Silicon Valley is one of those places that seems almost mythic, in no small part thanks to all the ridiculous shit that manages to come out of it. Did it give us things like the microprocessor and Google (and the whole internet, really)? Yes. But did it also give us things like on-site company rock climbing walls (Google), beanbag chair lounges (LinkedIn) and fucking Zen Rooms (Eventbrite)? Ugh. Yes. In fact, life in Silicon Valley is so absurd, someone at some point decided it was worth creating a caricaturized version of it for TV in the form of a show literally called Silicon Valley. And the most ridiculous part is that the show isn’t even that far off the real thing.
So when the news hit my desk that the latest holistic health craze to hit the Silicon Valley was a form of intermittent fasting called “biohacking,” which helps boost weight loss and work performance, my first thought (aside from “Ugh, of course they’d fucking call it something stupid like ‘biohacking’”) was: “is it healthy?”
What, Exactly, is Biohacking?
Let me first preface this by saying that intermittent fasting isn’t necessarily something new; it being called “biohacking” definitely is, however.
In general, fasting is a concept that has been around since at least Ancient Greece. People have done it for many different reasons in many different regions of the world, ranging in motivation from spiritual enlightenment and physical health improvement, to political protest — Mahatma Gandhi fasted 17 times during his plea for Indian independence, the longest of which lasted an incredible 21 days. The majority of the world’s major religions incorporate some form of fasting or another into their religious practices.
In fact, the very idea of fasting for health and illness reduction is nothing new. Throughout history, several physicians and medical doctors have made claims that fasting is a cure-all for things like weight gain (duh), heart disease, allergies, and even headaches. Generally speaking, however, it didn’t work. In fact, it got so bad that some of its earliest pioneers — like Linda Hazzard — were jailed for “prescribing” treatment that killed people.
Intermittent fasting became popular again in 2012 with the emergence of the 5:2 diet. The 5:2 diet dictates that people eat normal diets for five days of the week, and then for the remaining two, eat little or nothing at all. It was said to help protect against things like Alzheimer’s Disease, various forms of cancer and yes, heart disease. Its inventors even claim it can reduce the effects of aging. Despite that, it has been decried by health professionals as another unhealthy fad diet.
Biohacking, however, is a new-ish string of intermittent fasting that really takes things to the extreme. In an interview with The Guardian, All Turtles CEO (and Former Evernote CEO) Phil Libin revealed that for his fast, he’ll go four entire days without consuming anything other than water, coffee or black tea.
In that same article, Libin, who has lost 90 pounds since his journey to eternal hunger first began, swears that he feels a “mild euphoria” due to it, as well as feeling more focused, in a better mood and having a constant supply of energy. He likens fasting as one of the top two or three things he’s ever done in his whole entire life.
Are There Actual Benefits to Biohacking or Intermittent Fasting?
The first and most obvious “benefit” to biohacking is that you lose weight — usually, if done right, a lot of it. It’s not necessarily the healthiest way to lose weight, but it does happen, and people do report seeing success with these types of programs.
Aside from the obvious, there’s also research that suggests intense intermittent fasting also stops your body from producing as much insulin, as well as another hormone called “insulinlike growth factor” — which has been linked to various cancers and diabetes. That same research found that, in mice, fasting two to five days each month reduced biomarkers of heart disease.
There’s also a significant amount of research that suggests fasting for prolonged amounts of time may actually help you live longer. One study in particular found that when regular calorie consumption is cut by anywhere from 30 to 40 percent, the life span of many animals — including nematodes, fruit flies and rodents — increases by a third or more. That’s kind of a big deal.
But the biohacking crowd isn’t here for weight loss or immortality (though some of them are hype on the immortality bit, too). They’re here for improved work performance — or so they say. But can “biohacking” help with that?
Well, believe it or not, the research supports those ideas, too. According to Stanford University’s Law and Biosciences Blog, research has not only found that intermittent fasting or biohacking improves performance on memory tests, but it can also lead to the growth of new neurons, decrease risk for neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s), improve cognitive function and even improve recovery rates after traumatic brain injuries such as a stroke.
Love it or hate it, the research mounting in favor of “biohacking” is only getting more definitive.
So, What Are The Risks?
This is where people remain divided on intermittent fasting. Nutritionists insist that the long-term effects of these new-age fasting diets aren’t really well-researched yet, and there’s still a lot of things unknown about it all.
Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., a health and fitness professional, wrote in U.S. News back in August that he was very worried about how intermittent fasting might negatively affect how peoples’ bodies react to working out. For him, the idea is simple: food is fuel. That fuel is an absolute necessity to a person’s workout. If that person’s body isn’t getting the fuel it needs, that person’s workout will undoubtedly suffer.
Which also makes a lot of sense, but is really only relevant to people who workout.
In a detailed op-ed for Health.com, nutritionist and dietician Cynthia Sass wrote about what she’s personally observed about people who participate in intermittent fasting routines. One of her biggest objections included the idea that people who spend so much time not eating tend to overeat on the occasion they do eat — and that the stuff they eat is generally less healthy. She, like Bryant, also worries that fasting can result in significant muscle loss because it doesn’t just trigger your body to break down your fat reserves; it triggers it to break down everything else, too.
But her most interesting objection is that healthy foods — like good fats, veggies, lean protein, etc. — are actually proven to keep humans’ metabolic rates higher, especially when consumed regularly and in small quantities throughout the day. If we aren’t giving those nutrients to our bodies and instead relying on calorie counting, it may actually wind up hurting our metabolism.
More damning research even suggests that things like alternate day fasting may actually totally fucking ruin our metabolism and drastically lower glucose tolerance. Not eating also, understandably, makes our bodies release our stress hormone — cortisol — which if released at consistent enough rates can actually end up storing fat into reserves and breaking down muscle.
The Celebrity Endorsements Keep Rolling In
In a nutshell, “biohacking” probably isn’t for anyone. The research out there is pretty clear about why it’s potentially dangerous, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t worked for a lot of people.
Jimmy Kimmel actually gave an entire Men’s Journal interview about how he used the now-famous 5:2 diet to cut a quick 25 pounds. Hugh Jackman told Men’s Fitness as far back as 2013 that he was on an intermittent fasting plan called the “8-Hour Diet Plan,” and that’s how he got his badass body for Wolverine.
And, of course, going back to the Silicon Valley CEOs — Libin isn’t alone when he reports that he feels better, has more energy, more focus, etc. In fact, a lot of the Silicon Valley crowd credits this exact TED Talk (watch above) from Mark Mattson, the Chief of the Laboratory of Neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging, for their allegiance to the plan.
In it, Mattson talks about the whole “biohacking” thing, and explains that fasting increases the production of neurotropic factors, which are proteins specifically responsible for promoting neural growth, which increases mitochondria neurons in the brain, and thus, gives us our surge of energy, mental clarity, and focus. In other words, it improves productivity.
The take home: if you’re going to give “biohacking” a try, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting yourself in for, what you want to get out of it, and that the science doesn’t yet back up all of the claims.