Biohacking, or experimenting outside of a traditional science setting with devices, food, and other materials in an attempt to enhance the human body’s physical and mental performance, has become increasingly popular among Silicon Valley-tech types in recent years.
“People here [in Silicon Valley] have a technical mindset, so they think of everything as an engineering problem,” Serge Faguet, a Silicon Valley-based millionaire, told The Guardian in September 2018. He speaks from experience: Faguet reportedly uses biohacks including a $6,000 hearing aid, a sleep-tracking smart ring, and an implanted glucose monitor, in an attempt to preserve his health and live forever.
Other members of Silicon Valley’s elite have sworn by fasting, extreme meditation, butter-containing coffee, and the protein-centric keto diet in an attempt to enhance their mental and physical selves.
Here are some of the most popular health trends Silicon Valley tech bros are using, and what you should know about the real science — or lack thereof — behind them.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey drinks “salt juice,” a mixture of lemon salt and water every day.
— Kaitlyn Ford (@KaitlynTweets) July 31, 2018
Every morning, Dorsey, who also intermittent fasts (more on that later), drinks his salt juice, which is a mixture of water, lemon, and Himalayan salt. Dorsey loves the drink so much, it’s available at Twitter offices around the world, according to a recent New York Times profile of the tech executive.
The science behind it:
Most people don’t need to consume extra salt to stay healthy and get plenty of the nutrient from the foods they eat and drink daily.
A regular diet leaves “virtually no question” that you’ll get the quarter-teaspoon or 500 miligrams daily that most people need to meet their basic biological needs, Wendy Bazilian, a registered dietitian with a doctorate in public health, previously told Business Insider.
Even if you have an intense workout where you sweat a lot, eating afterwards is usually enough to replenish lost salt, according to registered dietitian and author of “Eating in Color” Frances Largeman-Roth. (Lemon, too, may make the water more palatable and add some vitamin C, but is unlikely to lead to any dramatic health changes.)
But, if you’re fasting or severely limiting your food intake like Dorsey, a lemon and salt drink could help you maintain the body’s physiological functions, like controlling blood volume and flow and maintaining nerve and muscle function.
That doesn’t mean a the drink can replace a balanced and regular diet.
“In our typical scenario and society, breakfast is the time and meal where the most nutritional quality usually happens, so not taking advantage of that or building that into the day can be a potential problem for energy or long-term health over time if not addressed,” Bazilian said.
Dorsey and other Silicon Valley bros also swear by intermittent fasting-style diets.
When it comes to Dorsey’s fasting style, the CEO chooses to eat one time daily at 6:30 p.m., at which point he’ll consume a protein (either fish, chicken, or steak) and some vegetables (an arugula or spinach salad, asparagus, or Brussels sprouts). Then he’ll have a dessert of mixed berries or dark chocolate, which he consumes before 9 p.m.
On weekends, Dorsey fasts until Sunday evening. When he breaks his fast, he’ll have bone broth and some red wine, though Dorsey didn’t specify how often he consumes alcohol.
“It really has increased my appreciation for food and taste because I’m deprived of it for so long during the day,” Dorsey told fitness author Ben Greenfield in April during an episode of Greenfield’s podcast.
Dorsey’s approach isn’t the only way to go about intermittent fasting though. There are four popular types, according to the Cleveland Clinic, including a twice-weekly fast and a time-restricted method where a dieter eats only between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., or between or noon and 8 p.m.
The science behind it:
Some research suggests intermittent fasting can help with weight loss better than restricting overall calories while eating throughout the day.
At the same time, research has found people have trouble sticking to intermittent fasting for the long term compared to other weight-loss plans.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, intermittent fasting isn’t entirely proven as a helpful diet, but it does work for some people if they learn how to incorporate it into their lives without feeling deprived.
When it comes to Dorsey’s more extreme style of fasting, some professionals see it as disordered eating. And, doing it over a long period of time could be especially detrimental to mental and physical health.
“Humans are mammals that need certain amounts of food and fluid to maintain our physiological [functions] and energy to do things we want to do in the world,” Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani, an internal-medicine doctor who specializes in eating disorders, previously told Business Insider.
“When people undercut their need for food with radical under-eating, the body doesn’t care about the reasoning. It is just going react to save your life,” Gaudiani said.
That reaction will include feelings of mental sharpness because the body is trying to determine when and where from it will get its next meal, according to Gaudiani, which could explain Dorsey’s mention of increased mental acuity during the Greenfield interview.
Some people implant themselves with blood glucose monitors even though they don’t have diabetes.
People with type 1 and 2 diabetes are the main demographic using blood glucose monitors, which measures the amount of sugar in a person’s blood. These monitors are available in both finger-stick and implantable methods.
The implantable version of the monitors, which are the ones getting buzzed about in Silicon Valley, send real-time results to a phone or tablet because they collect data continuously and painlessly from inside the body, Business Insider previously reported.
The Silicon Valley bros using these under-the-skin monitors don’t have diabetes. Rather, they use the devices as a way to collect data on how their biohacking experiments are affecting their bodies.
“Actually quantifying a lot of the conventional wisdom around diet is super valuable for me to be like, ‘OK, this is not just some snotty doctor trying to tell me something,'” Geoff Woo, CEO of HVMN (previously known as Nootrobox), a company that sells supplements and a keto-diet drink, previously told Business Insider.
The science behind it:
Unless a person has diabetes and needs to measure their blood sugar for diabetes-related reasons, physicians don’t recommend these devices for normal, healthy people.
Instead, experts suggest actively cutting down on sugar in your diet to achieve a healthy blood sugar level — no measurement tool required. The American Heart Association recommends removing soda from your diet, eating more fresh or frozen fruit and less processed foods, and using applesauce or extracts like vanilla to naturally sweeten recipes.
Additionally, implantable medical devices come with their own set of health risks. The FDA approved the first implantable glucose monitor in June 2018, so the science behind the devices is relatively new.
In the clinical trial used to approve the device, only 1% of the study participants reported problems with the device like pain or discomfort, skin inflammation, or the device breaking upon removal, but these problems exist nonetheless.
The FDA also acknowledged that it’s possible for the devices to inaccurately record data.
Others are swearing off masturbation, sex, social media, and even in-person conversations in order to complete “dopamine fasts.”
It’s unclear who brought dopamine fasting to the Silicon Valley mainstream, but San Francisco-based psychologist Cameron Sepah first popularized the term “dopamine fasting,” which is basically a type of meditation.
To do a Silicon Valley-esque dopamine fast, followers swear off any stimuli that could release dopamine, a brain hormone that’s responsible for feelings of reward and motivation. That means abstaining from sex, masturbation, social media, and even in-person conversations with friends. There’s no set amount a time a dopamine fast must last, but 24-hour and 40-hour fasts are popular, according to MEL magazine.
The thinking goes that if a person limits dopamine-creating experiences that are ever-present in our social-media-obsessed world, they won’t become as numb to the feeling of dopamine as people who don’t fast might be.
Sepah previously told Business Insider the extreme way tech bros have implemented his idea is a misuse, but one he expected.
“There was a chance that people would take it to an extreme. Silicon Valley likes to do that,” Sepah said, adding that “it’s not a biohack, it’s what healthy people do: turning your computer off at night, taking time off on weekends, taking vacations.”
The science behind it:
Sepah is onto something. A regular meditation practice can help to block out the disturbances and annoyances of everyday life, reduce stress, decrease fatigue levels, and lessen symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Still, there’s no evidence that taking it to the extreme is any more beneficial than a minutes-long daily meditation.
One May 2017 study found that just 10 minutes of daily meditation helped anxious people decrease their repetitive negative thoughts and gain more focus.
Meditation can be as simple as closing your eyes and focusing on your breath, taking a walk in nature sans smartphone, or doing yoga, according to the Mayo Clinic, so long as the act helps you manage stress, focus on the present, and increase patience and tolerance.
Entrepreneurs swear by the high-fat, low-carb keto diet for weight loss, energy, and focus.
The ketogenic diet, or “keto” for short, has gained enough momentum to have become a trend outside of Silicon Valley. The very low-carb, high-fat eating plan promises weight loss, more energy, and improved focus.
And while it’s typically associated with a lot of butter, bacon, and burgers (minus the bun), keto’s popularity has even spawned vegan and vegetarian versions.
Although Silicon Valley biohackers love to talk about keto and incorporate fancy high-tech tools for the diet, it’s actually remarkably similar to the Atkins diet developed in the 1970s.
The principles of keto are to increase your fat intake, limit the amount of carbohydrates you eat, and get a moderate amount of protein. Keto eaters maintain a strict limit of less than 50 grams of carbs per day
The science behind it:
Keto works by forcing the body to run out of glucose, its main energy source derived from carbs. This lowers your insulin levels and causes your liver to produce chemicals called ketones for energy instead. Ketones are made from fat, so entering the state of ketosis, as it’s known, means your body is burning fat instead of sugar for energy.
This diet has been shown to help with weight loss, but only in the short term — many people on keto diets experience a plateau in weight loss after a few months to a year. It can also be beneficial for people with a rare seizure disorder.
Some dietitians (and famously, celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels) are skeptical of keto because it cuts out all carbs, including natural ones found in healthy foods like fruits, whole grains, and beans.
The other alleged benefits of keto are unproven, and medical experts have yet to understand what the long-term health consequences are of a ketogenic diet. It could increase the risk of heart problems, hurt your exercise performance, or mess with your digestion.
“Bulletproof” coffee blended with butter and oil is designed to boost energy and burn fat without the caffeine crash.
“Bulletproof” coffee was initially branded by biohacking entrepreneur Dave Asprey after he hiked in Tibet, where he tried an energizing local favorite, yak butter tea. Now, the concept is a phenonomen with a cult following.
The mixture of coffee, butter (ideally grass-fed), and MCT oil is believed to kick-start ketosis and allow the body to burn fat instead of sugar for energy. The drink is supposed to boost the metabolism, curb cravings, and provide energy and focus without the “crash” of caffeine alone.
The science behind it:
There is some research that shows medium-chain fatty acids can boost metabolism and reduce appetite, and that concentrated MCT oil has more benefits that plain coconut oil alone.
Coffee has long been linked to several potential health benefits, including reducing the risk of deadly diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
But Bulletproof coffee may not be the health tonic it’s touted to be, at least not for everyone. Putting butter and oil in your coffee, while it provided a rich taste and creamy or silky texture, also adds a lot of calories, which is something to be aware of if you’re hoping to use it as a weight-loss aid.
It also adds saturated fat to your diet and could raise cholesterol, potentially upping your risk of heart disease. And too much caffeine in any form can cause stomach upset, anxiety, headaches, dehydration, and insomnia, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Polyphasic sleeping — and thriving on less than three hours of sleep a day — has long been a holy grail of biohacking.
Polyphasic sleeping is a fancy way of saying that someone sleeps in smaller segments of 30 minutes to two hours at a time, instead of a full night’s sleep. It was allegedly practiced by geniuses such as Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Leonardo da Vinci, who are anecdotally said to have functioned on just two to five hours of sleep a day.
The goal of polyphasic sleeping is to become more efficient at achieving REM sleep, a phase of sleep that’s important for the brain. As a result of polyphasic sleeping, the theory goes, people can eventually live on less than the seven to eight hours a day they typically need for peak health.
The science behind it:
Research on polyphasic sleeping and other sleep hacks is mixed. It’s true that some people are able to function just fine on less sleep, according to Harvard Medical School, and may have different natural patterns of sleeping and waking based on their internal (or circadian) rhythms.
However, this seems to be a naturally-occurring difference for reasons we don’t understand, and there’s no evidence you can “hack” your way to needing less sleep.
And there are serious consequences to messing with your sleep. Sleep deprivation has been linked to a long list of side effects like depression, anxiety, diabetes, obesity, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, poor decision-making, and even risk of some cancers.
Research has shown that naps (in addition to a good night’s sleep) may boost mood, focus, and productivity, so there may still be reason to catch a quick afternoon snooze.