01 February 2022


How to unlock the potential of the human body

The word "biohacking" has recently ceased to sound like a term from a science fiction novel, but its meaning is still revealed in different ways by both biohackers themselves and third-party experts, and the latter are interpreted in the range from a tool for creating a man of the future to esotericism and dangerous pseudoscience. Biohacker, biogerontologist, sports physiologist Denis Varvanets and Candidate of Biological Sciences, geneticist, popularizer of science Alexander Kolyada shared their views on this field of activity with post-science. 

What is biohacking and what is its difference from medicine 

Biohacking can be considered as the optimization of the body's resources. Biohackers, as specialists, are asked to slow down aging and reduce the risk of age-related diseases (biohackers believe that they can work with age-related diseases more qualitatively, more deeply than is offered by modern medicine), as well as in an effort to improve brain function or sports performance in order to adjust the body, unlock the potential, go beyond. Recently, there has also been a request for recovery after COVID-19.

How biohacking appeared

It began to develop in the first decade of the XXI century to a large extent from the so-called functional medicine. Its representatives, such as Mark Hyman, Joseph Mercola, transhumanist and futurist Ray Kurzweil, worked, one might say, on biohacking of the first level — at this stage it could be considered more of a healthy lifestyle. In the 2010s, the idea of biohacking was greatly developed under the influence of the Finnish school with its emphasis on mental practices, sauna and diets, Serge Fage, Joseph Cohen, who created the site selfhacked.com .

They postulated the basics of biohacking, that is, a systematic approach, drawing up an individual program based on comprehensive diagnostics, not only training, but also a lifestyle in general: nutrition, physical activity, sleep normalization, regulation of thinking and emotional reactions — the use of advanced and borderline methods of influencing the body that are not accepted by the "big", that is, the official evidence-based medicine.

Biohacking stands apart from medicine, because biohackers work with requests that imply near-medical measures, but from the point of view of modern medicine are not considered a disease. If you come to the doctor and ask, for example, to help you become smarter and more creative, or to run faster or longer, you will most likely not find any active participation, sympathy or understanding in him. And biohackers do it. For example, the correction of the deficiency of some substances that are not considered a problem in medicine can also be considered as an intervention that has the character of biohacking. 

Alexander Kolyada, Candidate of Biological Sciences, geneticist, popularizer of science:
— The tools of evidence-based medicine include those methods and drugs whose effectiveness has been tested as a result of a scientifically organized experiment. Today it should be held with the participation of hundreds or even thousands of people, in accordance with accepted standards, properly planned and carefully implemented. To do this, you need to have special knowledge and experience, as well as considerable resources.
Biohackers, in fact, are engaged in what is on the perimeter of evidence-based medicine, but has not yet entered it. At the same time, they have neither the resources nor the experience to conduct full-fledged research. It should be understood that often, when you turn to a biohacker, you take drugs and agree to procedures that have not been tested as part of a scientific study on other people, and, consequently, you find yourself a test subject on which they will check whether this or that solution works or not. Sometimes the consequences can be the saddest. So, one of the prominent representatives of biohacking, American Aaron Trayvick, died at the age of 28, drowning in a sensory deprivation chamber after taking a drug for anesthesia.

Some representatives of this direction share biohacking and biotuning. By the first, they understand manipulations that change a person once and for all, for example, gene therapy or microbiota therapy due to fecal transplantation. Under the second — hormesis interventions (from the word "hormesis", meaning stimulation of the body's systems by external influences having a force insufficient for the manifestation of harmful factors). The effect of hormesis is that if we stimulate the body with some kind of stressor - for example, we regularly go to the sauna, go to the middle mountains, conduct hypoxic workouts — then individual body systems begin to develop and improve. If we stop doing this, there will be a rollback, that is, the change will not be permanent. This separation of tools and impacts on biohacking (irreversible changes) and biotuning (reversible) seems unreasonably strict.

Alexander Kolyada, Candidate of Biological Sciences, geneticist, popularizer of science:

— Science does not have an unambiguous definition of biohacking. Moreover, almost every representative of it gives his own definition of this concept, which he considers to be the only correct one. Nevertheless, there are several common interpretations of this term. In the early 2000s, this word was called Do-It-Yourself Biology - a variety of research in the field of biology, conducted not in scientific institutions or in the laboratories of large corporations with their money, but in small private, even home laboratories, often as a hobby: for example, if you brought out glowing bacteria, you can consider yourself a biohacker. Some biohacking is simply called genetic engineering.

Implantation of implants into the body, glowing tattoos and tattoos on the whites of the eyes and other manipulations of this kind, which can also be called body design, are also sometimes considered biohacking.

The most popular definition is associated with improving health with the help of dietary supplements and other drugs, sports nutrition, special training, and so on. This can also be called a new healthy lifestyle, or healthy lifestyle 2.0. The difference is that the healthy lifestyle gives general recommendations: let's say that everyone needs to eat 400 grams of vegetables, exercise more, salt less food and be less nervous. The effectiveness of these recommendations has been tested on millions of people, but just because of this, we tend to trust them a little, because it seems to us that this advice is not for us. And when we are told that this or that recommendation or drug is selected just for us, then we trust it a little more. In addition, there is an element of extremity in biohacking. For example, a healthy lifestyle tells us that we need to start walking for 80 minutes a day, gradually increasing the number of steps. But it's not interesting and not fun, and if you feel the result, it's not immediately. Another thing is when a biohacker tells you that to improve your nature and unlock your potential, you need to go to an ice bath every day, sit on a keto diet and throw out all carbohydrates from the diet or not sleep for 24 hours. It will sound extreme, and you will quickly feel if you decide that your condition is changing. Which way is another question.

Oxygen, vitamins, reason: what and why biohackers measure 

A person who has decided to engage in biohacking, first of all, needs to comprehensively measure himself, remove biomarkers — any measurable parameters of the body: blood glucose level or maximum oxygen consumption, vascular parameters, and so on. In the same way as it happens when diagnosing a computer or a car, they try to understand where everything is fine in the body, where it is just normal, and where there is a threat, risks and it is necessary to take certain steps promptly. 

For this purpose, the widest range of devices is used — from expensive, although cheaper in recent years, gas analyzers worth thousands of dollars to wearable gadgets, the list of which is gradually expanding. These include, for example, a permanent blood glucose meter, sensors that can measure saturation, but not on a finger, but, say, in a muscle, heart rate sensors. 

The maximum oxygen consumption measured using a gas analyzer, according to biohackers, clearly reflects the mitochondrial function, the potential in endurance sports disciplines and allows you to identify the risks of age-related diseases, and from the age of 75 even predict mortality better than the analysis of classical risk factors. A detailed blood test allows biohackers to identify deficiencies of certain substances: ferritin, vitamins D and B12, zinc and others — and draw conclusions on this basis about the capabilities and characteristics of the body, as well as suggest certain actions. Cognitive tests are also used, for example, Cognitive Function Test, which allows you to predict the development of dementia in more than ten years, and at the same time find out eating and behavioral habits. All this is used to assess risks and makes it clear that a person with the participation of biohackers can improve. 

Armed with this knowledge, biohackers plan and conduct interventions: they make personalized diets and training programs, select medications, say dietary supplements, and monitor the result, again taking vital signs. If necessary, the correction of programs and regulations is carried out.

Alexander Kolyada, Candidate of Biological Sciences, geneticist, popularizer of science:
— Studies and tests included in the arsenal of biohackers vary in the degree of informativeness. Among them are, say, genetic tests that are important for evidence-based medicine: doctors use them to diagnose and determine risk groups: whether a person has a risk of developing some conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease. The measurement of maximum oxygen consumption is used in sports, training: it makes sense to focus on this indicator if you are a professional athlete, training for endurance.
And there are tests that are generally useless, but not uninteresting for the test taker: what kind of origin are you, how do you taste bitter, what color of eyes do you have, do you have a tendency to be an owl or a lark. For medicine, this information has no practical significance, but if you don't mind the money you pay for them, why not make them — you read horoscopes sometimes and pass psychological tests.
Some measurements that are carried out are too primitive and do not allow to obtain results that can closely reflect the processes taking place in the body. Physiologists, for example, are far from thinking that with the help of a fitness bracelet it is possible to monitor well how we slept, or to separate the phase of deep sleep from shallow sleep.

Biohacking trends  

On the one hand, we can expect a further reduction in the cost of ultra-expensive devices (the same gas analyzers) and the appearance of new wearable permanent meters of certain parameters: for example, a glucose meter that does not require injections, a lactate meter, and so on. Along with this, we can expect the emergence of applications that facilitate the storage and analysis of measurements made by these devices — for example, an application in which you can download analyses from different laboratories and transform them into infographics. In the slightly more distant future, first of all, neural network assistants will appear, who will suggest the strategy and tactics of interventions, prescribe medications, and make training plans. Secondly, we should expect the appearance and spread of implants with the same functions to replace wearable gadgets for monitoring the body — devices that will be implanted into the human body and monitor targets on an ongoing basis. 

And of course, we should expect to expand the possibilities for genome editing and other genetic manipulations. Against the background of the accumulation of this kind of data, there will be a proliferation of small scientific groups that will develop and implement certain methods of correction and tuning of the body.

Alexander Kolyada, Candidate of Biological Sciences, geneticist, popularizer of science:
— The emergence of wearable gadgets and other methods of simple diagnostics, as well as point of care diagnostics, in which all tests are carried out closer to the patient's bed, are one of the main ways of developing medicine. Over time, we will all be able to do any tests in an hour without leaving home, as is gradually happening with COVID-19 tests.
Some of the methods that are used today by biohackers, having passed all the stages of verification and proved their effectiveness, will enter the arsenal of evidence-based medicine. Probably, then anyone can use them by contacting a family doctor or a polyclinic.

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