What Is Biohacking? From Supplements to Sci-Fi, This DIY Biology Movement Puts Your Health and Wellness Into Your Own Hands
Biohacking. It sounds nefarious, like a group of computer geeks out to infect your body with algorithms. But “biohacking” has nothing to do with malware or computer viruses.
Biohacking is an emerging social movement built on the promise of using biology and technology to support health and wellness. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “biological” and “hacking” mean “relating to biology or living organisms” and to “use a computer to gain unauthorized access to data in a system,” respectively.
If we can hack the world’s most sophisticated computer systems, why not “hack” our bodies? So, what does biohacking mean? Perhaps, more importantly, how can you start biohacking your body?
What is biohacking your body?
The idea behind biohacking is that what we put into our bodies significantly impacts how we feel. So, suppose we want better “outputs” from our bodies (like reduced stress, better memory and focus, and superior performance and productivity). In that case, we need to alter and provide better “inputs” to our bodies. Humans now can manage our biology using medical, nutritional, physical, and electronic techniques.
Biohacking consists of anything from dietary and lifestyle changes to embedding chips and sensors into their bodies to gather data to optimize health and well-being. Some people switch to eating oily fish and leafy greens, lying on mats with electromagnetic currents, or soaking in some infrared light. Others become interested in analyzing their own genetic and biological data or tinkering with genetic engineering in a garage.
Biohacking is an umbrella term that covers several highly overlapping categories:
- Body hacking: the application of the hacker ethic to improve one's own body
- Do-it-yourself biology: a movement in which individuals and small organizations study biology
- Quantified self: measuring various biomarkers and behaviors to try to optimize health
- Performance Psychology: improving one’s mental and behavioral capabilities to boost performance
What these all have in common, from ancient concepts like meditation and intermittent fasting to modern ones like implanting a chip into their hand, are that individuals are taking their health into their own hands outside of the realm of traditional Western healing practices.
The motivations of many biohackers, for which formal training in biology is not a barrier to entry, are diverse and often complex. Some biohackers appear to be motivated by normative beliefs in a “right to do science.” Other people place a high value on bodily autonomy or creative expression — a right to experiment on themselves with anything, even genome editing.
Some view biohacking as a means of self-care, where, for example, they experiment with alternatives to (sometimes expensive) regulated drugs. This can range from taking a cold shower to trying a cryotherapy chamber, from playing brain games to taking brain-boosting supplements.
Perhaps the most holistic way to view biohacking is through a quote from Dave Asprey, a biohacker who created the supplement company Bulletproof. Asprey said that for him, biohacking is “the art and science of changing the environment around you and inside you so that you have full control over your own biology.”
Biohacking and technology
To some, biohacking is intimately tied to technology embedded within the human body. Embedded technology might sound like something out of a Sci-Fi (or even horror) novel, film, or TV show. But you may be surprised by the sheer amount of electronic circuits meant to be implanted into your body that you can already get your hands on if you look hard enough.
For example, epidermal electronics, or electronic tattoos (e-tattoos), are ultra-thin and ultra-soft noninvasive but skin-conformable devices with capabilities including physiological sensing and transdermal stimulation and therapeutics. For those of you less inclined to get “inked,” you can go the route of a biostamp, which is more like a temporary tattoo or band-aid that consists of a collection of bendable, stretchable, waterproof sensors that can be applied to the skin.
Password pills are tiny chips that you swallow and, after these little bits of hardware get activated by your body, turn you into a walking, talking, breathing authentification system. You can also go the route of installing a GPS into your body. But if you’re looking to upgrade your mental software, you probably want to get in the queue for a memory chip or implant.
Liviu Babitz, CEO and founder of Cyborgnest, has an electronic implant called the "North Sense" on his chest. Babitz was inspired by animals that use the earth’s magnetic fields to detect true north. North Sense consists of a compass chip (which works by finding the direction of a magnetic field) and Bluetooth connection, and is attached to the skin with two titanium bars like a piercing. His chest vibrates every time he faces north. He sees this as the first step in an entirely in-built navigation system.
"You walk on the street staring at your phone. You want to get somewhere but you have no idea what's happened in the world around you because all you did was stare at the screen on the way," says Babitz. "Imagine if you didn't need it, you could navigate the world exactly like a bird and you would know exactly where you were all the time - blind people could navigate."
The list of innovations in this area is endless, with bionic eyes, which are telescopic lenses that can zoom in and out with blinks and night vision capability, brain control interfaces (BCI) to control drones and tweet using EEG, and 3D printed organs.
Experiments to modify your genome once required specialized training and substantial investments in equipment and reagents. Now, you can conduct these experiments for a few hundred dollars and with a basic instruction manual. Genomic sequencing can be done using portable pocket devices, which can cost less than a plane ticket.
As these technologies go mainstream, some individuals have begun conducting genetic experiments outside of traditional scientific labs, such as those associated with universities, research institutions, and regulated corporate entities. Some of these experiments have involved humans, although thus far, they appear to be limited to self-experimentation with one’s own body — an activity that has an ancient pedigree in traditional biological research.
Recent reports of genetic biohacking include a broad array of experiments: genetic modification of bacteria, yeast, plants, nonhuman mammals—and also humans in the form of genetic self-experimentation. This includes, for example, self-injecting homemade genetic material in attempts to change the expression of muscle growth factors to improve strength.
Where self-experimentation is undertaken by groups that coordinate their efforts, these activities can begin to look like decentralized clinical trials. Some biohackers might also attempt to experiment on others. Although there are no documented instances of this to date, biohackers have reported (and expressed concerns about) being approached by individuals asking for help treating their own or their family member’s health conditions.
What are biohacking supplements?
For those less inclined to want to fiddle with genetically manipulating technologies at a communal lab or implant tech into our bodies to enhance or change our functionality or performance, an excellent place to start may be in the world of biohacking supplements. There’s a dizzying array of supplements available to biohackers, from liquid herbs and “anti-aging” pills to nootropics or “smart drugs.”
It’s vital to sort out the have’s from the have not’s, where clinical studies are the object of desire. Along these lines, there’s growing research on how some of these biohacking pills and powders work. Some biohacking supplements are even being tested at the level of humans in clinical trials to understand if and how they work and how much to take and for how long.
The term "nootropics" are commonly known as “smart drugs” and “cognitive enhancers,” these substances claim to improve cognitive function, mainly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.
Some natural nootropics have been used since ancient times and today are ingredients in commonly found beverages. For example, Panax ginseng has been suggested to improve cognitive function, behavior, and quality of life. Ginkgo biloba — an extract of Ginkgo biloba leaf — is marketed in dietary supplement form with claims it can enhance cognitive function in people without known cognitive problems. However, there is no high-quality evidence to support such effects on memory or attention in healthy people.
Several popular herbs are used in traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda) that can be considered for biohacking. Ashwagandha has been linked to stress relief, relaxation, and improvements in general health. Curcumin, a substance found in the spice turmeric, has long been used in Asian medicine and is thought to have antioxidant properties, supporting metabolism and the immune system.
Research shows that elevated oxidative stress does not support health or wellbeing. Oxidative stress can also contribute to aging and affect cognition and physical, immune, and metabolic health. These links suggest that anti-oxidants may be a way to hack your body.
One antioxidant avenue may be glutathione — the most abundant antioxidant. Glutathione is made by your body and is composed of glycine, cysteine, and glutamic acid. Aging is associated with glutathione deficiency. Research has shown that supplementation of glycine and N-acetylcysteine (NAC), derived from cysteine, supports strength, gait-speed, cognition, and body composition in older adults. These results support the idea that supplementing glycine and NAC, or glutathione directly, in aging humans could be a viable and straightforward method to promote health and warrants additional investigation.
One of the metabolites acquiring strong research interest is nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, NAD+. Besides water, no molecule is more abundant than NAD+. This compound fuels many essential biological processes to support healthy cell function and aging. However, NAD+ levels appear to drop in humans with age, and depressed NAD+ levels disturb many biochemical processes and the health of cells and tissues.
So, metabolic precursors to NAD+ like nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) and nicotinamide riboside (NR) may have biohacking benefits. In the past decade, the administration of both NMN and NR as NAD+ boosters has garnered attention as a potentially effective approach to support health and wellness in humans.
Sirtuins are enzymes that have been in the limelight of longevity research for some time because of their link to healthy aging. For this reason, there has been a race to identify compounds that can promote the activity of sirtuins.
Resveratrol is a compound produced by some plants in response to pathogens, infection, or physical injury. It is well-known that resveratrol has antioxidant qualities and roles in supporting health. Evidence has confirmed that resveratrol can support the health of the heart, immune system, and brain.
Pterostilbene is a natural 3,5-dimethoxy analog of resveratrol. Pterostilbene has become popular because of its remarkable activities, such as anti-oxidation, anti-inflammation, and neuroprotection. Pterostilbene can be rapidly absorbed and is widely distributed in tissues, but it does not seriously accumulate in the body. This sirtuin activator can also easily pass through the blood-brain barrier, so there’s a chance it can affect cognition and brain health.
Biohacking and quantifying your biological age
“Biological age” basically refers to the age of your cells and body. It does not refer to how many birthdays you’ve had. Biological age has become popular because scientists have been busy uncovering new ways to measure the rates at which different people grow old.
Biological age can be calculated by measuring specific “biomarkers” that scientists know correlate with getting older. This includes the hallmarks of aging, such as telomere attrition, epigenetic alterations, and mitochondrial dysfunction, among others. These hallmarks of aging can be measured from blood samples that look at the length of the caps of DNA on your chromosomes (telomeres), the patterns of modifications to your genome (epigenetics), and the state of your metabolic health.
Is biohacking dangerous?
Not all biohacking is dangerous. Take Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square. The CEO and tech industry savant said he had incorporated meditation, ice baths, and intermittent fasting into his lifestyle. He also tracks his sleep with wearable tech that measures sleep quality, recovery speed, and daily activity.
Jack Asprey, on the other hand, has a bit more of an extravagant approach. His home office, which he’s nicknamed Alpha Labs, features several gadgets and gizmos that he uses regularly: a cryotherapy chamber, a bed of infrared lights, a platform that vibrates 30 times per second, an atmospheric cell trainer that virtually transports you from the top of Mount Everest back to sea level within a few minutes.
Things can get a little dicey when you start moving into the area of genetic engineering, if not only from a health perspective but also from a legal one. In 2017, biohacker Josiah Zayner injected himself with DNA from the gene-editing technology CRISPR at a biotech conference, live-streaming the experiment. Zayner runs a company called the Odin out of his garage in Oakland, California, selling biohacking supplies ranging from $20 DNA to a $1,849 do-it-yourself genetic engineering kit. But he subsequently went under investigation, accused of practicing medicine without a license.
When you put your health into your own hands, literally, such as with chips and sensors or altering your genome, it could have health consequences (and maybe even more). So, it may not be the worst idea to consult your doctor before you pull a reverse Bicentennial Man and slowly replace each part of yourself until you turn into a robot.