The future of augmented humanity
With proven medical treatments for ageing, brain disease, insufficient sleep, and low productivity years, (or even decades) away, some people consider self- experimentation to be the fastest route to a healthier, happier, longer life. They call it
But does it work? For two months, I hacked myself to find out. My goal was to separate the science from the BS. If I ended up stronger, smarter, faster, healthier, calmer, more creative, and more productive, that would be okay, too.
Ihand my robe to Michael Margulies, one earnestfaced half of the husbandand- wife team that owns NYC Cryo, a black, lowceilinged basement gym in New York City, and I am practically naked inside an eight- foot- tall silver cylinder. Fog seeps over the top as though it’s been pumped in from a stage performance of Macbeth. I start marching in place in my thick black crew socks and rub my nubby white gloves together. Margulies tells me not to be nervous, but I am.
Three years ago, a technician died during an after-hours solo session at the cryotherapy spa in Las Vegas where she worked. Authorities believe that the platform was set too low, so she inhaled too much oxygen-poor air, then passed out and suffocated inside the treatment unit.
With how much Margulies is talking, it’s almost as though he’s the one who’s nervous. ‘ The benefits of cryotherapy are that it reduces inflammation, helps sports recovery, and helps you to get deeper sleep by increasing REM,’ he says. ‘It helps with depression, and it burns between 400 and 800 calories a session.’
I’m not totally sure that last bit is even possible, but the treatment does sound intriguing. It’s part of a slate of cutting-edge medical treatments called biohacks that promise various radical improvements in health, happiness, productivity, and longevity and have been sweeping the internet healthscape lately. Cryotherapy, in particular, has been employed in Japan to treat rheumatoid arthritis since the 1970s. It’s like putting ice on a sprained ankle, only much more expensive – and less scientifically proven.
I plant my hands on the lip of the chamber, like a meerkat about to be stewed in a cauldron. Margulies turns a knob and a -168°C mist of nitrogen gas blasts on to my lower torso. It is more surprising than awful. I up my marching speed. My skin gets rosy. Margulies gives me periodic updates. ‘One minute,’ he says. ‘ Two minutes. Just thirty seconds left now.’
Margulies has been training people since 1994. He’s seen his clients have more trouble recovering from injuries as they age. A number of years ago, he tried out cryotherapy for the first time after finding out he needed a hip replacement. ‘It helped me go to work every day while I was waiting for surgery, and it helped me recover after,’ he explains. Margulies was so convinced of the benefits that he put down R750 000 to purchase his own chamber, charging R1 200 a pop for three-minute treatments.
Back in my robe, my skin is numb from the ribs down, but I can feel the blood seeping back, as if I’m sitting in front of a fire after a long day spent playing around in the snow. I can’t tell if it’s the treatment or the relief of having survived, but I feel incredible – glowy, clear-headed, and happy.
‘ You’re smiling,’ Margulies says. ‘Everyone always smiles when they come out.’
The feeling ends up lasting the whole thirty-minute walk back to my office. Of course, that could have been the pleasant spring day. Or the contagious effect of the smile. It might have been the exercise of walking. But also: It might have worked.
Technically, any treatment that has the potential to improve the body should count as biohacking. Such as yoga, for example. Or cutting back on Oreos. But after a few weeks of reading blogs and listening to podcasts, I learned that legitimate biohacks typically tend to fit within
a few themes: temperature-related interventions, drugs and supplements, diets, and treatments meant to boost the effects of meditation.
Float tanks, such as the one I’m now bobbing around in at Infinity Float in New York City, would belong in that last category. The womb-like pod, warm and shallow, and with no discernible distinction between the water and the air above it, is supposed to help me achieve the deeper state of mindfulness I’d normally have to meditate for weeks or months to reach. Here’s a non-exhaustive index of the claimed benefits associated with mindfulness: improved attention span, sleep quality, and memory; decreased anxiety and depression; reductions in inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein and interleukin-6; increased neuroplasticity; and less painful pain.
In the tank, I’m so buoyant I actually can’t push my body down all the way to the bottom. My muscles freak out trying to make sense of their lack of sensory input. My mind becomes a dirigible. Am I seasick? Am I moving? I am a glacier. A planet. There are little LED star lights against the ceiling of my pod. Weightless death scenes from
Gravity pop into my mind. That movie was stressful. Stop it. Concentrate. There is nothing to pay attention to. Nothing at all to…
And then the music comes on to tell me it’s time to go. It’s been forty-five minutes. I rinse off the salt water and descend, like a submarine, out into the street. Did it work? Let’s just say that I’ve never felt this mellow after yoga. A man roughly bumps me on the train.
‘Hmm?’ I say, dreamily.
Diet accounts for a very important part of any biohacker’s arsenal, and not in the 1980s way, in which the right one will make you look good in a weird highwaisted bikini. A biohacker’s diet has a superior calling: It should improve brain function, heal the gut, prevent cancer and autoimmune diseases, improve sleep, and, ideally, also make you look good in a weird high-waisted bikini. But it’s difficult to know what to munch to make any of this happen. Every five years, the nutritional magic bullet shifts, from carbs to protein to fat to avocados to kale, and everyone seems to continue feeling unhealthy, no matter what.
‘I think my story is not uncommon: way too much work, too much flying, probably too much booze, not enough sleep, not enough exercise – things we know we should be doing and just aren’t getting done,’ says Neil Grimmer, who founded a personalised nutrition start-up called Habit. For somewhere from R4 200 to R6 000, Habit will test your DNA, fasting blood sugar, and reaction to a high- calorie ‘challenge shake’, then tell you exactly what to eat to become a healthier, better, and slimmer version of yourself.
When I tried Habit, I lanced my fingers one at a time, squeezing my forearm to get enough blood to drip over three greedily absorbent tests. I swabbed my cheeks for DNA. The 950-calorie shake made me want to simultaneously puke, die, and punch myself in the face. There was a lot of groaning.
The test results would take two to four weeks to arrive, which gave me just interim enough time to try an exceptionally popular one-size-fitsall eating plan: the ketogenic diet. Developed in the 1920s to control seizures in children, keto involves getting roughly 70 per cent of your
MY HANDS TINGLED WHEN I WENT FOR A RUN. MY MOUTH TASTED BURNT CORN NUTS.
calories from fat, with 25 per cent from protein and less than 5 per cent from carbohydrates. The principle is to mimic starvation to engender positive changes in brain chemistry – after a few days on keto, the body depletes its stores of its preferred fuel, carbs, and shifts its attention to burning up fat reserves.
‘ Your liver breaks fat down into ketone bodies, and ketone bodies can pass through the blood–brain barrier and be used as an alternate fuel source for the brain,’ explains Dr Mackenzie Cervenka, director of Johns Hopkins Adult Epilepsy Diet Center, who has studied how modified keto can combat seizures and an aggressive form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma multiforme. For some reason, burning ketones for energy appears to protect the brain in ways that your normal metabolism doesn’t. ‘It’s also been shown to be anti-inflammatory, and it can decrease free-radical production,’ Cervenka says. These benefits may translate to other brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s, which is why people are so excited about it.
Here’s where keto gets tough: As little few extra carbs a day, even from vegetables, can knock you back out of ketosis. I tracked my nutrient profile through an app, Keto Diet Tracker, and ate so many avocados and macadamia nuts, Hawaii’s agriculture board should send me on a free trip. I used pee-stripand finger-prick tests to check ketone levels in my blood and my urine. For someone who experiences a hundred seizures a day, like some of Cervenka’s patients, this may be worth it (though she says her lab has a 50 per cent sixmonth attrition rate, even among its epilepsy patients). But for a normally healthy person, it was awful.
If I can explain the ketogenic diet in one meal, let it be the time I tried to prepare a smoothie out of coconut milk, nut butter, cacao powder, and half an avocado. It came out as bitter as baker’s chocolate, but with a weird consistency, as if a chocolate shake had farted into a cup of hair mousse. Also, it was grey. I ate it out of a coffee mug with a spoon, forcing down each bite as if I were a toddler and this whole excuse for an article really ought to be banned by the Geneva Conventions.
Once I managed to confirm ketosis, I still felt strange as heck. As promised, I was preternaturally calm, but in a bad way. It was impossible to do anything at all. I tried to play a dice game and confused the number 50 with 500. My hands tingled when I went for a run. My mouth tasted like burnt corn nuts.
Keto adherents refer to the diet’s unpleasant induction period as the ‘ keto flu.’ To get through it (for the purpose of journalism), I imbibed electrolyte supplements and drank prepackaged ketones that were so bitter I’m pretty sure I would have rather drunk industrial solvents.
Five days later, I came out the other side. A blood test confirmed that I was still in ketosis, but I could do math and think again. However, I still did not feel good. Keto devotees say that by the time you’ve been doing the diet for a while, you can feel when your body is burning fat for fuel instead of carbs. For many people, that shift is marked by feelings of steady energy and wellbeing, along with a satiety that helps with weight loss. In my case, it was marked by hiccups, terrible heartburn, and a fluttery feeling in my chest as though I was about to descend into cardiac arrhythmia.
After twelve days on the keto diet, I felt like a saltwater fish in a poorly calibrated aquarium. I yelled. I stank. Somehow I’d gained a kilo and a half. Literally in the middle of an argument with my long- suffering boyfriend – about … um … appropriate sock storage
locations? What kind of maniac buys one-ply toilet paper? – my phone pinged with an email containing the results from my Habit test.
‘ You are a Range Seeker,’ the page claimed, alongside a whole bunch of recommended recipes for fish tacos and risotto and smoothies and other stuff I normally eat. ‘ We recommend a higher- carb, higher-fat, moderateprotein diet.’ You don’t say.
Doctors have known for decades that when you half-starve rodents, they live longer. Caloric restriction can increase the median life span of rats by 14 to 45 per cent, reducing inflammation, oxidative stress, cholesterol, the risk of tumours and cardiovascular disease and triglycerides, and improving the immune system. There’s just one tiny problem: If you’re not a rat whose diet is controlled by scientists, such restriction requires iron willpower to maintain. A 1940s study called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, in which doctors reduced calories by roughly 50 per cent in volunteers, resulted in incidences of depression, hysteria, and irritability, including one man who went so far as to cut off three of his fingers.
Enter intermittent fasting. Starving lite™. One option – time-restricted feeding – is basically eating all of your calories in an eight-hour window. For the 5:2 diet, you drop to 500 calories on two non-consecutive days a week and eat normally the other five. Either will be enough for most people to lose weight, but it’s the other advantages that are most exciting. Skipping food occasionally can lead to some of the same effects as keto. It can also initiate certain cellular processes that enhance longevity, including autophagy, also known as ‘cellular cleansing’, in which the body recycles old cells by eating them. Waste not, want not.
I tried the 5:2 diet, which made me so hungry I salivated over cookbooks, buying new eyeliners to distract myself whenever I felt my willpower flagging. (I now have many eyeliners.) But apart from that, intermittent fasting was awesome. Here was the relaxation I’d been promised by the keto diet. The weight loss and the peaceful mind. At the end of each fast day, I experienced a paradoxical bump in energy (maybe my body wanted me to go find food?) that was so pleasant, I plan to seriously incorporate 5:2 into my actual life, even if it does freak me out that it’s basically play-anorexia.
If you decide to try Viome, a start-up that charges R5 600 for a gut-bacteriatesting kit and one year of personalised advice, you’re going to want to bring a trash bag into the bathroom with you. I wish I had. I walked in there with the sleek gray-beige Gut Intelligence kit, yanked up the toilet seat, and strapped the included stool collection paper to my toilet. And then it all went, as they say, to sh--.
Viome’s instructions say to ‘carefully deposit your stool’ onto the collection paper, then transfer one infinitesimal scoop of faeces – a pinhead, a bead – to an included tube of solution. And that’s where they leave you, instruction- wise.
The glue that stuck the paper to the toilet was so sticky there was no way to make slow, responsible decisions about dumping the remainder of the sample. I tried to flush the whole little bundle, but the collection platform is as thick as construction paper. It crumpled up and lodged itself in the drain. The water started rising.
I had company. An old friend was staying on my sofa bed. My boyfriend lives in my apartment. Thank god the kit came with gloves. I reached down into the swirling, impenetrable mess and yanked out the paper and ran, shouting in nonsensical single syllables, into the kitchen to throw the paper, the inside-out gloves, and everything else I had touched into a plastic bag, which I then put into a larger plastic bag, which I put in the corridor before anyone could see it, or me. Hyperventilating, I took a shower.
Maybe it was worth it? Last year, while working on a story about cancer, I spoke to a researcher at MD Anderson Cancer Center who told me that she thought healthy gut bacteria might be the key to determining who responds well to certain cancer treatments and who doesn’t. She further said it might even explain who gets cancer – and who doesn’t.
‘Everybody’s microbiome is unique,’ explains Helen Messier, Viome’s chief medical officer. ‘But each one can be healthy for that individual. It really depends on whether your microbes are performing the functions that they are supposed to perform to keep you
healthy.’ What you want, ideally, is a microbiome like a rainforest – with a lot of diversity as well as a high count of each individual species. Eating a lot of fibre can help, as can, Viome hopes, using metatranscriptome sequencing to sort out the creatures living in your gut, and eating in accordance with the dietary preferences of your most useful digestive-tract parasites.
Viome’s results were fascinating. I received a whole list of bacteria and viruses that lived in my gut, indicating which were good for me. There were also sliding scales of metabolic fitness and inflammatory activity, and graphs of where my gut health fit in among samples of healthy people and the general public. It was like reading a full- scale scientific study about little old me.
The primary challenge here? Ease of implementation. Whereas Habit would provide specific recipes, Viome mostly recommended that I eat foods I already knew were healthy, such as cauliflower, parsley, garlic and beets. Messier also suggested I get five pre- and probiotic supplements, but they would work out to almost R2 800 a month. And that doesn’t include fixing my toilet.
Here’s the big thing about taking drugs at work: You think no one does it, but they do. In Silicon Valley, at least, that is. ‘People are microdosing all sorts of things in Silicon Valley,’ says Molly Maloof, a bubbly doctor who runs a medicine practice in San Francisco that specialises in helping biohackers try their tactics safely. ‘People microdose mushrooms, they microdose LSD, they microdose research chemicals. It’s a weird world.’
Proponents claim that minuscule doses of psychedelics can enhance creativity and productivity while also reducing depression, anxiety, and cravings for cigarettes and alcohol. But no one’s really studied it. ‘ The most important thing to emphasise is we really don’t know,’ says Matthew Johnson, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies potential therapeutic effects of larger doses of psilocybin (magic mushrooms). Still, the questions being asked are smart, he says. ‘ There’s every reason to think tinkering with that receptor system could have antidepressant effects, and it’s never been systematically manipulated in that way.’
I tried LSD once and thought I was a flower for thirty minutes. (I think. LSD time is weird.) So this time, I tried cannabidiol, or CBD, the also-ran of psychoactive chemicals in marijuana, which is lately being sold over the counter as an oil that can reduce pain and inflammation, without the high.
Preliminary results from a Mayo Clinic study showed that CBD doses diminishes seizures in children with a disorder called Dravet syndrome by 39 per cent, compared to 16 per cent in patients who received a placebo. Meanwhile, animal studies indicate that the chemical may also prevent tumours, reduce pain, lower anxiety, and treat inflammation. In a 2015 study in the European Journal of Pain, just four days on CBD gel significantly reduced joint swelling in arthritic rats.
I asked the FDA about CBD oil. ‘ The FDA has not approved a marketing application for a drug product containing or derived from botanical cannabis and has not found any such product to be safe and effective for any indication,’ the FDA spokesperson said. ‘ We don’t have any additional comment.’
Did I like CBD oil? Yes. Did it reduce my inflammation? Maybe! Did it feel like marijuana? No. But also kind of yes. One of the primary problems with unregulated CBD oil is that different concentrations vary wildly, and many formulations contain THC, even if they say they don’t. After a couple of drops, I felt like I was wearing a particularly cosy jersey on the inside of my body. It distorted my perception of time in a similar way to marijuana. Also: It was way too popular around the office to be remotely as non-intoxicating as its proponents claim.
It was unclear, from the website, where we were sending our Bitcoins. The transaction record seemed to suggest China, but days later, an email came through reporting that the parcel was coming from Mumbai. The drugs themselves came in two silver blister packs in a square white envelope. The box labelled ‘gift’ was indicated on the customs form. And what a gift! Twenty thick white pills of a wakefulness-promoting agent called modafinil, which the FDA approved in 1998 to treat narcolepsy. It wasn’t until the Air Force tested whether it could be used to enhance performance in fatigued F-117 pilots in 2004 (short answer: sort of), that its off-label use skyrocketed. A 2013
report seen in Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine said the number of people taking the drug had increased tenfold over the previous decade. One of those people? Molly Maloof, the bubbly doctor from San Francisco.
‘I was just like, Oh my god, fighter pilots are taking medicine that can make them not have to sleep. If I didn’t have to sleep, I could do so many things,’ says Maloof, who herself took modafinil a handful of times around four years ago.
To hear Maloof explain it, the drug appeals to the kind of super-highachieving people who make it to the top of industries such as finance and technology. The kind who’d power through fifteen-hour work days and then train for a triathlon. The kind who think sleep is for people who are lazy or dead.
I learned the hard way in college that you can always take more of a drug, but never less, so I took a quarter of a 200-mg pill. Thirty minutes later, a cocaine-like rush zinged through my upper body. This is great, I thought. Oh, this is great, great, great. Sound died down and I could multitask as easily as toggling between computer screens. I made calls I’d been putting off for months. I googled directions between Osaka and Kyoto because I realised I didn’t know where they were in relation to one another. It was like a clear forest path had opened ahead of me, which led only to the joyous, peaceful occasion of learning facts and answering emails.
I very much enjoyed modafinil. But it also made me feel like a crystal space robot that was confused by human emotion. Maybe I’m bad at drugs, but everything I took for this story felt like tuning a piano with a sledgehammer. Did I want to be better at email? Great. Here were some drugs from India that could make me stay awake through an entire day of work, a two-hour dinner, and then a whole three-act opera. Did I want to go to sleep afterward? Good luck waking up within fourteen hours of taking these innocuous- seeming over- the- counter sleep supplements. Modafinil was like some kind of hyperliteral genie from a fable – the kind that would set up a deer conservation centre at your house because you asked for a million bucks.
I told Maloof that the drug made me feel like Bradley Cooper in Limitless – all floating equations and brilliant quips and visions of promotions, along with some mild dizziness.
‘ What have you noticed with your memory, though?’ Excuse me? ‘It makes you feel super-human, but I was starting to experience memory lapses,’ she said. ‘ That’s why I stopped using it.’
When I agreed to become a biohacking test subject, I’m not sure I realised how hard it would be on my body. I didn’t worry if I might still feel strange weeks later. I just said yes. The promises sounded so good. Sleep four hours a night like Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Body. Lose 45 kilos like Bulletproof Coffee’s Dave Asprey. Control your core body temperature like Wim Hof, a Dutch athlete who climbed Kilimanjaro in a pair of shorts. How could I know what would happen? There aren’t pills to make you psychic. Yet.
All things considered, I feel good, although ever since keto, a tiny bubble of heartburn has blazed stubbornly at my sternum. I went to a regular, boring doctor, who gave me a regular, boring diagnosis: acid reflux.
Here’s the thing about trying to hack the human body the same way you would hack a computer: There are many people who know how to build a computer. Nobody knows how to build a human body. While it is intriguing that we may, as a culture, be on the verge of some very exciting medical developments, many of our own inner workings remain occult and mysterious, even to the smartest people on Earth.
But, as time marches ceaselessly on, our arteries hardening, tendons fraying, career options narrowing, the only certainties are getting older and slower and, eventually, dead. Can you blame anyone for wanting the tiniest measure of control? For researching the latest biological science and transforming it into a plan?
There’s something to be said for believing a new, untested treatment will help you overcome your problems. Over the decades, taking a sugar pill, receiving a useless injection, or even just visiting a doctor has been shown to reduce pain, lower blood pressure, and relieve depression. Doctors like to call this the placebo effect. We call it hope.
Cryotherapy tanks blast -168°C nitrogen gas on your lower torso in an attempt to reduce inflammation, relieve depression, and burn calories. Photography DAVID BRANDON GEETING