Can Biohacking Really Extend Your Life? 4 MDs Weigh In

Sporty woman in sportswear training at home drinking fresh smoothie - Fit female athlete using smart watch to monitor her performance - Sport, food and technology concept.Sporty woman in sportswear training at home drinking fresh smoothie - Fit female athlete using smart watch to monitor her performance - Sport, food and technology concept.Getty | Kar-TrGetty | Kar-Tr

If your TikTok feed is filled with #biohacking, then hi, same, me too. The concept regularly trends on social media and influencers (who sometimes call themselves biohackers) rave about the supposed benefits. But if you’re a little hazy on what biohacking actually means, then you’ve come to the right place.

Biohacking refers to the practice of using various lifestyle modifications (biohacks), typically around exercise, diet, and sleep, for the broader goal of maximizing your health and longevity, says Matthew Dawson, MD, co-founder and CEO of Wild Health. Anyone can try it, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all process, and personalization is crucial for maximum success, he adds.

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But even though biohacking is, in theory, a power tool in leveling-up your health, many techniques are relatively new, lack scientific evidence regarding effectiveness, and potentially carry unknown, long-term consequences, says Michelle Loy, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

For the biohacking lowdown, POPSUGAR spoke with experts for everything you need to know about the practice, including common biohacks — and whether or not biohacking actually works.

What Is Biohacking?

Biohacking is the practice of improving your physical and/or mental health and performance by changing your biology, says Greg Hammer, MD, a retired professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of “GAIN Without Pain.” “The term evolved from the ‘hacker’ mindset, in which someone thinks about all the possibilities available to make a change,” he explains. “It embraces the idea of using ideas from tech and ‘breaking into’ a system, in this case, the human body and its biology.”

As for why biohacking is suddenly so popular, Dr. Dawson chalks up the fascination with enhancing your performance and lifespan to the rising interest in alternative healthcare, personalized medicine, and longevity.

What Are Biohacking Techniques?

Biohacking is a huge and growing field, but here are a few common techniques you may hear about.

Sleep Optimization

As the name suggests, sleep optimization focuses on improving sleep quality and duration through practices like maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a conducive sleep environment, and using sleep-tracking devices, Dr. Dawson says.

Nootropic Supplements

Nootropics refer to any natural or synthetic substance, like dietary supplements and prescription drugs, that may have a positive impact on thinking, learning, and memory, Dr. Dawson says. For example, studies, like this one in the journal Nutrients, show that ginseng nootropics may support brain function and reduce fatigue.

That said, the supplement industry isn’t as strictly regulated as, say, food and drugs, so it’s important to be cautious when experimenting with the products. Talk to your doctor before adding anything to your routine and look for supplements that are tested and approved by a third-party quality assurance company like USP.

Breathwork

Breathwork techniques like controlled, deep breathing and meditation can reduce stress and improve oxygenation, Dr. Dawson says. In fact, daily meditation for as little as three- to five-minutes a day may boost mental clarity and improve sleep, mood, focus, and overall health, Dr. Hammer says.

Temperature Exposure

Cold plunges and saunas are popular for a reason: controlled exposure to cold and/or hot temperatures may boost metabolism, improve circulation, aid recovery, and potentially enhance immune function, Dr. Dawson says. “May” is the key word here: a recent review of studies involving cold plunging published in the journal PLoS One found that, while the practice may have anti-inflammatory benefits, more high-quality research is needed before we can say it’s truly effective.

Intermittent Fasting

This eating pattern involves cycling between periods of eating and fasting, often with the goal of weight management, says Florence Comite, MD, founder of the Comite Center for Precision Medicine and Healthy Longevity. It’s most commonly done in a 16:8 method: fasting every day for 16 hours and restricting your eating window to eight hours.

But this technique is not for everyone. A study in the journal Eating Behaviors, for instance, linked the method to disordered eating in young people. And the same study found that more research is needed before experts can even say whether it’s an effective tool for weight management. Intermittent fasting can also be harmful to people who are underweight, have type 1 diabetes, or have a history of disordered eating, Dr. Loy says. You should always consult with a doctor before making any dietary changes, Dr. Comite says, and that’s especially true for IF.

Dietary Habits

Along with when you eat, many biohacking techniques involve zeroing in on what you eat. Right now, eating methods that are meant to stabilize blood sugar have become popular in the biohacking space. You’ll see suggestions about combining fiber and healthy fats with protein, for instance, Dr. Comite says.There’s also increased attention being paid to Blue Zone foods and meals, or the eating plans of people who live in pockets of the world that are known for longevity.

Wearable Technology

Wearables like the Oura Ring, Apple Watch, Fitbit, and Garmin that track your sleep patterns, activity levels, stress metrics, and nutritional data to identify patterns and guide you to informed decisions about your wellbeing are nothing new — although they may be getting more advanced, Dr. Comite says. And again, with the increasing attention being paid to how blood sugar impacts overall wellness, focus, and mood, a growing segment of the market may begin to involve glucose tracking, she says.

What Are the Risks of Biohacking?

Being mindful of factors like what you eat, how and how often you move, and how well you sleep can absolutely impact the quality of your life, and even, possibly, how long you live, Dr. Hammer says.

However, every body is different, and what works for one person might not for another — or might even be damaging. You have to put in the effort to identify a “hack” that works for you, Dr. Comite says, adding: “That’s where a wise physician and other clinicians can make a difference, because it’s vital to connect the dots, integrate, and interpret the data as it will be unique to each individual.”

Dr. Loy agrees that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on the internet without fact-checking it, ideally with the help of a healthcare provider. “People often take ‘advice’ from social media influencers with minimal or no health education and taking ‘advice’ from unaccredited sources can be unsuitable or outright dangerous,” she says.

A general rule of thumb? Any medical intervention or biohacking supplements should always be cleared by a doctor, especially if you have underlying health conditions, Dr. Dawson says. In particular, you must be especially careful with non-prescription nootropics including tablets, supplements, drinks, and food that promise to ramp up weight loss, bulk muscle, or increase hormone levels, Dr. Loy says. Why? These supps are often unregulated and run the risk of contamination, which can lead to illness or injury, she says.

Always be wary of excessive health claims and do your due diligence, Dr. Hammer adds. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

To that end, it’s worth noting that only so much is within our control when it comes to our health. Someone can do everything “right” and still end up being diagnosed with a debilitating condition or becoming seriously injured. Eighty percent of people with a disability acquire it between the ages of 18 and 64, through age, illness, or injury, according to the World Economic Forum.

So while biohacking may be a way to make taking small steps to improve your health more interesting, it’s not foolproof, nor is it a silver bullet. Not every tactic will be beneficial or safe for everyone. And it bears repeating: “People interested in nutrition, sleep, or fitness hacks should speak with a medical professional or nutritionist before trying a new regimen to assess whether it’s safe and suitable for their specific health needs,” Dr. Loy says.

So, Does Biohacking Work?

It may, for some people, depending on what strategies they try and what their measure of success is. If they define a successful biohack as one that makes them feel more energized or happy, then they may find strategies that fit the bill. If they define it as adding more high quality years to their life — only time will tell.

The bottom line is, the effectiveness of any one biohacking technique varies from person to person, so it’s hard to say if biohacking as a whole is effective or not, Dr. Dawson says. “Results depend on factors like genetics, lifestyle, and consistency with chosen modalities,” he explains. “Consult a professional and proceed with caution.”

Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based freelance writer and graduate from Emory University and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in POPSUGAR, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

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