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Inside the cult of biohacking in India

Biohacking, or the practice of using science, technology, diet and lifestyle changes to optimise human biology and enhance performance, has a dedicated following in India. Is it all hype or does it really show results? Lounge finds out

Biohacking is the practice of using science, technology and lifestyle changes to optimise health
Biohacking is the practice of using science, technology and lifestyle changes to optimise health (iStock)

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If you were eavesdropping on conversations in Indian tech circles at, say, a café in Bengaluru or a swanky pub in Gurugram, you would realise there’s one hot topic common to these conversations apart from the usual chatter about valuations and acquisitions: how to optimise one’s health. Discussions range from the benefits of Ashwagandha to how modafinil helped someone pull several all-nighters in a row, to how they are using Indian fitness company Ultrahuman’s Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) patch to decide what to eat at their next meal.

Experts have noted that the pandemic has led to an unusual spike in interest in health and fitness among Indians, and nowhere is this more noticeable than the early-adopting tech circles, always in search of the next great hack for not just getting their health in order but staying sharp and focused at work, increasing productivity, beating stress and anxiety, and even aspiring to live longer; in short, in the words of health and fitness fanatics everywhere, “be the best version of themselves”.

Amura, a Chennai-based health and wellness company, fits this health-as-a-service model. Known as a company that has helped many startup founders regain control of their health, with vocal champions like Freshworks founder Girish Mathrubootham and TVS Capital chairman Gopal Srinivasan, Amura claims to tackle everything from diabetes to conditions that require more precise interventions, such as adrenal fatigue, dysbiosis (an imbalance between the healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the intestine), and poorly understood diseases like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (Sibo). It’s not alternative medicine mumbo-jumbo either but“built on 100% evidence-based factual science”, claims its website.

“It’s science that has not reached the mainstream yet but yes, it is completely evidence-based, research-based,” says Amura’s founder Saravanan Balakrishnan, who self-identifies as a biohacker. “We have nutritionists and weight-loss experts, and we also have doctors who figure out a treatment protocol for our clients based on the latest scientific research and cutting-edge medicine that is not being practised by the mainstream medical establishment for various reasons. Biohacking is a loose term—when it is practised by an individual who is using cutting-edge science to fix things in their own body, that’s biohacking. When you have licensed medical practitioners doing it, it’s medicine.”

Balakrishnan’s journey started with “hacking” his own health almost two decades ago. He started off by reading books on age-reversal like Brain Longevity: The Breakthrough Medical Program That Improves Your Mind And Memory by Dharma Singh Khalsa and Cameron Stauth, which became a cult hit in the tech and finance community in the US in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A couple of years ago, he came across another book—A New Way To Age: The Most Cutting-Edge Advances In Antiaging by actor Suzanne Somers, that had a great impact on him. Balakrishnan was intrigued by hormone theory—the theory that ageing is primarily caused by a drop in the level of certain key hormones. And then, he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at the age of 41, while his son, then 10, was detected as having abnormally high triglycerides in the bloodstream.

They got better after consulting nutritional biochemist Henry Osiecki (the founder of Bioconcepts, an Australian wellness company). Balakrishnan also discloses that he had cyclical depressive episodes, for which his doctor had put him on Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). They did him no good, so he started treating himself with hormones and select neurotransmitters and claims he benefited immensely.

In 2017, Balakrishnan started Amura. It has hundreds of clients and enjoys a special cache and trust in the tech community in India, which probably helped it enlist around 100 clients in a somewhat experimental, a bit hush-hush pilot health project, a comprehensive programme for “super-longevity”. This programme, the company claims, can add 10-20 fit years to life, lead to greater mental clarity and energy, and make you look younger than your cohort—it includes benefits such as changing the way you look by fixing ageing markers such as hollow cheeks, droopy eyelids, dark circles, wrinkles and puffy face—besides more obvious issues like fatigue, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, headaches, migraines, insomnia and addictions. The by-invitation-only programme costs around 10,000 a month, plus an equivalent amount in supplements and drugs.

“It’s not a far-fetched claim. When you are healthy, mentally and physically, you sleep well, wake up in a good mood, are at a peak state of mind through the day…your work improves, your relationships improve. You are happier. This is a 360-degree overhaul,” says Balakrishnan, who is reticent about discussing exactly how this is achieved but reveals that it is a combination of nutrition, prescribing neurotransmitters, adjusting hormone levels, fixing gut health, etc.

Health benefits

Biohacking, the practice of using science, technology and lifestyle changes to optimise human biology and enhance performance, is a rapidly growing field around the world; some of the top biohacking practices include nutrigenomics, the study of how specific nutrients interact with our genes and how this interaction can impact health and well-being; sleep optimisation; using biofeedback devices that monitor and provide real-time feedback about physiological processes in the body; the use of nootropics, substances that are believed to enhance cognitive function, memory and creativity; and microbiome optimisation. They range from relatively mainstream practices such as exercise optimisation and intermittent fasting to more extreme ones like cold exposure (taking cold showers, ice baths and cryotherapy, which is believed to have various health benefits, including improved immune function, increased metabolism and reduced inflammation).

People practise biohacking at all these levels, and, gradually, many of these concepts have become go-to methods for achieving optimum weight loss and fixing associated health risks. Take intermittent fasting (IF), for example, a phenomenon that was practically unheard of even a decade ago but today is one of the most accessible biohacks, practised by everyone from Bollywood stars to your spouse or best friend. “I am the fittest I have ever been since starting IF,” says 40-year-old Michelle Job, who eats only one meal a day.

In 2020, the Stockholm-based photographer moved to India and found herself cooped up in her Hyderabad home during the pandemic. Job had never been an active person and had always loved her food, so overhauling her lifestyle completely would have been difficult. Instead, she started taking baby steps towards a healthier lifestyle: using walk-at-home videos to get in more activity and adopting an intermittent fasting schedule. Delaying a meal rather than denying herself any particular food worked perfectly for her. She is 25kg lighter today, strength-trains regularly and has recently taken up running.

“There isn’t one defined, agreed-upon definition of biohacking. One can do this with supplements, drugs, technology, nutrition or science,” says Shebani Sethi, consultant chief medical officer with the digital health and wellness company HealthifyMe.

It is also a growing business. According to a recent report by Market Research Future, the global market for biohacking is projected to grow at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate )of 19% from 2021 to 2028 and projected to reach $63 billion (around 5.16 trillion) by 2028. And India isn’t left out of this. For instance, India’s market for CGMs, a tool that can be used to “hack” metabolism, health and weight loss by controlling blood sugar levels, is poised to grow at a CAGR of 17% between 2022-27.

“People these days are looking for new ways to improve and optimise their health,” agrees Rakesh Somani, co-founder of Decode Age, a Bengaluru-based longevity research company. Somani, an ironman triathlete and a biohacker himself, ventured into biohacking as part of his fitness journey, discovering that being healthy went far beyond the established practices of eating right and exercising. “It’s about optimising your body, mind and soul. This became the mantra for me,” he says, adding that he believes a biohacking approach could help people live a healthy, long, disease-free life. “It is about becoming the CEO or the boss of your own health.”

So, who are these people who are taking health into their hands? How are they doing it? And is biohacking simply another wellness fad or the key to exceptional longevity?

In pursuit of eternal youth

While the origins of biohacking remain somewhat nebulous, most roads seem to lead back to Silicon Valley, where the trend appears to have mushroomed two-odd decades ago. Perhaps the best known of them all is American entrepreneur and author Dave Asprey, the self-declared “father of biohacking”. Asprey, the founder of Bulletproof coffee—a beverage composed of coffee, butter and oil containing medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) that often complements diets like paleo, keto and intermittent fasting—has no background in nutrition or medicine. His expertise stems from the fact that he once weighed 136kg and got rid of the extra weight by going on a low-carb diet. This, in turn, spiralled into a burning obsession “to uncover the latest, most innovative methods, techniques and products for enhancing mental and physical performance”, notes his website.

Over the last two decades, Asprey claims to have spent nearly $2 million on this quest—think cold exposure, infrared bathing, stem cell injections and hyperbaric oxygen therapy—convinced that these practices will help him live for at least 180 years. In an August 2021 video, the admittedly well-preserved 48-year-old talks about how the deep knowledge of 20 years of working with the world’s best anti-ageing researchers and scientists, “reading the papers, doing the work, and trying it myself” gives him the confidence to believe that he will make it to this age. “And that’s not the cap, that’s the floor,” he adds in the same video.

Longevity is one of the key components of biohacking, say Somani and Balakrishnan, pointing out that since biohacking optimises health, it ends up optimising longevity.

But then again, humankind’s obsession with eternal youth and longevity, the promise of a body unencumbered by disease, wrinkles and infirmity, is as old as time itself. Over the centuries, there have always been people who have tried to crack this code, whether it be futile quests for the fountain of eternal youth or the inclusion of certain foods, beauty rituals, products or medical interventions that can somehow slow down that inevitable hurtle towards old age. What appears to have taken this pursuit of eternal youth from niche to mainstream in recent times is the glut of information about health and well-being on the internet today.

Sajeev Nair, an Ernakulam, Kerala-based biohacker, a peak performance coach and the founder of health startup Vieroots Wellness Solutions, believes as much. “When it comes to medical science, due to the criticality of its role in our lives, most of us used to shy away from probing and knowing too much,” says Nair, adding that health was normally entrusted to doctors who “used to talk minimally, explain little and thus keep our own medical information a secret to us”.

The advent of the internet and the open dissemination of medical research changed this to a great degree, he says, pointing out that if patients began asking questions, and if they didn’t get the answers, they were open to changing doctors or even studying the underlying issues themselves. “Biohacking has its roots in this knowledge explosion,” he adds.

Vieroots’ vision statement is “Live Longer and Stay Younger” and it claims to do so by providing personalised holistic lifestyle management solutions that are scientific and evidence-based, “for enhancing the physical, mental, social, spiritual and financial well- being of a person”. Its methodology is based largely on epigenetics: It starts by creating a genetic and metabolic profile of a person through a patented method called Eplimo, which includes a personalised wellness management programme costing around 50,000 for lifetime. The company also retails supplements , one of the most prominent being its NAD+ Complex.

Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (NAD+), an active coenzyme involved in many cognitive processes, was originally used to treat conditions involving cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, and is the hottest anti-ageing tool in the biohacker’s medicine cabinet the world over today. In India, several companies now retail this complex, including Decode Age, which bottles NAD in the form of Nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN), a derivative of the B3-vitamin niacin that is associated with improved health and longevity.

Gurugram-based functional nutritionist and lifestyle coach Monique Jhingon sees biohacking as the topmost tier of health interventions in most individuals, including her clients. “It is the last step on the stack of health. If people tinker with their own health in an educated and informed way, I don’t see any particular harm in it but it has to be on top of an established lifestyle that includes good nutrition and exercise,” says Jhingon.

She says there is an increased awareness about biohacking tools. For instance, she is often asked about active ingredients such as sulforaphane (a chemical naturally present in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower and known for its antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties)—this was rare even a few years ago.

Jhingon herself takes cautious steps into biohacking—while flying to Amsterdam recently, she took Methylene Blue, a salt traditionally used to treat a condition called methemoglobinemia, when the blood cannot deliver oxygen to cells efficiently. It is becoming popular in the biohacking community to increase oxygen absorption during events such as air travel, and even for its anti-depressant effects (it prevents the breakdown of dopamine, melatonin and serotonin).

Of genes, science and wearable devices

When he turned 32, six years ago, Bengaluru-based Rithin Ravindran, a chief manager with a multinational firm, decided he needed a major dietary overhaul. He had always been fit, training regularly for two hours a day and eating the food prescribed by his trainer, but he could see no change in his build and continued to weigh a steadfast 80kg.

Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) patches are increasingly a first step towards biohacking
Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) patches are increasingly a first step towards biohacking

So, he decided to opt for nutrigenetics, a way to discover how your genome determines what you should eat to enjoy the best of health. “They test your blood, stool and urine to find the genetic codes and prescribe a diet accordingly,” recalls Ravindran, who discovered that his genetics did not allow him to tolerate gluten or support alcohol. Within six months of rehauling his diet, his weight dropped to 70kg, a number he continues to maintain despite a hectic job that involves a lot of travelling. “It has been six years and I know what to eat and what not to,” adds Ravindran. “Science changes everything.”

The rise of wearable devices, like the CGM, also stems from the belief that health should be customised and self-sustained. Trawl through social media and you are likely to see a health coach, fitness junkie or sportsperson talking about how they hacked their metabolism, sleep or diet using the semi-invasive continuous glucose monitor. “CGM is definitely a very good marker, as being biohackers we like to keep our glucose levels stable,” says Somani. Chronic elevation of glucose can be harmful, points out Sethi, especially for people already struggling with metabolic diseases. “There are many variables that can affect glucose levels, including hormones, age, stress and timing of feeding. Making small changes in behavioural patterns and timing of activities can make a difference metabolically,” she says.

Having said that, depending solely on this device to manage your health can backfire. “Like any intervention, there are limitations and it may not work for everyone,” adds Sethi.

The other side of biohacking

Nikhil Chaudhary, a Hyderabad-based cancer nutritionist, author and speaker, still remembers the client who developed constipation after experimenting with intermittent fasting. “She was a colon cancer survivor,” he recalls, adding that intermittent fasting was not the ideal solution for someone in her condition. While Chaudhary, in theory, likes the idea of people taking ownership of their health by learning natural methods beneficial for them, he is wary of what he considers a “reductionist approach”, pointing out that this can often backfire, and badly.

“You should never blindly follow anything when it comes to your health,” believes Chaudhary, who consciously follows a number of practices that could be termed biohacking, including meditation, a whole-food diet and taping his mouth at night to encourage nasal breathing.

One of the biggest issues of the nearly $4,887 billion global health and wellness industry has always been the lack of regulation: Science and pseudoscience are often indistinguishable, tall claims masquerading as potent scientific breakthroughs, the constant commodification of health by unqualified people preying on consumers naïve enough to fall for it.

Case in point: Gwyneth Paltrow’s $250 million brand, Goop. While the brand has courted plenty of controversy over the years for advocating some bizarre wellness practices—shoving jade eggs up your vagina, steaming the aforesaid-mentioned canal and advocating bee venom therapy—it has continued to thrive and grow exponentially for more than a decade. Biohacking is often referred to as Goop for tech bros, a far from flattering sobriquet that reflects both the inherent sexism of the wellness industry as well as its tendency to glamorise dysfunctional practices, including highly disordered eating patterns.

“Starving yourself and constructing rigid rules and rituals around when and how you eat is generally seen as a problem when it’s teenage girls doing it; when tech bros do it, it’s treated very differently,” points out a February 2019 article in The Guardian. The same article adds that the framing of fasting behaviours in a positive light, especially with high-profile people like Twitter founder Jack Dorsey advocating extreme measures like three-day water fasts, can be cause for concern.

Sethi agrees that the do-it-yourself experimentation mentality, with no medical supervision or oversight, can be a safety concern, an opinion shared by Shwetha Rahul, a Chennai-based dermatologist and founder of Hydra Dermatology. IV therapy, another popular biohack which involves introducing a cocktail of vitamins and antioxidants into your body via drips in an attempt to get younger-looking skin, is a medical, not cosmetic, procedure, one that needs to be supervised by a doctor and not a cosmetologist, says Dr Rahul.

“There is a lot of quackery in the aesthetic field today,” she points out, adding that getting treated by unqualified people can have side effects, even leading to cardiac issues. While she does use IV therapy to treat skin conditions like psoriasis, eczemas and dermatitis, she does not advocate it as a sustainable means to maintain skin.

Clearly, while most biohackers claim that their habits help optimise health, there are no real quick fixes. While biohacking, done smartly, may certainly be useful for people who want to push the envelope on fitness and well-being, the average person who wants to lose some body fat, stave off disease and preserve muscle should inculcate better habits before rushing to a genetic testing centre or purchasing a CGM.

Kolkata-based Abraar Khan Waryah, co-founder of the Gridiron Fitness Studio, says it is important to get your basics right before turning to external tools. “Get enough protein, sleep six-eight hours, strength-train three-four times a week and get around two hours of cardio per week consistently first.”

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