If you’re curious about biohacking, here’s what a doctor wants you to know beforehand.
The term “biohacking” came into the public consciousness a few years ago via Silicone Valley execs who sought to improve their efficiency by attempting to hack their biology. Their habits ranged from taking slightly obscure supplements to adding microchips into their body to “improve their magnetic field” and life span (yes, really).
Now these habits have gone mainstream (OK, maybe not the microchip one) and it’s easy enough to land on the term with a two-minute scroll on social media. Google searches of “biohacking for beginners” have increased 850% over the past 12 months, and many of us have tried something a little obscure that’s promised to improve how our body functions, whether that’s fasted exercise or SAD lamps.
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But things have gone too far. At least, that’s according to Dr Adrian Chavez, who is fiercely anti-biohacking. His concern? “It’s marketing. People end up spending time doing these things that are half-truths when they could have spent that time actually doing the things that people need to do to improve their health,” he tells Stylist.
Dr Chavaz’s anti-biohacking journey began after he fell for the trend himself. “I started being interested in nutrition because of a health issue that I had. I went to a doctor and they didn’t really help me out very much, so I changed my diet and I was able to improve my digestive health.
“At that point, I started googling information and I landed on a lot of fringe sites. I was in my early 20s, getting a master’s degree in exercise science and I believed a lot of the obscure ‘biohacking’ stuff I was finding, so I completely shifted my degree to nutrition. But as you do a PhD programme, you learn science. And I learned that a lot of the stuff that I believed before is pretty ridiculous in some cases, but oftentimes dangerous.”
The real frustration for him is that we want to (or believe we should) start with the niche treatments before we’ve even nailed the basics. And when things like greens powders or cryotherapy don’t work, people give up at improving their health.
“The evidence for cold water exposure, for example, is a few poor papers. But we know that and have the evidence for 30 minutes of exercise every day reducing your risk of almost every chronic disease known to man. We need to be doing more of that than we do getting into a cold pool and seeing how that might hack our biology,” he says.
So why don’t we? Why do some people feel that “nutrigenomics” (eating in line with your genes) is more important than just eating their five a day? “The basics are boring,” he says. Meanwhile, bio-hacking ‘experts’ have sussed out the Instagram algorithm to excite us with new buzzwords that mean we forget about broccoli and bedtime in favour of expensive solutions.
In fact, that’s why Dr Chavez focuses his content on the concept of anti-biohacking. “I realised a long time ago that if I said, ‘Hey guys, eat fruits and vegetables,’ there’s no way people would respond. So I try to frame my content in a way that will take off, but all I’m saying is focus on the basic stuff before spending money and time worrying about the extremes,” he said.
What exactly is that basic stuff then? What should we be doing, if not taking IV vitamin drips?
The four basic elements of health
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that claim they are lacking energy and are trying to find the solution when they just need to sleep more,” says Dr Chavez.
Around three-quarters of people in Britain get less than eight hours of sleep a night, according to YouGov, and a recent study from Southampton University found that one in four also suffer sleep problems (mainly impacting women and people from marginalised backgrounds).
The scenario is similar in America, where 35% of people report less than seven hours of sleep. Yet 40% of people in the US have tried CBD. But the toughest pill to swallow is that the sleep crisis is real, and we can’t hack our way out of our biological need to sleep.
Dr Chavez jokes: “I think you guys in the UK get more hydration because you drink tea.” But in any case, he recommends drinking half your body weight in pounds in ounces of water (this is an American customary calculation, but you can work it out with a digital converter or stick with the average recommendation of two litres of water a day).
“A lot of people complain about constipation or headaches who just don’t drink water. Not always, but often some of that stuff will go away when you just drink more – ideally non-caffeinated – water,” he says.
71% of UK adults take food supplements, according to the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially as we need to top up on essential minerals like vitamin D. The problem is when we compare that to the stats showing only 27% of us eat our five a day.
“Nutrition is the most complicated area of all,” Dr Chavez says. “But my general recommendation is to focus on having balanced meals throughout the day – it doesn’t matter if it’s two, three or four,” he says. “Just make sure that you have a decent amount of protein, some vegetables, some carbohydrates that are high in fibre (or not, depending on how many vegetables you have) and that all of your meals are set up to meet your energy needs,” he says.
That sounds simple enough, but in a world that recommends excluding a lot of main food groups or adding in obscure ingredients, it’s actually pretty hard to ignore the noise and eat the basics. “Less processed food, more fruits and vegetables, not too many fatty meats,” Dr Chavez summarises. You can walk away from the £50 greens powder for now.
“I always recommend this is the one everyone starts with because it’s the easiest and has the biggest knock-on effect on all of the other elements,” he says. “Simply move every day. It doesn’t have to be a crazy workout routine – the bare minimum should be a 30-minute walk around the block. But make it any type of movement you enjoy – running, chasing around your kids, anything!”
Around 39% of people in the UK don’t hit their recommended 150 minutes of activity a week, and a lot of the people who are missing out are from poor or minority backgrounds. But one huge issue is that our lives are designed for inactivity, Dr Chavez says.
“Many of us are sitting for work and then we sit in a car and then sit at home to watch television and then go to sleep and we’re just getting no movement whatsoever. Going from that to 30 minutes is a massive benefit for most people,” he says.
I ask Dr Chavez if, when those four basics are nailed, there’s anywhere else to go. Are these basics the upper threshold of health-promoting habits and everything else a biohacking lie, or can we still implement additional behaviours?
“One million percent there is more you can do,” he says. “I can get into all of the nuances of nutrition that someone might try for various reasons, but that’s specific advice that doesn’t suit the whole population. The problem is people get too lost in the details and on tailoring their habits before focusing on sleeping, exercising, etc and it’s just a waste of time. There’s a time for the extras, but you have to start with the basics.”
It’s important to emphasise the “personalised” aspect of any extra habits, he says. They need to be figured out based on your health or illness and ideally with an expert or at least an inquisitive eye so you can monitor what is working and what isn’t. “But there are 175 other things I’d recommend before cold exposure,” Dr Chavez concludes.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).