A growing number of biohackers are consciously manipulating the mind-body system, from modulating brain waves to using genetic data for customised diets, to lead longer and better lives
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
JOEL ERIC PINTO first began working out when he was in college on the advice of his father; but the world of biohacking opened up to him about five years ago when he tried Bulletproof Coffee for the first time. This high-calorie drink—made by combining black coffee and a large dollop of butter or ghee and popularised by the creator of the Bulletproof Diet, Dave Asprey—is a mainstay of fervent paleo and low-carb dieters as replacement for a carb-heavy breakfast. Their evangelism about it can only be matched by the revulsion it generates among others.
But Pinto doesn’t just do Bulletproof Coffees. Until recently he weighed the food he ate and calculated the calories of each item; he uses a fitness tracker to track his daily step count, exercises and sleep, and measures his glucose levels (through a continuous glucose monitor, worn constantly on his arm); he spends a couple of hours daily on his balcony upon waking, without his phone, soaking in the sun; finishes his meals by sunset; does not switch on lights overhead because this might confuse the body, he says, into thinking it isn’t night yet; does not use any device that emits blue light, be that his mobile phone or television set, two hours before bed-time; wears a pair of blue-light blocking glasses when his wife switches on the TV in the bedroom; and sometimes, especially during seasonal changes when one might suffer from nasal congestion, he tapes his mouth in the nights so that he may not breathe through it and affect the quality of his sleep. He is currently considering acquiring an Oura smart ring, considered the best sleep tracker, so that he might have a more accurate understanding of his sleeping patterns.
When asked if his wife finds these habits annoying, Pinto laughs. “There are times when she thinks all of this is too much. But most times, she respects that I do this, and most aspire to do this,” he says. Earlier this year, Pinto quit his job at the milkshake company Keventers to focus full-time on fitness. Pinto now is working on the fitness studio he cofounded, Knox, apart from training others and developing his own supplements as a nutritionist.
Pinto is part of the growing community of biohackers in India. Also commonly referred to as DIY biology, it is essentially the pursuit of enhancing one’s body and health through a variety of strategic interventions or hacks (from using the latest and sometimes dodgy scientific ideas and technology to old established practices). It looks at the body as a programme, and ‘hacks’ as a way of optimising it. Biohacking is an ambiguous umbrella term covering a range of activities, from something as simple and established like meditating, fasting or following a certain diet, to modern-day fitness pursuits, such as counting your steps, tracking your sleep and glucose levels, or getting ice baths, undergoing cryotherapy, ultra-violet therapy, stem cell therapy, to more extreme forms like trying to re-engineer your own DNA by using gene-editing technologies like CRISPR, or pumping the blood plasma of young people into your veins in the belief that it will help slow down ageing, or those (referred to as grinders within the biohacking community) who undergo extreme body modification by implanting devices like computer chips that can be programmed to link to websites, or perform tasks like opening doors.
It is a movement of those with scientific backgrounds, fitness enthusiasts and complete amateurs. It first burst into the mainstream in Silicon Valley, which began to both invent new ways to hack into the body and use existing techniques within the new framework. Like the meditation practice of Vipassana which involves intense 10-day silent retreats where all forms of sensory inputs, like mobile phones, music and reading, are given up. This is a Buddhist tradition but is used in biohacking as a tool to alter the mind while being agnostic about its religious aspects. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, for instance, is someone whose name is the most associated with Silicon Valley billionaires who are into biohacking and Vipassana is one of the many mechanisms he uses. He also eats only one meal a day, fasts on weekends, takes ice baths and uses a sauna every evening, and meditates two hours daily. There are also critics of this enthusiasm for biohacking in tech billionaires like Dorsey. A Vanity Fair article last year said: ‘Then there’s the body hacking, which first made its way into the mainstream in 1984 by way of the sci-fi subculture novel Neuromancer but has since leapt off the page and into Palo Alto, where everyone seems to want to outdo their cohorts by pushing their bodies to extremes. You’ve got the Dorseys of the world bragging about how little they eat each day, the Zuckerbergs boasting of killing their own food, and an army of nerds now wearing every tracking device imaginable—from rings that follow your sleep to real-time sugar monitoring devices you inject into your arm—and then experimenting with all forms of starvation and sleep habits to show how in control they are of their bodies. There’s intermittent fasting, working under infrared heat lamps, calculating ketones, and working with “DIY surgeons” to implant magnets and microchips. “I think this is all a result of a complete detachment from authenticity by these tech founders. They present a version of themselves that isn’t real, and then, when they look in the mirror, they see how inauthentic they really are, and the only way they can handle the illusion they’ve created is through drugs,” said one Silicon Valley insider who often spends time with the biohacking-obsessed ultrarich. “It’s all synthetic and it’s all an illusion.” The pandemic only heightened this, with people slipping into more extreme activities in their quest for control.’
Jag Chima started biohacking seven years ago. As part of his DIY biology lifestyle, he now takes ice-cold showers every day, along with meditation, intermittent fasting, grounding, and undergoing daily red-light therapy and cryotherapy sessions. He also undergoes a hyperbaric oxygen therapy session (which, it is claimed, fills the blood with enough oxygen to repair tissues, increase recovery rate, optimise performance and help fight off infections) once a week
BIOHACKING SPREAD RAPIDLY outwards over the years and is now entrenching itself on Indian shores. “Guessing what works is an old tradition, and in today’s era you don’t need to guess anymore. Biohacking means using science-backed modalities to improve your health,” says Jag Chima, the well-known British fitness professional and entrepreneur who identifies himself as a biohacker and who runs a number of fitness businesses in India, such as the chain of Kris Gethin Gyms and the fitness mentoring and education platform Physique Global. He also organised a biohacking forum two years ago in Delhi. “India is a nation that needs this more and more. The cultural lifestyle that most follow in India is rapidly reducing the lifespan of people. The aim is to help people live a longer and more functional life. People in India are ready to invest in ways that would help do this, especially more and more since the pandemic. Social media has played a big hand, many see biohacking used in the US and the UK and so now welcome these modalities and education in India.”
Although Chima has been involved in fitness for several years, he consciously started biohacking, he says, about seven years ago. As part of his DIY biology lifestyle, he now takes ice-cold showers and baths every day, along with meditation, intermittent fasting, grounding (or the concept of connecting with the earth by staying barefoot when on the ground or in nature), and undergoing daily red-light therapy (which it is claimed reduces pain, inflammation and aids recovery) and cryotherapy sessions. He also undergoes a Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy session (HBOT, which by entering a chamber to breathe in pure oxygen in air pressure levels much higher than the average, it is claimed, fills the blood with enough oxygen to repair tissues, increase recovery rate, optimise performance and help fight off infections) once a week, and an IV therapy (which it is claimed allows vitamins to go right into your bloodstream, bypassing the digestive process to give faster, more effective results) monthly. So taken in is he with the results of such a lifestyle and the growing enthusiasm for such hacks that Chima recently started biohacking centres in the UK (where a range of hacks from cryotherapy to red light and HBOT are offered) which he now plans to introduce in India.
“Biohacking can be as simple as grounding yourself, intermittent fasting, ice showers and baths, blood testing, all the way to using NAD IVs (or nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide IV therapy that is believed can stimulate cell regeneration in your body), HBOT, cryotherapy and much more,” he says. “We always start with the basics, and, most importantly, help people understand the why; and once the why is clear, the how becomes more relatable.”
To Kumaar Bagrodia, the founder and CEO of the applied neuroscience company NeuroLeap, biohacking at its best is a catchy buzzword about long established practices. At its worst, it fuels unhealthy obsessions about tracking various parameters like glucose levels and sleep. Although Bagrodia doesn’t call it one, one could describe NeuroLeap as a company working within the ‘neuro-hacking’ domain. To him, a lot of the problems of health and wellness, from depression, mood disorders, and anxiety to obesity, addictions and more, can be resolved or improved not necessarily by using a fitness tracker or undergoing other hacks but by resolving the issue at the brain’s subconscious level. Pointing out that much of the mental makeup consists of the subconscious, he says, “Behaviour change has to ultimately come through at the subconscious level.”
Joel Eric Pinto doesn’t just do bulletproof coffees. He uses a fitness tracker to track his daily step count, exercise and sleep. He measures his glucose levels continuously; finishes his meals by sunset; does not switch on lights overhead because this might confuse the body into thinking it isn’t night yet; does not use any device that emits blue light two hours before bed-time and wears a pair of blue-light blocking glasses when his wife switches on the TV in the bedroom
At NeuroLeap, Bagrodia offers customised programmes specific to each client’s brainwaves using a brain-computer interface technology to train the subconscious. There are two main steps here. First, an individual’s entire brain is mapped with sensors all over the head. This is followed by a series of customised brain function enhancement sessions. Using the concept of what is referred to as operant conditioning or associative learning, NeuroLeap claims it can train the subconscious just like we train a dog by rewarding the behaviour we want it to exhibit. “In each session, you sit in a comfortable chair with sensors all over your head. But instead of closing your eyes, you sit with them open. And there is a TV in front of you. Meanwhile, we are mapping your brain in real time, that is every 32 milliseconds. An eye-blink is about one fourth of a second. So we are reading your brain eight times of an eye-blink. Which means, before you have consciously thought of something, the underlying brain wave has already been read. Why do we do this? Because we want to help you change the subconscious. To the client, we will tell them that you don’t have to engage in any specific activity like meditation or gaming but that you should just relax and that if you see a light or sound on the screen then that is a cue that you have been rewarded, that your subconscious brain activity is being rewarded. So light and audio visuals keep going on and off in that 30-minute session on the basis of the real-time brain activity,” he says. “We retrain the brain and the brain’s pattern (this way) so that it is behaving in a more optimal manner.”
Last year, when television personality and India’s well-known foodie Kunal Vijaykar climbed on the weighing scale, he knew he had to do something about his weight. Vijaykar was 106 kg, the highest he had ever weighed. “It was the lockdown,” he says. “I just put on a tremendous amount.” Vijaykar describes himself as a compulsive eater. Although he loves his job as a food writer and host of food shows, he knows it is also something of a curse. He has over the years considered working out, taking a gym membership around 10 times, he says, but never once stepped inside one. “But last year, when I saw how heavy I had become, I knew I had to do something about it,” he says. Vijaykar, who is a friend of Bagrodia, began visiting NeuroLeap with what he calls “50 per cent scepticism and 50 per cent hope.” The brain function assessment found that among other things, Vijaykar’s executive function skills that include decision-making, logical-thinking and self-control were off. After several brain function enhancement sessions, Vijaykar claims he found himself more capable of sticking to a healthier diet and exercising portion control. “There was more self-control,” he says. “I could take out certain things that were bad for me, moderate my eating habits. I didn’t work out in a gym, but I began doing daily walks.” In the span of six to eight months, Vijaykar lost 20 kg. And about half-a-year later, he continues to hover around 86 to 88 kg. He also completely stopped using sleeping pills. It is hard to prove if these brain function enhancement sessions enabled Vijaykar to improve his health, or if he would have been able to do it regardless, although Vijaykar believes they did.
IF THE BIOHACKING movement is leading to the invention of several new devices, a good example of an old tool being reused for an entirely new audience is the continuous glucose monitor (CGM). Meant initially for diabetics to constantly measure their blood sugar levels, it has been rediscovered in the biohacking age as a new metric to track for the fitness enthusiast. One of the most talked-about devices among fitness enthusiasts in India currently is Bengaluru-based startup Ultrahuman’s Cyborg. A coin-sized skin patch worn constantly, usually on an arm, the device allows users—by measuring glucose levels 24×7—to measure and monitor the effects of food and exercise habits on their bodies and adjust their lifestyles accordingly. “Glucose is an important fuel source for the body and specially the brain. Both lower and higher than optimal glucose levels affect health adversely. Low levels affect your recovery and cognitive performance. Higher than optimal levels could lead to metabolic disorders like diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver, PCOS, etc. Metabolic disorders are leading factors in chronic disease-led deaths worldwide. This is a mega crisis,” says Mohit Kumar, the co-founder of Ultrahuman. “Glucose is important because it is currently the only biomarker one can track in real-time and continuously to understand and control one’s risk from these disorders. It can also enable people to optimise their glucose levels for improved performance and longevity.”
One of the most talked-about devices among fitness enthusiasts in India currently is Ultrahuman’s cyborg. A coin-sized skin patch worn constantly, usually on an arm, the device allows users—by measuring glucose levels 24×7—to monitor the effects of food and exercise habits on their bodies and adjust their lifestyles accordingly
Expected to launch commercially at the end of this year (it is currently in beta mode with about 10,000 users), the idea of tracking advanced parameters like blood sugar levels first occurred to Kumar a few years ago when he went to Thailand’s popular Tiger Muay Thai martial arts camp and noticed that the training programmes of top mixed martial arts athletes included tracking metrics like blood sugar levels. The company is further improving the device’s accuracy and adding more biosensors to it, such as heart rate variability, body temperature, respiratory rate, and sleep. “Right now, we are capturing the overall impact of things like sleep and exercise. But we want to see how much of, say, response to food is driven by your state of recovery, or stress or sleep, and how much by the actual food. We want people to be able to make the least amount of behavioural change to make the most amount of impact,” Kumar told Open in another interview last year.
At the foundation of biohacking is the pursuit of knowing oneself better, before a suitable hack is carried out. Tracking glucose levels or one’s sleep, or counting one’s daily steps, might be one aspect. But as the biohacking trend grows, a growing number of individuals are also seeking to find themselves out at the genetic level.
Pranav Anam, a geneticist who started The Gene Box a few years ago, for instance, works with other businesses to analyse and interpret complex genetic data. “Our aim is to enable biohacking for the common man,” he says. Working with clients across a range of interests, from nutritionists, healthcare companies to sport scientists and several more, and tying up with labs that extract DNA from blood or saliva samples and sequence them, Anam’s company takes the data generated from such labs, makes sense of them, and interprets them for the common individual. “What we enable through genomics is fundamentally what works for you and what doesn’t,” Anam says, explaining how genetic tests will help individuals learn more about their bodies, from their predisposition to illnesses, or what types of food or exercise habits would benefit or hurt them. “A genomic test gives a lot of answers. Maybe you thought a certain food is good for you. But hey, you might be in for a surprise,” he says.
One of the growing fields using genetic tests even in India is that of sports companies. A genetic test, Anam points out, shows data that can help them train athletes better or recover more quickly.
Another genetic-based biohacking professional is Sanjeev Nair, whose startup Vieroots performs a genetic test and a metabolism assessment, and whose Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning-based algorithm processes the data and enables users learn more about their bodies. According to him, while the fitness and wellness industry is rapidly growing in India, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. “There will be certain medicines that aren’t suitable to you, certain foods or exercises that don’t work as well,” he says. “Over time, we expect genetic tests will become commonplace, like doing an annual medical check-up, to screen for any possible ailment, and at the start of any fitness programme,” he adds Nair has several plans for Vieroots. Apart from having trained professionals follow up with clients on whether they have been able to incorporate the changes recommended, he also plans to establish biohacking centres in metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru by next year, where hacks such as cryotherapy facilities will be made available. “It (biohacking) is a rapidly developing field,” he says. “And there will be many solutions, from making people fitter and healthier to containing ageing.”
(With Madhavankutty Pillai)