A simple introduction into the colourful world of biohacking

No you’re not dreaming, you’ve definitely been seeing and hearing the word ‘biohacking’ around more and more. The idea has taken off since about 2011 – 2012. 

Google Trends shows that searches for the term “biohacking” have continued to steadily increase since then, with the highest search demand coming from Latvia, Finland, Sweden, Austria and Australia.

Search demand for the term “biohacking” from 2004 – August 2019

What is biohacking? 

Biohacking is the practice of optimising your health and performance through nutrition, technology, sleep, meditation, supplements, your environment and other activities.

For a more in-depth definition head to our Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Biohacking.

Table of contents

The art of controlling your health and performance

The above definition of biohacking was popularised by well known biohackers and authors like Dave Asprey and Ben Greenfield. Asprey created the Bulletproof Coffee company in 2013 and wrote The Bulletproof Diet in 2014, both influential products in the biohacking space. 

In a 2014 TED talk Asprey defined biohacking as “The art of controlling your biology and performance by changing the environment inside and outside your body.” 

Biohacking is an umbrella term and includes a wide variety of different approaches. The majority of biohackers will use scientific research and technology to inform their choices about:

  • What to eat for optimal health and longevity
  • What exercise regime to follow
  • How to best recover from exercise and work
  • How to make home and work environments healthier
  • How to use cutting edge technology to optimise health e.g fitness trackers like the Oura ring or Whoop Strap
  • What supplements to take to increase physical or mental performance

As mentioned, biohackers can have different goals. These can include trying to improve performance in sports or business, increasing longevity or even treating a specific illness or condition. For example notable biohacker Tim Gray started biohacking to solve a number of health issues including kidney stones and various recurring infections.

Other well known biohackers who follow this style of biohacking include entrepreneurs Kevin Rose, Tim Ferriss and Serge Faguet, Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey and athletes like Duncan Keith

DIY biology: the second (more controversial) arm of biohacking

There’s a subset of biohacking known as do-it-yourself (DIY) biology. DIY biology is when people or groups conduct life science experiments using the same methodologies as professional scientists, without the same academic requirements or regulations. These experiments can be for health improvement, fun or even for business reasons.

One of the most well known DIY biology proponents is Josiah Zayner, a NASA scientist who famously conducted a fecal transplant and let a journalist record it in 2016. In 2017 he also injected himself with the gene editing technology CRISPR. Zayner now sells DIY CRISPR engineering kits and biohacking 101 classes on his website The ODIN.

There are other examples outside of Zayner that are no less ambitious or crazy. For example in 2015 a researcher had a chemical injected into his eye to give him temporary night vision

Grinders: the third group of biohackers

Another controversial subset of biohackers are known as grinders. Grinders experiment with implanting objects like NFC chips and magnets into their bodies. 

One well known example is Amie DD, a software engineer who implanted her Tesla 3 RFID chip into her arm so she can unlock it without the key.  

Where did the term biohacking originate from?

One of the first mentions of biohackers was in a 1988 opinion article in the Washington Post which talked about a blue sky version of biohacking. It talked about how in the future, “bio-hackers” might be able to create new plants and drugs and “explore the inner beyonds of human DNA”.

Biohacking was only entered into the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018. The definition refers to the first known use of the word ‘biohacking’ coming from 1992.

How the quantified self movement intersects with biohacking

The “quantified self” movement is a community of people who collect data about their lives, usually in order to improve them in someway. The metrics collected can be as subjective as daily mood, or as concrete as blood glucose levels.

Biohacking includes an element of self-quantification and data collection in order to measure the various inputs and outputs related to your body and performance. This collection of data enables biohackers to adequately test and decide whether or not to continue with a certain hack. You can read more about how the quantified self movement fits into biohacking in our beginners biohacking guide.

The best science-backed biohacks to research and consider

The best biohacks to start with will depend on your goal in the first place. Below are some which have a large amount of research behind them.

Always be sure to question biohacks before spending your money and time on them. One of the biggest problems I find with biohacking is a lack of good science to support many of the claims behind specific hacks. Some of the more effective “hacks” are also the most boring:

Sleep

Your sleep should be optimised before buying expensive supplements or gadgets or embarking on a new diet or fasting regime. 

Sleep plays a role in many of your body’s vital functions. A lack of sleep can seriously impact your health as well as reduce your time to exhaustion in sports, increase your lactic acid build up and even decrease your peak muscle strength. It can also impact your memory and ability to learn.

Where to start:

  • Buy Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep (you can read our review of this book here). This book has a treasure trove of information about how sleep works, how substances like caffeine can impact it, and how to improve sleep.
  • Reduce caffeine consumption and/or confine your caffeine consumption to earlier in the day
  • Keep your bedroom cool at around 18 degrees celsius (approx 64 degrees fahrenheit)
  • Avoid alcohol and nicotine, especially in the hours before bedtime
  • Avoid napping after 3pm
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day

Improving your diet

A cornerstone of biohacking is improving your diet. You can take all the supplements you want but it won’t make up for a shoddy or harmful diet.

Many well known biohackers and those in the health optimisation space advocate for diet as the main pillar in their systems. Some example diets to consider are below.

  • The paleo diet. The paleo or paleolithic diet limits foods to those available during ancestral times. Respected author and blogger Robb Wolf claims the paleo diet is the healthiest way to eat and has a great introductory guide to a healthy paleo diet which include diverse proteins, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats. 
  • The primal diet. Similar to the paleo diet, the primal diet was popularised by author and blogger Mark Sisson and is built on the foundations of not eating grains, industrial seed oils or added sugars. It’s part of the Primal Blueprint, Sisson’s plan for living a healthier life. 
  • The ketogenic diet. The ketogenic or keto diet is a diet low in carbs and high in fat. There’s emerging evidence that the diet can help with weight loss, diabetes, epilepsy and a range of other illnesses
  • The Bulletproof Diet. This is a cyclical ketogenic diet created by Dave Asprey. A cyclical ketogenic diet means you’ll eat a ketogenic diet for 5 – 6 days and then have one day where you “refeed” on a higher amount of carbs than usually allowed on the keto diet. You can read an evidence-based review of it on Healthline.
  • The longevity diet. The longevity diet is the result of Dr Valter Longo’s research into blue zone diets, epidemiology, clinical studies and juventology to discover what he thinks is the optimal diet for long life. It’s a mostly vegan diet with small amounts of protein from fish. It’s also low in sugar, includes good fats and nuts, and confines eating to a 12 hour period. 
Eating better doesn’t need to be boring – this is a delicious sashimi salad from Fishbowl

Fasting

Fasting goes hand-in-hand with diet improvements as another common hack that biohackers use. According to the excellent book The Complete Guide to Fasting by Dr. Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore (which I highly recommend reading before you start fasting), fasting can have the following benefits:

  • Weight and body fat loss
  • Increased insulin sensitivity
  • Improved mental clarity
  • Increased energy
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Improved fat burning

Below are some popular fasting protocols to consider:

  • Intermittent fasting. This refers to regular fasting periods between eating. The intervals of time you might fast can vary significantly. Some might opt to fast each day for a certain portion of the day, such as a 16 hour fast where you stop eating at 8pm and don’t eat again until lunchtime the next day. Others choose to fast for a whole 24 hours one day per week. Healthline has a great article about intermittent fasting.
  • Water fasts. A water fast is when you give up food completely for a period of time. During this time your body cells go through a process known as autophagy. This is when cells start to eat themselves, starting with damaged cell components first. There are other benefits to water fasts of certain lengths such as decreased body fat, lower cholesterol and increased insulin sensitivity. You can read about what it’s like to water fast for five days in my article.
  • Fast mimicking diets. This type of fast was made popular by Dr Valter Longo in The Longevity Diet. A fast mimicking diet is basically a very low calorie diet over five days which Longo claims can give you most of the benefits of a water fast without having to give up food completely for an extended period of time.

Nootropics

A nootropic is a natural or artificial substance that improves mental performance. Many nootropic supplements today contain a combination of different substances including some listed below. Popular nootropic products include Qualia Mind, Onnit Alpha BRAIN, Mind Lab Pro and even some mushrooms such as Lion’s Mane.

Below are five popular natural nootropics you can consider. You can find out more about the evidence behind each one in Healthline’s review of nootropics.

  • Caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, tea, chocolate and other foods and drinks. It has been shown to increase alertness, attention and decrease tiredness.
  • Creatine. Creatine is an amino acid traditionally used in the bodybuilding community to increase energy during weight lifting. There’s also evidence it can improve short-term memory and reasoning skills in some people, and according to Healthline is one of the most tested supplements around. 
  • L-Theanine. L-Theanine is an amino acid found in tea and some mushrooms. Research has shown L-Theanine can have a calming effect and can increase alpha waves in your brain, which have been associated with creativity.  
  • Bacopa Monnieri. Bacopa is a traditional Indian medicine plant which research has shown can boost brain function including learning rate, memory, attention and more
  • Rhodiola Rosea. Rhodiola is herb which research has shown may decrease stress and improve brain function.

Meditation

Meditation comes in a number of different shapes and forms. Regardless of the style, there’s a growing body of scientific evidence behind the benefits, which is why it’s a good hack to consider.

My favourite style is mindfulness meditation, where you sit down, close your eyes and become aware of your breath coming in and out of your nostrils. Every time you lose track of your breath, you just gently note it and move your attention back to your breath. 

I recommend anyone interested in meditation watch this excellent video of John Kabat Zinn, one of the most important mindfulness evangelists, explaining the concept in a Google talk.

Scientific evidence suggests that meditation may:

  • Reduce stress and control anxiety
  • Increases attention span
  • Improve sleep
  • Decrease blood pressure
  • Decrease depression

There are other great articles showing the science behind meditation on the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website and the Headspace app website.  

Floatation tanks / sensory deprivation tanks

Using a float tank simply involves lying down in a saltwater tank for an extended period of time (usually an hour). During that time you meditate or simply just float and think. 

Because the water is so high in salt you will effortlessly float, and the tank is usually very dark and soundproof, so you can’t see or hear anything. This helps to reduce all outside distractions from your thoughts.

Floatation or sensory deprivation tanks can have many benefits for those looking to relax or recover from strenuous activities. They’re also easy to find in many capital cities across the globe.

According to research from the STRONG US Air Force program and the University of Cincinnati, flotation tank use can rebalance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems for better recovery. The study also showed a 25% drop in blood cortisol from floating, perceived reduction in muscle soreness and improved moods

Other research-backed benefits of using a sensory deprivation tank including treatment of anxiety and improvement of cardiovascular health. 

A flotation tank at a float centre in Sydney.

Sauna

Sauna use has become increasingly popular today, partly due to evangelists like Dr Rhonda Patrick who are discussing the scientific research behind it. 

In a nutshell, research has shown that using a sauna causes heat stress, which causes your body to activate mechanisms and processes that make it better able to cope with high heat in the future. This causes the body to repair cell damage among other things.

Sauna use has been shown by scientific studies such as the Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor (KIHD) Study to have many benefits including:

  • Cardiovascular health. The KIHD study found that men who used a sauna 2 – 3 times per week were 27% less likely to die from cardiovascular-related causes than those who didn’t use a sauna.
  • Longevity. Those who used a sauna frequently were 40% less likely to die prematurely from all causes.
  • Inflammation. Sauna use has been shown to reduce the inflammatory protein CRP (C-reactive protein) and increase the anti-inflammatory protein IL-10.
  • Mental health. The KIHD study found that those who used a sauna 2 – 3 times per week had a 66% lower chance of getting alzheimer’s and a 65% lower chance of dementia compared to those who only used a sauna once per week. Those who used a sauna 4 – 7 times were also 77% less likely to develop psychotic disorders.
  • Hormonal and metabolic function. Sauna use has a range of beneficial impacts on hormonal and metabolic function including increasing growth hormone levels in the body and reducing fasting blood glucose levels.
  • Physical fitness and athletic performance. Studies have shown that sauna use can increase endurance and maintain muscle mass.

For more information, including the full list of benefits and all of the studies mentioned above check out Dr Rhonda’s full guide.

How safe is biohacking?

This depends on what specific biohacking activity you’re referring to and what you’re trying to achieve. It’s important to note that certain supplements and therapies can be dangerous in large enough quantities or intensities, or harmful to certain people e.g children or pregnant women. Always seek professional medical advice if you’re not sure before taking a new supplement or trying a new biohacking treatment.

In other cases, the incorrect use of certain biohacking technologies or treatments may have adverse or opposite effects to what is intended. For example in The Non-tinfoil Guide to EMFs, Nicholas Pinealt talks about how incorrect installation of a grounding mat (a popular biohack in recent years) can actually significantly increase the amount of voltage your body receives rather than reduce it.

When it comes to the more controversial biohacking practices within DIY biology and grinder groups, it’s clear there can be additional risks. In these cases it’s crucial to seek professional medical advice first.

Notable biohackers

There are a number of great biohackers to research, including:

Dave Asprey

Dave Asprey is a well known author, biohacker and the CEO of Bulletproof Coffee. Bulletproof Coffee is claimed to be free of mold toxins through a washing and testing process unlike other coffee beans. 

Asprey is also the founder of Bulletproof Labs, Bulletproof Labs is an organisation with two locations in California where you can use the latest biohacking gadgets and therapies including cryotherapy, light therapy and even a virtual float tank.

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield is an ironman, athlete, biohacker and author. He’s well known for his podcast The Ben Greenfield Podcast and is a prominent speaker at various health, longevity and biohacking conferences.

Duncan Keith

Professional hockey player Duncan Keith also calls himself a biohacker. In a New York Times article he delves into his daily routine which includes light therapy, supplements and a PoV Sport machine.

Kyle Kingsbury

Kyle Kingsbury is a retired professional MMA fighter and the Director of Human Optimization at Onnit. Kingsbury also hosts the Kyle Kingsbury podcast, which explores a range of topics relevant to biohacking.

Bob Trioa AKA Quantified Bob

Quantified Bob is a biohacker, speaker, entrepreneur and self-quantifier. His blog delves into his biohacking experiments as well as his resources on everything including lab tests, training and recovery, sleep and how to start tracking your own health and performance metrics.

Serge Fauget

Serge Fauget is a tech entrepreneur famous for his radical approach to biohacking which you can read on his Medium blog. He estimates he’s spent approximately $200,000 on biohacking and has made numerous changes to his lifestyle. He’s also has an interesting podcast with Kevin Rose too if you want to find out more about his approach.

Jack Dorsey

Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter, is also a biohacker. His recent appearance on the Ben Greenfield podcast created headlines around the world when he went through his regular biohacking practices which include cold exposure, fasting, supplementation, infrared light therapy, standing desks, meditation, sauna use and more.

Where to next?

For more information about how to start biohacking you can read the following guides

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