So this week has been the week of the biohacker in my practice. In fact, it seems like we’re in the age of the biohacker. Popularised by the likes of Dave Asprey and Ben Greenfield, the world of physiological manipulations, supplements, lifestyle hacks and ‘add-ons’ which come under the umbrella of ‘bio-hacking’ is growing exponentially. I’m delighted, because there are professionals and enthusiasts alike out there pioneering research into really niche areas of biochemistry. But I’m also worried – because I am seeing more people like the clients I have had through my door this week.
In a world of self-quantification it is quite common for biohackers to approach practitioners like myself to obtain testing so that they can see further into their biochemistry in order to gain a little bit extra which gives them a performance advantage. Typically these clients are athletes, or attempting to be, or they’re high profile businesspeople who are, as far as my world is concerned, ‘healthy’ but they are looking for an extra edge. They are looking to be “healthy-plus”.
This is different to what I would call my typical client. I usually work with people who are, in their own eyes, broken somehow. I attract the kind of client that is desperate and usually at the end of a string of practitioners. Often my clients just need someone to listen to their story – and this is where they start. Their overriding question becomes, ‘help me, please?’.
And yet biohackers are different. They approach me with a specific goal: ‘help me get a bigger power-to-weight ratio’, ‘help me work out if I am metabolising nutrients at my maximum efficiency’, ‘help me work out if my brain is working optimally’. All of these are great questions, but they’re the questions of a very small percentage of individuals. They’re the questions of those looking for extra, not the questions of those trying to survive.
My concern has been that I have observed the high-profile, self-confessed biohackers mentioned above seem to skim over the fact that the tools and techniques, the tips and tricks, the supplements and nutritional strategies they employ aren’t necessarily therapeutic. Yes, they’re advantageous, but they’re not always beneficial when the starting point is somewhere far more like ground zero, when people are far more unwell. And my clients, the ordinary people walking through my door, sometimes confuse how to get the ‘extra’ with how to care for the baseline necessities.
Tim Ferriss can be charged with popularising the Pareto principle amongst this group: wherein for any task you analyse the 20% of work that reaps 80% of the benefits. Beyond this, the additional 80% of work is working on taking that 80% of success you achieved up to reaching 100% in that task. The biohacking world is about making the good-to-great efforts where you work on all of the marginal gains to maximum benefit.
Those clients who have consulted with me this week have been looking at these 80% worth of strategies: from complex neuro-feedback programs, to investigations around toxins, to questions around nootropics and adaptogenic herbs. I know about all of these strategies because I, like my clients, find these fascinating. I am more involved in the cutting edge investigations than I often admit and spend hours reading and listening to the latest research, interviews, thought-leaders and scientific self-experimenters. And there is great potential for these marginal gain strategies to create rewards for some of my clients.
However, these “marginal-gain strategies” cannot exist without attention to the baseline 20%. Niche diets, complex nutritional timings and protocols and in-depth elimination dieting alongside fantastic (almost illegal) supplementation plans… these are all great. But this is the difficult stuff, this is playing with the fringe benefits, and unfortunately it is incredibly attractive so it is also the easiest stuff to get sidelined into and distracted by.
It is difficult to decide which adaptogenic herb, amino acid supplement, biohack or meditation/hypnosis trick is going to actually suit each individual. And the truth is that whilst they’re all intriguing, none of these ‘hacks’ are going to make a bit of difference to the individual if the foundations aren’t in check.
Every single client that came to me this week asking about these advanced concepts was both over-stressed and sleep deprived. They were having slight digestive issues – nothing chronic, it must be admitted – but far from these being big issues, this was the kind of dysbiosis that is common when lifestyle factors are out of balance. And yet they were coming to me for a supplement or a trick to solve their gut issues, believing they had excellent diets, sometimes excessively clean (e.g. they had stuck to an auto-immune, paleo-style diet for over a year thinking it was their saving grace) and they had become so convinced that they were missing the advantage of the marginal gains that comes only with biohacking solutions. They were doing the Bulletproof Coffee, they were doing MCT oil, some were taking nootropics.
But they weren’t sleeping, they weren’t resting and they certainly weren’t free from stress. All of which meant that my job was not to tweak nutrition or play with the 80% of performance hacks to give them the 20% extra ‘edge’. My job became taking them back to focussing on their baseline.
Most worryingly, these clients were women. Women who had become so caught up in the world of physiological optimisation that, as is too easy these days, they had forgotten that at their heart they weren’t their personal bests, their CrossFit targets or even the contracts they had won. It is a growing trend that we, as women, think we need to always be achieving the maximum. Even if we know we need to sleep and de-stress (as all of my clients did) we often lose perspective on whether or not we even are stressed.
And I’m just as guilty of this as my clients, sometimes. I have so many tools in my head that I often fall victim to a sense of guilt that I could be doing more, trying harder and achieving a greater sense of ‘wellness’. I know the ins and outs of all of these biohacking tips and supplements – and I exercise, I eat, I take supplements – and therefore I’m a normal human being who has to make choices every day about how to treat my body. And I know so much that I could (can, and sometimes do) perceive myself as perpetually failing because there’s so much out there I could always be doing more.
So I am observing a growing trend in my friends and practice: people who are so stressed about becoming and staying well that they are positively preventing themselves from getting there. The habit we fall into of worrying about wellness can actually lead to illness, without any other confounding factors. Therefore, it becomes clear to me how biohacking – wonderful and liberating as it is – can actually become dangerous when the basics aren’t taken into account. Optimising our biology is great – but supercharging a body that’s suffering isn’t actually a positive thing. You can’t biohack your way out of illness – you have to heal, and then see what else you want to achieve.
I spoke to my clients this week about remembering that simple often works. Taking it easy – both literally, but mostly on ourselves – is sometimes the greatest biohack of all. Aside from the supplements, the training, the nutritional strategies and the brain-manipulations, sometimes letting go and letting our innate biology just be is the only thing necessary to create truly amazing baseline wellness. Some of my clients this week were biohacking without realising that they’d never even felt their healthy baseline.
Biohacks are the ‘nice-to-haves’ but they must be built upon the foundations of ‘need-to-haves’: good nutrition, great relationships, healthy lifestyles and a perspective of self-respect and self-care – not driving ourselves into the ground thinking we’re not doing well enough. I hope that my clients this week took something away from my own struggles: we all think we’re not doing well enough, but the solution isn’t always trying harder, sometimes the solution is stopping trying and recognising that, as Pareto and Tim Ferriss say, ensuring we’ve got a grip of the baseline is already 80% of the best we can be. And that’s already pretty amazing.