From Bond-worthy gadgets that enable optimal sleep to 3D-printed supplements, wellness has gone to a whole new high-tech level – and it’s called ‘biohacking’. Alice du Parcq investigates
“BRB, getting microbiomed!” is something you may actually be DMing in a few years (or weeks, if this article resonates). As our ravenous self-health pursuit grows, there’s a buzzword that experts are calling the future of our wellness: biohacking.
We’ve heard it in tech circles: entrepreneurs (such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and former Nasa scientist Josiah Zayner) claim biohacking with self-experimentation, smart drugs and wearable devices improves their minds and bodies. Now, it’s filtering into everyday life. “We’re a nation obsessed with health and beauty shortcuts, from wearing longwear 24-hour foundation to juicing ten vegetables in one smoothie, and soon this will include extreme self-discovery and subconscious skincare – think analysing your heartbeat and wearing fabrics laced with moisturiser – all to better yourself more efficiently,” says Jeanine Recckio, beauty futurologist at forecasting agency Mirror Mirror. She believes biohacking will unlock our optimum selves through specific ‘hacks’ that bypass what nature intended. So what does it involve, how can you do it and is it even safe? Let’s get nerdy…
Remember the film Limitless, where Bradley Cooper gets hooked on a mysterious pill and goes into supersmart overdrive? Biohacking is like a legal approach to that… without the addiction and murder rampage, obvs. It’s the practice of changing your physiology through science, so you can control, manipulate and shortcut your way to a higher-performing you. “Imagine your body is a car; you don’t just need the right fuel, you need the best wheels that fit perfectly, smooth brakes and an engine tuned to your precise requirements,” explains Nick Powell, biohacking expert and founder of Stronger Self, a personal coaching company. “Once you have insight into where you’re ‘rusty’, you can biohack yourself to optimum performance.” Most of Nick’s clients include top city CEOs who are running on empty and need efficient wellness tricks in their time-poor, work-heavy lives.
But how does that relate to the rest of us? A study by the Mental Health Foundation revealed 74% of UK adults are so stressed they feel unable to cope, while in a GLAMOUR reader survey, 52% of millennial women say they suffer from sleep problems. The pathway to punching on all cylinders suddenly seems less nerdy, more need-it-now.
Getting to know you
Nick offers a Human Optimisation Programme at a cool £5,000, which starts with your microbiome being tested by Viome, a laboratory that uses AI to analyse your gut’s microorganisms. This gives you knowledge of nutrients you struggle to process, intolerances and deficiencies. But what even is microbiome? It’s the bacteria living in and on the body and professors worldwide believe it’s the next human insight phenomenon after DNA sequencing.
The thinking goes, if you know what’s going on in your deepest innards, you can sidestep gastro-intestinal issues with biohacking. Microbiome centres such as The Gut Health Doctor are on the rise, and new research proves gut health isn’t just key to an efficient body – a study by University College Cork found a link between microbiome and mental health. They took microbiome from the faeces of depressed male patients, transplanted the samples into rats and noted signs of anxiety. We sh*t you not. Along with blood-work analysed by a doctor at testing lab Thriva, Nick often sees a pattern. “Time and again clients show deficiencies in vitamin D and B12,” he says. “The symptom for both is constant tiredness, but you wouldn’t know until you start supplementing or eating the right foods. When you do, your energy levels go through the roof.”
Toying with tech
Nick’s clients get Bond-meets-biohacking gadgets, including an Oura ring. It’s the most accurate sleep and activity tracker on the market, which registers body temperature, blood volume pulse and the intensity of your movements 24/7. With this data, you can build a baseline of information about yourself to enable optimal sleep.
“Pro-sleep shortcuts are huge news, particularly bio-textile fabrics impregnated with skincare. We saw them in their infancy in sheet masks, but the next generation – known as fabric osmotics – will be in bedsheets to treat your skin while you sleep,” says Jeanine. “I’m looking at a Nufabrx Pillowcase [in LA] now. It’s embedded with tea tree oil to help acne-prone skin.”
More skin-tech wizardry is on the way: L’Oréal’s Perso and P&G’s Ventures Opté Precision Wand (both launching in 2021) are 3D printing devices that scan your skin and spray a bespoke mixture of skincare and pigment in micro-drops, specific to the target area. Along with skin scanners, such as Neutrogena Skin360, “this is the type of time-saving beauty hacking we’ll see a lot more of in the next five years,” says Jeanine.
Alleviating stress is a big focus in biohacking, as the hours lost from overthinking and brain-fog can eat away at productivity. A new device called HeartMath measures your heart rate variability, ie the distance between your heartbeats. “Low HRV indicates you’re under stress, so you can address it before falling down an anxiety hole,” says Nick. “You can then train your body out of its stressed state using breathing and visualisation techniques.” How do you do that? There’s an app, of course. Clients get a subscription to Ziva, an online meditation platform designed by expert and author Emily Fletcher. “Meditation is a powerful self-control skill,” says Nick. “When you feel you’ve been emotionally triggered, it teaches you not to push that feeling away, otherwise it gets louder and bigger. If you recognise it and welcome it, it becomes softer and disappears.”
‘Digestible wellness’ might sound like a Goop Lab experiment, but this biohacker’s term for optimum eating aims to improve your gut in the most efficient way. Bobbi Brown, the make-up guru turned health coach, has launched Evolution_18 at Boots, a range of gummies, shakes, snacks and tablets made from superfoods and antioxidants that claim to promote strong nails, clear skin and shiny hair.
Next to go space age: your humble vitamin. Melissa Snover, a tech entrepreneur who began experimenting with edible 3D printing in 2015, has collaborated with nutritionists on Nourished, a high-grade supplement brand that makes 3D-printed vegan sweets infused with vitamins and minerals tailored to your needs. “They’re printed with a patented gel made of natural fruit and plant extracts that have no impact on insulin levels, so they’re suitable for diabetics,” she says. And there are no bulking materials or gelatin capsules found in normal supplements that could interfere with absorption.
In a quest for peak performance, some biohackers experiment with cognitive enhancing nootropics (also called ‘smart drugs’) that – according to brands such as BrainExcell – “unlock your brain’s full potential”. Focus, the 100% natural Limitless-style nootropic, developed by entrepreneur Ryan Maguire, contains medicinal plant extracts such as ashwagandha and guarana – like a revved up Red Bull in a pill. “But the research around nootropics is questionable,” says Melissa. “The government can’t keep up so there’s no consumer protection in place.”
While some want to outsmart their own brains, others want to redesign their faces – without surgery. Reshaping your face with Liquid Skin to look like you’ve been Face-tuned IRL is a trend in Asia. “It’s a skin-coloured silicone putty you paste onto your face to raise your cheekbones, chisel your chin or slim your nose,” says Jeanine, “and looks frighteningly real. It’s the biohacker’s contouring.”
Elsewhere in WTF biohacking, it’s now possible to embed a micro-chip beneath your skin in the name of shortcutting daily tasks. For instance, the xNT NFC Chip can be implanted in your wrist and programmed to unlock your car or play music while you’re working out. Mind blown.
Genes can come true?
This self-tweaking isn’t just weird science. DNA tinkering, which aligns with the shortcutting theories of biohackers, is being explored on Netflix documentary Unnatural Selection and raises questions about altering our human nature through gene-editing. We know that gene selection has made life-saving leaps, but this genome manipulation enters a whole new level of controversy. For example, last year bioethicist Dr Kevin Smith from Abertay University in Scotland published a study claiming the risks of gene editing are now low enough to justify its use with human embryos. While we don’t know yet what this could mean IRL – from altering your height to removing complex diseases such as HIV and serious mental illness – in the future could you be biohacked before you’ve even been born?
What we do know is today’s biohackers have a few things sussed: the link between gut health and mental wellness, and using mindfulness to manage your stress – both of which feel positive, safe and researched. As for Limitless pills and musical microchips? Coming soon to a tech symposium near you.