Taking control of your body systems to achieve fitness and optimum functioning is fast becoming popular. What does it entail, and what do medical practitioners feel about it?
By Vaishali Dar
What happens when you have green tea in the morning? Does it increase your metabolism or burn your body fat? Has sleep deprivation, in combination with late night eating, become problematic? Does intermittent fasting work? We, as humans, have a habit of presuming many things, and following them as rituals. Some may have been prescribed by our dieticians, doctors and nutritionists, but many are just blind fads. Perhaps the mind can have a powerful influence on the body, and in some cases it can help the body heal. It may even try to trick you into believing that a ‘fake’ treatment can be therapeutic or may have a ‘placebo effect’.
While the possibilities are endless, most of them are rooted in the idea that we can change our mind and body to become smarter, faster and better human beings. This might seem like a paradigm shift, but in real life many are able to work on their bodies in order to identify a perfect health cycle. One such term that helps gauge your body cycle and takes control of your own biology is known as biohacking. The term may sound like a big word with a bigger meaning and huge implementation to it, but it is simply a concept that determines your body type, eating habits and lifestyle suited to your body. It is an experiment on your body that works by altering your lifestyle in order to live the best life – a few modifications could change the way you work biologically, thereby helping you feel better in a lot more ways. But first, we understand the concept.
Bio means life and hacking comes from computer programming. Thus, it is the practice of cracking the code of your own body for better performance. So it helps modify the composition of the biological system and helps decode the body capacity. Many examples of experimentation have shown results. A report posted on pbs.org clarifies this. US entrepreneur and author Dave Asprey, who founded
Bulletproof 360 in 2013 and Bulletproof Nutrition in 2017, and considers himself a biohacker, hacks his own biology in order to gain control of systems in the body that you would never have access to. Asprey says he has used biohacking, new technical measurement tools and bulletproof coffee, a drink that combines coffee, oil, and butter (creamy coffee served warm and looks similar to a latte) to alter his cognition, weight and general health. He takes supplements, applies electricity to his brain and his muscles to improve his body and his mind. He has not got his work evaluated by any scientist, but maintains that he “is a professional biohacker, so I spend most of my time sharing what I’m doing with people and writing about it online”.
Hit & trial
Self-experimentation gives you tremendous indications about how your body behaves to certain changes and this helps you to better the hack. Shayamal Vallabhji, sports scientist, performance psychologist and biohacker, who is the managing director of HEAL Institute, a chain of high-end sports medicine and physiotherapy centres in Mumbai, details it out. “Biohacking is a thinking approach which combines thoroughly researched, scientifically backed information with personal experience, critical thinking, and the most obvious requirement of an open mind. It is a methodology that focuses on optimising the performance of the human body,” he says. So when a biohacker is in tune with the changes he is expecting, he can easily monitor the outcome according to how he feels on a weekly or fortnightly basis. Personally monitoring the results with scientific evidence against sleep patterns and performance metrics like variable heart rate helps.
When 29-year old Brazilian resident Vitor Rodrigues Brum started to practice biohacker techniques in 2015, he experienced visible benefits in his body. A commercial technical consultant trained in mechatronics, Brum through his experiences has seen the body adapt to changes. “Everybody reacts differently in behaviour — whether in sleep, diet, physical exercises — but it is important to take note of every reaction, study and discover how our body works. I have spoken to other biohackers and have been regularly consulting doctors and specialists to validate experiments,” he admits.
Mumbai-based Vishal Gondal, founder & CEO, GOQii, a smart-tech enabled, integrated preventive healthcare platform headquartered in California, that offers a wearable fitness band paired with remote personalised coaching, also believes that biohacking is a shortcut tool to achieve maximum potential from the body to be the best version of yourself. “It is self-experimenting with your own body by making changes to your lifestyle and behaviour in order to hack your body’s biology and feel your best. It is a do-it-yourself self-biology tool that helps you transform yourself so as to feel energised, be more productive and overall feel good about yourself. It is a simple, minimum effort to gain maximum result and it is cheap as well. You do not need to spend one hour in the gym for a cardio exercise when you can achieve the same result by doing a 10-15 minutes of interval cardio training,” he says.
If you want to be the best version of yourself and live a quality life, the answers may lie in what these self-experimenters are doing. So how does one learn from the outcome of their self-experimentation? Pinky Daga, CEO, Thriive Art & Soul, runs a digital directory portal with verified wellness therapists and she feels that biohacks literally explain how these may or may not work for your body. “This, in essence focuses that what might work excellently on me may not work well for you. That’s why these are called hacks, right? Self-experimentation will tell you about how good your body is and what is best suited for you,” she says. On the other hand, wellness expert Shruti Chaturlal Sharma feels, “The best way to biohack is by bringing small changes in your lifestyle, giving some time to your body to adjust and see how you feel. In the end, stick to the things that work for you, and ditch the ones that don’t. After all, you are the expert when it comes to your own body!”
Nonetheless, biohacking might increasingly be responsible in helping the advancement of wearables and wellness technologies like health monitors and fitness trackers. Biohackers self-experiment and have the data to prove what is working on them and even validate every piece of science that hits the market. “This is because we are in tune with the consumer and our opinion and experimentation processes lay the foundation for other consumers. If there is a loophole in the technology, we will find it and if the technology is value for money, we make sure everyone knows,” says Vallabhji.
What works well?
Experts believe that there are many ways to keep a tab on your body. So how does one start well? Pick a single biohack and stick to the process for 21 days. Alternatively you can pick a biohack in one of the four categories — body, mind, relationships and environment, says Vallabhji.
Daga advises to change eating time. “If you expect your body to work like a machine non-stop while feeding it fodder as and when you erratically please, it is going to affect you badly. Just fix a routine for yourself and eat at specific timings, so your body functions well. Say no to addictive sugar, sleep well and start standing up more often and do your body this favour.”
Brum thinks wearing orange sunglasses after sunset blocks blue light and helps our body to produce melatonin naturally. “Meditation goes beyond the spiritual realm; it helps you to put things in order in your mind and a 15-minute sunbath every day helps in the natural production of vitamin D,” he adds.
However, Gondal has learnt to biohack his willpower by wearing only red, so he does not waste time trying to figure out every morning what to wear. He eats the same things daily. He explains, “Intermittent fasting is good when I fast for almost 14-16 hours a day. After dinner, I have my lunch. Once a week, I also do a 24-hour fasting, and it works; every two months I do a blood test, it gives me my biomarker and then I can work on it to improve the parameters. Most importantly, I have learnt to hack my sleep. I apply essential oil to my pillow, adjust the temperature in my room to about 18-19 degrees and keep it dark and also keep my phone outside of the room. This has helped me sleep better.” He also suggests consuming one kg turmeric a month. “I take curcumin for improving immunity and my work gets done with a little shot of it.”
Vallabhji proposes cold showers in the morning and evening, coffee with theanine for improved focus and cognitive function; exposure to red light before bed to increases the quality and quantity to deep sleep; Buyteko breathing (a method to optimise oxygenation and initiate a stress reduction response) to increase the uptake of residual oxygen from the lungs – which increases red blood cell production and oxygen uptake.
But there is a word of caution from Brum, “The novice biohacker must always do tests with the recommendation of the doctor, as they can guide you the right way. But there are biohackers who with much study and research can do risky experiments on themselves, thanks to smart bands, posture t-shirts, brainwave reader and other wearables.” Even Gondal suggests, “It is not for everyone. Self-experimentation can lead to failed experiments so make sure you know the risks and possible solutions before you jump in.”
So can biohacking be applied to any field? Since it is literally a combination of some of the best practices in wellness — fitness of body, balance of food, calmness of mind — it’s actually a formula. “If you apply taking the best practices of any field and deriving the most effective proven methods to create long-lasting results, then yes, the concept of bio-hacking can be applied to any field,” suggests Daga. Any change you wish to make in life will come from hacking one or more of these components.
For instance, take this case of a celebrity conflict on social media, which has raised awareness about the health dangers of dietary supplements. S Bryn Austin, an expert in eating disorders at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, in an opinion piece took note of a scathing comment of British star Jameela Jamil on reality TV stars, the Kardashians, who have for years promoted the use of, what Austin called, ‘detox teas’. “Teas do not detox, it is our bodies that come complete with livers, kidneys and other bodily processes designed to do that,” Austin wrote. “These products are no more than a lucrative Trojan horse masquerading as a ‘wellness hack,’ cleverly engineered to get millions of people to abuse laxatives in hopes of looking thin.” Austin called detox teas “dangerous and sometimes life-ending toxic brews”.
However, medical science requires cogent evidence to approve of this kind of experimentation. “It can be best described as a ‘fad’,” says Piyush Ranjan, gastroenterologist and vice-chairman of the department of gastroenterology at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi. “Biohacking has to have some scientific rationale or report by some knowledgeable person in biology. It has to come through research to have scientific validation. The downside of biohacking is that there is no regulatory mechanism. It is just out-of-the-box thinking, an amusement, or you may call it an experimentation of sorts. I would not approve of this. In fact, many people may not be even aware of this term also, so why fall for this?,” he says. Even Gourdas Choudhuri, head of department, gastroenterology, Fortis Memorial & Research Institute, Gurugram, agrees, “Call me a conservative, but biohacking is an emerging fad to crack your body and experiment with its biological system to enhance performance. It is a weird thing to try at present times. A misfired computer hack could land you in jail, but misfired bio-hacking could harm your body or kill you.”