What is the Difference Between Biohacking and Neurohacking?
by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD
More and more people are now taking responsibility for their own mental and physical health. Some have gone further by attempting to raise their physiology to new levels of performance by biohacking and neurohacking. Both involve specific DIY practices to upgrade and protect our health and extend our lifespan. From intermittent fasting to meditation, some of these practices are old and some are new, some are free while others are exorbitantly priced. Technically, biohacking involves our body, and neurohacking our brain, but the fact is that it is almost impossible to make a distinction between them because they are so closely intertwined. Our nervous system regulates all parts of our body and our body affects the functioning of our nervous system.
We might think that changing our diet would be considered a biohack, because it involves the gut and digestive system but it also affects the nervous system. The gut and nervous system are in constant communication through what is called the gut brain axis, which consists of our nervous system, endocrine system, immune system, enteric nervous system (nervous system of the gut), enteric endocrine system (endocrine system of the gut), and gut microbiome. There is a bidirectional exchange of information between the gut and brain via the vagus nerve and various biochemicals traveling in the bloodstream. Clearly, a change in diet is both a biohack and a neurohack.
One of the currently popular change in diet is intermittent fasting, which typically involves not eating for 14 -16 hours each day. This can be done by skipping either breakfast or dinner. The idea is to switch the normal metabolism of the body to a ketogenic type of metabolism. Ketones are commonly produced when we refrain from eating for 12 or more hours and our blood sugar (glucose) levels drop. When glucose is not available, the liver produces an alternate fuel source called ketone bodies, which can be used by different tissues, including our brain. This process is called ketogenesis. Brain metabolism accounts for 25-40% of our energy expenditure, and in normal circumstances, glucose from sugar is the preferred fuel. The brain cannot burn amino acids or fatty acids, so ketones are essential for its survival in a fasting state. The keto diet is a regimen which severely limits carbohydrates and intentionally puts our body into a state of ketogenesis. It has been used for many years to treat epilepsy and is now being tested for other conditions. Does this mean that intermittent fasting is a biohack or a neurohack? Hard to say, since it affects both our body and our brain.
Consider meditation as another example. Is it a biohack or a neurohack? My research on the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique many years ago reported changes in both the brain and body. According to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of TM, the aim is to produce a maximum state of neurophysiological refinement in which the full potential of the individual can be realized. This sounds a lot like a neurohack, yet multiple clinical studies show a decrease in blood pressure and even a 48% reduction in heart attacks, strokes, and deaths among TM practitioners as compared to controls; so it seems like a biohack. There is even research which reveals that many meditation techniques change the expression of genes in our DNA. Is that a biohack?
A final example which might surprise you is sunlight. Sunlight affects us in different ways. We are most familiar with how it helps in the production of Vitamin D. So, it sounds like a biohack. We also know that excessive exposure to certain types of UV radiation from sunlight can promote skin cancer (again, a biohack). One effect is a positive biohack and the other is a negative biohack, but both are still biohacks. There are other extremely interesting effects of sunlight that are neurohacks. Our eyes have special pigments (rhodopsin and photopsins) in them that allow us to see; these pigments react to light and send information to parts of our brain to enable vision.
In addition, our eyes produce a pigment called melanopsin, which reacts to light and sends information to parts of our brain that are unrelated to vision. One such area is a tiny brain center called the hypothalamus, which controls most of internal functions of our body, from body temperature to hunger. Within the hypothalamus there is a group of cells, called the suprachiasmatic nuclei, which has an inherent 24 hour daily rhythm and acts as the body’s main biological clock. Morning sunlight stimulates the melanopsin pigment causing electrical signals to be sent to the suprachiasmatic nuclei, linking us to our environment in a process called entrainment. This information is then relayed to our pineal gland which produces the hormone melatonin. At night, in the absence of light, the pineal gland secretes melatonin, which is why it is called the sleep hormone.
Morning exposure to sunlight starts the cycle again by inhibiting melatonin production and increasing the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is called the wakeful hormone. Low at night, it rises in the early morning. During periods of stress high levels of cortisol are produced which can be harmful, but the normal morning elevation of cortisol is essential for many vital body functions.
Is sunlight a biohack or neurohack? Both, since it acts via our eyes and affects our brain it is certainly a neurohack. But it also acts on our skin to help produce Vitamin D. Photons of light can even penetrate our skin and stimulate the production of different molecules in cells, and this makes it a biohack. Whatever we call it, sunlight has extraordinarily beneficial effects and it’s free.
To complicate matters, the field of epigenetics describes all kinds of environmental influences which act as biohacks, turning genes in our DNA on and off. This means that virtually everything—from food to exercise to sleep—can be a biohack. We also know that every experience we have changes our brain in some way—from modifying a receptor in a neuron to creating a new neural pathway. So, every experience can also be considered to be a neurohack. We are constantly being biohacked and neurohacked!
Many great traditions of natural health contain knowledge of which experiences are best for us to incorporate as habits into our daily lives. The Ayurvedic tradition of India, for example, places great emphasis on both diet and daily routine, and personalizes many of its recommendations based on a deep analysis of our individual mind/body state. Modern biohacks and neurohacks, on the other hand, are mostly recent and often have very little research to support either their efficacy or safety. Nonetheless, bold advertising claims are made about how they can improve our health and extend our lifespan. Whether we try ancient or modern biohacks or neurohacks, we want to have an open mind. At the same time, we need to be sure there is adequate medical research before experimenting on ourselves. Safety should always be first.
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