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BIOHACKING: WHEN HUMANS TRANSCEND BIOLOGY
Arin Natania. S,
Doctor of Pharmacy, Sri Ramakrishna Institute of Paramedical Sciences, Coimbatore,
Biohacking is a do-it-yourself citizen science merging body modification with technology. The motivations of biohackers include cybernetic exploration, personal data acquisition, and advocating for privacy rights and open-source medicine. The emergence of a biohacking community has influenced discussions of cultural values, medical ethics, safety, and consent in transhumanist technology.
What is biohacking?
Biohacking can be described as citizen or do-it-yourself biology. For many “biohackers,” this consists of making small, incremental diet or lifestyle changes to make small improvements in your health and well-being. Biohacks promise anything from quick weight loss to enhanced brain function. But the best biohacking results come from being well-informed and cautious about what works for your body. Read on to learn how biohacking works and how to do it safely.
What are the different types of biohacking?
Biohacking comes in many forms. The three most popular types are nutrigenomics, DIY biology, and grinder.
Nutrigenomics focuses on how the food you eat interacts with your genes. This popular, although controversial, type of biohacking is founded on the idea that your body’s total genetic expression can be mapped out and optimized by testing how different nutrients affect your healthTrusted Source over time. Nutrigenomics also looks at how different nutrients affect how you feel, think, and behave.
2. DIY biology
DIY biology (or DIY bio) is a type of biohacking spearheaded by people with education and experience in scientific fields. These biohackers share tips and techniques to help non-experts conduct structured experiments on themselves outside of a controlled experimental environment, like labs or medical offices.
Grinder is a biohacking subculture that sees every part of the human body as hack-able. In general, grinders seek to become “cyborgs” by optimizing their bodies with a combination of gadgets, chemical injections, implants, and anything else they can put into their body to make it work the way they want it to.
Does biohacking work?
Does biohacking actually alter your biology? Yes and no.
Does nutrigenomics work?
Nutrigenomics may “hack” your biology in several ways, such as:
decreasing your risk of developing a diseaseTrusted Source that you’re genetically predisposed to helping you achieve physical, mental, or emotional changes, such as losing weight or reducing depression symptomsTrusted Source helping optimize a bodily function, such as your blood pressureTrusted Source or gut bacteriaTrusted Source
Food does impact your genes. But not everyone’s bodies respond in the same way to changes in diet or habits. A 2015 review of current nutrigenomics research suggests that minor gene expression changes are only one piece of the larger puzzle. Other factors like exercise, stress levels, and weight all play a role in your body’s response to food.
Do DIY bio and grinder biohacking work?
There are numerous examples of DIY bio and grinder experiments that have resulted in their intended outcomes. A 2015 Gizmodo piece profiled a man who injected a chemical compound called Chlorin e6 into his eyes to give himself night vision. It worked — sort of. The man was able to make out people moving in the dark of night in the woods. This is because Chlorin e6 temporarily alters molecules in your eyes known as photosensitizers. This makes cells in your eyes more receptive to light. But as with any experiment on or modification of the human body, there can be dangerous or fatal consequences.
DIY bio also can be tricky if you’re not trained. A 2017 piece in the UC Davis Law Review warned that exposure to harmful biological agents could cause health problems or break international bioterrorism laws. The grinder ethic can be especially dangerous. A 2018 New York Times piece covered grinders who inserted RFID chips in their bodies to access secure areas in hospitals or put sound-enhancing magnets in their ears to have “built-in” headphones. This may sound very futuristic, but implanting foreign objects into your body can expose you to inflammatory reactions that can cause chronic infections. It may also increase your risk of developing cancer.
Is biohacking safe?
Some forms of biohacking may be safe. For example, taking certain supplements or making changes to your diet can be safe. Even some body mods, like RFID implants, may be safe when overseen by a medical professional. Some biohacking methodologies border on the unsafe or even illegal. DIY bio and grinder sometimes center around experiments that aren’t considered safe or ethical in research facilities.
Experimenting on humans, even if it’s just on yourself, is still generally considered a big taboo Trusted Source in biology because of the unintended consequences or harm that can result. A 2017 report from the Brookings Institute cautions that biohacking simultaneously makes science available to everyone while also introducing countless new safety concerns. Understanding the long-term consequences of altering genes or experimenting in other ways on humans can be difficult without traditional, controlled experimentation.
How can you use regular blood testing to biohack?
Blood work is a key to effective biohacking. It can tell you a lot about your body’s levels of various nutrients and components like plasma and cell count. Blood tests can tell you if a new food you’re eating is affecting your vitamin levels or helping you to achieve a specific biological process. For example, getting a blood test before and after taking vitamin B12 supplements for greater cognitive function can show you whether the supplements have affected your B12 levels.
You can biohack without regular blood tests. Changing your diet or habits can have noticeable effects on your overall sense of well-being, or it may affect specific symptoms you’re targeting, like digestive concerns or headaches. But blood tests give you raw data to work with. They can tell you whether your biohack is working at a cellular level.
What’s the difference between biohacking and biotechnology?
Biotechnology is a broad term referring to the study of biological processes to inform technological advancement. Biotechnology can range from using bacterial strains for brewing beer to editing genes using CRISPR. Advances or learnings in biotechnology often affect experiments in biohacking, and vice versa. For example, many biohackers use breakthroughs in biotechnology for ideas and data. Biotechnologists also look to experiments done by biohackers to inform directions in biotechnology research. You don’t need biotechnology to biohack. Grinders tend to be the most active users of biotechnology for biohacking purposes. But habit or diet changes don’t require biotechnology.
How do you biohack with nootropics?
Nootropics are substances in natural, supplement, or food and beverage form used to increase cognitive function. This can include your mood, productivity, or attention span. Nootropics are huge in Silicon Valley. Many venture capital-funded firms are focused on nootropics. There’s even a huge Reddit community based around this biohack. You’ve likely already tried a common nootropic — caffeine. Other widely used nootropics include piracetam. Piracetam is a medication used for improving cognitive function. The safety of nootropics is controversial. In supplement form, nootropics aren’t regulated by the FDA.
In food or drinks, nootropics are usually safe unless consumed at high levels. For example, too much coffee can cause a caffeine overdose. Medications used as nootropics can be dangerous unless used as directed by a medical professional. You don’t need nootropics to biohack. They’re popular mainly because they’re easy to get and your body can metabolize them in a few hours or less for quick results.
4 Simple ways to biohack at home
Here are some relatively safe biohacks you can try at home.
1. Drink caffeine
Caffeine is well-known as a productivity booster. If you don’t use it already, start with an 8-ounce serving of black coffee, green tea, or caffeinated foods like dark chocolate. Have your caffeine at the same time every day and keep a journal of how it makes you feel in the minutes or hours afterward: Do you feel more focused? More anxious? Tired? Try tweaking the dose until you find the amount that works best for your goal.
There’s even coffee with a biohacker twist, known as bulletproof coffee. The coffee contains compounds like medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) oil, known as an energy booster and weight-loss toolTrusted Source. There’s debate on the safety of bulletproof coffee. If you’re interested in biohacking your coffee, talk to your doctor first, especially if you have underlying health conditions.
2. Try an elimination diet
An elimination diet is exactly what it sounds like. With an elimination diet, you’ll get rid of something from your diet and then slowly re-introduce it to see how it affects your body. This is a popular option if you think you’re allergic to a food or are concerned that a food may be causing inflammation, such as dairy, red meat, or processed sugar.
There are two primary steps to an elimination diet:
Remove one or more foods from your diet completely. Wait about two weeks, then reintroduce the eliminated foods slowly back into your diet.
During the second, or reintroduction, phase, keep a close eye on any symptoms that appear, such as:
rashes breakouts pain fatigue stomach pain diarrhea constipation other abnormal symptoms
This may mean that you’re allergic to that food.
3. Get some blue light for a mood boost
Blue light from the sun can help you boost your mood or enhance your cognitive performanceTrusted Source. Get a few extra hours of sunlight each day (about 3-6 hours, or whatever’s realistic for you), and see if you notice any changes. But keep in mind that sunlight contains the same blue light that’s emitted from phone and computer screens. This light can keep you awake by interrupting your circadian rhythm. Also remember to wear sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher when out in the sun. That can protect your skin from sun damage.
4. Try intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting is a type of dieting method that involves only eating between certain times, then fasting for an extended period until the next designated time to eat. For example, you may only eat during an eight-hour period from noon to 8 p.m., then fast from 8 p.m. until noon the next day.
Fasting in this way has several proven benefits:
lowering insulinTrusted Source levels so that your body can burn fat more efficiently helping your cells repair any damaged tissuesTrusted Source protecting you from diseases like cancerTrusted Source
Talk to your doctor before beginning an elimination diet if you:
have diabetes or problems regulating your blood sugar have low blood pressure are taking medications have a history of an eating disorder are pregnant or breastfeeding
Biohacking does have some merits. Some forms are easy to do at home and easy to reverse if something goes wrong. But in general, be careful. Experimenting on yourself without taking all the proper precautions can lead to unexpected side effects. Talk to a doctor or nutritionist before making any significant changes to your diet. And make sure to do your own research before putting any foreign substance into your body.
· Kim D.H, et al., Epidermal electronics, Science. 2011; 333: 838-843
· Lupton D.., The Quantified Self: a Sociology of Self-Tracking, John Wiley & Sons, 2016
· Ariff, M. et al. (2014) RFID based systematic livestock health management system. IEEE Conference on Systems, Process and Control (ICSPC), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2014, pp. 111–116
· Warwick K, Transhumanism: some practical possibilities, FIfF-Kommunikation. 2016; 2016: 24-25
· Gasson M.et al.Invasive neural prosthesis for neural signal detection and nerve stimulation. Int. J. Adapt. Control Signal Process. 2004; 19: 365-375
· Carter S, The emergence of art-science. BMJ. 2011; 343: d5133
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