Apr 28 2016

What Is Biohacking?

bulletproof-butter-coffeeAfter reading up on biohacking and listening to its proponents, I have come to the conclusion that biohacking is not a real thing. It doesn’t really exist.

Here is how one biohacking site describes what they think it is:

Biohacking is a crazy-sounding name for something not crazy at all—the desire to be the absolute best version of ourselves.

The main thing that separates a biohacker from the rest of the self-improvement world is a systems-thinking approach to our own biology.

You know how coffee feels like a shot of energy to your brain?

Pre-coffee you is sleepy….zzzzzz…

Post-coffee you is WIDE AWAKE!!

The only difference is the coffee in your stomach.

The lesson is this: What you put into your body has an ENORMOUS impact on how you feel.

See what I mean? So, drinking coffee is “biohacking?” If you look at what is considered biohacking it essentially amounts to living a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise, with the addition of the usual assortment of pseudoscientific nonsense. This is nothing but a rebranding of standard self-help quackery.

Saying you are taking a “systems approach” is like saying you are “holistic;” it sounds nice, but does not really mean anything.

PBS tried to answer the question of what is biohacking, and discovered another angle as well:

He says biohacking is “a freedom to explore biology, kind of like you would explore good fiction.” As for the hacking part, “hacking is kind of like the freedom to sort of dig deep into something, just because you’re interested in it. … The whole idea of biohacking is that people feel entitled, they feel the ability to just follow their curiosity — where it should go — and really get to the bottom of something they want to understand.”

In practice what this seems to mean it doing cheap bad research to justify more health fad pseudoscience. There may be some serious researchers in there, but then they are just doing biological research.

I could not find anything unique or original to the concept of biohacking. In the end it is just clever marketing.

But let’s look at some of the specific “biohacks” that are being marketed to the community. Like many self-help movements, they include some basic common sense lifestyle advice, mixed in with utter nonsense.

Part of the biohacking phenomenon is the “bulletproof” brand, such as bulletproof coffee. This is just regular coffee with lots of butter in it. This is supposed to “supercharge” your body and brain. The caffeine certainly can have a short term effect on cognitive function, because it’s a stimulant. However, with regular use of caffeine you quickly become tolerant to this stimulant effect, and then you are essentially just using coffee to treat the effects of caffeine withdrawal. It’s not a net benefit, and not a good long term strategy.

The butter is just the branding nonsense. This is all based on the false notion of superfoods, that you can massively improve your body’s function by eating just the right fats or whatever. The simplistic logic boils down to – I did research (read on the internet somewhere) that this nutrient is used for this biological function, therefore if you eat lots of that nutrient your biological function will be supercharged. This, of course, makes no biological sense.

What you never see is rigorous clinical research, properly isolating variables, showing that the biohack has an actual clinical effect (which should be easy to prove given how “massive” the claimed effects are alleged to be).

Once you get past basic diet and exercise, then the standard overhyped nutritional pseudoscience, biohacking really goes off the rails.

We have domesticated ourselves and made it taboo to think otherwise.We are not as fit, resilient, or adaptable and much more prone to chronic disease than our ancestors.
If domestication is the problem, then re-wilding is the solution.

That’s right, we have to “rewild” ourselves. Domestication is largely a genetic process, so unless you are going to do genetic engineering, you are not going to “rewild” yourself, and why would you even want to?

According to Daniel Vitalis, however, you can rewild yourself by following these steps, which he apparently just thought of off the top of his head because they sounded kinda wild.

1. Eat Living, Wild Foods
Humans, like most animals, eat living (or once-living) things for fuel—broccoli once cut from its stem, the leg of chicken amputated from its body, those mushrooms plucked from the ground, sauerkraut covered in tiny microbes.
We need these wild foods.
If you want to be a real wolf, go outside and forage these foods yourself.

So, eat food. Of course, broccoli is not “wild” in any sense of the word, and neither is the vast majority of the food that we eat. I do not suggest you forage for food, unless you are very experienced. Even the edible stuff in the wild is barely edible and marginally nutritious. We cultivated and domesticated plants and animals to optimize their nutrient value and digestibility for us.

2. Drink Unprocessed Spring Water
What we drink is as important as what we eat, but most of us aren’t aware that our water is as processed as the processed food we now know to avoid.
Most water has minerals removed and chemicals added. Instead, find a natural spring and load up. You can find one near you here: http://www.findaspring.com/
Otherwise, it’s better to drink water bottled in glass than tap water.

Do not do this. This is dangerous. Unprocessed spring water can contain parasites, like worms and amoeba. That is why people camping or otherwise roughing it in the wild should use water purification tablets or boil any water before using it. This is just stupid.

3. Breathe Air From Nature
Do you think about the air you breath as nutrition?
As you can guess, natural air is more rejuvenating than the moldy air in our homes. Go outside.
Another tip: To absorb oxygen most effectively, fill your lungs by breathing deeply through the diaphragm.

Sure, get some fresh air from outside. Open your windows when you can. That is hardly a massive insight. This is not “rejuvenating,” it just freshens the air. Of course, your results may vary if you have a pollen allergy or live in a smoggy city.

The notion of taking a deep breath from the diaphram to absorb oxygen better is plain wrong. Moving air in and out of your lungs has little effect on oxygen absorption. Hemoglobin can absorb oxygen just fine, even if you take a deep breath and hold it for a long time. We move air much more to blow off CO2. When you are gasping for breath after holding it, that is because of CO2 buildup, not oxygen deprivation.

4. Expose Yourself to Sunlight
Sunlight is part of our natural nutrition, so expose your skin to those warm rays of sun.

This, at least, is sensible advice, but has nothing to do with “rewilding.” Getting sunlight exposure is good for vitamin D levels, may be helpful for sleep, and even vision. Don’t overdo it, however, and watch out for direct sunlight when the sun is high in the sky. Use sunscreen as necessary. There is an optimal balance between sufficient sun exposure and avoiding skin cancer.

There is much more, but it is all equally nonsensical


Biohacking is not really a thing. It is nothing more than a rebranding of the usual self-help pseudoscience.

Self-help products typically package a little bit of basic common sense with massively overhyped claims for some nutritional tweak, and a generous helping of pure pseudoscience or mysticism, justified with some handwaving (and heavily branded) ideology.

Often self-help brands are marketed with claims that they are based in science, but the science is always terrible – either it is preclinical, irrelevant, or poorly designed in house studies that will show whatever you want. Sometimes it just looking stuff up on the internet.

There is an endless sequence of such self-help brands. That people still fall for it is a testament to the overall scientific illiteracy in our society, and the triumph of marketing over reason.

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