While I’m pretty outspoken on this blog about how lots of wellness fads tend to target women, bad wellness advice is (unfortunately) for everyone. As I’ve delved into the tech-bro side of Twitter, I’ve seen a fair amount of tech wellness solutions— from tips that may have merit, to “hacks” that are hardly science-based and downright dangerous. Today we’re talking “biohacking for beginners”: what is it, what works, what doesn’t, and how to sniff out the sketchy stuff.
Biohacking for Beginners- What is Biohacking?
Biohacking isn’t really new. But since tech culture likes to create new words for everything, it created this term to take the idea of living healthily and taking charge of your health to the next level. It’s been described as everything from “DIY biology” to life hacks for your health. In general, the goal is to be healthier, live longer, and “optimize” your body.
The phrase “health optimization” is used a lot in the biohacking community, and approaching it this way makes it seem like a great thing. Biohackers are primarily concerned with how their bodies function, and they want to make them as efficient as possible, often with the goal of living as long as possible. Unfortunately, a lot of what seems like an innocent quest to be at one’s healthiest is propped up by pseudoscience, conspiracy, and toxic masculinity.
I’ve already debunked some of these, so I’m just going to link to them below if you’re interested in more.
It doesn’t do anything. Just make sure your water is clean.
They might work to help you sleep faster by keeping your melatonin production on schedule, but the issue might just be light more broadly. You probably just shouldn’t look at electronic devices within an hour-ish of going to bed. Most of the other benefits of blue-light glasses are speculative.
I’ll get into specifics on a few, but in general, it’s important to know that supplements aren’t regulated like pharmaceuticals, and this can mean unnecessary risks like heavy metal contamination or liver toxicity.
There is some evidence to show that adaptogens like Lion’s Mane or ashwagandha work for alertness and anxiety, but again, they aren’t regulated.
Biohacks to Avoid
Some things in this category are certainly legitimate when used under the supervision of a doctor. They shouldn’t be DIYed with advice from Reddit. (Which might be a good life motto more generally).
“Mood-altering” substances (SSRIs, beta-blockers, ketamine, LSD, psilocybin)
I’m putting all of this into one category not because I think that SSRIs are equivalent to LSD, but because this is just something that people shouldn’t mess with on their own. In the biohacking community, a lot of this is focused on improving mood, decreasing anxiety, and warding off symptoms of depression. While this is certainly a reasonable set of concerns for many, biohacking’s way of going about it isn’t the best.
SSRIs are generally used to manage mood disorders like depression, and beta-blockers reduce blood pressure. In bio-hacking communities, SSRIs are sometimes taken without a prescription or bought on the black market, and beta-blockers are used to manage heart rate and stage fright.
Ketamine is a Schedule III drug, and LSD and psilocybin (active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are Schedule I drugs. I keep meaning to write an article on drug scheduling in the US, and I promise I will soon! But in the meantime, what’s most important to know is that ketamine has legitimate, well-researched medical uses for anesthesia and is being studied for treatment-resistant depression. It is legal within those contexts as a Schedule III drug.
As Schedule I drugs, Psilocybin and LSD are illegal and therefore have no recognized medical uses in the U.S. While there are some studies to suggest that they might have a positive impact on depression and anxiety, my concern with the “DIY” aspect of this is the same as my concern with the DIY aspect of supplements, only a bit worse. If they’re not well-regulated, there isn’t much oversight, and unlike supplements, as far as I know, there aren’t any third-party bodies that assess the safety of illicit drugs. (*Except for state regulation of medical/recreational cannabis. Which is a whole other situation).
Yes, mental health services are incredibly hard to access and can be prohibitively expensive, especially in the United States. This does not mean that it’s a good idea to use DIY psychiatry.
Similar to adaptogens, nootropics are supposed to improve cognitive performance. Unsurprisingly, many of them act as stimulants (similar to nicotine), and some have documented psychiatric side effects. While on the whole, they are generally safe, they can still have adverse reactions with other medications and should still be only introduced into someone’s routine with appropriate medical guidance.
“Hacks” to increase testosterone levels
There are many, many, different biohacks to avoid in this category. Some of them are lifestyle-based, but others go into more serious methods like self-injection. Nearly all of them seek to diagnose a problem that may not exist, and if it does, it should be addressed by a doctor.
Hormonal “misregulation” in the biohacking community is a claimed culprit for everything from low energy to… testicle size. While hormonal dysregulation is a legitimate problem and can be responsible for a variety of adverse health effects, it’s often caused by underlying conditions, and throwing more testosterone at the issue won’t fix whatever else is going on.
Last year, investors threw a not-quite-Theranos-bad-but-still-not-smart level of money at a company, Hone Health. In reading about the company, it’s clear that they didn’t do their due diligence, with loads of unscientific and unsupported fear tactics claims.
This aspect of biohacking seems to feed heavily on incel-esque fears of being a “beta-male” while doing little to actually address the serious medical issues at hand.
Intermittent/alternate day fasting
This isn’t as harmful as some of the other ones in this category, but it’s worth mentioning because it seems so popular in the tech community.
Alternating days of fasting CAN result in weight loss. However, the next day needs to be followed up with a lot of calories, or else a lot of the weight lost is due to loss of muscle mass. Most people don’t go on diets to lose muscle mass, and in the tech bro culture where this thrives, I HIGHLY doubt people are doing these to get less muscle mass. Again, don’t DIY this. Go to a registered dietitian if you’re working on finding the ideal diet.
Anything that is ridiculously expensive
Lots of high-profile biohackers have money to spend, and they put it towards stem cell injections into joints, infrared light saunas, and 800 supplements a day. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this if people want to do it, but we tend to know what actually results in healthy lifestyles on a larger scale, and most of this just isn’t necessary.
The longest-living countries all have a few things in common: access to affordable healthcare, low rates of preventable disease and violence, and gender equity. Were tech billionaires actually concerned about the human ability to live long, healthy lives (and not just their own), they might put some of the money they’ve made towards furthering those policies in the United States.
Biohacks That Work
The underlying concept of biohacking and health optimization isn’t harmful, it’s the way that it, like much of wellness culture, is more focused on creating a never-ending list of things to purchase and perfect.
Fortunately, there are still a few biohacks that work — these ones are still fairly common in biohacking communities, but have more scientific evidence to back them up, and are (basically) free.
There are multiple different types of breathwork, from simply having more conscious breathing patterns, to more specific, meditative, breathwork. In the day to day, putting more conscious effort into breathing can reduce anxiety.
While there is less evidence as to its effectiveness (only really one study where it is analyzed), holotropic breathwork has also been reported to create positive changes in mood, including relieving stress and aiding sleep.
Admittedly, a lot of the “sleeping more” biohacks utilize techy tools, but some just rely on nighttime meditation and popping a melatonin supplement. Both of which are relatively effective to help you wind down for the night, no blue light glasses necessary.
This one is undoubtedly effective, but is a bit bizarre to me within the entire context of biohacking. In a community where it’s seen as relatively acceptable to trip balls or take amphetamines casually, having a beer here or there is vilified.
This is maybe one of my major problems with biohacking — it’s borne out of the same toxic wellness culture that puts hard limits on people and makes them feel guilty for not doing the Absolute Most to help their health, while praising other things that might cause a different form of harm.
Biohacking for beginners- should you try it?
As I’ve said, I think the mission of trying to improve one’s health is a great personal goal. The idea of trying to “optimize” one’s health is relatively unrealistic and a little ableist. The reality is, many of the things that we currently believe to improve our health may not be the “best” thing to do once we have 20 or 30 more years of research. This is just the nature of science — we learn more and we disprove or reaffirm previous hypotheses. Maybe some of these more “out there” biohacks really do work, and maybe others are garbage.
I’d personally be pretty wary of anything incredibly expensive, anything that “treats” a problem you haven’t been diagnosed with, or anything that takes an unnecessary amount of work for yourself. Breathwork, cutting back on your drinking, and focusing on better sleep aren’t likely to cause problems. Using a drug or a supplement might. As always, go to your doctor if you’re interested in trying any of these things before your start, and don’t put too much trust in DIY biology.