For 45 minutes each morning, the veteran hockey player Duncan Keith ritually goes upstairs to what he calls his “lab,” where he has “a bunch of little things that I do to stay healthy.” This, according to an interview this week in The New York Times, includes dousing himself with infrared light, lying for eight minutes on a mat that “has electromagnetic currents,” and taking supplement pills such as glutathione and vitamin C, and liquid herbs such as ashwagandha.
“Sometimes at night, I’ll sleep with a hydrogen inhaler,” Keith added. “I’m a biohacker and a part-time hockey player. It’s basically better living with the help of science.”
The term biohacker is now ubiquitous. Biohacking is a concept that gained currency in popular culture over the past decade, initially as an apparently earnest approach to applying the tech-hacker ethos to biology. It was pushed forward by a small group, mostly healthy, wealthy-ish men, certain that they could find shortcuts to anything, including themselves. Since then, it has jumped from radical personal experimentation to TED stages to everyday lifestyle products, including coffee.
Depending on what forums you explore, biohacking can include anything from procuring “raw water” to hanging upside down so that you can “hack your brain” by increasing blood flow (please note: If your brain isn’t getting enough blood, you may be having a stroke) to tracking everything that goes in and out of your body with an obsessiveness that could, in many contexts, be considered pathological.
As popular terms do, biohacking became part of commercial ventures. The “meal-replacement” drink Soylent, Ensure for Millennials, was touted as a biohack. Biohacking has become a marketing buzzword used to sell unregulated “dietary supplements” and to repackage old products, such as coffee with butter. People have added cream to coffee since the beginning of time, but the new iteration is more expensive and is, again, supposed to hack your brain.
Like any fad that tries to sell shortcuts to biology, or any approach in life that claims to shortcut hard work, what the current iteration of biohackers is mostly selling is untested (or “It worked for me!”) health advice that is supposed to upend science. Trying these things tends to result in wasted money and time at best.
Still, there’s value in a sense of control over our own physiology in times when the outside world can seem uncontrollable. So to offer those same benefits in addition to actual biological benefit, here are my top biohacks. Unlike the biohacks that the other gurus are out there selling, these are all-natural. I call them—and I insist on the capitalization here—NATURAL BIOHACKS.
These hacks appear in no particular order because they are all extremely potent. If you’ve got all of them mastered and you still feel compelled to invest in other forms of body-self-optimization, Godspeed. I’ve never met anyone who has.
Sleep (“brain cleansing”?) will extend your life and help prevent pretty much every disease. Yes, even the infectious ones, since sleep deprivation can leave the immune system in tatters. Sleep requires no effort and costs nothing, yet people tend to go out of their way not to do it enough and to brag about not doing it.
Sleep should be an easy sell. It’s a deep meditative state where you explore your subconscious and the dense ball of neurons in our heads wash themselves, clearing out the metabolic by-products (“toxins”). If the pro-work, anti-sleep culture makes you feel lame and self-conscious about, say, leaving a party to go home and sleep, try saying, “I’m going to go biohack my brain.” Then run out of the room.
The key to sleep is to save the last hour of the day for non-work-related things that let your brain cool down. I call this the Amazing Hour, but you can call it whatever you like. Other basic steps to mastering this biohack: no phones in bed, no caffeine or prescription amphetamines before bed, no alcohol before bed because it messes with sleep cycles. Maintain a somewhat regular sleep schedule, and keep your bedroom dark—or wear an eye mask and bring the darkness wherever you go.
Time in nature
The ways natural environments hack our brains are still open questions in a lot of ways, but the notion is common sense. Time in nature has been found likely to decrease brooding, and increase healing after surgery, among other benefits. Still, year after year, the average amount of time people spend indoors increases in wealthy countries. If this is happening to you, you could try ecotherapy or potentially get a prescription for park time from your doctor.
Moving your body
Find what’s right for you—what you enjoy and what’s sustainable and possible within your physical dominion and time schedule. Don’t worry about the latest trend or the need to belong to the most overpriced gym with the nicest soaps or the pressure to break a sweat every time. If you’re moving, you’re doing it right. Move as much as possible.
Eating good food
Exactly what constitutes good is a mix of taste and culture and individual metabolism, and the subject of much debate by people who try to impose one correct way of eating on everyone. From a nutritional perspective, humans are able to thrive on a wide variety of edible things, and people who eat a lot of minimally processed, plant-based things tend to live long, healthy lives. Anyone who makes strict rules about an avoidance-based or one-size-fits-all diet is selling something—probably a supplement, possibly calling it a biohack.
Bonus tricks include eating socially, taking time to cook and eat slowly, and eating from an environmentally conscious perspective—eating locally and sustainably, appreciating all the water and energy and labor that go into every bite you take.
This is all part of what might be called mindfulness or intentionality or gratitude, which can be worked into our daily lives via food. For all the focus on nutrition and taste as the primary and sometimes only metrics of a food’s goodness, the opportunity to solidify one’s sense of place in the world by eating may be the ultimate food hack.
A sense of purpose
Chasing happiness is not a biohack. Chasing purpose is.
The difference is sort of subtle, because when people feel purpose in their lives, they tend to feel happy. But the primary intention is what matters. If you chase the happiness itself, the utilitarian part of your mid-brain will likely lead you to the most expedient path to the strongest hit of dopamine. Often those come to us through substances and screens. These hits can become addictions, no longer giving happiness. Chasing purpose reverses the order: You take up something that doesn’t initially reward you, but pays off, neurotransmitter-wise, in dividends later.
Connection to people and probably dogs
Like it or not, humans form relationships that fill up our time on Earth. If those relationships aren’t to things with beating hearts, then they will be to material things, including substances and screens. It turns out that even though relationships with people and animals require hard work, they deeply hack our biology in ways necessary for health and survival. Social isolation is linked to heart disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and suicide. Isolated people are more likely to stop grooming and cooking and doing even the most basic biohacks that constitute “life.”
Even if you get rejected or heartbroken, those are biohacks. They’re not in my top seven biohacks, because they involve weeks or months of wretched existential darkness, but you often come out smarter and better off. The depth of that feeling—the despair that, throughout history, humans have proved willing to risk in pursuit of real connection—may be the strongest testament to its biological necessity.
This is the top biohack. Wealthy people live longer than people who cannot afford to eat well and are constantly under stress about things like making rent or missing a day of work wages when the mayor calls a snow day and they have to stay home with the kids.
Wealth is the top predictor of health, globally and throughout history. If you have to work two jobs, or if you live in a neighborhood where you fear for your safety or where there’s intense pollution, or if you don’t have regular access to lead-free water and live in a space that can’t be kept warm in the winter and cool during heat waves, then you’re more likely to suffer. I can’t emphasize this enough: Have money. And get it without compromising your sense of purpose or connection to others, your sense of self via moral decency, or, of course, your sleeping and eating habits.
That’s a lot.
So it’s ideal, if at all possible, to be born into money. But only up to a point—which seems to be when you have so much wealth that you no longer need to work, and so purpose becomes difficult to find, and so does human connection, because everyone wants something from you. See the lyrics on the albums most rappers release after they break out. See also the billionaire Warren Buffett, who said in 1986 that he plans to leave his children “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.”
Receiving too much money is like playing Monopoly and you get to start with hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. It doesn’t just ruin the game for the people you’re playing with; it’s also no fun for you. Same if you try to take shortcuts across the board. Or biohack your way through life.