Tech + Health

12.04.13

Hack Your Health: 6 Biohacks That Might Surprise You

By Joe Vennare for Life by DailyBurn

What does Steve Jobs have to do with health and fitness?

Besides his commitment to jogging and eating a whole lot of fruit, the late great Apple CEO did more than just create the iPod shuffle that gets us moving. He predicted a wellness revolution.

“I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology,” Jobs predicted. “A new era is beginning.”

Quantified-selfers, or individuals using new technologies to “hack” their health, know exactly what Jobs was referring to. From weigh-ins and workouts, to REM cycles and steps climbed, almost every move these individuals make is tracked in order to mine their own personal data.

But what’s the point?

According to Gary Wolf, co-founder of the Quantified Self Movement, numbering the nuances of day-to-day existence allows for tests, comparisons and experiments. Many of the most popular biohacks rely on emerging technologies (like the accelerometers used in Nike+ devices and the Fitbit) to gain valuable insights immediately, and over time. “If we want to act more effectively in the world,” Wolf says, “we have to get to know ourselves better.”

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Still, it’s important to note that these self-experiments are no substitute for science. The results are not intended to be a prescription or diagnosis, but more of a contribution to the larger self-tracking conversation.

In self-tracking circles that conversation usually includes mention of, or a contribution from, health hacker extraordinaire Dave Asprey. If the Quantified Self Movement relies on numbers to explain what’s happening, biohackers like Asprey use that data to tweak their biological processes in hopes of making them more efficient.

“We’re now capturing more data on what it means to be a human being than at any time in history,” says Asprey, “and what we’re learning isn’t just telling us what we are. It’s telling us what we can be.”

Cullen Richardson, a Pittsburgh-based entrepreneur and self-described biohacker, operates with the goal of “trying to maximize his biological potential.” After implementing a series of hacks that include neurofeedback and mixing butter in his coffee (see below!), Richardson says he has completely overhauled his life.

He’s noticed improvements in “mood, sleep habits, stress levels and overall well-being.” Beyond that, he also credits his hacking habit for personal growth: “My relationships are stronger, my emotions are in check, and my body is shredded.” Richardson says a few changes to his diet and daily routine provided him with mental clarity and encouraged, what he refers to as a “self-evolution.”

It’s easy to see how all this health hacking talk could come off as complete quackery. It’s also true that biohacking isn’t recognized by the medical community (so tread lightly when altering nutrition or exercise protocols). Still, there is some anecdotal evidence and research — though limited —  in support of all the hack-hype.

Here is a look at six of the most surprising health and fitness hacks gaining steam among self-experimenting populations.

1. Butter for breakfast. We’re not talking about butter on toast or a bagel either. We’re talking about, wait for it… putting butter in a cup of coffee. This isn’t any ordinary butter either; it’s organic, grass-fed butter. And, that’s not all. Mix in a tablespoon of coconut oil, or its more concentrated cousin, MCT (medium chain triglyceride), which biohackers claim pays off in hours of hunger-free energy and focus. That’s because MCT is broken down into ketones, which some research suggests, can be a good source of fuel for the brain. Richardson says that his frothy, buttered coffee is “the best part of his morning,” helping him “hone in on important tasks.”

2. Fat first, and second. In what he touts as an upgraded paleo diet, Asprey has been known to consume 30 to 50 percent of his daily caloric intake from fat sources. After eliminating processed foods like sugar, gluten, grains and alcohol, Asprey suggests eating grass-fed meat and healthy fats alongside organic fruits and vegetables for a more potent punch of nutrients — without all the additives and empty calories.

3, Eat, stop, eat. We’ve been told that grazing throughout the day helps keep our metabolism humming. However, there’s not exactly a ton of evidence to support that fact. Asprey suggests eating when hunger strikes, even if that means skipping a meal. This approach, known as intermittent fasting, favors long periods with no food. Richardson says that this approach is “less of a diet, and more of a pattern” wherein food is consumed during a feeding window. Richardson follows a routine that has him eating his meals between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. each day. Although the techniques differ, the goal is usually the same: accelerated fat loss, improved insulin sensitivity and protein synthesis.

4. Good vibrations. Biohackers like Asprey say that one of the best ways to shake up a lousy workout routine is to actually shake up our bodies using Whole Body Vibration training (WBV). Although researchers are still on the fence, a number of pro athletes and Olympians are sold. They’re using WBV training as part of their workout routine to help speed up weight loss, improve strength and stability, and increase the hormonal response to exercise.

5. Just breathe. Meditation and yoga can help reduce stress, promote productivity, and encourage creativity. The next evolution of these practices is heart rate variability training. This technique extends beyond simply monitoring the heart rate. As Richardson puts it, he is using his “brain and breathing pattern to control his heart rate.” With the help of a biofeedback device like his emWave2 from HeartMath, Richardson sets out to “gain awareness of and alter this physiological function.” Over time, he says he’s been able to “alleviate stress and slip into ‘the zone’ at will.”

6. Shut it down. When it comes to sleep, it’s all about quality. Researchers at the University of British Columbia reported that poor sleep quality can be disastrous for our mental, physical and emotional health. That’s why biohackers like Richardson and Asprey are making an effort to improve their sleep habits. Richardson avoids caffeine after 2 p.m. and usually reads in the evening instead of watching television or surfing the web. Asprey takes the process one step further by using the sleep tracking app Sleep Cycle to monitor the quality of his sleep and detect disruptions.

Or, maybe the question is, “Should you hack it?”

Anyone intrigued by the self-tracking or biohacking can read more on the Quantified Self website and on Asprey’s website, the Bulletproof Executive. Getting started can be as simple as downloading one or more tracking apps to increase awareness about your health.

Biohacking may not be for everyone, and fixating on all the numbers can prove counterproductive for some (not to mention drastically altering your diet isn’t advised without checking in with a medical professional first). But when it comes to simply getting to know ourselves better, in most cases it can’t hurt to dig a little deeper and see what we find.

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