Are we able to change our body chemically and genetically to benefit our lifestyle and personal demands? Is this obsession with immortality, anti-aging and otherworldly success only for the rich and powerful or can we all benefit from a little “hacking’ of our own”? BROOKE BENSON CAMPBELL (BHSc Nut Med) investigates…
The buzzword of Silicon Valley, Biohacking is essentially the practice of changing our chemistry and our physiology through science and self-experimentation. The point being to leverage every means possible — genetic, emotional, psychological, biochemical, spiritual — towards a specific goal: usually that of peak performance (and in some cases, immortality). It can be as simple as implementing lifestyle and dietary tweaks that improve the functioning of your body, or as drastic as implant technology and genetic engineering (both of which, if we believe the hype, are coming to a store near you in the next decade or so). The possibilities appear to be endless, but is biohacking really all it is cracked up to be?
For decades, the solution to aging has seemed merely years away, and historically people have always been fascinated with the concept of immortality, accomplishment and having the secret edge. In fact, in 1615 a German doctor suggested that ‘the hot and spiritous blood of a young man will pour into the old one as if it were the fountain of youth’, and in 1924, physician and Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov took this proclamation to heart and began ‘young-blood’ transfusions, and a fellow-revolutionary commented that ‘he seems to have become seven, no 10, years younger’. Unfortunately for Bogdanov, he then injected himself with the blood of a young student with had both malaria and tuberculosis and died. Fail.
Even so, in the last 100 years age has gone from being a final stage (Time magazine headline of 1958: ‘Growing old gracefully’) to something avoidable (Time 1996: ‘Forever Young’) or at least deferable (Time 2015: ‘This baby could live to be 142 years old’. It seems death in this day and age is no longer a metaphysical problem, but simply a technical one. And biohackers are here to help. Some biohackers like author and self-experimenter Tim Ferriss and Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey aim to give us a healthier life followed by a quick and painless death, and they may be onto something — as Eric Verdin, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the leading non-profit in the field, notes, ’if you just kept aging at the rate you age between 20 and 30, you’d live to 1000. At 30, everything starts to change’. From that point our risk of mortality doubles every seven years, and let’s be honest, it’s a downward slope from there.
However, if we could for instance, cure cancer, we would add 3.3 years to the average life, and solving heart disease would get us an extra four. Yet, other groups of biohackers want more — in 2013, Google launched Calico, short for the California Life company, with a billion dollars in funding. Unfortunately, so far, it has proved to be extremely secretive. All that’s known is that it’s tracking 1000 mice from birth to death to try to determine the biomarkers of aging, and that it has invested in drugs that may improve lives of diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease sufferers. But, the good news is, if you’re a normal person rather than a Silicon Valley investor, you don’t have to spend big to biohack your way to better health and performance. Here are a few easily adaptable techniques to make the most out of your body…
Raise your basic aerobic physical activity (but don’t do too much endurance training): It turns out that being physically inactive is quite detrimental to testosterone production. Testosterone is needed for muscle growth, cognitive function, sexual function, mood stability and bone health, and so should feature highly on any biohackers wishlist, and it has been shown in clinical studies that sedentary men who engage in regular physical activity instantly raise their testosterone levels, and do it very significantly. On the flipside, too much endurance training has been shown to lower testosterone levels significantly, which can possible impair testicular function and contribute to premature aging.
Freeze yourself: Cryotherapy (the art of making yourself ridiculously cold) has been utilised by many biohackers to enhance immune function, increase cell longevity and boost release of adiponectin, a hormone that helps to break down fat and repair muscle, and the best news is, it isn’t limited to those with fancy cryotherapy tanks. Biohacker and athlete Ben Greenfield uses ice baths twice a week to restore vitality and recover from injury, and they are simple to prepare. Buy two bags of ice from a nearby petrol station. Drop them into your tub and fill with cold water. Immersion time is approximately four to 12 minutes. Warning though: it’s going to be COOOOOOOOOLD!
Try Intermittent Fasting: We hear a lot about which foods are better for our metabolism, but new research has found that it’s not just what we eat, but rather when we eat that makes the biggest difference. Many biohackers have turned to intermittent fasting to increase levels of growth hormone (as much as five times their normal rate), reduce insulin resistance, lower levels of inflammation and increase cellular waste removal (your inbuilt detox system).
And as a bonus, one study showed that a fast of 12 to 56 hours improved testosterone response by up to 180% in lean men (yet not in obese men). While there are many versions of intermittent fasting out there, the most user-friendly is the ‘16/8’ method, in which you restrict your daily eating period to eight hours — for example, each day you eat from 11am to 7pm, and fast for the other 16 hours. The theory being, while your body is digesting food it is not focused on repair and rejuvenation, so to maximise this period, compress those eating hours.
Inhibit 5-alpha reductase to boost sex drive: A common biohacking therapy involves avoidance of certain foods to maximise biochemical and hormonal levels. 5-alpha reductase is an enzyme that turns testosterone into DHT (dihydrotestosterone) and also often causes male balding. Luckily, natural 5-alpha reductase inhibitors include omega
3 fatty acids found in fish oil, quercetin (an anti-inflammatory nutrient), green tea and flaxseeds. So, add these foods to your daily routine and reap the rewards between the sheets.
Power up your grill: Cooking and charring of food causes harmful compounds to accumulate on the surface, and these compounds are linked to cancer and aging. Luckily, the amount of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) is reduced by up to 90% when meat is marinated for four hours or more in alcoholic beverages and strong spices like garlic, ginger, thyme, rosemary and chilli. Adding turmeric or sour ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar also reduces the amount of AGEs and potentially carcinogenic substances and will have you looking like a professional chef in no time at all.
Utilise red light therapy: Studies have shown that the body responds particularly well to red and near-infrared wavelengths, which range from about 600-900nm. This particular range of light waves are absorbed by the skin to the depth of about eight to 10 millimetres, at which point your mitochondrial chromophores absorb the photons. This in turn activates a number of metabolic and nervous system processes. In simple terms, red light therapy has become an increasingly popular form of biohacking used to treat a number of conditions. It has been proven in clinical study to relieve pain, reduce inflammation and restore muscle and joint function, all while detoxifying the body of waste products and allowing an escape from the stress of electromagnetic transmissions. Best of all, it is non-invasive and chemical free.
Employ technology: Biohackers routinely use sophisticated software and internet crowdsourcing to moderate their tech and lifestyle. f.lux is a software app that can be used to automatically adjust the colour of your computer’s display to the time of day — warm at night and like sunlight during the day. By removing the blue light from your screen at night, it aids in keeping your circadian rhythm in check and prevents blue light from disrupting melatonin (your sleep hormone) secretion, allowing for a deeper and more restful sleep.
Meanwhile, online, the use of health-data crowdsourcing through sites such as CureTogether (now part of the 23andme site) and PatientsLikeMe allows large groups of people to compare clinical research results.
In 2008, after hearing that lithium carbonate may help treat ALS, some individuals who suffered from the disease began taking the substance to see whether it had any effect.
They uploaded their findings to a website and the data was crunched by a team of doctors.
Conclusion: it wasn’t effective. However, many biohackers believe that similar efforts could allow clinical trials to be conducted faster and on a larger scale than ever before. CureTogether currently lists clinical data for treatments (both medicinal and natural) for conditions like allergies, IBS, arthritis and depression, among others. While not a replacement for doctor’s advice, these sites provide information and options often needed in chronic illness. Watch this space, there’s more to come.
Get good fat: Studies show that men who consume a diet containing 20% fat compared with diets of 40% fat have significantly lower concentrations of testosterone in the blood. Many other studies show that getting enough fat from the diet is crucial for testosterone production, and that getting enough cholesterol in crucial to optimal hormone balance. And note, this isn’t an excuse to pound that Big Mac meal.
Testosterone production is fuelled by good fats: avocado, whole eggs (with yolk), fatty fish like salmon and sardines, butter, nuts and coconut oil are good examples to add to the daily regime. However, interestingly for men who exercise, and specifically those who perform an intensive training cycle, it is crucial to eat enough carbohydrates too. In one study two groups were compared in terms of testosterone to cortisol ratio after eating a diet consisting to different amounts of carbs: 30% carbs or 60% carbs. The study found that those who ate 60% of their diet as carbohydrates had significantly higher free testosterone to cortisol ratio than the lower carb group. Cortisol works as a catabolic hormone, meaning it contributes to fat gain and muscle breakdown, while testosterone does the opposite, so bring on the sweet potato and whole grains.
Be a clever flyer: Tests show that if you are flying readily for work or pleasure, you will be constantly exposed to gamma radiation, and that is linked to aging of cells, telomere shortening and cancer. Fortunately, studies show that taking a large dose of antioxidants (such as selenium, vitamin E, vitamin C, CoQ10, N-acetyl Cysteine and Alpha-lipoic acid) before flying reduces the oxidative stress caused by radiation, and that taking a high dose of Omega-3 fatty acids (particularly DHA) before flying prevents inflammation caused by UVB radiation.
And, never fear, post-flight many overseas clinics offer intravenous drips that will infuse an anti-jetlag cocktail of vitamins, minerals and amino acids into your bloodstream and injections of vitamin B12 to provide that get-up-and-go energy that dissipates during a 24-hour flight.
Experiment with DNA testing: Science shows that gene variants called SNPs can affect the way your body absorbs and utilises nutrients and contribute to the risk of certain chronic diseases. While companies like 23andme.com no longer ship their full DNA health profile test to the Australian market, you can run results from Ancestry.com or other ancestry sites through Promethease.com to get a full genetic breakdown of each SNP and then get sites like FoundMyFitness to analyse the results and provide targeted nutrition and lifestyle recommendations to optimise your individual biochemistry and performance. This is the future of medicine as we know it.
Wearables and Implantations: While most of us use wearables like FitBit or the Apple watch to track the way our bodies operate, some Biohackers are taking wearables to a whole new level. Dave Asprey famously has a blood-glucose monitor implanted into his arm (and no, he’s not diabetic) and many of the Silicon Valley crowd are beginning to use implanted microchips (the size of a grain of rice) so that they can use public transport systems and make contactless payments without the need for a debit card or smartphone.
Some of these devices also open electronic doors and high-tech cars, and they are even capable of storing information like bank details and ID numbers, meaning the need for passports, drivers licenses, cash, keys and wallets is near. It seems when it comes to this technology, the opportunities are endless, but even if you don’t have a computer part imbedded in your flesh, some wearables take tracking to a whole new level. The Oura ring is devised to be the world’s most advanced option, giving feedback on sleep, heart rate, variability, and temperature (and how your body responds to each of these, enabling you to get the most out of each day) and is discreet and simplistic in design. A biohackers dream, it allows you to satisfy your curiosity on a cellular level. ■
Brooke Benson Campbell (BHSc) is a Clinical Nutritionist and Naturopath, speaker, writer and presenter with a passion for all things health, beauty and wellbeing. A self-proclaimed human test subject, she is constantly trialling the newest products, seeking the latest discoveries and reading the current clinical studies, in order to share her findings with the public through private practice, social media and industry education. Follow Brooke at her Instagram @the.b.b.c
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