What is biohacking? A look at the growing global trend for science-based health optimisation

·11-min read

In the quest for longevity, wellness addicts all over the globe are turning to “biohacking”, a range of extreme, high-tech treatments and therapies that go beyond the norms of convention. It’s a perfect morning at RAKxa Wellness, Bangkok’s newest health retreat, and the modern world seems far away. The stunning property is set amid verdant botanical gardens on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Tropical birdsong fills the air, and a light breeze blows through the leaves of native trees. The gentle rhythms of the waterway, meanwhile, enhance the restorative atmosphere at the property. Another timeless day in Southeast Asia is unfolding. But I feel like I’m being thrust towards the space age as I undergo my first-ever session of cryotherapy, where freezing dry air (below minus 100 deg C) destroys abnormal or diseased tissue. I’ve spent the last two hours sampling the high-tech treatments available at the VitalLife Scientific Wellness Centre, the scientific ying to the more traditional yang of the Chinese, Thai and Ayurvedic therapies that complete the RAKxa Wellness experience. The facility, which opened to the public at the end of 2020, was conceived as a full spectrum wellness journey that fuses healing philosophies from the East and West. I can say that I am breaking new personal ground as I strip down to my underwear, and don moon boots and a pair of ridiculous looking furry mitts to protect my extremities from the sub-Arctic cold inside the cryotherapy chamber. Entering a deep freeze, kitted out like a kinky polar explorer, is unusual but it’s not the first frontier that I’ve crossed this morning. [caption id="attachment_224499" align="alignnone" width="1500"]

Cryotherapy chamber at RAKxa Wellness[/caption] Following breakfast, I was attached to an IV drip to absorb a nourishing bag of vitamins into my system. After the cryotherapy session, I’ll spend 30 minutes confined to a hyperbaric tube where concentrated oxygen speeds up healing. I’ll round out the morning soaking up electromagnetic waves in an infrared sauna in a bid to improve blood circulation and support detoxification. If I feel as though I’m auditioning for a role in a health-obsessed sequel to Blade Runner, then that’s probably a reflection of my old-school proclivities. In addition to these cutting-edge treatments, RAKxa Wellness also champions the use of DNA testing and nutrigenomic screening (an evaluation of different genetic markers), to help individuals hone their diet and achieve their desired level of fitness. The five-star level of care and hospitality at RAKxa Wellness hardly speaks of an improvised aesthetic, a key element of what is known as “biohacking” or DIY biology. But the retreat’s use of advanced therapies outside the realm of traditional medicine squares with a craze that has spread its tentacles out from Silicon Valley to the rest of the world. “Sometimes we need to reset our body and maintain it with a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr Narinthorn Surasinthorn, medical director at RAKxa Wellness. “The integration of biohacking and lifestyle modification is the fastest and most effective way to optimise your body function.” That biohacking is entering the mainstream in Thailand and the rest of Asia reflects a growing global trend for science-based health optimisation.

Into the frontier

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(Image: Bill Oxford/Unsplash)[/caption] Health fads come and go with the regularity of a ticking metronome. If you jotted down a list of wellness trends from the last decade, you’d end up with a tome as weighty as War and Peace. We’ve embraced (and often just as quickly dismissed) numerous vogues. Lowlights include charcoal toothpaste and “goat yoga”, where clients pet adorable animals between stretches and poses. Biohacking, though, has significantly more substantive grounding than, say, cow cuddling or appetite-suppressing lollipops. “It’s science and data combined to improve our biology,” says Joe Hanney, a Singapore-based franchise partner at HACKD Fitness, a fitness brand that incorporates a range of bio-hacks in its science-based programmes. “It’s using what’s around us in terms of technology and knowledge and using it to optimise ourselves.” That might sound simple enough, but biohacking is a broad and amorphous term that can cover many activities. Popular hacks include intermittent fasting, supplements or using wearable technology to track sleep quality. So far, so (relatively) sensible. But the other end of the biohacking scale can scan like something out of dystopian science fiction. Unnerving hacks include “young blood transfusions” (the process of pumping a younger person’s blood into your veins to fight age). Or there’s the subset of biohackers known as “grinders” who go so far as to implement devices like computer chips in their bodies. These implants allow them to do everything from opening doors without a key fob to monitoring glucose levels subcutaneously. If you think that the latter “hacks” reveal health obsession gone out of control, you’d probably be right. The trend for biohacking took off in Silicon Valley, a place endowed with (mostly) young, rich males with a highly developed technical mindset, a willingness to experiment and a (not entirely undeserved) reputation for towering egotism. They’ve got the resources and the know-how to explore the freakier side of the DIY biology spectrum, and many do so with gusto. But you don’t need to be the CEO of a tech giant to adopt a philosophy of self-optimisation and use readily available tools. [caption id="attachment_224498" align="alignnone" width="1500"]

Joe Hanney[/caption] Originally from the UK, Hanney was hardly a couch potato when he embarked on his biohacking journey. A personal trainer with over 18 years of experience, he was already in excellent shape. But a family history of cancer inspired him to push even more to improve himself. “I was 36 when my mum died at 52,” he says. “Several family members on my mum’s side passed away in their 50s. I realised the odds might be against me, and if I didn’t start taking action to improve my health, I’d likely experience the same fate, leaving my wife and future children without a husband and father.” There remains a lot of scepticism about biohacking, as well there might be. Other extreme hacks include faecal transplants. The latter involves transferring stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of an unhealthy recipient. Former Nasa employee Josiah Zayner, one of the most extreme biohackers around, once injected himself with DNA using the gene-editing technology CRISPR.

Truth or dare

Indeed, all the talk of inserting technology under the skin and dripping chemical cocktails into the eyes to induce night vision can give off heavy comic book villain vibes. How can your average person relate to a community of wealthy tech-bro Dr Frankensteins looking to cheat nature by turning themselves into human/cyborg fusions? According to more grounded proponents of DIY biology, these outliers misrepresent the established health and philosophical principles underpinning many aspects of biohacking. “With any movement comes the attention-seekers, scammers, marketers and trolls,” says Abel James, the US-based host of top-rated podcast Fat-Burning Man and creator of The Wild Diet, a paleo-inspired weight loss programme. “To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of the term ‘biohacking’, as it implies that we’re somehow getting the better of nature in the interest of short-term gains. “I tend to think of self-improvement more holistically, where we work with the laws and principles of nature to bolster health and performance. The sexy lingo and terminology of fads will come and go, but many of the techniques and technologies we’re exploring are real.” [caption id="attachment_224495" align="alignnone" width="1500"]

Abel James[/caption] Practices classed as hacks include Vipassana meditation and intermittent fasting. Hacking can apply to spin classes, ice baths or cutting out sugar, simple carbs or trans fats from your diet. Taking any supplement is a hack. That applies as much to plain old vitamin B and C as it does to curios like bacopa monnieri (a plant used in traditional Indian medicine to improve memory) or compounds like coffee with theanine (a tea plant extract that helps cognitive function). If you discount the headline-grabbing stunts, DIY biology is simply about making the best of what Mother Nature has given us, aided and abetted by modern technology. “It’s about optimising what we already have,” says Varit “Top” Taifayongvichit, the director of Bangkok-headquartered Miskawaan Health Group, which also operates in Hong Kong. “People who are already in their prime are trying to elevate their brain and body to improve health, wellness and longevity.” Miskawaan, which Top runs in partnership with German doctor Johannes Wessolly and entrepreneur David Boehm, focuses primarily on functional medicine. It’s a philosophy of whole-body health where the body’s complexity is examined through alternate interpretations of diagnostic data and customised health treatment. Like RAKxa Wellness, you could hardly describe its expert-guided programmes as DIY. However, its utilisation of high-tech data as a means of patient diagnosis is indicative of a shift away from traditional medicine. Top is a keen biohacker himself. He uses a machine to bathe himself in infrared waves whenever he can, even when he’s working. He also injects himself with natural peptides (amino acids that serve as building blocks for protein). He believes that the biohacking scene has strong potential for growth in Asia. “Self-image is a big thing all over Asia, especially given the rise of social media such as Instagram,” he says. “People used to like to post things about luxury, but now they are moving away from that and posting more about looking and feeling good. We are nothing without our health. You can have all the material things you like, but what good are they if you aren’t going to be around long enough to enjoy them?”

An Asian boom

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Varit "Top" Taifayongvichit[/caption] Top is encouraged by the way the biohacking scene is progressing in Thailand. There’s a growing online community of biohackers who can share tips and experiments. They can tap into a dedicated global network where unconventional ideas are explored in a non-hierarchical setting. “The pharmaceutical industry has had a major role in the strictures applied to health,” he explains. “It can take forever to greenlight all sorts of medical treatments. Often you’ll find those big players have no interest in natural, simple stuff that has been around for millennia. Biohacking is a way of applying more democracy to science and empowering people to experiment on themselves.” There’s no shortage of ammunition for critics of biohacking, given its amorphous and often unregulated form. More radical hacks have come under heavy criticism for their ethical and safety shortcomings. There’s also ample opportunism from entrepreneurs out to get their hands on a slice of the wellness pie. Given the fact that the industry is worth an estimated US$4.5 trillion (S$6 trillion), according to the Global Wellness Summit, you can hardly blame them. But biohacking philosophy is gathering momentum all over Asia, and its proponents are amplifying its messages. “People often think that biohacking is out of reach to everyone but the wealthy. That’s not the case,” says Hanney of HACKD. “Biohacking can be simple and free. Switching Wi-Fi off at night, taking cold showers, getting prolonged exposure to natural light. It can be expensive if you are using the latest technology but the fact that it is becoming more mainstream is good. The scene will evolve. Doctors and healthcare providers will have to include tech, digital fitness and home testing kits in their services. They will need to act from a more preventative angle.” It’s lunchtime back at RAKxa Wellness. At the restaurant, Unam, I enjoy delicious healthy cuisine made with locally sourced organic ingredients. In the riverside setting, I soak in the rays – UV, not infrared – and reflect on my journey. Regular cryotherapy, hyperbaric treatment and IV infusion are out of my financial reach. But I do feel incredible. My aches and pains are gone, and I feel sharp and ready for anything. Biohacking superstars such as Dave Asprey – the founder of Bulletproof Coffee, a high-fat ketogenic coffee – regularly state their aim of living until 150 years old or more. Top agrees that this goal is possible. “If the wider population picks up on biohacking, we will have a lot of ageing people.” (Main and featured image: Infrared treatment at RAKxa Wellness)This story first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.

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