Smart watches can help you biohack

What Is Biohacking: A Beginner’s Guide

It sounds like stuff that you'd read about in a science fiction novel: a microchip implant that opens the door for you; enduring freezing temperatures to improve your health (aka cryotherapy); using special, near-infrared light to heal a wound. Yet there's nothing fictional about it: these are all examples of "biohacking," and as futuristic as they may sound, the idea of hacking one's biology (or DIY biology) for improved health has been around for decades. Indeed, biohacking is only gaining momentum; nowadays, more people than ever are using tactics to optimize their health.

Why is biohacking so buzzworthy? More of us are looking for ways to live our best lives—whether that's by improving physical performance, cognitive function, energy levels, or immune health—or, ultimately, finding hacks to live longer. In fact, you yourself may be a biohacker…many of us are! If you wear a smart watch to monitor (and then tweak) your sleep patterns, or follow a special diet to influence your biology, you're as much of a biohacker as someone who uses special lighting to heal.

Unfortunately, however, not every biohacking approach has solid scientific evidence confirming its efficacy; the jury is out on the health benefits of extreme hacks like gene modification, for example. Intermittent fasting is another hacking technique that has been hotly debated.

Since the buzz on biohacking keeps growing, along with a plethora of contradictory information, we wanted to provide you with everything you need to know about hacking your own biology. Plus, we're sharing 10 biohacks you can easily add to your wellness journey which do have plenty of scientific literature proving their benefits.

What is biohacking?

The term biohacking can refer to a wide range of tactics, depending upon where you're reading or hearing about it. At a high level, though, we can think of biohacking as an approach or practice that aims to change internal and external conditions to augment wellness and performance. As we mentioned previously, this can involve everything from cutting edge technology to changing the timing of when you eat or sleep.

But the technology and lifestyle tweaks are only part of the equation; analyzing data and then making adjustments to your biohacking tactics accordingly is a key part of the process. One thing that's pretty universal about biohacking is that it requires a lot of data collection and analysis.

Most popular types of biohacking

In the pursuit of self-improvement, biohackers do a lot of self-experimentation, using science and technology to alter and optimize their bodies and overall health. These practices can include:

  • Wearable technology

    —Biohackers use technology to track and enhance health, heart rate, steps, sleeping patterns and weight, or get reminders to move, stand and hydrate as an easy way to stay healthy. The Apple Watch is the quintessential biohacking device; other popular gadgets include Ōura rings, Fibits, Garmin and a wide array of smartphone apps. Our take: These devices are an easy way to stay connected with your body. Just take every data point with a grain of salt.
  • Intermittent fasting

    —The idea is to prompt the body to burn fat for energy through caloric restriction. A type of fasting that's gained popularity with people interested in weight loss, intermittent fasting involves intervals of short-term fasting. For some people, that means only picking up a fork between a 4-8 hour window every day, while for others who take a more extreme approach, it means eating only once a day or only during five out of seven days. Our take: While this diet may work for some, it can be too restrictive for others…and there are easier and healthier ways to burn fat.
  • Implant technology

    —Considered by many in the biology hacking community as "the next level," bio-implants are very much what they sound like: implanting technology in your body to enhance quality of life and comfort. A cochlear implant, for example, can help improve hearing and is commonly used among people who are deaf and hard of hearing. And a computer chip between your index and thumb can rid you of carrying a wallet and keys when you leave your home. Our take: More clinical research is needed for sure, but it does look promising.
  • Nutrigenomics

    —This is the practice of consuming specific nutrients based on how those nutrients interact with genes. Think of the calming effects of l-theanine when you sip your green tea. Our take: Nutrient-rich foods provide the body with the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients it needs to thrive. And a large body of research shows how the foods we eat impact our health.
  • Nootropics

    —You turn to nootropics when you want to "keep your head in the game;" maybe you have a big presentation coming up, or you want to boost overall cognitive function. Biohackers use these substances to help enhance mental stamina and performance. For example, studies show sage has remarkable cognitive-enhancing properties and can help modulate multiple pathways associated with health and performance. Our take: The use of nootropics to boost cognition is well documented in the scientific community.
  • Lifestyle changes

    —Biohacking may sound newfangled, but many popular biohacking practices are old-age practices that have been proven by modern-day scientific research to benefit the mind, body and soul. Think meditation, yoga, spending time in nature and cultivating mindfulness. Our take: Adding these daily practices to your wellness routine has been shown to support overall health and well-being.
  • Other hacks

    —What about trending hacks like cryotherapy, blue light blockers, red light therapy and near infra-red light? These biohacks, while popular, have conflicting evidence on the support for health-promoting benefits many biohackers claim. Our take: More research is needed to validate the potential health benefits these hacks bring to the table.

Benefits of biohacking

When you choose to biohack, you're changing the chemistry and physiology of your body. You'll break old patterns and help your body unwind from demanding deadlines, loud teenagers, and rising prices by making time to meditate, spend time in nature, and choose foods that replenish the nutrients your body needs to function optimally.

Of course, the benefits of biohacking really depend on the type of biohacking we're talking about! Much research is needed to confirm the health benefits many biohackers claim from experimenting with bio hacks like cryotherapy, red light therapy, or intermittent fasting. But there's growing scientific evidence supporting the health-improving benefits of biohacks like strategic nutritional plans, tracking exercise patterns, and techniques such as meditation and yoga and how they help enhance cognition, heart health and physical performance.

Is biohacking safe?

It depends on the biohacking method. Lifestyle and nutritional changes, along with wearable technology, are low-risk endeavors that have been scientifically validated as beneficial. As we said earlier, many of the health benefits claimed by trending biohacking practices like cryotherapy and red-light therapy have yet to be scientifically validated. You'll always want to do a cost-benefit analysis before endeavoring anything invasive or expensive!

How to start biohacking: 10 strategies for beginners

Now that you understand biohacking a little bit better, let's go over science-based biohacks you can do daily (and from the comfort of your own home). Pro tip: Let your body be the ultimate guide. Pay close attention to how you feel as you incorporate biohacks from this list.

1. Track your resting heart rate & heart rate variability

Biohackers who aim to manage stress levels and improve sleep, digestion, concentration and vitality focus on increasing their heart rate variability (HRV). Why? A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that a higher HRV reflects a more robust ability to adapt to change and stress-related physical and psychological disorders. To track this information, you'll need to note two different data points:

  • Resting heart rate (RHR)

    —Your resting heart rate reflects how many times your heart beats per minute when you're not being active. An average healthy adult will have a resting heartbeat of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Ideally, your heart isn't exerting itself while circulating blood when you're relaxing and at rest.
  • Heart rate variability (HRV)

    —This metric determines your body's ability to adapt and recover from stress by measuring the amount of time between each heartbeat while you're experiencing stress throughout the day. In other words, your HRV helps you "see" how your body handles the stress of a looming deadline or an intense spinning class, and how fast your heart returns to its resting heartbeat.

You can use heart rate monitors, apps, phones and other technology to track these metrics. Measure this data for six weeks and discuss your results with your healthcare provider—depending on your goals and the trends you reveal, he or she may prescribe more high-tech ways of capturing these metrics, as well as therapies or treatments to improve your HRV. Pro tip: Regular exercise is the best way to increase your HRV. Don't overdo it, though! Overtraining can lower your heart rate variability.

2. Resist insulin resistance

Managing your glucose levels has gained attention over the years. But why? Your body uses glucose as an instant energy source, so glucose per se isn't the problem. The problem starts when we consume too much glucose (processed sugars and carbohydrates), causing levels to increase significantly in the blood.
These glucose or sugar spikes are associated with several health concerns like mood imbalances, cognitive decline, heart disease and much more; it also contributes to glycation, which can accelerate the aging process. When left unmanaged, unbalanced glucose levels can result in insulin resistance and diabetes.

For these reasons, biohackers keep close tabs on their glucose levels with the goal of maintaining healthy insulin resistance (the body's ability to respond to insulin and process sugars). The most accurate way to do this is to use a glucose monitor, but you can still help your body manage glucose spikes without one. Pro tip: If you do have a glucose monitor, measure your glucose on an empty stomach, after a meal and then at a later interval and note which foods cause the biggest sugar spikes—then avoid eating them frequently in the future.

Aside from diet changes, here are two other simple tips to try:

  • Get acetic acid, aka vinegar: Some scientific evidence suggests that consuming vinegar (be it white, rice or apple cider vinegar) before your meal—drizzle it over your salad or add a tablespoon to a tall glass of water—can help reduce the glucose spike by reducing how much glucose enters the small intestine and your bloodstream.
  • Get moving: Another way to reduce glucose levels is by using your muscles after meals, especially after that second serving of dessert. Your skeletal muscles, the ones you can move voluntarily (arms, legs, core), use about 80 percent of the glucose you get from your food. Developing the habit of moving after your meals can help reduce the sugar spike because instead of circulating in your blood (and landing in your liver where it's stored as fat), your muscles use glucose for energy. Whether it's a quick high-intensity workout or a brisk walk with your pooch, doing the dishes or dancing salsa—all-body movement counts!

3. Take cold showers

Starting your days with a cold shower is invigorating, and it can be an effective way to kick your noggin into gear before your morning cup of joe. Research suggests that cold bathing can have multiple health benefits, including shoring up your natural defenses, improving circulation, promoting healthy inflammation, helping with muscle recovery and even supporting mental health. Pro tip: Start (or end your shower) with cold water for 30 seconds, and slowly progress to longer periods of cold showers.

4. Optimize sleep quality

Everyone wants a good night's sleep, but for biohackers, getting better shut-eye is of particular importance: sleep is neuroprotective, meaning getting quality ZZZs can enhance cognition and energy levels, prevent cognitive decline and more. When your goal is boosting cognitive health while you snooze, what matters most is uninterrupted sleep—even more so than the number of hours.

So how do you improve sleep quality? Try these tips:

  • DON'T ignore what's going on outside your window

    —Our bodies respond to light cues; we're biologically designed to "turn on and off" with the rising and setting sun. Exposing yourself to sunlight when you wake up and minimizing light exposure when you're winding down are crucial steps to balancing your circadian rhythm for healthy sleep.
  • DO make your bedroom dark

    —Choose dark drapes and low lighting; swap TV, phones and iPads for books and journals. When you watch TV before bed or endlessly scroll through your phone, you're exposing yourself to light (and blue light at that!), which signals your brain to produce more "stay active" neurotransmitters (like dopamine and serotonin) over brain chemicals that promote less brain activity like GABA (one of your "stop thinking and turn off" neurotransmitters).
  • DO lower the temperature at night

    —Temperature can significantly impact sleep quality. There's nothing revitalizing about waking up in the middle of the night hot and sweaty. Lowering the temperature at night seems like a no-brainer to catching quality ZZZs.
  • DON'T eat before bed

    —Try having your last meal at least three hours before your bedtime. When you go to bed with a full stomach, your body cannot "shut down" and rest because it's busy digesting.

5. Change your diet, change your health

As we mentioned, nutrigenomics involves strategically consuming foods and nutritional extracts to enhance your health. The idea comes from the relationship between nutrients, diet and gene expression. For example, eating anti-inflammatory foods like leafy greens, grass-fed protein, spices like curcumin, healthy fats like omega-3s found in nuts, seeds and fatty fish can manage inflammation, significantly improving overall health, not to mention quality of life.

Not sure where to start? Add these nutrients and enjoy the benefits:

  • Vitamin D

    —A star player in whole-body health, the sunshine vitamin helps regulate everything from mood to immune health to maintaining already-healthy blood pressure and even supporting healthy inflammation. Providing your body with vitamin D-rich foods fatty fish, lean protein eggs and mushrooms is an easy way to optimize your health. Pro tip: Life Extension recommends doses of 5,000 IU to 8,000 IU for optimal levels.
  • Healthy fats

    —Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients for a healthy brain, heart and all of you. Make sure you're eating enough fats like that found in olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel. Pro tip: To maintain optimal levels, Life Extension recommends a daily dose of 2,400 mg of EPA/DHA fish oil.
  • Magnesium

    —Known as the mighty mineral, magnesium supports over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. Ensuring your body has enough magnesium is a terrific way to help your body thrive. Pro tip: Choose magnesium l-threonate, which can cross the blood-brain barrier and immediately become available to the brain to help support brain function. And other forms this essential mineral, like magnesium citrate, can help ensure healthy overall magnesium levels.
  • Probiotics

    —These are living organisms that promote health in your gut microbiome (which includes trillions of microorganisms). Eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and pickled onions can help encourage microbiome health.

Pro tip: For a full list of brain-friendly foods and hacks, check out Life Extension's protocol about Nutritional Neurohacking.

Does biohacking include avoiding certain foods?

Absolutely! You may know it as the elimination diet, which biohackers use not to rule out allergies per se, but to strategically limit or eliminate foods that negatively impact their health. Start by limiting highly processed foods like deli meat, fast food, sweets and baked goods. Avoid products with high cholesterol, saturated fats, preservatives and added sugars or flavors.

6. Body movement

Ok, this one is a no-brainer. Aerobic exercises and resistance training, the kind that get you breathing and sweating heavily, are arguably the best ways to hack your biology—you get everything from better body goals to a cognitive boost and even enhancing longevity.

Here are a few tips to help you get started.

  • Include strength and mobility: These exercises encourage a full range of motion for joints and extremities while strengthening different muscle groups.
  • Put in the time: Find 45 to 60 minutes a day, at least five days a week, to reap the health-promoting benefits of exercise. Pro tip: Don't get discouraged by time. Even if you only have 10 to 15 minutes a day, show up to your mat and get the ball rolling. As you get used to adding movement to your day, you'll naturally progress to a longer and more efficient exercise routine.
  • Choose activities you enjoy: Whether you choose to get your 10K steps in with a good old-fashioned walk or prefer to get your fitness on by dancing, kickboxing or speed skating, regular motion is a must!

7. Keep a gratitude journal

Yes, this one may not seem on the surface to be true biohacking. But hear us out: emerging scientific evidence suggests that there's something to making time each day to jot down grateful thoughts. How? Simply put, a gratitude journal helps you tap into your neurobiology and improve neuroplasticity, your brain's ability to strengthen and rewire neural connections based on what you experience. In other words, by focusing your awareness on things you are grateful for, you're conditioning your brain to find the silver lining even in the darkest of moments—you improve your mental resilience to external factors that could cause you anxiety, stress and frustration.

8. Meditation

Meditation can be defined as the practice of centering the body in the present moment by calming the mind and practicing stillness. Research shows meditation has physical and psychological benefits like reducing stress and anxiety, encouraging heart health, reducing inflammation, improving mood and beyond. There are several free apps and YouTube videos with guided meditations that can help you get started on committing to this practice. Pro tip: Set a daily alarm for a time of day when you take five minutes (you can even start with one minute!) to stop, breathe and appreciate your present moment. 

9. Spend time in nature

Studies suggest that spending time in nature has both physical and cognitive benefits. As humans, we need to connect with nature, feel the wind play with our hair, feel the crystal tranquility of water wash over us, hear birds chirping, and breath fresh air. There's a reason nature has revitalizing effects!

Make regular short breaks to walk outside, enjoying the trees and open skies. If you live in a city or an area that's not close to nature, make time for weekend getaways to national reserves or go to city parks.

10. Get those hormones in balance

Your hormones are chemical messengers that relay messages to your brain and body. They influence health, mood, digestion, immunity, libido, fertility and more. In other words, healthy hormone levels guide your body to homeostasis or a state of equilibrium. Regular blood testing that measures different hormone levels is a terrific way to understand what's happening "behind the scenes" of your own biology. Knowing where your hormone levels is like having a blueprint of your metabolic and physiological health, and it helps you address changes you can make to improve overall health. Pro tip: Life Extension offers an extensive array of Lab Tests. You can test for specific hormones, body composition, blood glucose levels, cholesterol levels, food sensitivity and more!

Hack your way to a healthier you

If all of these ideas sound overwhelming, there's no need to do them all at once. Start by choosing one or two suggestions from the list below and commit to your practice for six months. As you progress and they become daily habits (you know, the little things you do daily), it'll be easier to add to your practice. But don't be harsh with yourself if you feel it's "easier said than done." We're creatures of habit, so it's not easy to make changes once we're used to a routine. And change can be overwhelming; it takes patience, consistency, and time. It takes work to build a new lifestyle.

About the Author: Jessica Monge has a bachelor's degree in biological sciences & neuroscience and a master's degree in comparative studies and related languages from Florida Atlantic University. She worked as a tutor, freelance writer and editor before joining Life Extension, where she is currently a Digital Content Writer.