Elaine Francis 30 Jul 2019

At its most basic level, it’s a new word for an old idea. The idea that what we do to our bodies can change the way we live and feel. We have a coffee, we perk up. We eat better, we feel better. We can train our bodies to build muscles and we can train our brains to be better at solving problems. When we assimilate food, drink, knowledge, we are biohacking; biohackers think of their bodies the way we might think of other kinds of complex tools; we upload programs through exercise or lifestyle, which changes the way our bodies work for us. 

Biohackers advocate awareness of our bodies and our physical responses. Often intuitive changes can make a huge difference in the way we feel and function. The core of biohacking depends on a deep understanding of human biology, and a sometimes-experimental approach to lifestyle changes.

There are more extreme forms of biohacking, using technology to modify their bodies to work in a different way ; the stories that hit the headlines tend to be those that shock or titillate: the man who implanted his travelcard chip into his hand , someone who had injections into their eye to enhance night vision , research into editing a person’s genetic data. One man has an implant which causes a very slight vibration in his chest whenever he’s facing North, which could revolutionize the way we navigate around our daily lives, if we don’t mind too much that we then have something vibrating in our chest.  Extreme body modification for aesthetic purposes can be thought of as biohacking too; changing your body to change the way you feel, or society views you? Humans have been doing that for millennia, in one form or another.

What can biohacking do for me? 

Advocates of biohacking believe that understanding human biology and using special techniques or technology can unlock our full potential and help us to be our best selves: fitter, smarter, better. 

Here are five ways that beginner-level biohacking can help resolve some of those universal human problems: 

1. Get better sleep: insomnia is a huge problem, and one of the most searched-for health terms, according to Google trends . Clearly a lot of people are experiencing problems with sleeping patterns, which can have a huge knock-on effect on all parts of life. So can you biohack your body to sleep better? Awareness of your natural circadian rhythm and an understanding of what triggers sleeplessness can help. Making your bedroom dark, avoiding unnatural light near bedtime, a relaxing bedtime routine can all lead to better sleep.

2. Apps to track your restfulness, monitors and wearable sensors can help to plot sleep patterns, including depth and quality of sleep, and can help you make links with the way you behave and the quality of sleep you get. Stop drinking caffeine late at night and sleep better; it sounds obvious, but when it comes down to it you’re improving your understanding of biological responses so you can trick your body into allowing you to have better quality sleep despite the realities of modern living, and that’s the beauty of biohacking. 

3. Eat better: so much of biohacking is common sense, but with a strong emphasis on self-experimentation, monitoring changes and responses, and developing a personal evidence base. No scientist would look twice at a clinical trial without a control; a participant who is excluded from active experimentation to act as a baseline for comparison. Luckily, you have a control: you, right now. You are the result of following your current diet and lifestyle. Biohack your life by changing the way you eat. Give it some time, say two weeks, and see if you feel any different. Follow a healthy diet, high in vegetables, low in processed food and sugar; it’s a no brainer. We’ve all tried to eat healthier, lose weight, get fitter. But this time really monitor the changes in your life. Not just your waistline, though that’s a great indicator of weight loss. This time monitor the way you feel, and look for solid ways you can quantify that. Energy levels, wakefulness, healthy sleeping patterns, all these things can be improved by following a better diet. It’s a life hack, for your life. 

4. Attain and maintain a healthy weight: biohacking could mean no more fad diets. Using sound scientific principles to eat better, exercise better, and look after your body better means it should be easier than ever to maintain a healthy weight. Biohackers advocate a deep understanding of human biology, and making changes in your life which direct your body into making bigger positive changes, in a way that feels easy while you do it. Again, the idea of monitoring your lifestyle to identify trends and needs is a key part of biohacking. Tracking how you feel when you exercise more, when you eat healthy – or unhealthy – food just shows how much our bodies respond to the things we do to them. 

5. Intermittent fasting, often known as the 5:2 diet, where calorie intake is reduced by 60-75% for 2 or 3 days of the week is one of the diets associated with biohacking; with a huge evidence base  for its benefits in health and disease processes, boosting metabolism  and even increasing brainpower . Add to this a healthier eating plan  such as that biohacking staple, the anti-inflammatory diet , and your body will thank you. Biohacking is that simple. 

6. Boost your energy levels: The basic healthy tenets of beginner biohacking should go a long way towards this, but it’s impossible to talk about biohacking without mentioning Bulletproof Coffee ; the founder of which is a strong advocate for biohacking, maintaining that there’s a good scientific evidence base for his ‘Bulletproof Coffee’: a blend of specially treated coffee beans, grass-fed butter and healthy oils which are meant to boost energy levels and metabolism, among other claims. Opinion is divided on many of the marketable aspects of biohacking , but the beauty of it is that there’s a strong push for bodily awareness, and being more aware of your body’s natural responses means working out exactly what works for you.

7. Be grateful: biohacking isn’t just about your body, it’s about your mind and mood. It’s not always easy to maintain a positive outlook, but the impact of taking time in the day to think about things that make you feel glad or lucky is well documented and incredibly positive . Some biohackers claim that starting with just a few minutes a day to reflect on the good things that have happened can trigger a huge shift in the way you feel, stabilising and improving mood and overall function . 

How can I start biohacking? 

You’re probably already doing it. Do you find you sleep better when you follow a daily routine of waking at around the same time every day and having a regular bedtime at night? You’re biohacking. Are you aware of your body’s needs, and do you feed it with healthy, nutritious food? Have you ever tried keeping a food diary to identify which foods make you feel better or worse? You’re well on your way to biohacking. There are lots of apps and technology available to help you track the way you feel against what you eat and do, and all of that is biohacking. 

So who are the biohackers? 

Biohacking encompasses a spectrum of approaches, ranging from common-sense, naturalistic methods to make changes to enhance health and fitness, through to extreme experimental biohackers who use untested implant technology to monitor or try to improve their bodies. Overarching all this is the principle that there are simple biological and technological methods to improve our bodies. An experimental scientific approach is one of the tenets of biohacking, as is the idea of ownership of our bodies, functions, and the way we interact with the world. There are people out there creating spaces where anyone can experiment with new ideas, implants and techniques  . There are other people who are only vaguely aware of a paradigm shift towards DIY biology and body modification who are unknowingly biohacking: improving their moods with relaxation apps, self-medicating with healthy food, tracking improved fitness through enhanced bodily awareness. In a sense, we are all biohackers. 

Medical biohacking? 

It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that anything we do that changes the way our bodies act can be called biohacking, and so it would be fair to say that any medication is a form of biohacking. Technological innovation goes hand in hand with medical science, and, although our doctors are unlikely to use the term ‘biohacking’, there are many medical approaches that can easily be described as such. Medical treatments tend to only be a response to illness or disability, however, whereas biohacking includes a drive towards improved health even in the absence of real problems. The pacemaker, for example, has been around for years (note the 1969 patent ); an implantable device which detects cardiac arrhythmias then uses an electrical impulse to manage them. Surely this is biohacking at its finest! A more modern form of medical biohacking is the insulin pump  for diabetics, which continuously monitors blood glucose levels and administers an appropriate dose of insulin, effectively acting as a replacement for a malfunctioning pancreas.

The future of biohacking? 

The market is already flooded with apps promising to improve our lives, help us meditate and sleep, log our intake, output, plot our weight and moods, fertility and libido. These are increasingly combined with wearables or Internet of Things devices, which can input information from body monitors to help us improve our health or fitness. Apps in which you can log your temperature to chart a pattern for your most fertile or infertile times of the month have had good results both for conception and contraception . 

The future of biohacking could include implantable and wearable technology to track and improve our function. It could also include true genetic editing , a nascent technology which has the potential to revolutionize the way we approach health and disease. Improving knowledge of human bodies and emerging technologies may lead to lab-built replacements for failing organs, effective bionic limbs for amputees, tailored, targeted dietary supplements and improved strength, brainpower, wellness. 

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About the Author:
Elaine Francis is a registered nurse working in cardiology at a dedicated emergency care hospital. She has over 15 years' experience in healthcare and earned both her nursing registration and BSc (hons) in Practice Development at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle Upon Tyne. Elaine spends most of her spare time telling her children to put their shoes on.

For now, it could just help you be the best you can be. 

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