People are more concerned than ever with the state of their minds, bodies, and spirits, generating a massive global wellness economy that’s currently valued at $3.7 trillion (and growing). Rising through the ranks of buzzy wellness trends this year was the concept of “biohacking,” a hazy catchall that seems to encompass everything from putting butter in your morning brew to withstanding the deep freeze of a cryotherapy chamber.
Okay, but what IS biohacking?
Despite its explosion onto the wellness scene in recent years, the term “biohacking” has actually been around since at least 1988, when it was used to refer to the practice of so-called “garage biology”—DIY biology experiments that could be performed by anyone regardless of their academic background or training.
The DIY bio movement began as a means to democratize the process of scientific discovery and allow everyone to participate in biological research and development. Some people did it to further open-science innovation, some were looking to turn a profit, and some just wanted a fun, nerdy hobby.
Given recent attitudes towards “big pharma,” our fixation on self-betterment, and our increasing prioritization of health and wellness, it’s no surprise that the once-niche subculture of biohacking has gone mainstream. As with any trendy term, the line between what does and doesn’t constitute a biohack has grown a bit blurry (added some kale to your smoothie? Biohack!), but the core idea remains the same: the body is a system, with inputs and outputs like any other, and can therefore be “hacked” to achieve optimal wellness.
Biohackers believe that by tweaking the environment around and inside your body, you can create immediate, measurable changes in everything from your mood and energy to your mental clarity and physical strength.
Give me some examples.
Tech millionaire and Bulletproof Diet creator Dave Asprey is responsible for much of biohacking’s current momentum (though the science behind the Bulletproof gospel is shaky at best) and has invested tens of thousands of dollars into his experiments in an effort to “upgrade” his biology. Beyond starting every morning off with his signature Bulletproof Coffee, Asprey’s repertoire of personal biohacks includes standing on a vibrating plate under an ultraviolet sunlamp (to “enhance mitochondrial function”) and injecting stem cells into his brain in an effort to live to 180 years old.
There are plenty of less extreme biohacking examples around, though, such as the sudden popularity of adaptogens—non-toxic plants that have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions for centuries and are now being marketed as anti-stress supplements. More research into the benefits of sprinkling these dried herbs over your smoothie is needed, but proponents of the trend claim lower levels of stress and adrenal fatigue.
The idea that a too-sterile environment can be just as harmful to our system as a germ-filled one has also gained traction in the biohacking community, as evidenced by brands like Mother Dirt (skincare with a side of bacteria) and the plethora of articles explaining how to nurture a healthy gut microbiome with fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, miso, and kombucha.
Lots of the products and services on the biohacking market today seem to be geared towards women: infrared light therapy for youthful, glowing skin, period trackers, lymphatic drainage facials, and even a practice called orgasmic meditation. A growing dissatisfaction with the dismal lack of research into female-specific illnesses and issues combined with women’s strong purchasing power (estimated to account for somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of all consumer purchasing) are likely both driving factors.
So, does any of this stuff actually work?
Yes and no. Biohacking is such a blanket term that it’s impossible to give a definitive answer one way or another.
Instead, each tweak needs to be judged on its own merits—do you find that limiting phone use before bed results in a better night’s sleep? Boom, biohacked. Feel healthier when you add a dose of moringa to your breakfast smoothie? Keep it up! Notice a decrease in stress when you meditate regularly? Don’t fix something if it ain’t broke.
Biohacking is rooted in the idea that the journey to better health is an individual one and—like any scientific process—the result of trial and error. Focusing on the big stuff first (like eating your veggies, exercising regularly, reducing your stress, and getting enough sleep) before getting down to the nitty gritty tweaks is really the only path to improving your wellbeing in a meaningful way.
Approach the process like you would a science experiment, do your research, track your results (this step is key, budding biohackers 😉), and have fun with it! You just might learn something new about yourself along the way.