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Biohacking: The Art and Science of Self-Experimentation

By Diana Licalzi, MS, RD, March 25, 2021

biohackingThe term “biohacking” has skyrocketed in popularity and recognition over the past few years. And even if you aren’t familiar with the term biohacking, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered some version of it online. Perhaps you’re familiar with Dave Asprey, the self-proclaimed biohacker who popularized putting butter in your coffee, or Wim Hof, The Iceman, who uses breathwork to withstand freezing Arctic temperatures. Or maybe you’ve come across the fitness trainer Ben Greenfield who endures four-day fasts to boost autophagy and mitochondrial health. These biohackers use research, tools, and technology to enhance their health. But where do these interventions stem from? And what safe biohacks can the rest of us start implementing to get an edge in our health? 

biohacking

What is biohacking?

Biohacking is the process of implementing scientifically-driven lifestyle interventions to optimize health throughout the lifespan. It’s a very broad term that encompasses a wide range of actions, all with a similar goal: optimizing health. Commonly referred to as “do-it-yourself” biology, biohacking often involves self-experimentation to collect ultra-personalized data and feedback.

Take sleep as an example—the importance of sleep is grounded in sound science. It serves as a time for the body to recover and repair itself and replenish essential hormones. Quality sleep is tied to a robust immune system and healthy aging. In contrast, poor sleep can lead to various health problems, including impaired immunity, a shorter lifespan, and an increased risk of obesity, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.[1-3] Thus, optimized sleep has become a prime target for biohackers. With new technologies and wearables like the Oura Ring, Whoop, and Fitbit, you can now easily track and use your sleep data to enhance it—biohacking! 

biohacking

Some of the most popular biohacks come from longevity scientists

Because biohacking emphasizes optimal health throughout one’s lifespan, many related interventions trickle down from discoveries made in the field of aging and longevity. This field has exploded in the last 10-15 years as scientists continue to discover ways to improve our longevity through various interventions, including diet, exercise, lifestyle, and supplements.  

Take Valter Longo as an example. Through his research in the longevity space, the scientist has discovered that fasting can positively impact lifespan by reducing metabolic markers (i.e., body weight, glucose, inflammation) and potentially protecting DNA from oxidative damage—a significant contributor to the aging process.[7-9] Valter Longos’ 5-Day Fasting Mimicking Diet has exploded among the biohacker community, and intermittent fasting and extended fasts have become hallmark biohacking interventions. Click here for a full breakdown of the research supporting intermittent fasting for longevity.

Among the proponents of fasting are some of InsideTracker's team members. High-level athlete and biohacker All Around Joe completed the 5-day diet and used InsideTracker data to assess changes in his biomarkers (you can read about his experience here). Our former data science intern and (then) Ph.D. student Kenny Westerman also embarked on a four-day fast and used InsideTracker to monitor his blood data. And below, watch four-time World's Fittest Man Rich Froning discuss the importance of blood testing as he experiments with intermittent fasting.

Our very own Gil Blander, longevity scientist and founder of InsideTracker, has also led the movement around biomarkers and their relationship to healthy aging. Through his research, Blander has discovered that specific biomarkers, like vitamin D, glucose, and hsCRP (an inflammation marker) are closely linked to longevity. His creation of InnerAge provides biohackers with a way to measure and improve their biological (AKA internal) age. Learn how individuals are using InnerAge to biohack their healthspan and improve their longevity here

 

Some popular biohacks are not yet supported by human-based research

Other popular biohacking interventions, however, may not be entirely grounded in science. For example, the keto diet, which is primarily made up of fat, encourages ketosis—a state in which the body primarily metabolizes fat—to boost energy levels. However, research supporting the health claims around the keto diet is primarily limited to rat studies (when placed on the keto diet, rats exhibit more neuroprotective properties and increased brain energy metabolism).[4-6] While there may be some potential benefits to ketosis, the keto diet is controversial for various reasons. You can read more about why here. In fact, many InsideTracker users often discover their LDL (bad) cholesterol skyrockets after embarking on the keto diet.

Some biohacks are also so novel that, despite ongoing studies, there is not yet a robust body of human-based evidence supporting them. You may be familiar with the longevity scientist David Sinclair, who gained popularity after releasing his book Lifespan. In his book, the Ph.D. discusses his research examining various supplements and their potential to increase longevity. Sinclair’s findings have caused supplements like NMN (an NAD+ booster), resveratrol, and metformin to flood the biohacking space. Studies on the effects of these supplements in humans are becoming more and more popular, and additional evidence on the subject is highly anticipated. However, the human research supporting these supplements is still in its infancy. 

In essence, many popular interventions that are billed as biohacks are often not yet supported by robust data in human subjects—something InsideTracker requires to add a recommendation to our platform. It's important to take the size and depth of the body of evidence into account when determining whether a biohack is for you (and whether it's safe). Regardless of the biohack you choose, tracking your health data allows you to monitor your progress and see if its working for you! 

 

How do you know if a biohack is working? Track your health data

As mentioned throughout this article, a large part of biohacking is utilizing data to quantify, track, and assess the impact of these interventions. InsideTracker is an integrative platform for biohackers (or anyone looking to get an edge over their health). 

With the release of our mobile app, InsideTracker now provides a platform for people to receive real-time information and recommendations that integrate data from their blood biomarkers, DNA, and activity trackers. Through activity trackers, InsideTracker users can now track resting heart rate and sleep data, including REM sleep and deep sleep, and receive a more in-depth and precise understanding of their health and performance.

The InsideTracker app currently operates with Fitbit and will soon be integrated with Garmin and Apple Watch. We also have our eyes set on other wearables like Sunnto and Oura Ring. The creation of the app has allowed biohackers to closely monitor their progress as they embark on a range of interventions and self-experiments. 

 

How to get started as a biohacker (and interventions to try today!)

If you’re looking to start biohacking your health, follow these three steps:
  1. Find an appropriate intervention. Take a moment to reflect on an area of your health that you wish to change, improve, or track.
  2. Establish your goal. What are you trying to accomplish with this biohack? Set goals and a timeline for yourself. 
  3. Test and monitor your progress. Use data to monitor and check in on your progress. Is the biohack working? What changes or adjustments do you need to continue to make? 
BiohackerIf you need some inspiration to help you get started, below are three biohacking examples backed by science you can try today. 


Incorporate meditation

Stress can wreck havoc on the body but fortunately, there are interventions that can mediate the its effects. Meditation is an ancient practice with robust scientific evidence to support its impact on overall health and longevity. Meditation can lower levels of general stress and anxiety, improve resilience during stressful tasks, and increase focused attention. It can also lower blood pressure and triglycerides, and increase levels of HDL (when coupled with moderate cardiovascular exercise). For a detailed breakdown behind the science of meditation, read this article. Try a 30-day meditation challenge and measure it's impact by tracking changes in your cortisol, lipids, and sleep.

Sweat in a sauna

Are you struggling to improve your heart health? Sauna use has many benefits, including the ability to detoxify the body and improve cardiovascular function. Sweating helps the body excrete certain toxins, including heavy metals and chemicals like BPA and PCBs. Sauna use has also been linked to reduced mortality and disease rates and improved markers of cardiovascular health like CRP, total and LDL cholesterol.[10-12] Read about the science supporting sauna therapy here. Try incorporating sauna use three times and week and measure your progress by tracking markers like resting heart rate, cholesterol, and CRP.

Add curcumin

  • If inflammation is impacting your health, try adding curcumin to your diet. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, acts as an antioxidant, which imparts many health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties. Here is everything we currently know about curcumin's effect on inflammation. Take curcumin as a daily supplement for a few months and track inflammatory markers measures including CRP and creatine kinase. 


A summary of the art and science of biohacking

  • Biohacking is the process of implementing scientifically-driven lifestyle interventions to optimize health throughout one’s lifespan. 
  • Commonly referred to as  “do-it-yourself” biology, biohacking also involves self-experimentation where biohackers use their bodies to experiment and collect personalized data.
  • Because biohacking emphasizes health throughout our lifespan, many of the interventions trickle down from discoveries made in the field of aging and longevity.
  • InsideTracker is an integrative platform for biohackers to collect real-time data and personalized insights to help guide interventions and self-experimentation. 
  • If you’re interested in getting an edge over your health, try incorporating interventions such as meditation, sauna use, or supplementing with curcumin. 




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Diana Licalzi, MS, RD 
Diana is a Content Strategist and Team Nutritionist at InsideTracker. As a Registered Dietitian and self-proclaimed "biohacker," Diana enjoys researching and testing the latest trends and technology in the field of nutrition and aging. You'll often find Diana , completing a 24-hour fast, conducting self experiments, or uncovering strategies to increase longevity. Follow her on Instagram at @dietitian.diana.


 

References

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26118561

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20398008

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30755455

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17284577?dopt=Abstract

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18845187?dopt=Abstract

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16807920

[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27810402/

[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27810402/

[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17291990/

[10] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20682487/

[11] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25001587/

[12] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25705824/