Biohacking adventures, successes & failures.

Biohacking is a term that has come into common use in the last few years. The do-it-yourself biology movement started in the late 1980’s and has been gaining a lot of momentum in the last decade as people discover small change in their lifestyle can have big impacts on their quality of life. As with many new words it can apply to a variety of things, from changing your diet because you develop allergies to biological experiments with sophisticated technology like gene editing. Who knows what the final definition will be?

To me biohacking means the using awareness of your body to adjust your actions to maximize health. You notice certain things you do, such as those that relieve pain or problems your body is developing and applying those solutions to your life as frequently as needed to prevent the problem, or at least reduce the impact of the problem.
My first biohacks were the result of a plane that I crashed January 12, 1978. In the crash I broke my right leg and the talus bone in my right ankle, as well as a dislocated left shoulder and a crushed left elbow. A year after the accident, when I finally started walking without crutches, I began having bad back pains. I noticed my pelvic hair line in the mirror was slanting down to the right and hypothesized that my leg had healed shorter than it was originally. While the doctor said ‘no’ I decided to try adjusting the height of my shoe until my hair line was level. This required a block of wood 1.5 inches thick. I carved it out so it would fit in a shoe and started wearing it. Within a week my back problem was gone and I still use a bock of wood in my shoe today, 40 years later! Someday I may get special shoes, but I have never seen the point when a ten-cent piece of 2×4 would do the job.

Though I was not aware of the concept of biohacking at the time (1980) this was my first biohack. My second was also related to the accident, because I developed degenerative arthritis in the broken talus bone due to the blood supply being cut off for months while the bone healed. About a decade after the accident a friend of mine (who was, at the time, in his 60’s) was complaining that he could not eat very much beef anymore because it increased his arthritis.

So, I tried decreasing the amount of red meat that I consume, and it seemed to help. As is often the case with biohacking results can be fuzzy. Sometimes when I eat red meat (and I still do on occasion) the arthritis in my ankle gets significantly worse. This is especially true when I eat a hamburger from a specific national chain. Whenever I eat one of these ‘bad’ hamburgers my bad ankle is so sore the next day that I can scarcely walk. Unfortunately, this hamburger is my favorite of any national chain! On other occasions I can eat red meat for several days in a row with no impact on my bad ankle. Usually though when I eat red meat there is enough of an increase in arthritic pain that I notice it and regret eating the red meat.

Noticing results is the key to biohacking. Shoulder bother you? Mine did. It started when I was in my 30’s and slowly built up over a few years until my shoulder started really giving me a lot of pain. The more I immobilized it to relieve the pain the worse it got. Finally, I started doing exercises, lifting my arm over my head. This was a move that really hurt–but over the course of a week or so the pain got less, and now (20 years later) I have very little trouble with it–and when I do a few days of lifting my arm over my head will cure the pain. The gym I go to has a bar that you pull down on with weights attached (so you would be doing a pull-up if you had enough weight attached). When I first tried this my shoulder hurt again even at the lowest weight. After a month of using this machine the pain completely went away–even when loaded to the maximum weight I could pull. This has not been a complete cure, for the problem comes back. But only every few years and now that I know what to do about it the first sign of pain and I go to the gym and a few sessions will fix it for a few more years.

Over the years there have been quite a few other biohacks that I have done over the years, though at the time I was unaware I was doing biohacking. I just would develop a problem, figure out what it took to alleviate the symptoms or cure the problem and implement it. While this may sound easy it usually takes a lot of time, thought and tests to come up with a solution. Sometimes I get luck and hit the solution on the first try (my back problem solved the first try) to my blood pressure which I have tried a number of things to control (from the DASH diet to meditation) without any luck—yet.

When I want to biohack something that I am having a problem with I think about all the various things I have learned about that affects the problem, read up and research these ideas and then try the ones that sound likely to work. My blood pressure is a good example as it has been creeping up for the last 20 years, and is now considered hypertensive. After they lowered the recommendations from less than 140 to less than 120 (systolic) and less than 90 to less than 80 (diastolic). Which now means mine is much higher than recommended.

Two and a half years ago, a doctor recommended I take statins. After thinking about it for a year or so (I hate taking medicine) I started taking them. After a few months I noticed my diastolic BP had decreased nicely. Unfortunately, my systolic continued to rise. Now it is approaching the old hypertensive definition, so I really need to do something about it. This summer I shall try a number of approaches to reducing my blood pressure. If I fail in the fall I will go to a doctor and get prescription drugs (which I hate) to lower it for me.

I want to use my blood pressure as an example of biohacking and try to biohack my way to lower blood pressure. In the process I will demonstrate my approach this kind of problem. I have tried several things in the past, increasing exercise, losing weight, eating more vegetables and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). All of these helped some, but then the gain returned and crept back up over the acceptable level.

Please keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you or anyone else; biohacking is often “user” specific. If you want to try my ideas on yourself please be very careful. While I don’t try anything dangerous (I always keep in mind the doctor’s mantra, “do no harm”), expanding them certainly can be (for example immersing your whole body in ice water can be fatal). Any time you try biohacking you should keep in mind the problems that might occur. If in doubt consult a specialist! You want to get better, not worse.

I have known for a long time my blood pressure is too high. Over the last decade I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the possible ways to reduce blood pressure, and tried a variety of them. Weight loss was the most successful. Unfortunately about a year ago I lost control of my weight (again) and have just recently gotten back under control. So I hope as I lose a little weight my blood pressure will go down.

Over this summer I will try a variety of things to reduce my blood pressure in addition to losing weight. Because I have made several attempts to do this in the past there is no guarantee it will work, but being on a cruise ship going around the world with lots of sea days (i.e. days when the ship is traveling and not in port) will give me plenty of time to try a variety of things.

I have a lot of trouble with weight control, it is not something that comes easily to me (keeping my weight less than obese is a considerable effort). Also, the effect is small, and not enough to get my blood pressure as low as I want (less than 120/80). I need something else that will work.

Some years ago, I rode my bicycle from downtown Fairbanks to my home, which is a 9-mile ride. The last half of that has an elevation gain of about 600 feet, so it is also a lot of work. The day was a beautiful warm sunny day and by the time I got home I had been sweating hard for half an hour. I took my blood pressure and found that it was the lowest it had been in a long time (112/75 if I remember right). So, an hour of sweaty exercise is a likely approach. But a lot of work, which I have not managed to find the willpower and time to try hard, sweaty exercise for a week or so and see if the effect is temporary or more lasting. I will try it on this cruise, but I hope I can also find something else. Or, perhaps, if I can get my blood pressure down to where I want it with sweaty exercise the results will be persistent enough that I will only have to do a long, hard exercise session once a month or once a week.

A few times I have noticed my blood pressure drops sharply the morning after eating leafy vegetables like kale or spinach. Sometimes it doesn’t, so the correlation isn’t clear. So, to start I need to do a statistical analysis on eating a variety of foods and seeing what my blood pressure did the next day (I log all the food I eat plus all my blood pressure daily, so this information is available to me). So what nutrient is in the foods that seem to have the greatest impact? Vitamin K. If this proves to be the case, I will try increasing my vitamin K consumption and see if that lowers my blood pressure. If not then then this analysis should show it.

I have noticed that if I hyperventilate (just a bit) just before I take my blood pressure it is significantly (20 points on the diastolic and 8 points on the systolic) lower. So, I wonder if hyperventilating every hour during the day will result in lower blood pressure that will persist overnight or longer? Note: do not use the technique in the doctor’s office: your doctor needs to know what you blood pressure really is because high blood pressure causes all kinds of problems, and can be very successfully treated with medication, which I will do if it is still high this fall.

Just a few days ago (on 5/15/19) I overhead some people talking about how soaking in ice water lowered the blood pressure of a friend of theirs. I spent the last couple of days thinking about this and came up with some interesting observations from my own life. First is earlier this winter (1/19/19 to be exact) I went for a walk up a frozen stream. This stream had a lot of overflow, that had mostly frozen (overflow is water that runs on top of the ice, usually because the stream has frozen to the bottom and so on top is the only place for the water to go–a common occurrence in many Alaskan streams). I was just trying to get a little exercise, but I got more than that when my right foot broke through the ice into 8 inches (20 cm) of water. I was only wearing tennis shoes, so my foot got very wet.

The temperature was about 0 F (-18 C) and it was a 20-minute walk back to the truck so my right foot was pretty cold by the time I got there. I ran the truck with the heater on high, warming and drying my foot out. The point of this story comes over the next few days, when my right foot (but not my left foot) stayed warmer than my left foot, and I was not bothered by that foot being cold at night which is something I have problems with on days when I fast.

I can think of a couple of possible reasons for this result. One is that I grew more brown fat in response to the cold (possible, but not likely in your feet, is my feeling). The other is that my blood vessels expanded to provide better blood flow. If your blood vessels expand, it should lower your blood pressure so with this idea in mind I searched my blood pressure data from 1/16 to 1/23/19 BUT found no significant change.

I had a similar experience that occurred longer ago, in 2007. Our Alaskan winters are harsh and keeping homes warm is either a lot of work or very expensive (a typical 3 bedroom house uses 1,200 to 2,500 gallons of heating oil a year). So in 2005 when the price of heating oil went up a lot my wife and I talked about whether we wanted to continue heating with oil or if we wanted to start burning firewood. We decided we would rather continue having extravagent vacations (as I write these words we are on a 106 day cruise around the world). Besides we figured cutting wood was going to be a lot of good exercise. We go really serious about burning firewood and reduced our heating oil consumption from 1,200 gallons a year down to less than 100, saving enough money to take a long (3-7 week) cruise every few years, and this long one after 5 years.

During the first few years of cutting wood we had to find dry wood and never managed to get ahead. We wound up going out in really cold weather in search of wood. One time it was -30 f (-35 C) and I was cutting wood in my tennis shoes (because of my bad ankle I haven’t found anything that works for me except tennis shoes, which means I wear them summer and winter in spite of the cold). Cutting wood is hot work and in spite of the cold I was very hot except for my feet. I would jump in the truck and warm them up for 10-15 minutes before spending another 10-15 minutes cutting wood. After working for around 2 hours something odd happened: my feet suddenly started staying warm no matter how long I stayed outside. I am pretty sure they were warm because my body “realized” that there was plenty of heat available so there was no reason to have cold feet, just expand the blood vessels (which normally contract when cold) and let the excess heat from my core keep my feet warm. After that I spent a solid hour outside cutting wood and my feet were plenty warm–and the rest of me wasn’t quite so hot!

When I overheard the conversation about lowering blood pressure through cold, I thought of these 2 instances. While I don’t know if it will work, cold water immersion of my hands and feet is worth trying to see if it will reduce my blood pressure. My example from the soaking I got by falling into overflow may not have had enough time or perhaps 1 limb (my right leg) was not enough to have an impact, so I need to try again to really see if it will work.

Last year I was chatting online with a biohacker who pointed out that some people are sensitive to salt, and others are not. I almost never put salt on my foods, yet I eat enough processed foods that my salt intake is pretty high, as my nutrition logs show. I was discussing online with the biohacker, and he mentioned doing a test for salt sensitivity and it sounded pretty simple so I want to see if I am sensitive to salt. If so, I need to reduce my salt consumption to very low levels.

On this world cruise I am on (mid-May to late August 2019), I want to biohack my blood pressure. I will try each of the 5 things mentioned above for one week each, with a 3 day gap between them, tracking my blood pressure. I will log all the data and post it so people can see the results. Because I want a solution that is solid and persists, I may also try the other possible solutions during this cruise, a week at a time for each one. Hopefully I will get dramatic results and will know which solution works best for me so that I do not have to take drugs to cure my blood pressure problem—and perhaps even stop taking statins. More likely the results will be fuzzy and difficult to interpret. We will see!

Because I want to demonstrate how biohacking works in real life, I will be more formal than I usually am with my biohacking efforts. First, I state my goal:

To use this cruise as a time to try different things and see if I can effect a permanent cure for my high blood pressure. By cure I mean an average blood pressure of less than 120/80 that persists for more than a year.

Initially I want to try 5 possible things to reduce my blood pressure. I will link each of these to the ‘experimental design’ with the specifics of what I plan, what I actually wound up doing and logs of what the results of each trial:

  • Exercise to the point I spend 20 minutes sweating hard.
    • Ice water immersion of my hands and feet
    o This may not prove possible if I can’t get a regular supply of ice and a bucket!
    • Investigate certain foods that have a lot of vitamin K to see if it has an impact on my blood pressure
    o If so try to increase my vitamin K consumption
     If the right foods are not available this may not work well
     If I can’t do it with food, I will try vitamin K pills
    • Assuming I can find them!
    • Mild hyperventilation every hour or 3 to see if lower blood pressure persists after a few days of regular very mild hyperventilation
    • Restrict salt intake to less than 1,200 mg and see if there is any impact on blood pressure.

When doing your own biohacking keep in mind it takes time and the ability to notice subtle changes in your body that show you are on the right track. Or the wrong track! If the condition gets worse, stop and seek a different solution. Sometimes, like with my shoulder pain, the issue will go away for weeks, months or even years. Sometimes the problem is partly alleviated but continues to persist, like my bad ankle. Sometimes the problem is slightly alleviated but then gets worse again, like my blood pressure. Then additional solutions need to be sought like I am trying for my blood pressure.
I would really like hearing about solutions you have tried. Even little things that help reduce pain or improve your standard of living would be appreciated. I would like to hear about things you try that fail too, if I can collect enough information, we can perhaps provide a list of possible solutions to many of aging’s small and large issues.

I do not think biohacking will cure aging. But I do think we can biohack our way into a longer, more enjoyable lifespan. Some things are obvious (if difficult): daily exercise will ensure sarcopenia (wasting of muscle) that occurs in all the old will be delayed; stop smoking; getting good nutrition and building a network of friends and family with which you can maintain a good social life.
Other things are not well enough researched, but hold out great promise: senolytics may help slow the onset of many diseases by reducing inflammation and improving cellular micro-environment; calorie restriction can slow aging in general and has been shown to reboot the immune system; rapamycin (very dangerous!) may reset many of your cells biochemical pathways to a younger age. There are many other possibilities for slowing the onset of old age, in a future blog I will outline a few.

Additional reading:
On blood pressure:
Harvard Medical School article about the new blood pressure guidelines