In the ultimate quest for longevity and optimal health, many are turning to the latest trend, biohacking. The self-guided, experimental hack-your-way-to-better-health phenomenon has gained in popularity over the years and is making its way to the masses. You may have heard Twitter Co-founder Jake Dorsey endorsing the practice when he told his followers he benefited from intermittent fasting and drinking salt juice each morning. Or maybe you’ve heard of biohacker influencer Josiah Zayner who injected himself with DNA from a gene-editing technology. Or maybe you have a friend who tracks their sleep and diet down to the minute.
These are all different types of biohacking, and the term itself can mean something different depending on who you ask. So, with all the uncertainty we asked medical and health professionals some of the most commonly asked questions around the latest Silicon Valley wellness trend.
What is biohacking, exactly?
Finding a clear and concise definition of biohacking can be hard, but in general it refers to human augmentation or enhancement aimed at improving one’s performance, health and overall life. Many experts have called it “do-it-yourself-biology” — as more people are taking their health into their own hands, and forgoing seeking traditional medical advice for any ailments or health-related problems they might be facing.
Some examples include meditation or gratitude practice where an individual takes time out of their day to pause and reflect in hopes that they will feel more centered or grounded overtime. Other biohackers ingest nootropics or “smart drugs” that claim to enhance memory or boost brain performance. While the extreme side of biohacking can involve someone implanting a chip into their hand so they can pay for their daily coffee with a swipe of their wrist. Or some have even harvested stem cells from their own bone marrow just to re-inject themselves with those cells to attempt to slow their body from aging.
So, why are people doing this?
On a fundamental level, people attempt to biohack because they want to feel better and be their best possible self. For some, living as long as possible is their ultimate goal, while others simply don’t want to suffer from the same disease their family members did.
Samantha Terrin, a social worker from Des Moines, Iowa says she started biohacking when her great aunt passed away from breast cancer.
“The term biohacking carries a lot of negative stereotypes, and to be very clear, I do not subscribe to any of that pseudoscience,” she said. “However, I do believe that knowing what cancers my relatives had and what mental health struggles they carried with them, can better prepare me and protect me as I get older.”
Terrin completed an in-depth DNA test to better understand her heritage and know what medical concerns her family had. “I have not drank the kool-aid of biohacking, but if getting an in-depth DNA test is biohacking, well I guess I’m a biohacker,” she said.
When can it go too far?
What differentiates biohacking from other medical practices is the mindset. Many people biohack from the school of thought that their bodies shortcomings can be overcome, and it’s up to them to determine how and what to do to correct that. Dr. Jessica Madden, board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Medical Director of Aeroflow Breastpumps says that while mild forms of biohacking like minor dietary changes might be okay, the practice should be approached with great caution. “I have a lot of concerns about the more extreme forms of it, such as implanting magnets into bodies and DIY blood transfusions,” she said. “Therefore, I do not recommend biohacking to anyone.”
And the more extreme forms of biohacking are what brought the medical community and even the FDA out to the forefront of the biohacking conversation. So much so that in February of 2019, the FDA made a statement warning against young blood transfusions. If you’re unfamiliar with the treatment, it’s where an older person buys blood from a younger person and has it injected into their veins in hopes that it will slow their aging process. Another practice is a fecal transplant, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the transferring of stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of an unhealthy person. The practice has been regularly denounced by medical professionals and is still not approved by the FDA.
And with biohacking gaining momentum, the question around the legality of the practice has only just begun. Current regulations are not designed to regulate or legislate biohacking, which means that many biohackers have found themselves operating in a gray zone, while the FDA and regulators do their best to keep up. California was the first state to require all gene therapy kits to come with a warning label that the kits are not safe to administer.
Dr. Madden also heavily warns against ingesting biohacking supplements that are not FDA regulated. “They can contain toxic levels of heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, which can cause nerve and cell damage,” she said.
Can we rethink and reframe “hacking” our health?
With the conversation around biohacking often lending itself to extremes, some experts suggest reframing the term and hacking your health into simple and manageable ways. Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh recommends that women start biohacking their menstrual cycle by understanding their own body’s hormones and natural rhythms.
“Just understanding what your hormones are doing and when in her cycle, can help a woman manage stress better, meal plan and plan her social and work schedule,” she said. “If you don’t know how your hormones change throughout the cycle you should. It’s a powerful way of harnessing your body’s energy into greatness.”
Other experts agree that minor changes like assessing your nutrition, movement, sleep and stress can tremendously improve your overall lifestyle, and ultimately hack your health. Danielle Oldfield, a registered dietitian and holistic lifestyle coach says that writing down small goals that are achievable is a great place to start.
But regardless of what biohacks you seek to implement into your life, experts agree that you should consult with your doctor before making any sweeping health decisions.
“I think it is amazing that people want to take charge of their own health, and find what resonates with them the most,” said Oldfield. “However one has to be careful not to fall trap to nonsense literature, and really make sure that you are getting your information from a scientific and peer-reviewed source. Everyone has a good enough reason why one thing works, but we do need to realize that health is not a one-size-fits-all.”
Before you go, check out some of our favorite quotes for cultivating positive attitudes about food and bodies: