My adventures in bio-hacking began at the deep end. I was facing inexplicable health problems and had just gotten genetic results that raised more questions than answers.
But my survival was at stake, so I dove in and studied. In a few weeks I knew more about my issues than my medical experts did.
Your needs might not be as dire as mine were, but whatever your reasons for bio-hacking—to optimize cognition, heal, address mysterious health issues—you have the same challenges I had, and still have: how do you know what works? What doesn't? What's real? What's not?
Let me tell you what I figured out.
THE BASIC PROBLEM
No one is average. Our bodies are complicated, and each of us are unique systems. We're multifactor microbiomes, affected not only by what we consume, but also by our environments, history, genetics, and even (believe it or not), our belief systems.
Everything we do to ourselves—foods, supplements, drugs, meds, light therapy, intermittent fasting, and all the rest—works along side, or at odds with, all the other things we're already doing. Like it or not.
And the kicker: we only have one test subject to try things out on, one that we can't afford to break.
So: how to assess what's working, track progress, and to decide who to believe? And stay safe?
Here's how I do it.
Navigating the world of bio-hacking can be daunting. Your records can help you figure out not only where you've been, but where to go.
A daily log
In your log, you track the things you introduce to your system, and what results you notice. This could include focus, cognition, sleep, mood, energy, and any other key indicators that you're hoping to change.
A log might seem like overkill when you're only picking up your first blue glasses, but in three years, when you've been all over the blue-red light map and back again, and your supplement stack is 30 deep, you'll wish you had records to answer questions like: what happened day one? When did the effect fade? What else were you taking? What did you notice? A month later? When did you stop? Why?
Ask questions. Write your speculations and uncertainties in the log. It's a living document, a place to put data, questions, and answers. Got a science background? It's your lab book.
Train your brain. Writing daily about observations in body and mind trains your brain to notice those things. Better internal assessment is a learnable skill. That is, the more you do this, the more you'll notice.
Start simple. A text file with date and notes is perfectly sufficient. Keep it simple so you'll really do it.
What to track? You could track everything—meals, external events, weather, illness, your mother-in-law's visit. But you probably won’t. It's more important that you log daily than that you try to be thorough.
Hashtags: Changing something? Tag it. For example, #dayone for the introduction of something new, or #dropped for a day when you stop using something. Now you can search for just those changes.
A daily log can tell you a lot. As you accumulate data, there will be more and more opportunities to see interesting patterns. I have repeatedly been able to figure out some puzzle or correlation by going over my log.
First establish the habit. That is, get started.
A current stack
Your stack is your master list of everything you're taking. It's a handy reference, and you'll want it when talking about your protocol to collaborators or medical experts.
Include everything: supplements, drugs, and anything else you're applying to yourself to improve your health. Don't leave something out just because you've been taking it for years.
Drugs versus vitamins. There is no hard line between Rx, supplements, herbs, stimulants, drugs, and (some) topicals; they are all substances that you are applying to your body in order to change your state.
Dose, form, and frequency. How much, what kind, and how often. Specific notes, like "zinc isolated from copper". When the brand is key, I'll list that, too. Confirm your units—mcg is not the same as mg.
Formulas and complexes. I rarely use supplemental formulas or complexes, because I want to control for both quality and quantity of ingredients, possibly in varying amounts over time. But when I do use a formula, I include every ingredient, because often what's buried in those long lists matters.
Keep it simple. Don't be getting crazy with the spreadsheets. Unless it makes you happy, in which case, by all means do. (Spreadsheets are mood-boosters for some people.)
Keep archives. When you change your stack, save the last version with a date-stamp, so you have history.
Watch your privacy
I don't give my log or stack out to just anyone. These are personal records that constitute a snapshot of my health and history. If you decide to put these in the cloud for convenience, that's fine, but be sure to check your privacy settings.
Some people do all this in the open. Log, stack, and everything, in order to share their results. That's great. Just make sure to do it deliberately. Once all this is public, you can’t take it back.
There are also online tracking tools, some of them free. If you prefer those, by all means use them. Whatever works for you.
Keep in mind that simple is powerful; a text file with daily notes is a tracking tool that you control completely, with no ads, that you don't have to learn, and that keeps your personal info personal.
But the best tracking tools are the ones you'll use.
READY TO DIVE?
Chances are good you're already bio-hacking something, if not a bunch of somethings. Taking a multi-vitamin? Fish oil? Rx? That's bio-hacking.
What's your next bio-hack trial? A trial or experiment is when you change or introduce something to your protocol to see what happens. It’s a test that you’re performing on your body and mind.
Removing something from your stack is also a bio-hack trial. This can be just as important as adding something, especially if what you're taking away is interfering with your health. For example, for many of us, removing folic acid can make a tremendous positive difference in health.
Megadosing? Trying something edgy? The less mainstream your trial, the more risk you're taking on. To ameliorate those risks, be informed. Do some research.
Ah, yes: research.
The research paradox
From day one, I needed to know all about vitamin B12. It didn't take long for me to feel daunted by the mountain of data and opinions, much of it contradictory.
Once you get into research, it's easy to soak up time diving deep into the rabbit hole, and end up with the impression that you know less than you did when you started.
The paradox is this: whatever it is you want to know, no amount of research will be enough to give you certainty. Often, the more informed you are, the more confused you'll be.
Now you’re one of us. Welcome to bio-hacking.
The vast landscape of medical and supplemental research and opinion is always in transition. That is, research results can change over time, and often do. This applies to both N=1 opinion pieces and peer-reviewed NIH research.
To make matters worse, various supplements affect each other in different ways, and at different doses. Research rarely takes this into account, because multi-factor inputs make research results hard to come by, so studies are narrow in scope. Or, in other words, it’s hard to design a study that allows for a whole bunch of moving parts, so researchers don’t, because they (understandably) want clear results out of a study in to which they're putting time and money.
But the body is a system of interdependent and interlocking metabolic pathways, and things don't work in isolation. Put one thing into yourself, and you affect the other things. This means that the research describes results across a large number of bodies, with limited variables, and so does not reliably predict outcomes for specific bodies, like yours.
Also, the supplement form matters, sometimes a great deal, and research does not always account for that. For example, there is no such thing as just b12, despite what your pharmacy or doctor might tell you. If you’re getting a b12 shot, be aware of the potential downside of putting cyanocobalamin into your body rather than the native and bioavailable methylcobalamin. For some bodies, that difference is critical.
Take notes. Again, simplicity is your friend. Me, I simply cut and paste bits of my research findings, along with links. The best notes for you are the ones you'll actually use.
How much research is enough? The answer is as individual as you are. How far down I dive depends on many things, including the urgency of my need, the relative risks of whatever I'm trialing, how much time I have, what my experts tell me, and my appetite for adventure.
Some things are pretty safe. Ascorbic acid, for example, is widely considered by substantial research to be very safe to high amounts. It’s hard to damage yourself by taking too much. But I once came across someone who was allergic to it, even at low doses. There are always exceptions.
Quick and dirty research
When you're ready to research, the time is now. Here's how I do it:
- Dive in. Whatever your question is, type it into your search engine, and see what pops. Results will include both commercial and science-based articles. They're both useful, but learn to tell the difference.
- Skim! Slam through a bunch of articles to sift for the information you want. You don't need to understand everything. You’ll get better and faster with practice. Also, don’t limit yourself to the first page of search results.
- Use overview or survey articles. These digest a bunch of research and summarize for you. My go-to for supplement-based overviews is examine.com. They don't cover all substances, but what they cover, they cover well. Even so, read critically--their conclusions do not always apply to specific individuals, and that's what you are.
- Dire warnings? Don't be discouraged by conflicting assertions. Make notes and move on. Draw conclusions after you've got more opinions. Someone is always happy to provide worst-case scenarios, or tell you that your solution won’t work, but theirs will.
- Read for bias. Commercial articles in particular are selling something, or promoting a particular set of beliefs. While there are excellent commercial sources of information, and I rely on many of them, be alert for the potential bias based on what they are selling, so you can calibrate how much stock to put in their conclusions.
- Check the date. Baseline medical research assumptions change over time. Ten years might not be too long for your information to be relevant, depending on your trial, but fifty might. What we thought about magnesium and calcium thirty years ago is not what we think today. Many articles won't show dates, but you can often estimate the decade in which an article was written by looking at the dates on the references list at the end. Unless there are no citations? Not a good sign.
- Quality articles cite other quality articles. Follow the links. See if they're useful--or if they even exist. You can often assess the quality of an article by the references it cites.
- Science! Don't be afraid to dip into scientific research papers that are beyond your pay-grade and comprehension. It’s okay to skim. Think of it as grazing: you don't need to digest everything. Follow the links, see where they lead. Also, research papers vary widely in readability, so keep looking.
- Narrow the search. Sometimes you'll want to limit your search to non-commercial sites. Here's one way: magnesium -site:*.com
- Make friends. People are research sources, too. The other N=1 researchers out there can be extremely valuable—some of them know things that medical research hasn't caught up with yet. If you're playing on the edge, you need other edge-players as your cohort. So...
Whatever your on-ramp to bio-hacking happens to be—whatever drew you to seek new ways to heal or improve your body and mind—find people who share your interests and situation. Other bio-hackers, sympathetic doctors, pharmacists, biochemists, and folks facing similar challenges. Be friendly. Compare notes. Offer your own discoveries.
A few years ago I asked to speak with a pharmacist who was compounding methylcobalamin (MeCbl) for me. (Tip: learn the abbreviations for common nutritional supplements--those of us who have been doing this for a while use them all the time.) In the course of the conversation, I learned about his informal lab testing in which he discovered that MeCbl in liquid form is relatively insensitive to heat. Because I was pleasant and curious, he was willing to share with me specific temperatures and degradation percentages. We both knew about light sensitivity—liquid MeCbl is quickly destroyed by light—but the heat was new information to me and very useful. A private lab, a personal test, so this information didn't exist online. I would never have known if I hadn't struck up a friendly conversation with him.
So talk to people. They have a wealth of information. Connect. If you're not sure how, now's a good time to learn.
Where do you find these people?
Yes, there’s a lot of noise in online groups. Use your shiny new research skills to sanity check people's assertions and identify the people worth listening to.
Want a narrow scope? Search for your interests, and see what groups pop in your search engine. That's how I found phoenixrising.org, which led me to my first life-saving protocol.
Or roll your own. I started a slack group to which I invited people with similar goals to hang out and chat. You can, too.
It won't take long for you to slam into strongly held and conflicting assertions, along with dire warnings. Experts will disagree.
Keep in mind that no matter how exciting someone else's results are, you might not get their results. Bodies are complicated, and what works for them might not work for you.
Also, they might be lying.
Don’t believe everything you hear
Even those reporting in good faith might be getting it wrong. It's very human to attribute causality to the most recent thing you've added, or to that thing in which you have invested in most heavily. Was it expensive? It has to be working! Was it free? Couldn't be causal.
Generally speaking, we like to be right. And most of us are not very good at analyzing our results in anything like a scientific manner.
Really, we all have blind spots, and however well-meaning and educated, no one is immune to getting it wrong, including doctors, researchers, and all manner of people with many letters after their names.
And you and me. This is part of why it’s important to keep a log and do our own research: to sanity check our own assessments.
Who should you listen to?
Sooner or later, you'll want to try something based on someone else's advice. You probably already are. Who told you to take omega-three FAs again?
When I started down this road, I needed answers and I needed them now, because my health was declining fast. My research led me to people who had studied my issues—experts—but they disagreed with each other, often vehemently. While one person would claim to know what would work for me, another assured me that it would destroy me.
But I had to trust someone.
Here is how I decided who to listen to.
Body of work?
We live in a time when anyone who posts regularly has a body of work. If you find someone whose voice you are inclined to trust, see what else they've written. Examine all of their posts, just like research.
Are they sensible? Well-reasoned? Analytical in their approach? Open-minded enough to know that one size does not fit all?
Do they cite other research? Ever? Reference other people's work? Ever? Follow the links.
And who, if anyone, cites them?
An open mind holds more facts. Do they consider opposing points of view, or shut them down? I look for phrases like, "I could be wrong" or "yet data also indicates..." or my favorite: "I don't know".
An expert who can admit that they don't know something, in public, impresses me tremendously, because that's someone who is willing to learn something new. No matter how knowledgeable a person is, there is always something unknown. A person with an open mind is less attached to their conclusions than to finding out what works.
That's who I want on my side.
Skin in the game?
Have they tried it themselves? I have a lot of respect for someone who not only advises others, but is on the road themselves.
YOU ARE THE COMMUNITY
Listen, it's real work to post useful information to an online group. It takes time, and research, and a thick skin. So if someone is helping your research by making the effort and taking the risk to post publicly, support them however the forum allows. Appreciation can go a long way to keeping someone knowledgeable in the community.
I've left places that didn't value my reports, or where I got tired of derisive responses. Others will, too.
You create the community you want by being part of it. Did someone help you? Make sure they know. Up-vote their comments. Support them, and they’ll be more likely to stay. Reach out to them, appreciate them.
This is how we connect.
YOUR BODY, YOUR RISK
The more edgy your protocol or bio-hacking explorations, the more you need to look for multiple points of view.
But you are going to have to make your own risk assessments because the buck stops with you. It's your body. No matter whose advice you are following, it's still your body.
And you only get one.
Should you get medical tests? These days you can engage with testing labs directly for most tests. That is, you don't need a doctor to prescribe them.
But should you? And if so, which tests?
There is no one answer, and much depends on your situation and financial resources. Testing is a bit like research: it can be a rabbit hole, as well as an unending, ever more expensive opportunity to engage with the health care system. Also, a good many things can't be accurately tested for, or the tests don't accurately convey what your body is doing.
The question to ask is, what questions can the test answer? What will it tell you? What actions might the results imply?
I keep a few medical professionals on tap, doctors and experts who support my bio-hacking and are willing to help me figure out what tests will best serve as key indicators and a safety net for my experiments. If you have a particular issue you're struggling with or are doing something risky, it can make sense to get tests as a sanity check that you aren't going too far.
There’s a lot of information out there about tests. Apply your research chops to this topic, too.
THE INCONVENIENT TRUTH: N=1
What works for you won't work for me. Your minimum effective dose is far above my maximum tolerable dose. What I can barely feel hits you like a ton of bricks. You can't understand my reactions, because they're nothing like yours.
Some of us live under the steep part of bell-curve when it comes to research results, meaning that our reactions vary dramatically from the expected norms. That is, we don't fit the model, so research often does not accurately predict our responses. I suspect a larger number of us find our way to bio-hacking because we have to--the usual solutions don't work.
Even those with more typical biochemistry are unique. Between our microscopic visitors--some of whom mean us ill, and some of whom who are very good friends-- environmental factors--food, pollution, toxins, air and water--genetics, disease history, physical stresses, emotional shifts, we are each of us complicated systems, not points on a curve.
Fortunately, for most of us, our bodies are pretty good at finding a steady state, even with these millions of varying inputs. But the inputs are not controllable, let alone countable, so bio-hack trials are often hard to analyze.
Bottom-line: this whole bio-hacking thing is educated guesswork.
So get educated. Look for articles, examine your own data, and have conversations with like-minded and like-bodied cohorts.
Don't forget primary research.
In addition to all the other research you're doing, note the information about your body and mind that no one else has access to: your own senses.
Many bio-hackers have a particular mindset: we do things to ourselves and then we change. But it's not quite that simple. Your body regulates massively complicated biochemical pathways, so any one thing you change might not do anything at all. Or it might. Or maybe later.
How do you know if something’s happening? Working? Your body is giving you information all the time. Are you listening?
Learn to notice what your body is telling you.
THE CONSERVATIVE APPROACH
Research results reflect a statistical bell curve. If you live in the shallow end of that curve--if you're unusual for any reason--many research results simply won't apply to you, so it's best to take them with a larger grain of salt.
Even if you are in the fat middle of the bell curve, there are good reasons to be conservative in your approach to bio-hacking: you’re messing with a complicated, multi-factor system, and you only get one body to put at risk.
If you’re inclined to be conservative, here are some guidelines:
One thing at a time. Leave a few days between each new thing's trial. If you do one thing at a time, you're more likely to be able to isolate effects and identify what is effective, and to give your body a chance to weigh in before you go on to the next thing. Do two or more things at once, and you won’t know what’s doing what, positive or negative. Or both at once, which does happen.
Avoid formulas. Yes, it's more trouble to break out each item, but you'll also have more control over quality, dose, and timing. Also, one thing at a time.
Low and slow. Start low and titrate up. That is, begin at the low end of the sensible dose range, and increase slowly, by no more than 50% of the first dose. You know how low to start, because you’ve already done the research on dose ranges, right?
Your mileage may vary. Don’t assume you’ll have the reactions others do. And just because something is statistically safe doesn't mean your body will agree. So pay attention to the actual results.
The moving target
Every day, your body changes. Even if you tried something in the past and it was good, that’s the past. With all the other things you've been doing and trialing since then--along with time, accident, illness, aging, and the million other factors, visible and invisible--you are now a different system.
So, when you take that thing again after a break, treat it as a new thing.
Make small mistakes
I wasn’t conservative when I started on this path, because I needed results fast, and I was willing to take risks. So I won’t tell you what to do with your one-and-only body, but I will tell you that even when I did those risky things, I researched the hell out of them first.
I made mistakes. Luckily, they were small ones.
The farther off the mainstream you are with your bio-hacking, the more you need to be as well-informed as possible. You'll make mistakes, of course. But make small ones.
Don't be the idiot who took something lethal because you didn't even do cursory research. It's embarrassing and looks bad on your obit.
Some substances are actually and truly dangerous. Other things are only dangerous at high levels. Or in combinations with other things. If a thing is risky, get more sources. If it’s dangerous, start low. If it’s edgy, pay more attention to what your body is telling you.
Remember, just because everyone else is taking something—or says they are--doesn't make it safe, or safe for you.
LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES
I’ve learned a lot on my path, some things the hard way. Learn from my mistakes.
Tremendously, sometimes. For example, magnesium oxide is used in many supplements because it's inexpensive, but research indicates it has poor bio-availability, meaning that it doesn't provide much in the way of nutritional value. It is, however, very useful if you are constipated. What problem are you trying to solve?
For a year or so, I assumed I was getting nutritional magnesium. When I moved to a more bioavailable form of magnesium, I felt the difference.
How about folate, aka vitamin B9? The cheap version of folate that most formulas use is folic acid, but for a significant portion of the population, folic acid does not replace bioavailable folate, and will instead cause methylation cycle degradation, which, to put it mildly, you want to avoid. Folic acid made me very ill, very fast. Given what large percentage of the population has my genetic variances, I now wonder if folic acid may be one of the causes of chronic illness, inserted as it is into enriched flour and so many formulas.
Know your forms.
Know what you're taking before you put it into your body. Each ingredient should be one you want in you. If the manufacturer's description on the label is vague or sloppy, that tells you something about that manufacturer.
Read the labels. Research what doesn’t make sense to you. Don’t assume the manufacturer knows what they are doing just because they distribute supplements. I routinely contact manufacturers to ask questions about something on the labels, or something that’s missing. You can, too.
Tip: supplement ingredients can often be found online in text form. This is especially useful for putting chemical names into your stack, and for formulas that contain many ingredients. Why retype from the label if you don’t have to?
Here is something I really want you to know:
There are no controls on supplements, the way there are on prescription drugs, except for the testing and quality assurance the company might be doing, but probably isn't. There are brands that do third party testing--the gold standard for supplementation--but you'll pay extra for that.
Let me say that again, because it's critically important, especially if you're playing on the edge with new substances and high doses:
No third party is checking that the supplement you are putting in your body is what it says it is.
Or, in other words, what you’re taking could have anything in it. Anything. Something not on the label. Something toxic. No one is checking to be sure it's safe for you.
This is why brand matters. A brand's good reputation is your best defense.
When I research, I read product reviews, and a lot of them. Tip: check dates, because brands change their supplements and formulas all the time. A three year old review might not be for the same product, even if nothing obvious has changed about the picture or description. Check the dates.
Dose can cure or kill
Some supplements, plants, and drugs are perfectly safe and can heal at one dose, but are dangerous or even lethal at another. Aspirin, for example. It’s quite safe. But consume enough of it, and yes, it will kill you.
Check the LD50 so that you know the safe upper limit.
Know your LD50
LD50 stands for "Lethal Dose 50%." It is the dose of a given substance that will kill half of the test subjects. Yep: half! I'm sure the other half doesn't feel so good, either.
Rats or mice are usually our ill-fated stand-ins, so learn to convert rodent units for LD50 to your own body weight, so you know the upper limits for megadosing. Don't let those mice have died for nothing.
Oh, and get your units right.
LD50 helps define the bounds of reason. But don't panic about it. Gravity and water can kill you, too, if you take them in too much quantity. But you also need them to live.
Thing One and Thing Two
Interactions matter. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that supplement X and supplement Y, either of which I could tolerate just fine, together produced severe insomnia. Because there were two factors involved, it didn’t make sense until I finally noticed the correlation in my log.
Learn to trust your senses
Noticing what’s going on in your body is a learned skill. Improve your brain's ability to notice what's happening with major sensory indicators of health, and you have a powerful tool to use to assess what is and isn’t working.
What indicators? All of them, including sleep, digestion, mood, energy, focus, digestion, temperature, and anything else you notice.
There is no test, expert, or research, that is a substitute for your own senses. Only you know how your body feels from the inside.
Got a bias?
When people tell me about their good results in bio-hacking trials, they often downplay it as placebo or wishful thinking. This is especially true of people who are in pain, sick, and desperate, and have been for a while. Totally understandable; they've already tried so many things that they end up skeptical of everything.
I understand. I’ve been there.
But if you demand that your body demonstrate loud and incontrovertible results before you believe that anything is working, you will fail to notice the subtler messages. This mind-set can dull your ability to gain useful information early on in a trial.
Think critically, yes, but also listen to the quieter and nuanced information your senses are giving you.
It goes in the log
Even if I'm not sure what it means, it goes in the log.
When you're navigating a complicated biochemical system, you need every clue you can get, even--especially--the stuff you can't make sense of yet. My log has helped me correlate causal inputs, even years later.
Your log is a gold mine of data, but only if you use it.
Use everything you can to understand your N=1 experiments.
• Keep records. A daily log, however brief. A stack of everything you're trying. Keep it simple, so you'll really do it.
• Research. Commercial, scientific, and hacker boards--it's all research. Learn to skim. Read critically. Take notes.
• Cultivate an analytical yet open mind. Make notes about your speculations, theories, questions. What works, what doesn't.
• Stay safe. Where known, establish a safety range. Start low and slow. Be sensitive to your body's response.
• Know what you’re taking. Read labels. Check the manufacturer. Read reviews.
• Build community. Ask questions. Offer perspectives. Be gracious and polite, even to people who aren't.
• Collect experts. Become one, even. This is an N=1 game, yes, but we are all playing, so it's also N=many. I could never have made the gains I have made without help.
• Primary research: what do you notice? What's changing? Assessing internal results is a learned skill. Moving toward greater health is something your body should feel good about.
GO BE BRILLIANT
I believe that everyone—even you!--can do what I did: research, explore, bio-hack with care, and get results.
I have gained significant health improvements with bio-hacking, by taking matters into my own hands, becoming my own expert, making connections in the community, and learning how to do my own research. You can, too.
So go out there and be brilliant.
If you've been at this any length of time, you've got your own best practices for bio-hacking.
Drop them in the comments. I want to hear what you do, and find out what tips you can offer me.
Sonia Lyris began her bio-hacking adventures a handful of years ago when her survival suddenly depended on understanding genetic mutations and biochemical pathways in far more detail than she ever had before. With the help of experts, study, and experimentation, she pulled herself back from the edge.
Her work in software and sciences has made her highly pragmatic: does it work? Is it repeatable? What are the potential risks and upsides? How about peer-reviewed research? Who disagrees, and why? Where do the links lead?
Her work in teaching and story-crafting leads her to see that how we view ourselves has everything to do with what we understand, that the very models we employ to comprehend systems constrain what we believe is possible. Or, in other words, we can't change what we can't even imagine.
Because of her work in communications and fine chocolate, she is keenly aware that the human animal loves to be transformed by new experiences, that we crave connection with each other and with our world. Even in this age of electronic sorta-intimacy, it's good to remember that we're actually animals, and that animals need to touch what they love. Hug a tree.
Sonia continues to study a great range of bio-hacking approaches, and while she'll never understand it all, she loves the journey. Living well is the best reward.
Adventure takes many forms. Sonia is happy to be here.