BIOHACKING (PART ONE)
More Than Human?
From age-old practices like meditating and fasting, to cutting-edge genetic engineering software like CRISPR, and Elon Musk’s brain-machine interfaces, Neuralink. What is biohacking?
Twitter founder Jack Dorsey does it (he only eats once a day and never on a weekend); so does Elon Musk (he’s developing a microchip that can be inserted straight into the brain); and even the half-naked guy shivering in the frigid tide-pool at 7am – biohacking.
In its most rudimentary form, the practice of biohacking can be described as doing things that optimise your body and mind’s function. Essentially, having a regular sleeping schedule or cutting out sugar could be considered a biohack (though most of us would just call that healthy living). American entrepreneur and founder of Bulletproof nootropics Dave Asprey who has been boisterously claiming that he is the “father of biohacking”, provides a second definition: biohacking is “the art and science of becoming superhuman”.
In fact, “biohacking” personalities like Asprey, Josiah Zayner, Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey are doing all that they can to transcend what we have come to think of as “regular” humanness. Often claiming to be at the forefront of life-hacking technology and theory, they are constantly experimenting with the human body in attempts to make it stronger, faster, smarter, younger, more efficient. Some of their fellow biohackers around the world – painstakingly track every bodily consumption and function in order to reach optimum performance, or implant chips into their hands for maximum technological efficiency, or engage in the vampire-like practice of replacing one’s blood with that of young donors in an attempt to find the fountain of youth.
There is a reason these biohacking celebs have become people of intrigue: they often take things to the extreme, further than most of us would be comfortable. And indeed, using science and technology as a sort of shortcut to enhancing your body and mind, as well as potentially increasing your lifespan, is arguably appealing to most people.
But luckily there are also ways to biohack that don’t involve endless hours of tracking, calculating and inserting foreign objects into your body, methods much closer to the realm of comfortable that are purported to actually help with things like boosting the metabolism, the immune system and concentration without going all the way cyborg.
All the way to extreme wellness
Remember the guy, semi-naked, frigid in the tidepool at 7am? This practice, a combination of cold therapy (diving into very cold water), dynamic stretching and breathing techniques is part of the Wim Hof method, which is said to help you “realise your full potential”.
As per the many deep breathing, scantily clad bodies on the beaches and in the tide pools early in the morning, the method is seemingly popular in Cape Town (perhaps because of the accessible ice water that is the ocean) and is thought to do a wealth of awesome things, including burn fat, reduce stress and boost the immune system.
The Wim Hof method is named after its founder, a self-proclaimed “crazy Dutchman” from the Netherlands. Also known as the “ice-man” for the varied but equally death-defying feats he has accomplished in exceedingly cold climates, including (but not limited to) climbing Kilimanjaro in shorts, running a half-marathon above the arctic circle barefoot, and finishing a full marathon in the Namib desert without drinking a single drop of water, Hof has made it his mission to spread his superhuman, cold-enduring abilities to those of us lesser beings who struggle to get our noodle arms out of bed in the winter.
According to Hof, all noodle arms can get out of bed and “tap into happiness, strength and health” by following his simple three-tier method. The tiers –breathing exercises, gradual exposure to cold and training of concentration and commitment – must be done in parallel with one another to feel the full effects.
The practice, usually done in the morning before breakfast, should look like some iteration of this: The first step, the breathing exercises, are surprisingly simple. They include breathing in and out purposefully (but without forcing anything) for a couple of minutes. The idea is that there is no pause between the inhale and exhale, “like a cycle” Hof explains in a tutorial video, “like a wave.” At the end of this short but intense breathing period, Hof asks you to exhale and hold your breath – the tutorial starts with holding for one minute, but the idea is to hold for as long as you feel comfortable (which will get longer and longer with practice), after which you release and start all over again.
In simplified terms, the breathing technique has been developed over time by Hof to expand the diffusion surface of your lungs, thereby increasing oxygen and decreasing carbon dioxide levels in your blood. The altered ratio of oxygen/carbon dioxide allegedly raises the PH of your blood, alkalising your body and lowering the number of acids (like lactic acids) produced by your cells that are often responsible for feelings of pain. Oxygen, while not always essential, is a pretty central aspect of energy production on a cellular level, so the heightened levels of it in your blood should – said Hof – energise your entire body.
Next, Hof recommends push-ups and yoga-based stretching. To get your body warmed up, of course, but also to flex just how much energy the breathing exercises give you.
The last physical step of the process is the cold exposure. This can take the form of an ice bath, a very cold shower, or floating around in a freezing tide pool for a significant amount of time. “Significant” here, means at least one minute when you are starting out with the method, but for as long as you can once you have been practising for a while.
It is believed that the shock that your body experiences when suddenly exposed to the cold water triggers a release of norepinephrine, which, similar to adrenaline, mobilises the brain and body into action. This represses the immune system, which decreases the number of inflammatory proteins (which cause swelling and aches and pains of all sorts) produced and catalyses the cardiovascular system to redirect blood around the body in order to warm itself up. It also supposedly causes the body to burn “browned fats” which are energy-rich fats that burn immediately for the sake of providing the body with heat and energy. If practised regularly, the physiological systems learn and become more efficient (your veins are strengthened and white blood cell count increased) and you may even become (somewhat) cold resistant. A more in-depth explanation of the biological details (how exactly the mitochondria break down the fats into energy) can be found here.
The third tier, the training of concentration and commitment, is a little less concrete. The idea is that you have to commit and concentrate while going through the steps of the Wim Hof method, but also that, through the practice of doing the method, you will strengthen your powers of concentration and commitment. A winning cycle.
Some studies, like the one published in 2018 and dubbed “‘Brain over body’ – A study on the wilful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure”, raves about the positive effects of the Wim Hof method, especially those pertaining to a decrease in inflammation, an increase in metabolism and a strengthened immune system.
In fact an experiment was done on Hof himself in 2010 by scientists from UMC St Radboud, in which he was injected with components of E.coli that, while harmless, would make a normal person pretty sick with flu-like symptoms. Hof believed that through his method he could regulate the autonomic nervous system (the system that regulates breathing, internal organs, digestion, heartbeat and all the other things we do subconsciously) and thereby directly influence his immune system. Hof not only did not feel any symptoms from the E.coli, but also produced fewer than half of the inflammatory proteins that usual test subjects produce.
In 2014 a follow-up study titled “Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans”, was done to determine whether Hof was an innately superior human being who could control his own immune system, or whether other people could learn how to do it, too.
Twenty-four volunteers were involved – half of them trained with Hof beforehand and half were controls. Incredibly, the 12 that were trained in the Wim Hof method showed significantly fewer flu-like symptoms, lower body temperatures and fewer inflammatory proteins in the blood. They too had benefited from Hof’s teachings.
What would it mean to be able to control our immune systems? Imagine being capable of out-concentrating a disease! In the context of today’s Covid-riddled world, it sounds like an incredible promise.
However, the studies only proved that Hof and his trainees were able to suppress the immune system by stimulating cortisol, a stress hormone. A suppressed immune system means fewer inflammatory proteins in the blood, which means fewer symptoms. But the E.coli components injected into Hof and co were dead, they were harmless; the symptoms they should have felt because of the injection would have been the body’s reaction to a trick, a reflex. When it comes to active and harmful diseases, there is a reason our immune system flares up. These studies did not prove that Hof could by any means avoid a real illness at all.
On that note, it’s important to point out that some of the more complex alleged benefits, like fibromyalgia relief, autoimmune disease relief, COPD management, and the ever-expansive and ambiguous umbrella of “health improvements” are not well researched enough to be considered as conclusive.
In addition, as with any method or experiment on one’s body, one should be cautious about practising the method without the supervision of a medical expert or advice. In 2017, it was reported that two people had died while trying a breathing technique called “controlled hyperventilation”; they allegedly “drowned from doing these yoga relaxation exercises in the water”; the method is one promoted by Hof, although his website warns not to “practise it before or during diving, driving, swimming, taking a bath or any other environment/place where it might be dangerous to faint”.
Yet, Hof, having once been thought of as a fringe character – a freak of nature if you will, capable of unbelievable and inhuman accomplishments – is beginning to make waves in more mainstream science: from appearing in 2008, on EenVandaag, a Dutch television programme, saying, “I want to take it from circus act to scientist, my body is my laboratory”, to being part of a 2020 episode of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Lab series.
The episode in question features the Goop ladies on a trip to Lake Tahoe, California, to do a workshop with Hof himself. After jumping into a dangerously cold body of water, Goop executive editor Kate Wolfson, twitching in her chunky knit sweater with tears in her eyes, tells Hof: “Like… I don’t mean to sound cheesy. But that was like a turning point in my life.” Her vocal fry touches Hof in a way that the ice never could.
To do the Wim Hof method safely and effectively one needs an instructor, or to buy a subscription to Hof’s video series, starting at $300 (about R4,280), for the fundamentals course.
In the realm of biohacking products, and for something a little less extreme, there are Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof products, called nootropics and known to some as “smart drugs”.
Avowing cognitive enhancement, these little nuggets of (alleged) genius come in the form of prescription drugs, like Adderall and Ritalin, as well as less-regulated alternatives. Asprey’s brand Bulletproof falls into the latter category. The brand is most famous for its coffee, a mixture of coffee beans, MCT oil and butter which the website maintains helps you feel full while increasing your focus and metabolism. Other nootropics that the site offers include supplements that aid your mood, memory, gut health, performance, immunity and sleep. With Bulletproof, the idea, as mentioned by Jenna Wortham in a New York Times article from 2015, is “that you can outsource that work. ‘That fundamental laziness, where I want everything to be easier, is part of what drives me,’ he (Asprey) told me that first day. ‘I don’t want to do more work than is necessary to do great things. I don’t see why anyone should do more work than is necessary to do great things.’”
But, as Wortham also pointed out in this article, “there are more than a few nutritionists who are dubious about Asprey’s bold claims. It’s hard not to be – there’s little research outside his own that backs them up […] We all want to live forever, and if changing one thing in our diets can do that, we can all hope. The success of the dietary-supplement industry is best explained by wish-fulfilment fantasies.” That’s not to say that other nootropics do not work, just make sure to do your due diligence before spending any significant amount of money on them.
Apart from his own products, Asprey is also an advocate for intermittent fasting, an increasingly popular diet that calls for extended periods of not eating. There are a few different ways to do it, the most popular being the 16/8 method, in which one fasts for 16 hours and has an eight-hour feeding window. Within the feeding window (usually falling between 12pm and 8pm), an intermittent faster may eat what they want. Other approaches include the Eat-Stop-Eat (a 24-hour fast two times a week), and alternate-day fasting (fast for a day, eat normally for the next, and so on.)
Intermittent fasting is reportedly highly effective in weight-loss endeavours, though it’s up for debate as to whether it is superior or similar to other calorie-restrictive diets. The reason for its alleged effectiveness has to do with metabolic switching – the idea is that after 10 to 12 hours the body depletes its glycogen (stored glucose) and starts burning ketones (energy made in the liver by breaking down fat.) Ostensibly, the presence of ketone bodies also has some influence over glucose regulation, blood pressure, heart rate and abdominal fat loss.
In 1988, a study called “Retardation of ageing and disease by dietary restriction” showed that intermittent fasting has a direct correlation to extended life span in rodents, although it is still highly debated as to whether this translates to humans. It has become clear that a number of variables, like sex, genetic composition and age, also determine whether or not intermittent fasting works for you.
Still, as mentioned before, Dorsey eats one simple meal (usually salmon or chicken) on weekdays, and on the weekend he fasts from Friday to Sunday. The man is, one could say, robotic in his discipline, but his method also raised concerns, drawing parallels with diets that can sometimes trigger more obsessive behaviours around food, such as eating disorders.
The Wim Hof method, nootropics and intermittent fasting are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hacking life. Some biohackers, like Asprey, believe that the first person who will live to be 1,000 years old is already alive today. The question becomes, if you lived to 1,000 years old, what would you look like?
As Mark Grief, co-founder of literary magazine N+1, aptly puts it in his book Against Everything, “the haste to live mortal life diminishes. The temptation towards perpetual preservation grows. We preserve the living corpse in an optimal state, not so we may do something with it, but for its own good feelings of eternal fitness, confidence and safety. We hoard our capital to earn interest and subsist each day on crusts of bread. But no one will inherit our good health after we’ve gone.” DM/ML
In part two of our series Back to the Future: ‘Smart drugs and smart eating’, we take a deep dive into the world of intermittent fasting as a way to optimise bodily functions, and smart drugs as a way to enhance one’s mental capabilities.
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