Thursday, March 28, 2019 | 2 a.m.
What if someone told you there was a supplement you could take to boost your mood, a drink you could sip to curb hunger, a five-minute exercise you could do to live longer, a physical therapy you could undergo to look younger, a special coffee you could drink to improve focus, and an implant you could inject to increase muscle mass?
These are the some of the promises offered by a broad, loosely defined movement called biohacking. While those who practice biohacking—dubbed biohackers—adhere to a wide range of philosophies and regimens, the movement is unified by a desire to “optimize” one’s life, usually through means that are outside the realm of traditional Western medicine.
Biohacking evolved from many concepts and subcultures—the rise of Silicon Valley tech culture and the “hacking” of computers, anti-aging clinics and philosophies, the belief that science has an answer for everything, the spread of information through the internet—and all seem to have helped spur the loosely defined movement, said Michael Easter, a visiting lecturer at UNLV who has studied and written about biohacking trends.
Some biohackers drink “bulletproof coffee,” a coffee-and-butter concoction that promises more energy than your average cup. Others adhere to strict diets, practice intermittent fasting and take unusual supplements and nootropics—drugs to improve memory and brain function.
Others seek to optimize their body at the molecular level, experimenting with do-it-yourself gene editing or hormone injections that promise to make one look and feel more youthful, more muscular or some other desired effect.
In one way or another, biohackers question and seek to expand the limits of their bodies by experimenting with self-administered—sometimes unregulated or untested—remedies.
“You’re exploiting science and doing self-experimentation but doing it to improve your performance in a lot of different ways,” Easter said.
Some biohacking methods have documented benefits to the body, while others have not been studied on a large scale. Some of the more extreme practices, scientists and doctors warn, can even be fatal.
“Once you start dealing with pills and supplements that aren’t really regulated or approved for a certain use, it can be a little bit questionable,” Easter said.
Biofeedback refers to the process of learning about certain body functions in order to influence aspects of one’s health. The therapy is usually conducted by a medical professional or medical therapist, who will attach electrodes to the patient. During the biofeedback session, a patient will conduct different exercises, including deep breathing, muscle relaxation and meditation. Research suggests that by allowing patients to monitor their own heart rate, blood pressure or other physical phenomena, the therapy can help treat migraines, chronic pain and other conditions. Biofeedback is generally accepted by the medical community, unlike many aspects of biohacking.
An eclectic, age-old concept
Although biohacking is a 21st-century term, the notion of experimenting on the body—through diets, remedies or altering one’s biology—is nothing new, notes Las Vegas-based biohacker Kary Nguyen.
“It’s a label on a thing that has existed for many, many years. We just didn’t have that term for it,” Nguyen said.
Growing up, Nguyen was exposed to home remedies and alternative medicinal practices, such as acupressure, which spurred his interest in wellness and technology-based biohacking.
Now, Nguyen follows a daily regimen that he believes will increase his lifespan and improve his mood. A more unusual aspect of his regimen involves hanging upside down for five minutes every morning, a trick he picked up from two elderly, but youthful-seeming, women he once met.
“Your brain can’t think if you don’t have blood flowing, so hanging upside down makes sense,” Nguyen said.
Another Las Vegas-based biohacker, Erin Bies, first discovered biohacking because she was interested in losing weight. But it quickly became a lifestyle, rather than just a way to shed some pounds.
“For me, it started as a personal journey,” Bies explained. “I grew up an athlete, and I kind of lost that as I became a mom.”
Seventeen months ago, Bies says she weighed 225 pounds and “didn’t recognize” herself. Then, she discovered the ketogenic diet and ketone supplements, which purport to provide the same benefits as the diet—bringing the body into ketosis, or a metabolic state in which you burn fat instead of glucose for energy.
In addition, she began drinking bulletproof coffee and practicing intermittent, 60-hour fasts on a monthly basis. As a result of these dietary changes, Bies says she has lost 60 pounds.
She now works as an ambassador for Pruvit, a company that makes ketone drinks and supplements, as well as home kits, to assist with fasts that promise to “reboot” the body. Pruvit has mixed reviews online, as some reviewers say they didn’t experience the supposed benefits of the ketone drinks and of ketosis.
But Bies and another brand ambassador, Sarah Ansteth, swear by it. Ansteth similarly started taking ketones to lose weight and improve her health, but now loves the diet because of the effects it has had on her energy and mood.
“After I was doing this pretty consistently for about a month, my daughter looks at me and goes, ‘Mommy, why are you so happy?’ ” Ansteth said.
Soem claim this group of drugs and supplements improves brain function. They can range from familiar substances such as caffeine and turmeric, to the unfamiliar like the neurohacker Qualia Mind and some prescription drugs. Popular nootropic supplements include creatine—an amino acid that some say boosts muscle growth and brain function—and Panax ginseng, a root plant that proponents claim enhances brain and physical functions. Panax ginseng has long been used in traditional Korean and Chinese medicine, but modern studies about the benefits of the root have been inconclusive.
Although some of these drugs are safe and do have proven benefits—some studies suggest that turmeric really does improve your memory and mood—the American Medical Association has condemned the use of prescription nootropics. In particular, the association says prescription drugs intended to treat hyperactivity disorders should not be harnessed by those who don’t suffer from these conditions.
Taking supplements and following an unusual diet or exercise regimen are relatively low-risk biohacks, but some biohackers go to more extreme lengths to “hack” and alter their biology.
One such biohacker is Anastasia Synn, a Vegas-based magician with 21 bodily implants, all of which she had surgically inserted by a nurse and underground DIY-surgeon.
Eleven of these implants are magnets, which she uses for magic performances. One of the magnets, Synn says, is the largest one ever inserted into a human body—two inches in length and a half-inch wide in her forearm.
In addition to the magnets, Synn has 10 microchips of various frequencies in her body that she uses to open and program locks, turn on her computer, play songs and more. All of her implants, she says, heighten her senses.
Although the effects of implanting magnets and other devices haven’t been widely studied, there are risks associated with the practice, primarily infection and exposure to heavy metals or toxins. But Synn says she hasn’t experienced any negative effects, and she believes experimenting with implants will ultimately strengthen and improve the human body—and the human race.
“There’s no reason to stop at repairing people. We should be repairing and improving,” she said.
Rich Lee, a biohacker based in St. George, Utah, also uses “cybernetic implants”—technological devices such as magnets, LED lights and microchips that enhance or alter bodily functions—as well as biological modifications through the gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas9.
In the past decade, geneticists have learned how to harness CRISPR/Cas9 to modify sections of a DNA sequence, and while it is illegal to sell and use versions that haven’t been FDA approved, Lee says the substance can be purchased online from biohacking labs and biohackers.
He recently attempted to use it to eliminate the protein myostatin, a body modification that some research suggests could slow the process of muscle degeneration and increase muscle mass.
But Lee’s injections didn’t go according to plan, and other biohackers who have attempted this have also not experienced increased muscle mass as they hoped. Lee didn’t perform a biopsy after the injections, so he isn’t certain of the results, but he believes his body downregulated the injections, meaning the effect of the foreign plasmid was greatly reduced.
“It worked great for a few hours or days, and then it just stopped,” Lee said, adding that he experienced no physical changes from the injections.
Scientists have sounded alarms about the risks of DIY gene therapy, warning that amateur biologists could inadvertently spread diseases or that their experiments could have unintended consequences on their bodies. But Lee said he has had no regrets about his implants, and that none of his experiments have had long-lasting, negative effects on his health.
“I’ve learned a ton through my failures,” he added.
Nutrigenomics examines the relationship between food, nutrition, health and the human genome, and the effect of particular diets on the body. It has become popular among biohackers, because it studies whether certain diets and habits can reduce the risk of diseases, increase lifespan or lead to other benefits. Most of the research that has been done in this field thus far focuses on obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other preventable diseases. Some biohackers and researchers also consider physical activity and stimuli part of the nutrigenomics equation.
Biohacks for sale and for the masses
While many biohackers adhere to a DIY ethos, the practice has also been popularized by businesses that promise to help you hack your body.
One example is cenegenics, which aims to reverse the effects of aging and increase physical and sexual performance for people reaching middle and old age. The pseudo-medical practice has gained popularity in Las Vegas, as there are now several cenegenics businesses in the area.
These businesses promote a variety of services, including hormone injections to make one look and feel younger, surgical procedures to create a youthful look and even products for menopausal women that promise “vaginal rejuvenation.”
But the effectiveness and safety of these products and services is questionable. In 2004, a 56-year-old California woman died after injecting herself with human growth hormones she obtained from the Cenegenics Medical Institute in Las Vegas. News outlets reported that her friends and family suspected that the growth hormones either caused or accelerated fatal cancer. The Institute did not respond to requests for comment on its current products.
Cryotherapy spas are another business that has grown out of the biohacking era, and they, too, are increasingly common in Las Vegas.
Croytherapy is the practice of exposing oneself to very cold, low-oxygen conditions for short periods of time. Proponents claim it can help you lose weight, reduce pain and slow aging.
One spa in Las Vegas, Ageless Cryotherapy & Wellness in Henderson, offers “localized” cold therapy, mostly for athletes, individuals undergoing physical therapy and those looking to hide the effects of aging, said Doel Cortez, owner and founder of the spa.
“In cold therapy alone, we’ve seen people see so many benefits to their joints, muscles, things like that,” Cortez said.
Cortez also acknowledged some of the drawbacks of cryotherapy, such as the lack of a national and international accreditation system for cryotherapy spas, and that there is no certification process that cryotherapists can undertake. This means that the standards for cryotherapy aren’t always clear.
In addition, the therapies offered at cryotherapy spas aren’t covered by medical insurance, so Ageless Cryotherapy & Wellness has to charge “a pretty good price,” Cortez said.
Nonetheless, Cortez believes that cryotherapy could become more popular and more accepted among members of the medical establishment in years to come.
“The industry is here, and it’s not going to go anywhere,” he said.
Whether or not the same could be said of biohacking remains to be seen. A tenant of the biohacking movement is that everyone should be able to access drugs and biological tools, suggesting that the movement might continue to spread beyond its Silicon Valley roots.
The question is: When will most people be ready to start thinking about their bodies as computers that can be modified, augmented and enhanced? Maybe sooner than expected, Nguyen says, as the science is catching up to some biohacking trends.
“Our bodies are machines,” he said. “So if we can hack machines, why can’t we hack our bodies to increase performance or even return to our normal state?”
• Anastasia Synn is a magician, biohacker and transhumanist who is well-known in the Las Vegas area. She says she has 21 implants in her body—11 magnets and 10 microchips—which heighten her senses and abilities as a magician. For example, the magnets allow her to pick up items without using her hands.
• Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, has said that human biology and technology must merge in order for humans to keep up with technological advances. In that vein, he has announced a venture to “hack” one’s brain, called “Neuralink.” The new neurotechnology company is developing brain implant chips that would be designed to help people suffering from brain injuries. Those behind the venture say the implants would feel completely connected to one’s actual brain, according to initial reports about Neuralink.
• Serge Faguet is a Russian entrepreneur who founded TokBox, a Silicon Valley-based company that helps business incorporate live videos and voice elements on their websites. The 33-year-old swears by biohacking and claims to have spent $200,000 to increase his life expectancy, become more productive and healthy and even increase his self-confidence. In 2017, he took hundreds of drugs and supplements, including estrogen blockers to boost testosterone levels, growth hormones to increase muscle mass and phenibut, a depressant that he said deepened his sleep.
• Dr. Jeffry Life is a doctor and bodybuilder who promotes hormone replacement therapy to reverse the effects of aging on the body. The 79-year-old has gained notoriety for his “old-looking” face and “young-looking,” physically fit body.
Learn more about biohacking
Safe ways to hack yourself at home
1. Try an elimination diet. Remove particular foods from your diet and then slowly reintroduce them. Observe how this affects your body and digestive system. This practice could help you identify food allergies or sensitivities.
2. Try intermittent fasting, either for a few hours or a day—whatever feels manageable and safe for you. Some biohackers say this is a great way to “reset” your body and determine what foods make you feel best, as well as the exact amount of food intake that’s right for you.
3. Meditate. This age-old practice has been known to promote calmness, reduce depression, increase mental clarity and promote restful sleep.
4. Try the ketogenic diet. This popular biohacking diet is low in carbohydrates,and high in fat and protein. The goal is to bring one’s body into ketosis, or a metabolic state whereby one begins to burn fat for energy instead of carbs. Proponents claim it makes them feel less hungry and more alert.
5. Hang upside down for a few minutes or until the blood rushes to your head. See if this has an effect on your brain function and attention span during the rest of the day. The idea is that by bringing the blood to your head, you could increase brain activity.
6. Spend more time in the sun to reap the benefits of Vitamin D. Pain in the arms and legs and muscle weakness are common symptoms of low Vitamin D, which humans get from both dietary sources and sun exposure.
7. Try a supplement or herb, such as CBD oil. CBD is a cannabis plant that promotes sleep and reduces anxiety and pain for some users. It won’t give you the “high” feeling associated with cannabis containing THC.
8. Focus on improving your posture, as slouching can lead to health problems long term. See if you experience everyday benefits, such as less soreness or pain in your torso, by keeping your back straight.
• The Joe Rogan Experience: One of the most popular podcasts in the world, stand-up comedian Joe Rogan often discusses biohacking products and concepts on the podcast, especially as they relate to exercise and fitness.
• Ben Greenfield Podcast: Personal trainer Ben Greenfield focuses on fitness and achieving “the best performance possible.”
• Stellar Life: Focuses on hacking one’s health, wellness and love life. It is hosted by Orion, a “love coach, wellness and transformation expert” and “professional speaker.”
• Smart Drug Smarts: Hosted by Jesse Lawler, this podcast discusses the benefits of certain drugs and ways to take advantage of them, including nootropics, LSD and theacrine, an alkaloid found in certain Chinese teas.
• Intro to Biohacking, by Ari Meisel: Provides an overview on all things biohacking for those interested in transforming their body “into a machine.”
• The Awakened Ape: A Biohacker’s Guide to Evolutionary Fitness, Natural Ecstasy, and Stress-Free Living, by Jevan Pradas: Tackles biohacking from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Pradas’ conclusion is that a “Paleolithic lifestyle” as well as mindfulness meditation are the keys to enjoying life to the fullest.
• Tools of Titans, by Tim Ferriss: A bestseller from the techie and podcaster that explores the habits and lifestyles of successful people, including entrepreneurs, athletes and scientists.
• Superintelligence, by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom: Discusses a world in which machine brains outsmart human brains and ways that humans must adapt to and address advances in artificial intelligence.
• Biohackers Journal, by Caterina Christakos and Sue Bell: Aims to help practicing biohackers keep track of their drug consumption and habits in order to see how they affect one’s physical and mental performance, mood and general well-being.
OsteoStrong: This company runs fitness centers focused on improving one’s bone density and bone health. It describes its sessions, which “utilize a series of robotic musculoskeletal treatment devices,” as “the ultimate biohack.”
Fitbits, Apple Watches and similar devices: These items track one's physical activity, heart rate, sleep quality and more. They are intended to be worn on the body throughout the day for the most accurate results.
AmpCoil: A product that uses biofeedback technology to “neutralize microbes, metals and toxins” in the body and promote wellness in the organs, cells and elsewhere. The main purpose of the AmpCoil system is to strengthen the immune system.
Check out Def Con's Biohacking Village, coming to Las Vegas this summer. Def Con is an annual computer hacker conference that dedicates its Biohacking Village specifically to biohacking and biohackers.
Probiotic foods are rich in gut bacteria and offer proven benefits to the digestive system. Foods containing probiotics include yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh and more. These are especially beneficial to consume when taking antibiotics, which can kill healthy bacteria in the body.
Luminette: A light therapy product that comes in the form of glasses, intended to be worn in the morning in order to expose users to “blue-enriched white light.” The product promises to make you feel more active and awake throughout the day.
The Spire Mindfulness and Activity Tracker promises to help users control stress and breathing, as the device will notify you if your breathing becomes erratic.
TrueLight or TrueDark Energy Squares: LED light therapy products, which promise benefits including “rejuvenation,” “strengthening” and “skin preparation,” expose the body to light spectra not typically offered by natural light, which leads to various biological benefits, according to TrueLight’s website.
Bulletproof coffee: Invented by biohacker Dave Asprey, the coffee can be made at home or purchased online in a ready-to-make kit. The drink consists of brewed coffee, brain octane oil or coconut oil and unsalted butter, clarified butter or both. Asprey claims it provides more energy than your average cup.
Dave Asprey’s biohacking “box” contains DefenderShield earbuds, Branch Basics cleaning kit, Sun Shield sunscreen, Affirmators! cards from Knock Knock and the Fidget Cube, among other items. The box promises to improve one’s “mental, physical and cellular performance.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.