Health

Biohacks for Beginners: Meditation, Intermittent Fasting, Cold Therapy and More

Not all biohacking is extreme: Here are a few simple things you can do to improve mental and physical well being.

Biohacking is a hot buzzword these days, people have attempted to improve their minds and bodies with technology, chemicals and behavioral modification for centuries. Some biohacking is rather invasive--changing your DNA or implanting magnetic chips into your fingers--but not all hacks are so extreme.  Here are seven simple biohacks for beginners that are inexpensive (or even free) and proven to be beneficial.

 

Meditation

Easy Biohacks 5 Meditation is known to boost productivity and cognitive function. Getty Images
Meditation is an ancient practice, essentially training your mind to focus on a single thought or activity. Practitioners claim it helps them feel calm, happy and mentally clear. Numerous government health bodies and psychotherapy groups have recommended meditation to combat anxiety and depression. It’s also purported to boost productivity and cognitive function, as well as lower blood pressure. Meditation has even picked up traction in the business world:

"I am very interested in keeping a clear head," Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff told the San Francisco Chronicle. "So I enjoy meditation, which I've been doing for over a decade, probably to help relieve the stress I was going through when I was working at Oracle."

How do you do it?
There are a huge variety of meditation styles, but most involve the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced sitting down and observing thoughts without judgement, but it can also be used when performing tasks—it just requires slowing down and drawing awareness to whatever you are doing, rather than letting your mind wander or go on autopilot.

If you do catch yourself thinking of something else, don’t scold yourself—just return your focus back to the current moment.

What does the science say?
Meditation is known to affect the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions. And results can be noticed even when practitioners aren't actively meditating. Numerous studies have found that mindfulness reduces stress and allows practitioners to view their negative thoughts and moods with objectivity, rather than being blindly swept up in them, allowing them to better face anxiety and stressful situations.

Meditation has an array of proven bodily benefits, too, and can aid with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and psoriasis.

How can I start?
There are apps to help you get started in meditation—Headspace offers step-by-step introductions to guide you through your practice. And most cities have meditation groups that teach newcomers, many which are free. Longer courses at Buddhist centers, which can last between a day and a couple of weeks, will give a firmer understanding of the practice. (They generally accept people of all faiths).

A daily meditation session of at least 15 minutes will be enough to see some benefits, although longer is better.

 

Sleep hacking

Easy Biohacks 4 Sleep hacking uses behavioral techniques and technological fixes to ensure enough shut-eye. Getty Images
Sleep is one of the most important factors in good health. The best approach is to cultivate a set routine and to sleep for a period of about eight hours. A busy schedule, insomnia or even phone addiction can keep you awake way past your bedtime, but sleep hacking uses both behavioral techniques and technological fixes to ensure enough shut-eye.

How do you do it?
Implement a strict bedtime, which includes a winding-down period without any screen time,. Blackout curtains, white noise machines and temperature controls can make sure you sleep under optimal conditions, while sleep-tracking apps can monitor your sleep patterns and let you know what is actually happening when you’re zonked out.

Some hardcore biohackers use magnetic sleep pads, and even transcranial electrical stimulation (TES) to run currents through the brain, purportedly to enhance deep sleep. Others, including inventor Thomas Edison and architect Buckminster Fuller, adopt a polyphasic sleep pattern—sleeping for short periods throughout the day rather than having a long uninterrupted sleep at night.

What does the science say?
Not getting enough sleep has been linked to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and poor mental health. Experts recommend  seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. (People who sleep more than nine hours a night also seem to suffer from health problems.)  

How can I start?
Being stricter about when you go to bed is the key to sleep hacking. You can even set an alarm for bedtime, much as you would to wake up in the morning. Experts also advise a series of habits sometimes called "sleep hygiene"—making sure the room is quiet, dark and phone-free. For more advanced hackers, there’s also a number of sleep-tracking devices: Apple's Beddit Sleep Monitor sits on top of the mattress and monitors heart rate, sleep quality and even snoring. Wearable devices, like Fitbits and Withings, can also track sleep.

 

Intermittent Fasting

Easy Biohacks 2 Fasting is said to improve their health and concentrate without post-meal energy spikes and lulls. Getty Images

Intermittent fasting involves regularly going extended periods without eating—either daily or twice a week. Practitioners claim that without post-meal energy spikes and lulls they're better able to manage their weight, overall health and concentration.  

How do you do it? 
There are a number of different approaches to intermittent fasting. If you follow the 16/8 method, you don’t eat breakfast and only eat during a period of 8 hours—between Noon and 8pm, for example. Eat-Stop-Eat fasters don’t eat for an entire day, either once or twice a week. The 5:2 diet instructs fasters to eat normally, except for two days a week, when they should eat only 500 to 600 calories.

What does the science say?
Some studies have linked intermittent fasting to weight loss and brain health. Studies of rodents with restricted diets saw an improvement in resistance to neurological disorders and even increased life spans. However, research on human studies is lacking.

How can I start?
Decide what your goals are and start slow—try skipping desserts or delaying breakfast. Talk to your doctor before you start, and stop if you feel sick.

Remember, intermittent fasting is not for everyone: If you have a history of eating disorders, or have a serious medical condition, you should not attempt intermittent fasting.

 

High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
Easy Biohacks HIIT is seen by some as the most effective way to exercise. Getty Images

Although there are different approaches, HIIT involves alternating bursts of extremely high-intensity anaerobic workouts. Some experts consider HIIT the most effective way to exercise: CrossFit uses elements of HIIT; Orangetheory, a gym franchise which focuses solely on HIIT, is the fastest-growing franchise in the U.S.

For HIIT to be effective you need to achieve a heart rate at least 80 percent of your maximum capacity for a few minutes between short rests. Training sessions usually last under 30 minutes but proponents claim they're more effective than longer workouts and metabolize glucose better.

How do you do it? 
There’s no one way to do HIIT. The 4x4 interval training alternates between four sets of four-minute high-intensity exercise and three minutes of lower-intensity activity. That’s just 16 minutes of exercise a day, but studies have shown it can be just as effective as a longer workout. The 10-by-1 regime involves just 10 minutes of actual exercise—ten sets of one minute high-intensity exercise, followed by a minute of rest.

What does the science say?
HIIT has been shown to improve cardiovascular fitness more than exercising at low intensity for long periods: A 2017 study found that children who underwent a six-week high-intensity training regimen showed improvements in cognitive control and working memory.

How can I start?
There’s a number of free HIIT workouts on YouTube, but if you already have a jogging routine, you can add in bursts of high-speed sprinting. It can be hard to know when your heart rate reaches 80 percent of its maximum capacity, but Fitbits and other smartphones include a heart rate monitor.

Bear in mind that this form of exercise requires more willpower than most, and is really only feasible for people who are already relatively healthy and mobile.

 

Cold therapy

Easy Biohacks 3 Biohackers use cold therapy to treat depression, boost metabolism and immune systems. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
Cold therapy is pretty much what it sounds like—exposing your body to cold or even freezing temperatures for short time periods. It’s an ancient technique mentioned in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, dating from 3500 B.C. Interest was reignited in the 1980s, when studies indicated exposure to low temperatures protected against brain injury. Today biohackers use cold therapy to treat depression and boost metabolism and the immune system. It's also purported to improve circulation, reduce inflammation and even stimulate endorphins.

How do you do it?
Cold therapy is inexpensive and, once you’re over the mental hurdle, pretty easy—you just need to plunge into icy water. Some cold therapy practitioners go swimming in lakes, ponds and the ocean. Scandinavians are cold therapy pros, having perfected the sauna and ice bath combination centuries ago.

What does the science say?
Not a lot of studies have been done on cold therapy. In 2018, the British Medical Journal reported a young woman with severe depression saw her symptoms abate after she started cold-water swimming. (Eventually, the patient was able to stop taking antidepressants.) Scientists believe swimming in cold water evokes a stress response that decreases each time you do it. This desensitization reduces the stress response in everyday life, as well, eventually reducing anxiety and inflammation.

How can I start?
Start off slowly: Ending your shower with a few short bursts of cold water, as cold as you can manage for as long as you can manage. The most enriching version of cold therapy is "wild" swimming—though it's best to make sure a spot is safe before diving in. You only need to be submerged for three minutes in water that’s 35˚F-50˚F for the effects to be felt.

Remember that discomfort is part of cold therapy—overcoming it every day will make you more mentally resilient.

 

Light hacking

Easy Biohacks 7 Limiting exposure to blue light in the evening is the most effective way to light hack. Getty Images
Modern life tends to be divorced from the natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset, but our brains still use light cues to tell us when to get up or go to sleep. If your eyes pick up blue, violet or green light, your body think it’s still daytime and won’t produce the sleep hormone melatonin. Unfortunately, televisions, smartphones and computer screens blast out this kind of light. LED lights are another melatonin-suppressor.

How do you do it? 
Limiting exposure to blue light in the evening is the most effective way to light hack, but it's not always possible. (Who wants to spend every evening reading a book by candlelight?). There are also devices, like red-tinted TrueDark Twilight glasses, that filter out "junk light." 

What does the science say?
Exposure to artificial light at night suppresses melatonin production—blue light the most—and can leave you feeling sluggish in the morning. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology also found a strong link between light exposure at night and depression. And there's also some early research linking lower melatonin levels  to cancer.

How can I start?
Limit screen time in the evening. If that’s not possible, you can download a free program called f.lux, which adapts the color of your computer display to the time of day, filtering out blue light in the evening. If you have white LED lights in your house, switch them out with halogen and incandescent bulbs, and use dim red bulbs in night lights. If you live in a well-lit area, blackout curtains can limit light pollution from the street.

In the winter, when the days are short and the nights are long, your body may produce too much melatonin, leaving you drowsy. Some people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) swear by light boxes, using their sunlight-simulating rays to reduce   melatonin production and increase the mood-enhancing hormone serotonin.

 

Nootropics

Biohacks Easy The field of nootropics is vast, and each substance has a different effect on the mind and body. Getty Images

Nootropics are substances that purportedly improve cognitive function or mood. They range from the innocuous, like coffee, to the illegal—like microdosing LSD. Proponents usually take a combination of nootropics, called stacks, to fine-tune their mental function, energy levels and happiness.

How do you do it?
Everyone’s brain is different, so you have to try and see which nootropics work for you. The Reddit community r/Nootropics discusses experiments in mind-altering substances, from vitamin supplements to ADHD medication. Some can be bought over the counter; others have to be purchased online on what is known as the gray market.

What does the science say?
he field of nootropics is vast, and each substance has a different effect on the mind and body. Generally legal nootropics, like the L-theanine compound found in green tea, will have small beneficial effects. Medications like Ritalin may improve some elements of cognition in the short term, but inhibit other functions, and may have dangerous long-term effects.

How can I start?
The field of nootropics remains under-researched—and under-regulated—so stick to the safe, legal stuff: A balanced diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables and plenty of water is a good start. Experimenting should be done with caution—some nootropics can have side effects that far outstrip any possible benefit.

 

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