The Cult of Biohacking

Are biotech entrepreneurs on the leading edge of science or just looking to make a quick buck? A little of both, probably.

Apr 7, 2015
Outside Magazine

Biohacking fuels on the same desire for performance shortcuts that drives the supplement industry. The challenge is deciphering the claims that have merit from the bogus ones.    Photo: Hannah McCaughey

In 2004, an overweight tech entrepreneur from the San Francisco Bay Area named Dave Asprey traveled to Tibet in search of enlightenment—and he found it in a cup of yak-butter tea. “Science says I should’ve been feeling like a zombie,” Asprey says, referring to the altitude and his poor health, “but I felt amazing.”

When Asprey returned home, he worked up a Westernized version of the Tibetan brew that combined a specially formulated, low-toxin coffee with concentrated coconut oil and grass-fed butter. Asprey credits the recipe with helping him lose 100 pounds and giving him more energy and improved brain function. The company he launched to sell the ingredients, Bulletproof, has become synonymous with the drink, which, thanks to endorsements of butter-enriched coffee from CrossFit junkies, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Gwyneth Paltrow, is trending. According to Asprey, Bulletproof’s revenues have increased 700 percent since 2013. 

Now the 42-year-old is hoping to build on Bulletproof’s success by carving out a lead role in an emerging movement known as biohacking. 

Promising human performance boosts through everything from superfoods (fish oil) and data tracking (neurofeedback) to personalized health testing (blood panels) and fringe technology (electric brain stimulation), biohacking has all the trappings of the self-improvement industry repackaged for the plugged-in athlete or edge-seeking CEO. Think Tim Ferriss’s human-lab-rat approach in The 4-Hour Body mashed together with the whiz-bang gadgetry of SkyMall and the altruistic business jargon of Silicon Valley. Asprey is not the only entrepreneur embracing the biohacking movement, but he’s already its biggest player. He now runs the annual Bulletproof Biohacking Conference, a three-day, $1,599-per-ticket event in Pasadena, California, featuring dozens of speakers and hundreds of participants, as well as the website BulletproofExec, which sells wellness products—including a $30-per-ounce antiaging serum and a $50 sleep-induction mat—and produces the top-rated health podcast on iTunes. (Sample episode: “Ketosis and Oxygen Toxicity.”) 

Biohacking, thanks to Asprey and Bulletproof coffee, is having a moment, one that feeds on the same desire to locate performance shortcuts that fuels the supplement industry. But it’s hard to separate the bona fide claims from the bogus ones, especially given how broadly biohacking is defined. Judging by the vendors at Bulletproof’s conferences, radical groups like transhumanists—who implant magnets and computer chips in their bodies—as well as anyone with a sleep-monitoring app on their smartphone all fall under the biohacking umbrella. And much of what the companies are selling doesn’t exactly sound new.

“There’s a lot of salesmanship and a lot of hype,” says Marc Hellerstein, a professor of metabolic nutrition at the University of California at Berkeley. “Since the ancient Greeks, people have been trying to improve health. Calling it hacking is just putting a techy, 21st-century name on it.” 

Still, there are a handful of things that make bio-hacking novel. The first is self-experimentation. Thanks to the proliferation of wearable tech and fitness trackers, a slew of personal data is now available to anyone who wants it. You can monitor blood-glucose levels, muscle activation, and heart-rate variability with a single device. It costs only $50 for a DNA or biomarker test from diagnostic companies like 23andMe and InsideTracker, and you can learn a lot from the data—especially if you’re willing to pay to have it analyzed by professionals and adjust your diet and exercise habits accordingly. But, cautions Hellerstein, not everything being tracked is useful. “What they need is to find out what to measure,” he says. Steps walked in a day, for example, shouldn’t be a primary indicator of good health.

Another tenet of biohacking is the use of health-data crowdsourcing through sites such as CureTogether and PatientsLikeMe, which allow large groups to compare research results without relying on government- or university-funded studies. In 2008, after hearing that lithium carbonate may help treat ALS, some individuals who suffered from the disease began taking the substance to see whether it had any effect. They uploaded their findings to a website, and a neuropsychologist crunched the data. Conclusion: the drug wasn’t effective. Many believe similar efforts could allow clinical trials to be conducted faster and on a larger scale than ever before. Biohackers find this research approach particularly promising. Mainstream doctors don’t believe their claim? No problem. They’ll crowdsource the data to back it up.

Of course, such studies would probably be conducted with little to no oversight, which is a third factor common in the biohacking movement. The FDA doesn’t regulate many of the products associated with it, and without peer review, crowdsourced studies do little to guarantee the safety of any particular hack. Sometimes people go overboard. Says Rhonda Patrick, a fellow at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, “That might mean being too enthusiastic with dosage and taking drugs that have negative long-term side effects that haven’t been figured out yet by the academic community.”

Still dying to join the movement? Start small, and do your research. (See “Science or Snake Oil?” below for a rundown of five common biohacks.) In the meantime, save the butter for your toast.    

Science or Snake Oil? 

Go for It: 

Electric Brain Stimulation
The Claim: Attaching electrodes to your temples and running light electrical current through your brain can help with anxiety and insomnia, increase your pain threshold, and improve reasoning.

The Reality: Scientists have investigated transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS, since the 1960s and found that it can do all those things. What they don’t know: the long-term effects, good or bad. That makes tDCS a gamble—especially if you self-administer. 

The Claim: The hallucinogen enhances creativity. 

The Reality: It does. Researchers are also enthusiastic about using it to treat cancer patients, alleviate depression, and boost well-being, if the drug is administered in a controlled environment.

Fitness Trackers
The Claim: Data-collection gadgets motivate people to be active.

The Reality: Wearable tech may not accurately estimate calories burned or distance traveled, but research shows that it can make us move—if we keep using it. Thirty percent of us ditch trackers within six months.

Don’t Bother:

Whole-Body Vibration
The Claim: Standing on a pulsating plate strengthens the immune system, stimulates brain function, improves strength, and slashes recovery time.

The Reality: Studies have shown that whole-body vibration is unlikely to affect immunity and may actually impair brain function. It could be useful for reducing muscle soreness, but no more than light exercise.

Bulletproof Coffee
The Claim: Bulletproof’s Upgraded coffee contains lower levels of mycotoxins—carcinogenic chemicals produced by molds; butter from grass-fed cows helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels; and MCTs, fatty acids found in coconut oil, promote high energy levels, fat loss, and improved brain function.

The Reality: The quantity of mycotoxins in coffee isn’t considered harmful by the FDA. (In fact, the toxins are found in numerous foods, including beer, wine, and peanut butter.) Some studies suggest grass-fed butter doesn’t provide any health benefits, and butter of any kind may increase bad LDL cholesterol. Evidence that MCTs boost energy and brain function and promote long-term fat loss is flimsy at best.

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