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Every decade or so, the fitness world evolves and new buzzwords are created in the name of looking better, performing better, being healthier and living longer. Forty years ago, aerobics was the revolution du jour, followed closely by resistance training done on commercial-grade machines such as Nautilus. The early 2000s were dominated by high-intensity training and functional fitness, and now at the precipice of the 2020s, we’re in the thick of biohacking.
Behind every new movement is plenty of science and technology backing it up, and this is certainly the case with biohacking. But as always, the fear of the unknown leads to a bevy of questions: What is it? Does it work? Is it safe? Is it legal? How do I hack my own biology?
Rest assured, we’ve answered all these questions and more about this latest trend of getting better at getting better.
What Is Biohacking?
In theory, biohacking is pretty straightforward: using one or more specific practices to improve one’s health, performance and/or longevity. Your biohacking toolbox can include everything from the basics (fasting and meditation) to the high-tech (blue-light-blocking glasses, smartwatches and hyperbaric chambers) to the reckless (blood transfusions and fecal transplants).
“Biohacking can be many things … but ‘natural’ biohackers like myself are just trying to bring our bodies and our health back to what they used to be,” says Ximena de la Serna, CNT, a certified nutritional therapist and coach who specializes in primal-based biohacking strategies for women.
Craig Koniver, M.D., a performance medicine specialist and owner of Koniver Wellness in Charleston, South Carolina, believes the DIY aspect of biohacking most accurately defines the movement. “To get to the heart of biohacking … it’s things that people can do on their own,” he says. “It’s taking control and saying, OK, here’s my biology, my biochemistry — what can I do to up-level myself?”
This DIY philosophy can be empowering for sure, but it also stirs the pot, and if you’re not a hardcore biohacker, you’re probably a skeptic. This wariness stems in part from the fact that biohacking’s biggest rock stars tend to be contrarians and are not actual doctors — guys like Bulletproof Coffee inventor Dave Asprey, Onnit founder and Total Human Optimization advocate Aubrey Marcus and biohacking guru Ben Greenfield.
“I think where it gets a little bit weird for people is that most of these popular biohackers are outside the medical field,” Koniver says. “There’s almost this sense that if you’re biohacking, you’re doing it outside of the physician’s purview.”
This isn’t always the case, of course. Koniver is a medical doctor who administers cutting-edge biohacking practices like peptide injections and intravenous therapies for his patients. So why aren’t doctors leading the biohacking charge? Frankly, because very few are qualified to do so.
“For the most part, doctors have no clue about optimizing health and performance; it’s not their arena,” Koniver says. In a 2018 interview in an Onnit podcast, he stated, “If you’re sick, go to a doctor. But if you want to be well, I don’t know if the doctor’s the person you need to be seeing.”
So is biohacking safe? Generally speaking, yes. Combined with common sense, the most popular biohacking tools — diet, exercise, cryotherapy, brain-boosting nootropics, wearable technology and so on — are perfectly harmless. Of course, there are potentially hazardous biohacks like “young blood” transfusions (e.g., pumping a younger person’s blood into your veins) and fecal transplants (self-explanatory) along the fringes, but the following five strategies have been deemed safe and effective by reputable biohackers. They are all of a DIY nature, so there’s no need to visit a clinic or a doctor to try them, and they are either free of charge or are reasonably affordable. Best of all, these biohacks can be adopted immediately, as in today, in order to upgrade your human experience.
Biohack No. 1: Get daily sun exposure at dawn and dusk.
Successful biohacking requires that you nail down the basics first and foremost, and there’s nothing more basic than setting your circadian rhythm by the sun. “Circadian rhythm regulates everything,” de la Serna says. “It’s basically telling your brain what time it is and what types of hormones it needs to release. When we’re living indoors, our brains don’t know when it’s day or night, and this causes a lot of issues, insomnia being one of them.”
A host of other health problems, including obesity and depression, have been linked to disrupted circadian rhythms. This is especially pertinent for women, who report insomnia close to 50 percent more frequently than men. Research also has shown that women have shorter circadian periods than men, which can make it more difficult to establish a consistent wake/sleep cycle.
Rhythms of the night aside, exposing yourself to the sun is the best and easiest way to get your daily dose of vitamin D. “Vitamin D deficiency is a real pandemic that’s related to most chronic illnesses we have today,” de la Serna says.
Biohack RX: Go outside for at least 10 to 15 minutes at dawn and dusk every day, de la Serna advises. Dawn informs your brain the day is starting and it’s time to be energized and alert. Dusk sends the exact opposite signal — that the day is ending and it’s time to relax and recuperate.
Biohack No. 2: Take a cold shower.
Cryotherapy, subjecting your body to short bouts of cold temperatures (usually 10 minutes or less), is a popular technique in current biohacking circles. Regular cryotherapy offers a host of research-backed benefits, including treating migraines, reducing pain and inflammation, and even battling anxiety and depression.
“[When] you’re constantly anxious about the future or depressed about the past, you’re not in the present,” de la Serna says. “Cryotherapy in the form of cold showers or baths puts you in that sharp ‘right here, right now’ state of mind.”
Biohack RX: Many people use cryotherapy chambers or commercial ice baths to get their hack on, but chilling out is just as easily done at home using your own shower or bathtub. “A cold shower a day keeps the doctor away,” prescribes Wim Hof, one of the most well-known cold therapy practitioners in the world. Here’s a condensed version of his step-by-step cold shower method:
- Start with a warm shower for a few minutes.
- Step out of the shower, turn the water to cold, then step back in or get in gradually, one section of your body at a time.
- Do your best to remain relaxed and control your breathing.
- Try to stay in for two minutes and work up to five to 10 minutes over time.
Biohack No. 3: Exercise at the end of a fast.
Intermittent fasting is a hallmark biohack for total-body benefits such as improving fat loss, increasing insulin sensitivity and decreasing cellular damage in the body. The most popular intermittent-fasting method is time-restricted eating in which you ingest all your calories within a six- to eight-hour window (essentially fasting for the remaining 16 to 18 hours). If you’re currently doing intermittent fasting, one way to increase its effectiveness is to train in a fasted state, in other words, outside your feeding window.
“There’s quite a bit of overlap in the ways that exercise and fasting affect cells and organ systems,” says Mark Mattson, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and one of the world’s foremost intermittent-fasting researchers. “We’ve shown in animals that you get an amplification of the effects of both exercise and fasting when the two are combined. For example, if someone were to go for a solid run for a half-hour at the end of a fasting period, the elevation in ketones is increased and the effects on cells is amplified. So it’s almost like running for an hour.”
As for fasted resistance training: “Studies have shown that you’re still able to build muscle,” Mattson says. “But you also reduce your fat more because you’re doing the workout in a state where you’re already utilizing fat [as fuel].”
Biohack RX: If you’re already following an intermittent-fasting plan, Mattson recommends doing your regularly scheduled workout at the very end of your fasting period and right before your first meal of the day for a month. Track your bodyweight, body fat and resting heart rate, as well as your glucose and insulin levels (if you are getting bloodwork done) and note any improvements.
Biohack No. 4: Avoid artificial light two hours before bed.
During the day when there’s work to do, light is good, but at night, you want your body to wind down for the sake of recovery and a good night’s sleep. Hence, the darker the better.
Artificial blue wavelength light, such as emanates from phones, computers and TVs, is especially harmful to your circadian rhythm at night, in part because it suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone critical to sleep function. Because your eyes are not adept at filtering out blue light, it passes right through your eyeballs and onto your retinas, which reactivates your brain and tells it to pay attention when it should be winding down.
Biohack RX: Avoiding all artificial light after dusk is pretty unrealistic. It would require you to turn off every light in your home and to shut down electronic devices. Enter blue-light-blocking glasses.
“Blue blockers come in different wavelengths, and the darkest ones block out most of the blue light coming from devices,” de la Serna says. She also recommends cutting off artificial light exposure for the last two hours you’re awake every night. Best-case scenario: Wear the blue blockers while also minimizing screen time and keeping your home as dark as possible.
Biohack No. 5: Track results with wearables.
The aforementioned biohacks are intended to improve sleep quality and recovery, enhance your performance and physique, and boost overall health. But in order to know whether your hacks are actually working, you have to track your progress over time.
If you don’t already own a modern smartwatch, it’s time to pick one up. If you’re still married to your prehistoric flip phone, however, check out alternative options such as the Oura ring and Whoop strap.
Biohack RX: Modern wearables are generally user-friendly with straightforward tracking metrics and easy-to-follow instructions. A few of the key metrics to track, de la Serna says, are sleep quality, resting heart rate, heart-rate variability and oxygen saturation — for example, the amount of oxygen in your blood, which should be between 95 and 100 percent.
“Most people who go to the gym and eat healthy are following mainstream recommendations,” Ximena de la Serna says. “But biohackers are very well-known for doing the exact opposite of what governments tell us to do. If you say, Don’t eat meat, that’s the first thing we’re going to eat!”
Injectables: The Future of Supplements?
Pills, tablets and powders have dominated the performance- and health-enhancing sports nutrition market for decades. But for cutting-edge biohackers, pills are being replaced by more direct — and sharper — delivery systems.
“I think the next five years and beyond are going to be guided by injectable therapies,” Dr. Craig Koniver says. “There will also be alternative delivery mechanisms [such as] IVs, nasal sprays, topical creams, sublingual and subcutaneous.”
The two main treatments Koniver administers with his patients are injectable peptides and intravenous (IV) NAD+.
Peptides are simply short chains of naturally occurring amino acids. You can get them in pill form, but for maximum absorption, injections are the way to go. An oft-cited concern is that peptides aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration — but then again, neither are most dietary supplements.
“A lot of peptides are banned from sports, but from a safety standpoint, we really don’t see any negative side effects,” Koniver says. “Whether you’re a weekend warrior, a CrossFitter or a sport athlete, peptides give you a very real advantage.”
What they do: There are many different peptides available, but Koniver highlights two in particular: growth-hormone-releasing peptides like Tesamorelin and GHRP-6 and BPC-157. With the former, you’re not taking actual human growth hormone but rather a peptide that’s going to help your body put out more GH. “When they do that, they become faster, fitter, stronger,” Koniver says. “BPC-157 works on the soft tissues — ligaments and tendons — and keeps inflammation down. I would argue that people who work out a lot should be on BPC-157 pretty much all the time. It’s that protective for joints, tendinitis and strained muscles — with no side effects.”
Where to get them: Peptides can be bought online and injected at home or can be overseen by an experienced professional if you’re not comfortable wielding a needle. Check out peptidesciences.com and koniverwellness.com for trusted online sales.
Intravenous (IV) NAD+
Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) is a vitamin B3 derivative that our mitochondria use to make energy. Supplemental NAD+ has become a powerful treatment for athletes and others looking for more energy, better recovery and greater longevity. It is available in pill/tablet form, but recent research published in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling found that these supplements are largely ineffective because of poor oral bioavailability. Hence, intravenous delivery is currently the preferred mechanism.
What it does: Intravenous NAD+ treatments work directly at the mitochondrial level, allowing for greater recovery and more energy. “Mitochondria are our batteries,” Koniver says. “As we age and stress our bodies, those batteries don’t work as well. NAD+ helps ‘clean up’ the bad mitochondria to create new batteries and enhance recovery.” There are literally thousands of mitochondria in every cell in our bodies, which underscores why NAD+ has become a next-level biohack for muscle recovery as well as anti-aging and prevention of diseases such as diabetes and cancer. “Anyone who’s interested in optimizing their health and performance … should have NAD+ in their world,” Koniver says. “It’s that important.”
Where to get it: NAD+ via IV isn’t publicly accessible, so you’ll need to vet a practitioner, and treatments are time-consuming and can be physically uncomfortable. “You’re working out your cells, literally,” Koniver says. “Over time, it gets less unpleasant because there’s less cleanup to do.” The cost is pretty steep, too — anywhere from $450 to $600 per session — and with multiple sessions recommended.
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