What Is Biohacking, and Is Any of It Not Stupid?

What Is Biohacking, and Is Any of It Not Stupid?
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Biohacking is, in a way, lifehacking’s bizarro-world twin. (“Bio” means “life,” after all.) “Lifehacking” isn’t an organised movement or even really a word, never mind the name of the website you’re reading right now; biohacking has cult status and people will identify themselves as followers of the practice. Lifehacking is just part of, you know, life; biohacking has its gurus and buzzwords.

But what is biohacking when you get down to it? The answer will depend on who you ask. There are grinders who implant devices under their skin; and then there are tech bros who will skip breakfast or take a cold shower and call it a biohack.

What even is a biohack?

In the broadest sense, biohacking is any practice that changes the structure or function of the body. I once went to an anarchist-flavored biohacking conference where strength training and birth control were each brought up multiple times as examples of effective, well-accepted biohacks. (Much more out-there stuff was discussed, but these provided common ground everyone could agree on.)

When you look at it that way, almost anything can be a biohack. But that also means a lot of the trendier biohacks are simply new, unproven, potential solutions for problems that already have solutions.

Scrolling through biohacking forums or reading the blogs of prominent biohackers will reveal the problems they’re trying to solve are familiar ones. Biohackers want to get more sleep; reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes; focus better at work or while pursuing their hobbies; lose weight; and prevent or manage mental health issues like depression. Biohackers: They’re just like us!

In the same sense that “alternative medicine” that works just becomes “medicine,” biohacks that actually work become, well, just stuff we do. So how do the trendy kind of biohacks stack up against more boring, established alternative practices?

Can biohacking increase your longevity?

Longevity is one of the biggest buzzwords in biohacking right now, and yet it all feels very off-the-mark to me. Much of the chatter is based on mouse studies and blood-based biomarkers, and the associated hacks include things like fasting and cold exposure.

I actually visited one of the “blue zones” famed for their populations of 100-year-old residents (Nicoya, Costa Rica, where centenarians aren’t common, but are less rare than in other parts of the world). The biggest thing I took away from that experience is that if you want to live a long time, it really helps to live in a place with near-universal healthcare that does a lot of outreach to older and rural populations.

You can’t biohack your way into being born in 1920s Costa Rica. But people who idolize the blue zones end up hypothesizing that maybe it’s this about the food, or this about the water, or that about the type of exercise people get while doing farm work. (Fun fact: lard and fruit juice both figure heavily into the traditional diet; good luck getting any biohacker on board with both of those.) In truth, maybe it’s a combination of genetics and culture, and perhaps even a few-decades-long statistical luck of the draw.

In short, it’s impossible to thoroughly study human longevity in timeframes that are less than a human lifespan. What pass for longevity biohacks tend to be based on wishful thinking and a fear of disability or of growing old enough to get (gasp) wrinkles. And they mostly amount to confirmation bias: Whatever makes you healthier should help you live longer, right? So whatever you have already decided is a “healthy” habit (or biohack), that’s what you’ll tell your biohacking buddies is a pathway to longevity.

Can you really biohack your diet?

Keto (low carb) diets and intermittent fasting are two dietary strategies most often used to lose weight, although sometimes the stated goal is to give you “more energy” or to promote health and boost longevity.

Both of these strategies can help a person to lose weight or to become healthier, sure, but not because either is a cheat code. For a while there was a hypothesis that putting your body into a state of ketosis from eating very little sugar or starch would change how hungry you feel, and thus how much fat you store. It was an interesting hypothesis, but research has repeatedly failed to find any such effect. (Take this recent study, for example.)

Intermittent fasting is in a similar place. It’s definitely one of many effective strategies one can use when dieting. If you want to bring your weight down a few pounds, you might rather have no breakfast and a big lunch, than a small breakfast and a small lunch. But is the practice worthwhile? If you enjoy it, sure. But there isn’t any compelling evidence a person who fasts frequently is going to be healthier in the long run than a person who eats a healthy diet at normal mealtimes.

Once again, we’re back to the reality that there is no “best” diet, but a broad set of principles (get some protein, eat your vegetables, create a calorie deficit if you’re trying to lose weight) that you don’t need special hacks to live by.

Can biohacking increase your focus?

Biohackers love to talk about their mental state. Does this or that supplement help you focus? How can you be best primed to pay attention and learn things more quickly and understand them more deeply?

In a sense, self-experimentation on a subjective mental benefit is easy. Do the thing, and see if you feel more focused. But on the other hand, subjective mental outcomes are the most susceptible to the placebo effect. Maybe you’re focusing better because you feel like you’ve created the optimal environment for you to focus better, and that in itself lets you focus better. One study on microdosing found results consistent with the idea that this may, in fact, be exactly what’s happening.

Various drugs, supplements, and techniques (like taking a cold shower before you study) might help us focus. But I think it’s important to consider who has already asked this question, without calling it biohacking? In this case: students. How do you study more effectively?

Well, caffeine can definitely help. (Research shows the stimulant does seem to help you focus, even aside from its benefit in keeping you awake during your study session.) Creating an environment where you won’t be distracted or disturbed can also be helpful. I can even look around me now, as I’m writing this, to see a number of things I could rebrand as biohacks: I’ve got a caffeinated beverage, noise-cancelling headphones, and an exercise bike (since my workday goes better when I get exercise in the morning, even if only a few minutes). There’s also the notebook that’s always within reach, since I find pen and paper brainstorming and to-do lists more effective than their digital counterparts.

“Focus” biohacks blur pretty seamlessly into study tips. Remember that, or else you’ll end up like the aspiring pianist who showed up on the biohackers Reddit looking for focus hacks while dismissing the idea that they should perhaps be asking piano Reddit about the best ways to practice.

Can biohacking improve your sleep?

Sleep is important, and we all need to get enough of it. Sleep-related biohacks are some of the most talked about (probably second only to those concerning diet) because sleep effects so many areas of our lives. If you don’t get adequate sleep, you’ll be tired — making sleep also a biohack for focus.

But there aren’t really any shortcuts to getting enough sleep save for…getting enough sleep. Years ago there was an idea that you might be able to take six small naps a day and never need spend a whole night asleep; none of the people who sung its praises managed to stick with it, strongly suggesting that it was not, in fact, a sustainable alternative.

The rest of the sleep hacks tend to fall into two categories: you’re either re-discovering ordinary sleep hygiene stuff (making your sleeping area a cool, dark, quiet place and getting to it on time each night), or you’re obsessing over sleep stages and body functions detected by a smartwatch or a gadget like an Oura ring.

As much as I eschew most of the trendy biohacks, I do wear an Oura ring. I use it for two things: noticing how many hours I was in bed, and making sure my resting heart rate drops down to its usual baseline when I take a rest day from exercise. What I don’t do is pay one iota of attention to how much REM or deep sleep it thinks I’m getting, or scour biohacking websites for ways to improve my heart rate variability.

Even the best consumer gadgets just aren’t great at differentiating one sleep stage from another (my ring rarely credits me with more than an hour of REM sleep in a given night) and obsessing over whether you’ve got a “good” HRV score is not a worthwhile hobby. Do you feel well-rested? Have you been under a lot of mental or physical stress lately? You can answer those questions on your own. A sleep tracker just gives you a more precise way to say “I’m tired.”

The real problem with biohacking

I feel the same way about biohacking as I do about gamifying health and fitness. You have to look at your real problems or goals, and decide on real solutions, instead of getting distracted with metrics or tweaks that ultimately don’t make a difference. For any goal with broad appeal, others have been in the field finding solutions for far longer than anybody who has been calling it “biohacking.” Want to prevent cancer, for example? The American Cancer Society has plenty of tips for you.

The biohackers who show up on forums asking how to “increase muscle protein synthesis” (or even the grinder who tried to genetically engineer his own arm muscles) would be better served by consistently lifting some heavy shit. People have built huge muscles with nothing but weight training and a high protein intake. Those who do this, have great genetics, and also take steroids have built even bigger ones.

Steroids are a biohack by any definition, but their dangers and side effects are well-known. Part of the thrill of being “into biohacking” is that you’re constantly digging up new ideas whose potential effectiveness is as big as your imagination, and whose downsides are not yet known. Reality is a lot more disappointing.

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