Sara Anderson knows exactly what she needs to manage her anxiety: seven hours and 18 minutes of sleep; 20 to 30 minutes of journaling and 10 minutes of meditation each morning; a B8 vitamin supplement that she says lightens the tightness in her chest and helps her sleep; no cold food (it causes her to tense up); and limited caffeine, alcohol, and sugar. The 28-year-old, who works for a tech company in San Francisco, first saw a doctor about her anxiety as a teen. He prescribed sleeping pills to help with her insomnia (which he thought was contributing to her anxiety), but she never took the medication—and never fully addressed her anxiety. She coped by doing yoga and meditating, but her symptoms persisted.
Then, in her early twenties, Anderson moved to Silicon Valley to work at a start-up where 80 percent of the company was male. “It was very stressful,” she says. “I was successful in my career, but I was really anxious and edgy. I couldn’t focus, my body hurt, and I was so fatigued I could barely keep my eyes open at work.” She didn’t want to take medication, so when Anderson, who’s always been “very analytical,” heard about biohacking—tracking personal metrics like sleep, diet, and exercise to glean insights about your body and tweaking those variables to feel better—she jumped at the chance to try it. Using data to deal with her anxiety made perfect sense to her. After more than two years of tinkering with her sleep, diet, and even her birth control, she says she feels anxiety-free and better than ever.
What Is Biohacking?
The buzzy practice originated in Silicon Valley and is loosely defined as experimenting on your body—everything from eating less junk food, microdosing on psychedelic drugs, eliminating certain foods from your diet, or taking supplements—all to “hack” your biology and improve your health. “You look at your body as a study,” says Molly Maloof, M.D., a general practitioner in San Francisco who specializes in helping engineers and start-up founders biohack safely. “You have a hypothesis on what’s causing this problem, and then you do an experiment to see if you can fix it.”
Some take this tinkering to the extreme; people have reportedly even tried to edit their own DNA in an attempt to eliminate a genetic disease. Other biohacking fanatics have magnets or radio-frequency identification implants inserted under their fingertips as a more secure way to get into their cars or access other valuables. Biohacking also can include using at-home health kits, such as SmartJane, VitalGene, and HomeDNA, to test for everything from STIs to food allergies. But most commonly, biohacking is about feeling—and functioning—your best.
Biohacking Your Moods
In the cutthroat world of Silicon Valley, some women view a mental health issue much the way they see any problem that crosses their desk—it’s something that can be disrupted. Last May, Paris Rouzati, a 28-year-old in San Francisco, started X Women, a digital support group for women with anxiety and depression, with Jessica Sit, 28. “We found immense comfort in our shared experience,” recalls Sit. “There’s that massive exhale of relief when you find that someone else is feeling the same thing as you.” Their team of two grew, and today they have an intensely engaged group on Telegram (a popular messaging service) where about 100 women from all over the world share how they cope with anxiety.
One of the most popular channels is on biohacking. “Being from California,” says Sit, “the discussion started with CBD,” or cannabidiol, which is the nonpsychoactive component of marijuana. (While the research is somewhat promising, more is needed to determine whether CBD may be effective in treating anxiety.) Other buzzy topics: blue-blocking glasses, meditation and breath-monitoring gadgets, acupuncture, supplements, and essential oils. The group does more than just share stories. “It’s, ‘Here’s this resource. How can I help? Here, let me reach into my bag of experiences,’” says Rouzati. “There’s a road map set by someone else.”
So Should You Try It?
If your anxiety is debilitating, an appointment with a mental health professional to talk about treatment, which might include therapy and/or medication, is critical, says Lynn Bufka, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and associate executive director of practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association. For milder anxiety, certain biohacks to tame it don’t cost much (and actually aren’t all that high-tech). Some popular ones:
Practicing mindfulness… In a review of 47 studies, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that meditating for about 2.5 hours a week moderately improved anxiety after eight weeks. Anderson meditates every morning: “It helps me feel calmer throughout the day,” she says.
…And yoga. “It’s the best way to boost your parasympathetic nervous system, which gets you into ‘rest and digest’ mode,” says Dr. Maloof, who recommends her patients do it at least three times a week. Research has found it’s more effective in improving mood than a walking workout.
Eating mood-boosting foods. Fiber-rich veggies, foods high in omega-3s like wild salmon, probiotic-filled yogurt, and foods with zinc (such as cashews and egg yolk) may spur the release of feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine. Junk foods, Dr. Maloof says, do the opposite, telling your brain you’re under stress.
Wearing blue-blocking glasses. The blue-tinged light from computer, phone, and TV screens can throw serotonin levels out of whack, making it harder to sleep and raising the risk of anxiety and depression. These special glasses(generally about $30) may block that light and can be helpful when worn for any screen time before bed.
Taking Nootropics. These supplements, which claim to boost memory and focus and protect your brain from degeneration, have gotten lots of buzz. But experts say there’s no proof of their safety or efficacy and, like all supplements, they aren’t regulated by the FDA.
Optimizing sleep. We’ve all heard we need eight hours a day. But biohackers also watch their sleep cycles. Everyone goes through four to six distinct sleep cycles per night; waking up during the active REM stage can leave people feeling groggy and anxious. By charting her sleep patterns on an app, Anderson was able to make sure she woke up after the REM stage had passed.
Emphasizing touch. “Human touch is overlooked when it comes to mental health,” says Dr. Maloof. The right kind of touch, like a reassuring pat on the back or warm embrace, elicits in the recipient the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Dr. Maloof schedules a massage for herself every few weeks and tells patients to make time to see friends. “If you don’t have a nurturing community around you,” she says, “you’re sending your body signals that you’re not healthy.” Zero tech required.
BY: Maridel Reyes
* This article is a repost which originally appeared on Glamour.