I thought for this week’s blog I would list the top 20 fundamental biohacks that I have learnt in the last years or two. One of the joys of this particular list is that these biohacks will not only have a profound effect on your physiology but also be either very inexpensive or cost nothing at all. What have you got to lose by trying at least some of them?
What are biohacks?
Before we go into the list, perhaps it would be a good idea to first explain what exactly biohacking is. In much the same way that computer hackers try to gain access to a computer system for their own purposes, biohackers try to make their own physiology function better by ‘hacking’ into their own biology. The idea is to use direct and effective short-cuts (biohacks) towards goals of increased strength, fitness, health, and cognition.
No.1: Autophagy and Intermittent Fasting
This has to be one of the simplest, and least expensive, biohacks that anybody could do. It literally costs nothing, and the gains can be profound. Autophagy is an intracellular process that essentially recycles a cell’s garbage such as misfolded proteins and damaged organelles. It is initiated during a period of fasting, usually starting at around 12 hours into the fast. Thus even missing breakfast is likely to give you some of the benefits from autophagy. Without it, the cellular garbage just builds up and up, much like leaving rubbish in your house and never cleaning. If the cells are never allowed the time and space to carry out this process the results can be dire.
Intermittent fasting (IF) is simply a systematic approach to fasting and thus kick-starting autophagy. I personally do a 20-4 system. That’s 4 hours of eating, followed by 20 hours of fasting. Others do 16-8 or even OMAD (One Meal A Day). Whichever you choose, making IF part of your life is likely to have profound and beneficial effects on your health.
No.2: Utilise the mTOR Switch
mTor (mechanistic Target Of Rapamycin) is a pathway in your body that allows it to go into growth, or anabolic, mode. It can be switched on by ingesting carbohydrates or proteins. We can deliberate use it when we wish to recover from exercise or to take advantage of its muscle-building potential following a resistance training session (such as weight lifting or using resistance bands).
There are some dangers to being continuously in growth mode. At the extreme end, it can lead to cellular mis-growth or cancers. Because of these dangers, we want to be switching it on for a time and then switching back into autophagy. In reality, this is not a binary situation, the ‘switch’ involved is much more like a dimmer switch; a matter of degree rather than just a simple on/off. Ideally, we should spend a lot more time either in, or moving towards, autophagy. To do this we move between appropriate eating and intermittent fasting.
No.3: Exposure to Sunlight & Vitamin D
At the risk of getting into some trouble at the moment, it seems very likely that ensuring your body has sufficient amounts of vitamin d has a prophylactic effect in regards to such things as Covid 19 and other viruses. This is perhaps one of the simplest biohacks out there. At the very least, it can do little harm to stock up on this vital vitamin. Ideally, you do this via exposure to sunlight. In practical terms, this may not be possible in many parts of the World for much of the year. In that case, be sure to ingest vitamin d rich foods (oily fish, meat, egg yolks, and liver) and supplement appropriately.
Beyond the search for vitamin d, it is wise to be exposed to some sunlight whenever possible. Of course, we are not advocating risking burning in the sun or anything that extreme. Simply get out in the light, go for a walk or ride, enjoy some fresh air and sun on your skin and face. Sunshine will stimulate the production of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter, and guards against the effects of SAD (Seasonal Adjusted Disorder). Sunlight is also beneficial for promoting bone-strengthening processes in the body and lowers blood pressure. All good but … just be sensible!
No.4: Greeting dawn and dusk
The circadian rhythm is affected by exposure to light. If done at the appropriate times of day, the body has the information it needs to set the rhythm to its location and the time of the year. It has been shown that our bodies respond to clues from light in order to regulate their internal rhythms (circadian and ultradian for example). Without such exposure, these processes are far more likely to go awry, thus leaving us in inappropriate states for the time of day. This is again one of the simplest biohacks to add to your daily routine.
At the start of the day, the early morning light stimulates the production of cortisol. This neurotransmitter often gets a bad rap as being associated with stress. In reality, it is more about being alert and awake, exactly what we need as we start into a new day. On the other hand, at dusk and with the fading of the light, the neurotransmitter serotonin will be activated. This leads to the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, thus making a good night’s sleep far more likely. The sought after reaction can be stimulated artificially by the use of lamps but, as with many biohacks, we at ketopensioner believe it to be better to go the natural way whenever and wherever possible.
No.5: Sleep Timing
Much as the modern world, and many individuals, fight against it, we are creatures deeply embedded in nature. Rhythms work within us hour by hour, day by day, season by season. Living outside of these rhythms opens us up to all sorts of problems. One of the most significant of these is insomnia, or at least poor sleep quality.
Learning to program yourself to adopt a sleeping rhythm is likely to result in healthier, deeper, more refreshing sleep. It can take a couple of weeks of practice, but going to bed at a sensible time (not after midnight!), adopting a pre-sleep routine, and turning the light out at more or less the same time every night will likely result in a great increase in sleep quality. All it takes is a little consistency and some commitment. The rewards are enormous.
No.6: Move: Don’t be sedentary
We are meant to move. Our bodies need to move. We need the challenge to build strength, resilience, and health. Unfortunately, there is a completely natural urge within us to be lazy. This probably has evolutionary roots, harping back to times when life was so physically demanding that an inclination to taking it easy when possible helped to conserve energy. These days, with our labour-saving devices, our heated homes, our air-conditioned shops and offices, the threat is one of too much comfort, not too little.
To give a simple example of what can be done: much of the time when I write this blog I elect to do so at a standing desk. Sitting for lengthy periods increases blood pressure, builds fat around the waste, heightens blood sugar, and weakens muscle. It is interesting to note what occurs to astronauts in weightless conditions. Fun as it undoubtedly is to be free of the body’s weight, these people find it difficult simply to support themselves when they return to the Earth and its gravity. Your musculature needs constant challenge. It is a clear case of use it or lose it, I’m afraid.
No.7: Exercise Timing
This relates back to our no.1 biohacking tip: intermittent fasting and autophagy. There are certain practices that we can adopt in order to intensify the state of autophagy. Chief amongst these is exercise. Timing a session, particularly a tough resistance training session, towards the end of your IF period is likely to boost the impact of autophagy. For this reason, I tend to do these sessions first thing in the morning. My fasting period is already around 17 or 18 hours at that stage. Autophagy has started. I am normally well into ketosis. Taking exercise at this time is likely to have the maximal effect to increase the effect of autophagy.
A small extra tip here; coffee has a similar influence on autophagy. Imbibing a cup of robusta prior to the exercise session accelerates autophagy even more. It will also wake you up and stimulate a cortisol response; all good results at the start of the new day and one of the simpler biohacks.
No.8: Resistance Training
This applies to everybody, but particularly to people advancing in years. A fit, well-muscled body is much better at burning calories. What is more, it goes on burning those calories long after the resistance exercise is finished. Apart from that, avoiding the dangers of sarcopenia (muscle wastage) as you grow older is a wise move. Frailty, leading to falls and injuries, is an oft-cited problem for the elderly. Apart from these objective dangers, the quality of life is so much higher if a person can maintain a fit and strong body for as long as humanly possible.
My own preference is for resistance bands. I bought these on Amazon last year and they have proven to be a godsend. Especially during the challenging times that we have all experienced over the last twelve months. Given the relative expense, and just how well this exercise methodology works, I don’t think I will be signing up to any expensive gyms when they do, eventually, re-open. As with many of these simple biohacks, you often save money as well as time!
No.9: HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
Fed up with spending countless hours running or jogging? Here is one of my favourite biohacks. It seems from a number of studies that it’s very likely that it is not necessary to do so. HIIT seems to have much the same effect, without the need for time-consuming, hours long, forms of exercise.
HIIT simply involves exercising intensely for short periods, followed by a recovery period that is usually 2 or 3 times as long. My own sessions consist of using the local hills and slopes on a bike. I ride up a gradient as fast as I can, usually taking 30 to 45 seconds doing so. This is followed by a short recovery period of 90 seconds to 2 minutes, before the next climb. I like to do four repeats of this. The whole session will take less than 15 minutes, often leaving me feeling exhilarated.
No.10: Cold Showers
As biohacks go, I have to admit that this one can be one of the least comfortable. Controlled cold exposure, in diverse forms, has many benefits. These range from fighting inflammation to weight loss, and from promoting BAT (Brown Adipose Tissue) to the repair of injured muscle tissue. Perhaps the simplest and most convenient way to take advantage of these benefits is simply by taking regular cold showers.
These will be challenging at first! Every pore of your body will be screaming ‘NO!’ as you subject yourself to this apparent horror. It is, there is no getting away from it, a shock to the system. This very shock is part of the effect you are seeking, though. There is something of a psychological benefit to be had here too. If you can force yourself, against your natural resistance, to step under that cold stream of water, you will garner self-respect and the knowledge that you have the will-power to overcome your fears. Such biohacks as this work on a number of levels, changing you psychologically as well as physically.
There are some ‘hacklets’ that you can use to make it a little easier. Short term exposure of just 15 seconds will do for starters, gradually lengthening the time to 2 to 3 minutes. Another technique is to alternate 20 seconds of hot and cold for 4 to 5 minutes. There is no way around the simple fact that some biohacks are challenging. Eventually, though, you will be able to easily stand under the cold water for 3 minutes, and may even find it quite enjoyable!
No.11: Embrace Fat
This is undoubtedly one of the more controversial biohacks. Do not fear fats, particularly animal fats. These have had an incredibly bad rap over the last 50 years, but the evidence against them is thin (!) at the best. Even saturated fats have proven to be nothing like the diabolical threat that they were purported to be. In fact, they may even have protective qualities.
Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, and the start of the 21st, animal fats were vilified by many health groups and government. The evidence that these accusations were based on usually involved dubious associative or correlative evidence. The case against animal fats all but disappears when examined using higher standard random controlled trials. For an in-depth examination of the story and the evidence, I would highly recommend ‘The Big Fat Surprise’ by Nina Teicholz.
No.12: Avoid Vegetable Oils
There are a couple of caveats to eating fats. Certain fats should be avoided. The most egregious of these is hydrogenated oils. Essentially, in an industrial process, hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in an attempt to make it solid at room temperature. These are a terrible invention that do immense harm to the body. A lot of these trans fats have been used in processed foods to give them a longer shelf-life. People ingest large amounts of these fats without even being conscious of the fact they are doing so.
Vegetable oils in themselves, beyond the dangers of trans fats, are best avoided. When used in frying, for example, they tend to oxidise at much lower temperatures. Because of this, they are likely to cause inflammation and raise the risk of all sorts of problems, particularly heart disease. The one exception to this seems to be olive oil, though that is made from the olive fruit and so is not really a vegetable oil at all.
No.13: Enjoy Regular Bone Broth
Bone broth is something we enjoy consuming on an almost daily basis. It is both tasty and highly nutritious. It also costs next to nothing to produce, made as it is from leftover bones. We slow-cook ours, adding a little vinegar to separate out the marrow. The bones themselves are very nutritious, they are a good source of magnesium, phosphorous, and calcium, as well as vitamins A and K, zinc, selenium and iron. The bones also contain collagen, something that we tend to lose as we grow older. Because of the collagen, consuming bone broth may help to protect cartilage and skin tissue. The list of benefits goes on and on. This is one of the simpler biohacks, and a pleasure to boot.
No.14: Drink Good Quality Coffee
At ketopensioner, we primarily drink coffee because we like it. Happily though, beyond this, it has a wide range of benefits. This is particularly the case for those of us on a ketogenic diet or seeking the benefits of autophagy. At the most obvious level, coffee is a great pick-me-up in the morning. Along with exercise, it helps magnify the effects of autophagy. It also boosts ketogenesis, promoting the bodies production of the desired ketones.
The list of benefits goes on and on. Coffee contains antioxidants, such as polyphenols and hydrocinnamic acids. It has the essential nutrients magnesium and potassium, elements so often in deficit on standard American or Western diets. Coffee can help to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce the desire to consume sugary, unhealthy snacks. The only caveat we would add is to try to ensure the coffee is of sufficiently high-quality; instant coffee doesn’t cut it! We grind our own, directly from the beans, thus attempting to avoid the dangers of over-processing.
No.15: Avoid Sugars
This is a little obvious, but so fundamental that we feel it should be included in our list. Unless you have lived under a rock for the past 50 years, it will be no surprise to you that sugar is not at all beneficial for your health. Further, as someone who follows a ketogenic diet, I would say that it is wise to cut down on carbohydrates altogether. This is because carbs are converted into glucose within the body and so, effectively, all carbohydrates are sugars.
High intake of carbohydrates/sugars has been one of the two main factors that have led to the obesity crisis we are experiencing today. Sugar also leads to inflammation. Mostly because of this, it also leads to diabetes, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, raises blood pressure, and leads to such a long list of maladies that it would be difficult to list. Manufacturers routinely add it to processed products to extend shelf life and to utilise its addictive qualities. Sugar is up there with smoking in regards to the extent of damage it does to the person who partakes of it. Because of these factors, this is one of the healthiest biohacks you can implement.
No.16: Avoid Grain
This is the second factor that has led to the contemporary obesity crisis. Beyond just their obesogenic effect, though, they lead to a tremendous amount of damage in our bodies. Gluten intolerance is often thought of as just affecting the gut. It seems likely though, that the damage goes far beyond just the stomach and affects most of our organs and, in particular, the brain. Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, even depression and ADHD have all been linked to the effect of grain/gluten in our diets.
It turns out that far more of us than originally thought are sensitive to the effects of gluten. In fact, both Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are commonly found in Western populations today. Dr David Perlmutter has been pointing out the dangers of grain consumption for years. He has helped not only to make people aware of the dangers to our physiology in general but has focussed on the neurological damage in particular. I recently finished his excellent book, ‘Grain Brain’, and would unhesitatingly recommend it as a much-needed warning (and a very good read!).
No.17: Avoid High Fructose Fruits
Fruit is essentially carbohydrate. The sugar that comes with them is fructose. High consumption of fruit comes with the same dangers as consuming any other form of carbohydrate. For those of you like myself, lovers of fruit for most of their lives, this is somewhat annoying. Fortunately, some fruits are sufficiently low in carbs that they can be relatively safely consumed. Most of these are berries. Blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries all qualify as long as they are not over-consumed. This will ensure sufficient amounts of vitamin c in the diet without the risks that come with consuming more dense carbohydrates.
Most other fruits are best avoided, though, admittedly, because of their fibrous nature, they are better than processed carbs. The occasional bite of a banana or apple is unlikely to wreak too much damage but, beyond this, it is simply better to avoid such heavy fructose fruits. Much of what we take as fruit in this day and age has been bred to increase its sweetness. This makes it all the more addictive, hence all the easier to sell. It is a cynical business, I’m afraid.
No.18: Avoid Processed Foods
Talking of cynical businesses, our next focus is processed foods. Much of what passes for food in supermarkets and shops is processed, adulterated, unhealthy, and harmful. Much of the processed food commonly available contain three of the dangerous substances listed above: vegetable oils (often as trans fats), sugars, and grains. Added to these unhealthy substances are a range of chemicals to deceive your taste buds, give the substance artificial colour, or preserve shelf life.
The range of chemical additives in this stuff is horrifying. The potential for co-toxicities enormous. Even the packaging itself carries extensive dangers. Bisphenols, for example, are found in the linings of soda and food cans; these increase body fats and damage the immune and nervous systems. Phthalates are found in plastic packaging; they can increase obesity and add to the risk of cardiovascular disease, and also are known to interfere with the development of male genitalia. Perchlorate is found in dry food packaging; it interferes with brain development and can negatively affect thyroid function. Given the dangers, this is one of the more obvious biohacks that everyone should include in their lives.
No.19: Avoid Putting Chemical Soaked Goods On Your Skin
Much the same problems that exist with processed foods apply to cosmetics and such things as sun creams and moisturisers. Even such apparently harmless substances as talc can hold hidden dangers. Talc is a mineral that is often found in similar places to asbestos. Hence, according to the FDA at least, there is some danger of cross-contamination. Some skin tighteners contain mercury. The dangers of mercury are well known and include damage to the nervous system and kidneys, and also can be a threat to unborn babies if the mother is exposed. Parabens is found in moisturisers, shaving cream, hairspray, and make-up. It is suspected to promote the growth of breast cancer cells. Again the list goes on and on.
No.20: Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff
Finally, the last hack and one of the simplest. Don’t sweat the small stuff. We are all guilty of this at times. We waste our energies on concerns that are not really significant in the greater scheme of things, or on arguments that are simply not worthy of us. An obvious example is getting upset when driving. Raging at all and sundry only does you harm, not the person you are raging at. Such responses spike cortisol production within us, raise blood pressure and speed up the hearts. Basically, it puts us in flight or fight mode. Most of the time we can do neither, but we still have to live in that anxious state for the next few minutes. Much the same can be said of unnecessary domestic conflict. We may gain the odd pyrrhic victory, but the cost is far too high in terms of our physical and mental health.
There is a wide range of techniques that can help us deal with the stressors in our lives. Meditation and mindfulness are oft-quoted in this regard. My personal favourite is breathwork. The Wim Hof method is very good and relatively simple to learn. I personally enjoy using pranayama and qigong techniques. It’s a matter of personal preference, what suits one person may not be applicable to another.
Fortunately, there are many simple and inexpensive ways that we can improve our mental and physical health. Including these biohacks in our lives can save us time, money and energy. As ever in biohacking, we should take an eclectic approach; combine those biohacks that work particularly well for you while discarding those that don’t apply in our own case. The list above is by no means exhaustive, but there is certainly enough information to make a profound and lasting difference. Given such a list, it is difficult to choose the most fundamental, but if I had to choose one, it would be No.1 intermittent fasting and autophagy.