Biohacking is defined as making conscious changes to your biology (e.g. central nervous system) in order to “hack” or control the way that it functions. An example of a very simple biohack would be taking a supplement with the intention of improving your cholesterol levels. Assuming you’ve done your research and the supplement works, you’ve incorporated a successful “hack” or way of improving your homeostatic functioning with this supplement.
The act of biohacking isn’t limited to taking supplements or drugs, it can be something simple like practicing meditation for 10 minutes to improve focus and reduce stress or adjusting the amount of sleep you get each night to determine whether it improves or worsens your performance. The entire goal of biohacking is to come up with individualized methods to improve your mental health.
Biohacking to Improve Mental Health
Whether people with mental illnesses know it or not, they are already using biohacks in attempt to improve their mental health. Most people have conducted some sort of biohacks whether they know it or not. An example of a common biohack that people use is taking a medication to control symptoms of anxiety. People know that if they take an anxiolytic medication like Xanax, their anxiety level will drop.
Biohacking is a great practice simply because it is highly individualized. A “hack” that may benefit one person in the area of anxiety may not benefit another and/or may make another person’s anxiety levels worse. When biohacking to improve your mental health and brain functioning, the goal is to optimize your performance with minimal drawbacks or unwanted side effects. In other words, the hacks that you implement should be more beneficial than detrimental over the long-term.
Biohacking vs. Traditional Approach
Biohacking differs from traditional treatments in the fact that it gives a person a sense that they are in full control of their own biology. In other words, from a biohacker perspective, a person is in full control of the adjustments they are making. They may not know if a certain treatment is going to work or the outcomes of their particular hack, but they will at least feel as if they are in the driver’s seat of their own biology.
Traditional treatments often leave people relying on someone else to tell them what they should be taking, and what “should” be helpful. The problem is that while some people do benefit from what “should” work as recommended by doctors, other people clearly don’t. Most people are essentially giving away personal power and freedom over their own biological functioning to a doctor that may not really know how the medication they give out even works.
In traditional scenarios, a person comes to rely on their doctor or psychiatrist as some all-knowing prophet. In reality, the psychiatrist and doctor go by what is medically accepted as a helpful treatment, but typically do not acknowledge that their treatment options are not always helpful. This essentially leaves a person trapped because they’ve given all of their personal power and ability to think for themselves to a doctor.
From a biohacker perspective, a doctor can be collaborated with to test certain treatments, but a patient needs to learn from their own trials and not always assume that their doctor knows all. A biohacker would not put up with a doctor telling them to try “Pill #10” when they believe (based on past trials and research) that it will lead to misery. Instead they would say “No I would rather try (‘Treatment X’)” or “I’m going to pursue non-medical options.”
How to Use Biohacking to Improve Mental Health
Below is a series of steps you can take if you want to biohack your mental health and brain performance. You first need to know what you want to hack, then you need to come up with a plan of attack, test your hypothesis, and evaluate the results. If it didn’t work, discard that particular idea, but if it did work, conduct a cost-benefit analysis and decide whether to maintain the new behavior or treatment.
1. Decide what you want to hack
The first and most important step is to decide what you want to hack. It is certainly possible to hack multiple areas of your mental health and performance, but most people have one prominent area that they’d like to improve. It is best to start with your biggest obstacle (e.g. major depression, social anxiety, etc.) and figure out how to hack your biology to overcome that obstacle. Need some ideas? Read the article “Top 10 Biohacks for Mental Health“).
- Arousal: Do you have abnormally high or low arousal that is contributing to your condition. You may want to hack your arousal level by increasing or decreasing it to see how you react in various states of awareness.
- Concentration/Focus: Do you struggle with inattentiveness? If you have poor concentration, you may want to come up with some hacks to help you pay attention and improve your overall cognitive function.
- Energy: Do you suffer from low mental and/or physical energy throughout the day? Perhaps you want to look into ways in which you can increase your mental performance and overall energy levels.
- Intelligence: Some people specifically set out to find ways to increase IQ. Increasing IQ may improve performance in academic and occupational functioning. There are many habits and practices associated with increasing one’s intelligence.
- Mood: Those that suffer from depression or other mood disorders may want to come up with some strategies that they believe would help cope with the condition and/or overcome it. Many people with a low mood can be improved with pharmaceuticals, supplements, and lifestyle modifications.
- Memory: Those with poor memory functions or deterioration of memory may benefit from a variety of hacks such as meditation, nootropics, and daily exercise. Many people have successfully improved their memory with biohacks.
- Stress: Individuals dealing with high levels of anxiety and/or stress may stand to significantly benefit from various biohacks. Examples of biohacks that tend to be beneficial for those with anxiety include: biofeedback, neurofeedback, brainwave entrainment, meditation, etc.
2. Research hacking methods
Before you decide to follow through with an actual “biohack” experiment, you should do some research. If you are attempting to hack your memory, look up some scientifically proven methods to help you improve your memory function. However, when certain scientific methods don’t work, it is your job to try something new.
You may discover something simple like waking up at a different time, using different light bulbs in your house, or keeping a journal helps your memory. When you’ve tried scientific approaches, you can also try ones that don’t have much research behind them that you suspect may work.
- Clinical trial research: The first place you may want to look for biohacks is in NCBI Journals. This includes only approved research that is considered unbiased and scientific. Many of these trials document treatments and practices that will improve certain mental processes. If you are trying to improve your memory, simply look up “improves memory” or something in the database.
- Insufficient, yet promising evidence: In some cases, you may encounter ideas that sound like they will help you. Sticking with the “improve memory” example, you may read about the fact that sleeping 6 hours a night instead of 8 improves memory. If you believe that this will work, you may want to try it. In other cases you may encounter a trial of a supplement that is suggested to work, but the sample size was small. These are things you may eventually want to test.
- Try what you think will work: If you have no evidence for a particular biohack, but think something will work to improve your mental performance, try it for yourself. Since everyone is different, not everyone will have the same reaction to certain substances and/or practices. In many cases if you think something will work, it does.
- Safety: Obviously you are completely responsible for what types of hacks you make to your own biology. Make sure you have conducted sufficient research prior to utilizing various hacks. In other words, you don’t want to use something that could be genotoxic, neurotoxic, or have difficult long-term withdrawals.
It is up to you to decide how you want to experiment with the biohacks. Some people may want to conduct 30 day trials, while others may prefer 60 day ones. More extreme biohackers may prefer to evaluate progress after 90 days. Additionally, some individuals may implement multiple biohacks at the same time in order to achieve a particular goal.
- Trials: Conduct trials based on how long you believe something should take to work. For most people, 6 weeks is a good time period. Other individuals that don’t have as much patience may want to conduct 30 day trials. Those with a bit more patience may want to experiment over a 90 day period which is a satisfactory amount of time for something to yield results.
- Documentation: Along the way, it is important to document as much information as you deem important. For example, if you notice you start feeling sick or have a weird side effect resulting from a biohack that you’re pursuing, you will want to make note of it. By having documentation, you have a good idea of what caused the changes that you are experiencing.
- Variable tracking: If you are making multiple changes to your lifestyle and are attempting to track improvements in multiple areas of mental functioning, keep track of them. Find a way to quantify the data you are collecting so that you can measure improvement or decline along the way. Prior to any sort of treatment, you will want to have gotten a baseline measurement so that you can use it as a comparative reference. This is what needs to happen in order to improve psychiatric treatment outcomes – variables need to be tracked such as brain functioning on a PET Scan.
- Simultaneous changes: While it is easy to track one variable at a time such as taking a new medication, getting a different amount of sleep at night, or incorporating meditation into your daily routine, there’s no law that says you can’t make all three changes at once. It is definitely harder for some people to create one new habit, therefore making three adjustments simultaneously may be difficult, but may be more beneficial. For example, if you are trying to improve your stress and you start exercising, you may notice some drop off. But if you make multiple changes such as: no electronics before bed, cutting out sugars from the diet, meditating for 10 minutes, and getting exercise, you may notice more substantial improvement than with each individual factor.
4. Evaluation of Results
When a trial period ends, it is up to you to evaluate your results. While most people evaluate their results based on subjective perception, it is important to objectively quantify or measure something along the way or at least “pre” and “post” experiment. In other words, if you are testing your memory, you may want to take a memory test before your biohack trial, then possibly during the hack, and then again after.
This will give you some objective data in regards to whether your memory actually improved. Subjectively you may think that it improved when it really didn’t. Other times you may think that it didn’t improve, when it really did. Therefore it is highly important to have some sort of objective quantification so that you can compare data and get a solid evaluation.
5. Decide whether to maintain the hack
Once you’ve taken the time to evaluate the results, it will be a personal decision as to whether the hack has been useful enough to maintain. Obviously if you didn’t get any noticeable benefit from the hack or you felt worse, it’s relatively easy to discard that particular idea in the future. If the hack worked extremely well, you’ll probably want to maintain it as long as benefits outweigh any potential drawbacks.
If you want to try a new hack, simply repeat the steps above and continue until you are satisfied. Once you have essentially mastered one area of your brain function, you may want to experiment with another. The goal of biohacking is to improve an area of your life to meet your personal standards. Although this article is discussing how biohacking is beneficial for improving mental health and performance, you can also use this strategy to improve physical health.
From a mental health perspective, the ultimate goal of biohacking is to give you more conscious control over your brain and nervous system. Most people assume they are powerless and cannot control the way that their brain performs. To a certain extent, things are uncontrollable, but with a little effort, many people are able to optimize their mental health and functioning.
Understand: Pharmaceutical Drugs are “Biohacks”
Traditional treatments for mental illness are the ones that are “supposed to work” best. For many people, these treatments do work great, and are just another “biohack.” Yes, pharmaceutical drugs qualify as hacking your biology too. You are taking a drug that is changing the way your brain and nervous system function with a clear intention: to improve a particular condition.
If you find a pharmaceutical drug with a favorable profile of long-term effects, and it treats your condition with minimal (or no) side effects, you have successfully hacked yourself. The problem with many pharmaceutical drugs though (especially for mental illnesses) is that a person often becomes tolerant to the effects of their medication and their antidepressant stops working.
Advantages of Biohacking Mental Health
There are several major advantages associated with biohacking your own mental health. Perhaps the most prominent being the feeling or perspective that you are in full control and assume full responsibility to any treatments that you decide to try. Most people rely on an external source to provide reassurance as to what should work, and then when it doesn’t, they blame the person (e.g. their doctor) for bad results; this is counterproductive.
- Accountability: Deciding what biohacks you want to pursue inevitably results in increased personal accountability. If you decide to try a particular treatment, it is you who is fully responsible for what you do to yourself. Just because a doctor says something is safe, doesn’t mean that it is in all cases. Therefore whatever treatment you pursue (medical or non), you are assuming responsibility, not blaming adverse effects on your doctor.
- Control: The biggest advantage to having a “biohacking” perspective when it comes to treating a mental health condition is that you feel as if you are in full control. You track how you are feeling, and note the benefits and drawbacks of each treatment option. You don’t blindly accept what a doctor is telling you, rather you trust your own experience actually taking a drug or utilizing a treatment. You feel in control of your destiny, rather than like a victim of antidepressant roulette.
- Individual variation: From a biohacking perspective, you are taking your individual variation more into account. As an example, let’s say you are trying to overcome your depression, and have already tried several serotonergic medications. While a doctor may recommend you try another, you may be opposed to the idea and would rather try a dopaminergic substance. Let’s say that contrary to common medical belief, this dopaminergic substance works and works well over an extended period of time. You may have found that you were actually had low dopamine vs. serotonin – as a result of reward deficiency syndrome which caused your depression. Someone without a biohacker perspective may have never made this discovery.
- Perception: The perception of being “in the driver’s seat” is a lot more powerful than having to take orders from someone else. While medical professionals are highly educated, they do not feel the effects of the drugs that you take – only you do. Therefore it is your subjective experience as a result of exploration that allows you to develop personal insight as to what would be more likely to work in the future.
- Placebo effect: Some biohacks that a person believes will work may not work from an objective perspective, rather they may provide subjective (placebo) benefits. When you take a medical treatment, you typically know that it is in fact the actual medication. In the case that you are taking a placebo, you believe that something will work, and the belief alone creates beneficial physiological changes.
- Tracking: In the article “How to Improve Psychiatric Treatment Outcomes” I discussed tracking more variables than just the medication and dosage a person is taking. When biohacking, it is important to track all variables that you assume are important. By tracking important variables, you are able to get objective data that shows you whether something is working vs. whether something isn’t. For example, if you are taking a medication, you may decide that you want to see how your brain waves change when it is working vs. when you feel depressed. Using an EEG machine, you could keep track of these changes and document them for future reference.
- Uncharted territory: Biohacking allows you to come up with individualized hypotheses regarding treatments and protocols that may improve your situation. This allows you to explore potentially uncharted territory. In other words, people may not have tried what you are doing in the masses and/or a treatment you are pursuing may have never been studied. However, you may find that a treatment in this “uncharted territory” may provide symptomatic relief that you would’ve never expected.
Disadvantages of Biohacking Mental Health
Some people may argue that there are some disadvantages to having a biohacker perspective on treating mental illnesses and improving mental performance.
- Not for everyone: Clearly self-experimentation or biohacking is not for everyone. Some people may lack the courage to try it, others may not fully comprehend it. The reality is that everyone who has ever taken a drug of any kind has already biohacked themselves. Unfortunately most people do not take a conscious approach and/or realize what they are doing.
- Not always medically recommended: Certain treatments may not be medically recommended, yet work to treat certain conditions. One such idea would be experimenting with psilocybin for depression. Many have reported that it works well, while others have tried it and gotten no relief. Someone who is a biohacker may weigh the risks and potential benefits and decide to pursue this treatment that isn’t medically recommended.
- Uncharted territory: While exploring uncharted territory can be good if the “hack” is effective, for other people finding that something didn’t work the way that they had hoped may result in feelings of discouragement. Although uncharted territory is often explored to reflect what an individual thinks will yield the greatest personal benefit, traditional treatments are still used as common biohacks.
- Worsening the condition: Some treatments may make various conditions worse through self-experimentation. Most biohackers start with the most logical option in regards to a treatment that provides the greatest benefit with the least risk. However, they aren’t always successful and some “failures” may result in miserable experiences.
Have you used biohacking to improve your mental health or performance?
Many people have used various forms of biohacking to improve their mental health and/or performance. Anyone who has deliberately used a substance to help them cope with a certain condition has engaged in a form of biohacking. Unfortunately most of these individuals do not have an adequate perception of biohacking and track what they are doing; it is relatively unconscious.
The optimal way to biohack is to consciously test things (e.g. behaviors, drugs, practices) in which the benefits outweigh the risks. In other words, safety should be established, side effects shouldn’t be overwhelming, and you should experience significant, targeted improvement. If you have ever conducted biohacks or self-experiments in attempt to hack your brain or improve your mental health, feel free to share what you did and your results in the comments section below.