different supplements, foods and more I’ve found Healthline and Examine.com very helpful. Each site delves into the science and links to papers to help you dig deeper.
Mark’s Daily Apple. Mark Sisson, the creator of Mark’s Daily Apple, is one of the most respected members of the ancestral eating community. His blog offers clear explanations about the latest studies relating to health, and he’s my first port of call when wondering whether or not a food is actually healthy. His book The Primal Blueprint has a great outline of how to live healthily according to our ancestral roots.
Peter Attia. Dr Peter Attia focuses on longevity, and has a great blog and podcast with numerous in-depth articles covering topics including keto diets, exercise, metabolism and more. He also has a great podcast with Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan which is where I learned about him.
What are some wearables to consider when starting in biohacking?
If you’re jumping into biohacking or evidence-based self improvement in 2018 and beyond, you’re lucky. There are a number of great wearables to help gather data at the time of writing. Here are two of the most popular and versatile picks:
Oura ring. The first version of the Oura ring was actually the result of a successful kickstarter campaign in 2015. The latest 2018 version of the ring is smaller than the original, and squeezes in the ability to monitor your resting heart rate, heart rate variability, sleep quality and body temperature. It’s also claimed to have a week-long battery life, is water resistant and scratch proof, and the small size makes it useful for constant wear. At the time of writing I’m still waiting on my ring, so stay tuned for the review.
The new Oura ring.
Garmin Vivofit. The Garmin Vivofit came first in The Wirecutter’s roundup of best wearables for a reason. They liked this fitness tracker because it has an accurate continuous heart rate monitor, allows you to monitor heart rate variability and allows sleep tracking. According to The Wirecutter’s tests, it had up to seven days of battery life when its GPS function was turned off, and it’s also waterproof.
What are some apps to consider when starting to biohack?
Reporter. Reporter is a paid iPhone app which asks you questions throughout the day to record how you’re feeling and what you’re doing. You can customise the questions it asks, and questions can range from who you’re with to how many coffees you had today. The information can then be exported and combined with other data.
Daylio. Daylio is a free alternative to Reporter which is available for android users too. It allows you to log your mood and your daily activities. You can create custom activities too.
BrainFM. I’ve mentioned BrainFM a number of times above, and for good reason (I listened to it while I wrote this guide). It’s an app and browser application which allows you to select from three modes: focus, calm and sleep. It then uses algorithms to build a music track which is claimed to bring about cognitive states, such as focus. For example, in the focus setting, frequencies in the 12 – 18 Hz range are used. I personally find it useful for keeping me productive during tasks such as writing or researching.
Sleep Cycle. Sleep Cycle is an iPhone and Android app which turns your phone into a sleep tracker. It uses your phone’s accelerometer or microphone to analyse your sleep and track your natural cycles. You can then analyse the data to find out your sleep quality, including the time spent in deep sleep vs awake periods or periods of restlessness. It also has an alarm function where it wakes you up when you’re not in deep sleep to make your wakeup as smooth as possible. It’s available as a free app and has premium features too.
HRV4Training. This app uses your phone camera or compatible heart rate monitor to measure your HRV score. I used the phone camera method each morning for over a year, which basically requires you to put your finger on your camera for a short time to analyse. It requires a very dark room, so I would simply put the phone under the covers of my bed and analyse my HRV before I got out of bed. I am now replacing this with the Oura Ring.
Meditation apps. I personally don’t find guided meditation apps useful because I find the instructions to distract me from the act of meditating, but I’ve used Headspace in the past and found it somewhat useful when getting started. Kevin Rose also has a meditation app called Oak which seems great because the team is proactively looking to link the app with wearables such as the Oura ring. Unfortunately it’s only available on iOS currently.
Where to next?
If you’re interested in starting on your own biohacking journey, consider joining one of the communities above, or start following one of the personalities mentioned. Whatever your reason for jumping into the biohacking scene is, realise that you’re changing your body, so research any changes you’re considering to implement to make sure they’re safe and worth the money.
* This article is a repost which originally appeared on Strive Diary