Biohacking Your Health Is Trendy—But Does It Come at a Cost?
Heart-rate monitoring, intermittent fasting, protein cycling—the current fitness and wellness trends are all about biohacking for better health. But data-based decisions may not always be the best approach.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey reportedly eats one meal a day during the week and fasts over the weekend. Bulletproof founder and CEO Dave Asprey has snoozed on a magnetic pad in the quest for better sleep quality. And it’s not just Silicon Valley: From Instagram influencers preaching intermittent fasting, to local pharmacies selling sleep-tracking wearables, biohacking has gone mainstream.
But is there a downside to constantly experimenting with diet, exercise and sleep? Here’s what science says about the pros and cons of biohacking, plus how to make meaningful changes in your health.
Follow the Rules or Trust Your Gut?
For those experimenting with a popular health fad, one of the biggest struggles is determining whether something that sounds really cool in theory is truly feasible IRL. For example, intermittent fasting is a hot trend right now for losing weight without counting calories. Typically, you eat for eight hours and fast for 16 hours. That’s simple enough on paper, but in reality, your stomach is bound to start growling around hour six. If your body is clearly sending hunger signals, shouldn’t you listen?
“Humans are born with the intuitive ability to discern when and how much to eat, and when to stop,” says clinical psychologist Paula Freedman. “Unfortunately, most of us lose touch with that intuition as we go through life. We think we need external rules to ‘control ourselves’ around food, but really it’s those rules that cause us to struggle in the first place.”
Left to its own devices, your body knows how to regulate itself for food and sleep. Freedman believes you just need to practice tuning in.
The Number Game
Many health hacks, like carb cycling or sleep optimizing, require extensive tracking of your daily habits. Some data points are good (BMI, blood pressure and cholesterol are all great things to keep track of). But there is a risk of becoming so focused on the data that you start to measure your self-worth based on whether or not you meet certain metrics.
“Our brains automatically try to make sense of data, categorizing it as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” notes Freedman. “When the data is about ourselves, we unconsciously tie it to our self-perception, so it becomes ‘I'm good if I got this amount of sleep and bad if I didn't.’ Those labels can have all kinds of emotional effects that end up impacting our health even more than the data itself.”
What’s more, focusing too much on individual metrics can distort the bigger picture. “Ask any new parent to track their sleep and it would be abysmal compared to how much you’re ‘supposed’ to get,” says Freedman. “Yet over the course of a lifetime, our bodies make up for it. It all evens out in the end.”
If an obsession over data starts to dominate your daily routine, ask yourself if these “hacks” are really improving your quality of life. “When your mood or self-worth is affected by whether or not you followed specific rules, are those rules really helping you live a high-quality life?” she asks. “If you're beating yourself up for not meeting a certain metric which was dictated by someone else, is that truly healthy?”
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New Trends, Less Science
While it sounds really sexy to talk about intermittent fasting for weight loss or a probiotic supplement for gut health, the fact remains that there’s not a ton of science surrounding some of the most dramatic biohacks. Long-term studies with large groups of participants still need to be done on many of the current hot topics. That doesn’t mean they don’t work; it just means you need to trust your intuition (see above!) if something doesn’t seem right.
If you’re considering incorporating a popular hack into your lifestyle, talk to your trusted doctor first to get the all-clear. Also, take some time to search the internet for relevant and credible research on the subject, paying close attention to how long studies lasted and how relevant the participant population is to your own life.
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Be Wary of Shortcuts
The biohacking movement makes for great marketing; after all, who doesn’t want an easy path to better health and fitness? But at the end of the day, many trends favor quick fixes over long-term solutions. “Humans have a 100 percent mortality rate,” Freedman deadpans. “No amount of biohacking will change that. Lots of people are drawn to these tricks because the underlying promise is that you'll live a long and healthy life, but we really don’t need to drive ourselves nuts trying to outsmart our lifespans.”
And don’t overlook all the other factors that lead to a happier, healthier life like social support, positive thinking, and low stress levels. Nutrition and exercise hacks are beneficial in getting you focused on self-care, but other simple lifestyle changes can have an even bigger effect. Your ultimate goal: “Develop habits that are rewarding both physically and mentally, and help you enjoy life,” says Freedman. “Remember, there is no magic cure for mortality.”
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For effective, science-backed ways to improve your overall health, skip the hype and go straight for the basics:
● No matter how much you already exercise, add 10 more minutes of walking to your daily routine (wearing comfortable shoes, of course).
● Drink plenty of water—about half your body weight in ounces per day.
● Choose vegetables and whole foods over processed and packaged goods.
● Meditate daily, even if it’s just for a minute or two at a time.
Ultimately, the most successful changes are ones that will actually stick, whether that means lacing up your favorite running shoes for a quick jog, getting on the mat for yoga practice or aiming to get in bed by 10 P.M. every night. Instead of jumping on board with every new trend, focus on learning to listen to your body and giving yourself what you need to feel happy and strong.
Looking for more great ways to improve your health and fitness? Check out these ideas for making a workout plan that you’ll actually follow.