Rooting around the world of Biohacking will inevitably lead you to the question of ethics. In Part One, Sean Fleming discovered how, by wearing things like Apple Watches and fiddling with our personal fitness data means that many of us are already unwittingly Biohacking our bodies.
But beyond data, the next level of biohacking is intensely risky, but can bear life-chaning results: long-term illness eradicated, mental health restored. In Part Two, Sean learns how physical self-experimentation can begin with drugs, and reach as far as consuming someone else's poop...
“Most modern medical techniques don’t work, so you just expect me to deal with my symptoms for the rest of my life? That sounds wacko.”
– Josiah Zayner, biohacker extraordinaire
"Politics is politics and science is science and there's a bit of a tension between them sometimes."
– Professor David Nutt, former UK Gov Chief Drug Advisor
Do It Yourself
To some, Biohacking is more than working out that when you exercise you sleep better, or taking Modafinil makes you more productive. To these people, Biohacking means serious self-experimentation, and solving real world health problems that modern medicine has been unable to do so.
One of these serious dudes is Josiah Zayner. If the name rings a bell it might be for one of two reasons:
The first is his crowdfund aimed at providing people with CRISPR kits to alter bacterial DNA.
The second is the DIY faecal transplant he performed. On himself. And yes, a faecal transplant is pretty much what you’re hoping it isn’t.
Josiah has suffered from severe gastrointestinal issues for his entire life. His gut bacteria works against him on a daily basis.
Gut flora is a funny old thing. The microbial life in your belly dictates your gastrointestinal health, your weight, and even - potentially - your mental health. This mass of microbiotic genetic material - the microbiome - is so important to human life, it is considered a partner to our own personal genetic material.
Having tried and failed to alleviate his symptoms with conventional medicine, Josiah grew tired of his gut fucking with his life. He decided to give himself a new microbiome.
You are what you eat
The rationale behind Josiah's experiment was quite sound. If gut bacteria is responsible for your chronic pain, and transplanting your biome is a risky – yet within the realms of possibility – well, why not give it a go?
For all its intrigue, the experiment was fraught with hazards.
One is a very real biological danger: replacing his biome with a donor's means purging his body of all his existing bacteria so that the donor bacteria can ‘occupy’ Josiah’s body, effectively neutering his bacterial response.
The other is, simply put, gross: the experiment involved ingesting capsules of Josiah’s doner’s shit.
Ickiness aside, this was an incredibly risky move. Experts almost unanimously condemned Josiah’s experiment as dangerous and irresponsible. Less than 3% of faecal transplant donors are approved, and as a rule patients about to undergo transplants are told not to take antibiotics.
Of course Josiah went ahead and did it anyway. I guess if you feel you’ve spent your whole life being let down by doctors and health professionals, a few more negative opinions just lose their potency.
To cut a long and fascinating story short, Josiah’s experiment worked. His gastrointestinal issues are gone and he’s a lot happier for it.
I’d be pleased too if an incredibly risky procedure was successful and benefitted both myself and the wider scientific community. I’d be pleased if I had been vindicated after putting my life at risk to hack my health. I’m not sure how widely I’d share the news that I’d been eating poop, but that’s just me.
You’ll be cheered to learn that not all biohacking involves rooting around in your friends poop and then swallowing capsules of it.
If you’re at all interested in how Silicon Valley tech mavens get shit done, you’ve probably heard the term microdosing before. Microdosing is taking very small quantities of drugs such as LSD, or Psilocybin (aka Magic Mushrooms), to boost productivity and creativity, lower stress, and stay happy.
The practice has attracted satire, obviously, but its roots go deep in the valley’s mythology, with both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates going on record saying they’ve taken and benefitted from tripping balls.
Furthermore, a cursory Google search will flag up endless personal accounts from entrepreneurs, programmers, creatives, and journalists who’ve all given it a go, to see if they can bottle lightning via some good old fashioned drug experimentation.
Dosing acid for creativity is nothing new. Albert Hofmann, the first person to synthesise LSD, believed that microdosing could be a valuable alternative to other more addictive drugs that contained amphetamines, and that it could increase focus and productivity.
Considering that LSD was created with these values in mind, it's unsurprising that people are discovering that acid isn’t just the plaything of Psy-trance festival-goers, and that it may have a place within the working environment.
The tripping point
Research into psychedelics was short-lived, but prior to its restriction James Fadiman was leading the charge and his research into psychedelics remains pioneering.
Fadiman’s something of a legend within the psychedelic research community - and as a lifetime advocate of the wonders of microdosing his is an opinion that carries weight in this field, so if you’re planning on riding the rainbow road to a better you let me share James Fadiman’s guide to microdosing.
There are some important but simple parameters. Simply take a small amount of acid, or psilocybin, regularly for about three days. "Small" means ⅕ to 1/10 of a normal dose. (Let’s save those bigger ones for Glastonbury, yeah?)
Fadiman reckons that taking LSD in the morning yields the best results, so after you’ve had a shower, put the kettle on, make yourself a cup of tea, and dose yourself over your cornflakes.
I would wash my hands prior to making breakfast but Fadiman’s position is unclear on this.
Like most biohacking, this is very much an at-your-own-risk experiment. Expect elevated moods, enhanced focus and productivity, and in some cases microdosers have reported it helping with depression and cluster headaches. Others have reported melting into the sofa and listening to Aphex Twin for 14 hours. You've been warned.
Look at me. I am the Doctor now.
Dismissing Biohacking, smart drugs, and lifelogging as niche play of the super-weird would be incredibly reductive.
For me, the early adopters who offer up their bodies to push this guerilla science further are the true innovators of our time. Society views single-subject research as the domain of the strange and the mad. Our literature reflects that fear: Dr Jekyll, The Invisible Man, The Lizard.
Self-destruction and villainy are nearly always thematically linked with the concept of self-experimentation, and yes, the ethics are wobbly and the risks are great – but playing it safe and pushing boundaries is an oxymoron.
Biohacking is moving us toward some of the most exciting preventative medicine and early warning systems. Look at today's biohackers and think about the future: those people inserting LEDs under their skin to mimic bioluminescence, placing magnets in their fingertips and speakers in their ears are just a few degrees of separation from us all inserting heart implants that warn of impending heart attacks.
As population age increases, health care services become strained, and greater emphasis is placed on individual responsibility for your own healthcare and wellness, it’s today’s hobbyists that become tomorrow’s industry.
Make no mistake, these pioneers of personal healthcare are paving the way for a new type of healthcare. Homebrewed, personal, and totally yours.
Now if you’ll excuse me, WedMD is telling me that this lump on my arm is Smallpox. I think I’ll figure out my own second opinion.