Biohacking vs wellbeing

So you took the plunge: you bought the tracker, signed up to a particular church of nutrition (yes, we put our politics on a plate these days) and performed one or more of the usual initiation procedures: 

  • Bought some supplements without a specific deficiency or overall protocol, just on the basis of “it’s good for you”  
  • Became conversational on vitamin D/sunlight/infrared, linked that to a recent virus outbreak for extra kudos
  • Picked an argument with an overworked friend on the importance of sleep and used the words "deep" and REM, 
  • (While yourself getting sleep anxiety from your Oura ring). 
  • Donned a giant Garmin Fenix 6X at work (naturally the premium Solar version), bravely virtue signalling that you shelled out a poor country's annual GDP for a piece of plastic and glass, because you are a serious triathlete
  • Overexerted in order to achieve a vanity-based exercise milestone, understanding the exponential relationship between age, injury risk and bragging rights. 

Congratulations! You're now a biohacker, a Digerati, a quantified self aficionado, full Instagram rights thereunto pertaining. 

You've also unconscionably subscribed to what one might speculate is a giant Silicon Valley inside joke on the rest of humanity. You can almost imagine Dave Asprey, Tim Ferriss, Ben Greenfield and Joe Rogan getting together in their private cold plunge pools and discussing what to make us do next - infrared light in our noses or elsewhere, go all in on being superhuman, vibration/blood restriction therapy, ashwagandha vapourisers in our ears (I made that one up), and, of course, some brutal new body smash protocol, all the while chasing our tails and putting our face into the information geyser of "wellbeing". 

And we buy it all in, your humble author included. We embrace the fomo, face the suck, spend our hard earned kasheesh and proudly post on the interwebs our latest advancement for all to marvel. Now, you have to hand it to the pros - nothing can quite beguile and inspire a budding biohacker like something like this:

Source: Dave Asprey: Beginners guide to biohacking

And lest you take the above as a slight overdose of sarcasm, none of it is necessarily bad or harmful. Rather the opposite - we're investing in our wellbeing, and being conscious about it. Most of these things are harmless (monetary depletion notwithstanding)  and at least a good placebo effect can help. The problem is that, anyone who is looking for an evidence-based, scientifically rigorous answer to the question "What is biohacking and is it any good", may soon be tempted to declare peak wellness or just call bullshit

And they would be wrong. 

Here's the real issue - the butterfly approach sarcastically described above is unlikely to succeed for the regular person. Why not? Well, for one, unless one  already has a personal trainer, assistant, driver and chef, the effect of lifestyle/stress and the rest of the protocol will  be impossible to disentangle. But also, because even if you hit the target that you hadn't defined in the first place, you wouldn't know. Why not? Because you don't have an objective definition of success. There is no universal measure of health, just an absence of disease. The lack of a measurable set of outcomes/KPIS means we fly like a kite from fad to fad, beset by FOMO and always searching for ways to meditate while journaling on self actualisation and breathing through only ONE nostril after a cold shower. And that chaos, while probably a net positive (keeps us away from screens after all), eventually overwhelms our willpower and we revert to how we were. And in any case, a little while after we discover the original goal posts shifted a few times (say keto to vegan, low fat to low carb, steady state to HIIT). And that's a shame. 

That is a very high density of dissing and complaining, I hear you think. You're probably invoking Roosevelt's man in the arena comment, which I have enormous respect for. So with the context now being set, here's what little wisdom I have to impart on the topic, so here goes.  

First things first: the predictable punchline. 

While everyone’s organs and tissues work in the same way and need the same support to function optimally, the thing that differs from one person to another is what needs to be done in order to make sure that these same physiological and biochemical processes do work as intended. In other words, there is not one unifying protocol that works for every one of us, because both the starting point and the waypoints on our journeys are very personal. From how everyone’s body reacts to ice cream, to how our motivation fluctuates, to our pre dispositions and habits. So what's a young biohacker and total optimiser to do then? Well, in a world of 8 steps to achieve 7 day abs in 6 days, here's our medium-friendly list of 6 things to consider in spinning one's wellness wheel efficiently. Why six? revealed in the last bullet.

  1. Position. Start with an objective measure of where you are. In the here and now, that's bloodwork and vitals. By vitals  we mean blood pressure, resting heart rate, heart rate variability, weight, injury and disease history.  By bloodwork we mean a set of biomarkers in your blood that tell you how your main body systems are working. They are the things that make you you, but also the starting point for answering the question: am I looking to solve a specific problem (turns out that's why most people biohack), or am i looking for balanced optimisation across the categories that need attention (and those are normally things we're simply unaware of).

Armed with the answer to the question above, you transition from trawling for fish and seeing what the catch of the day is, to spearfishing. That's a much better return on time invested. Then you transition to step 2: get serious about measuring outcomes:

  1. Benchmark and set a goal. For instance, where I would start is by spending some money on a proper kinetic test such as a functional movement screen and some body composition and strength/endurance data. These rarely coexist in the same expert, but if performance and longevity is what you're after, take a look at these as a priority. If you really wanna be fancy, add a VO2max test to measure overall physical endurance. Then set a 3 and 6 month plan for 2-3 of the above measurements and set an objective goal to hit it. This is another juncture where you can prioritise - if there's a mobility issue, that is more important than performance. 

Having made sure you have a map and a route planned, you need to think of the steps of the journey. 

  1. Upstream vs downstream. This is the recipe vs ingredient list analogy - things need to be done in the right order in order to work well, or at all. Failure to distinguish between upstream and downstream items is the most common problem we see nowadays. You're smashing up the runs, but are nutritionally deficient (hello shin splints), or you're really dialing in the supplementation, but lack basic sleep hygiene. In the concentric circles of wellbeing, time, attention and willpower need to be directed from the most important and effective first. For instance, sleep, rest and cardiovascular health is upstream of any supplement, molecule or movement protocol, as it commands a bigger risk surface for the overall population. So smashing Strava PRs and taking metformin is a much lower ROTI (Return on Time invested) activity then absolutely nailing your rest and nutrition (yes, in that order), simply because it dominates the outcomes. Many people confuse the sequence of things, because some vanity metrics are easier to observe (calories vs restfulness). For most, the cost of reversing upstream and downstream is in the far future, but a cost there is. 

This is where you're likeliest to drop off. After all, you have likely heard the above from your GP and school gym coach. We soldier on undisturbed:

  1. Respect the evidence. Spoiler alert: The secrets to wellbeing are as old as the hills, and cannot be productised easily as they involve consistency, patience and no shortcuts. Hardly the stuff you want to read on the front page of Cosmo or Men's health (get ripped in 3 days!). But here they are anyway: eat, but not too much, mostly vegetables, fast every so often. Dial in your sleep hygiene, aiming for a regular sleep schedule and at least 7 hours of bedtime, ideally 8. Move every day, but alternate hard and easy days. Get sunlight and focus on human connections and your environment. Turns out there is one thing you can productise here - solitary idleness, known as mediation.

The only thing to point out here is the overwhelming evidence that the why in our life often gets neglected vs the how. So seek evidence, always. 

  1. Don't let your own mind trip you up. The brightest flame burns quickest. The #1 reason why most people fail to change their habits is that they start with high expectations. Working out for 6 hours hours won’t help to change your body. But working out six times a week for six months might do so (admittedly, we're overplaying the power of 6 here - 3- or 4 will probably do). Meditating for 3 minutes every day is better than a two-hour meditation every few weeks. What you do every day matters far more than what you do every so often: consistency almost always beats intensity. Consistency is a flywheel that many don't harness because they expect results quickly. That's probably the highest failure point for the budding optimiser. So aim for 1% better every day, and be practical - done is better than perfect. Having figured out the shit that you should prioritise, check that with the shit you'll actually do. This is the final challenge - most people overplan and try to crash into a new protocol. This rarely works. Rather, using the priorities you outlined in points 2 and 3 and a reasonable plan in point 4, try to advance, week by week.

Successful outcomes are never the product of one choice, but a series of choices. Top tip here: read James Clear's Atomic Habits. You're welcome. 

  1. Adopt a framework so you can iterate and habituate. When one is targeting optimal health, wellbeing and longevity, it is often difficult to know where to start, how to prioritise goals and measure progress. Most approaches in the press tend to favour one or more of the following: a ritual, a supplement, a move protocol or a spiritual practice. The truth is all and none of these work for a particular individual. In order to avoid being swung like a ship anchored in the tide, it is best to think not of approaches, but our needs.

One can broadly split the human needs into six categories*

Rest. In the present environment, this is probably the key challenge. Sleep times are getting shorter, quality of sleep is falling (hello, screen time) and there are more demands on us cognitively as life patterns are being interrupted. In my experience with type A personalities, this is by far and away the key issue. People overtrain their body, overstimulate their nervous system, overclock their hearts and minds and overexert themselves mentally in the pursuit of more. Nothing is more catastrophic to our longevity and wellbeing than not resting properly. Understanding how we improve and maximise rest should be front and center. 

Move. This one is the most self evident. The only point to emphasise is the importance of resistance training for health and longevity. Most focus exclusively on cardio, neglecting the fact that we lose muscle mass with age. This applies equally to women, as muscles are key to bone strength. So calibrate where you are vs where you should be, act accordingly - there are many ways to build and maintain muscle, don’t fall for the “I’m not a gym bro” fallacy. 

Nourish. You can't outrun a bad diet, the saying goes, and we agree. Carbohydrate restriction, proper protein/fat intake and hydration are the usual areas of focus, and those are usually flagged in the lab reports referred to in point 1. So start with insulin, glycated hemoglobin and triglycerides to understand where you are. 

Connect. How we connect with others is key to our wellbeing. Most of us need at least 3-5 strong connections (think of it as people you can confide in, or call in an emergency), and those connections need to be consciously nourished. With loneliness being front and center as a mental health issue, having a framework for making sure our relationships are maintained is key. Socrates once said "Beware the barrenness of a busy life" - this has never been more true. This human need is critical for longevity and wellbeing, and in direct conflict with our digital lifestyle. 

Reflect. How we connect with ourselves is very much a continuation of the theme above. Spending time alone, sitting and breathing allows you to (in the words of Tim Ferriss) step out of the washing machine and look inside it. This is the foundation of being less reactive and more detached from the noise of daily life. How well do you know yourself? Do you spend time alone? Can you spend time alone? Do you like it? Do you avoid it? Why? Who are you when you are alone with yourself and with nobody else around? How important are you to yourself? It is essential to take the time to reconnect with yourself, to establish this as a priority, to develop and nurture that connection. To wake up to yourself. Only through this exploration will you be able to know how your are, moment to moment, and maybe eventually even know who you are, truly, beyond the social references that you use to define yourself against.

Grow. This is about the relationship between yourself and your future self. Having an articulated life plan (however imprecise), goals, values and a growth method all contribute to wellbeing immensely. Having a why is a key tool in your resilience and coping arsenal, and needs to be cultivated on an ongoing basis. How can we choose the direction we want to take if we don't take the time to look at it, and look at it closely, look at it regularly, make a point of it, assess where we are, decide where we want to go, and make a plan on how to get there? This is true for the few important things we need to get done today, it is true for the major projects we want to accomplish this year, and it is true for the place we want to get to in 5, 10, 15 years from now. And of course these will change. But that's understood. The point is to think about, plan, map out your evolution, your own growth from your current to your future self, and make it happen. To finish, appropriately, with a Nietzsche quote: He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.

*there are actually 2 cross-discipline categories - environment (external) and personality (internal) which profoundly impact those 6 needs, but that's the subject of another post.