An eclectic and diverse number of supposed cutting edge medical technology treatments have grown in popularity in recent years. These radical and innovative therapies are commonly known as “biohacks” and promise potential cures to persistent ailments that conventional medicine has been unable to completely heal. Does science back up these treatments or are any perceived cures merely placebo? Is the wallop to one’s bank account worth it or are these merely more ruses from modern-day snake-oil peddlers? Examined below are eight of the more popular and ambitious biohacks.
Science fiction films and novels have long speculated on people taking “smart” drugs to enhance creativity, improve memory and focus, and generally raise IQ levels. A wide variety of such drugs are currently available with wild claims and varying evidence.
“The brain is complicated. In trying to upgrade it, you risk upsetting its intricate balance. ‘It’s not just about more, it’s about having to be exquisitely and exactly right. And that’s very hard to do,” says Amy Arnsten (Professor of Neurobiology at Yale Medical School). ‘What’s good for one system may be bad for another system,’ adds Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. ‘It’s clear from the experimental literature that you can affect memory with pharmacological agents, but the problem is keeping them safe.’
“Drugs and catastrophe are seemingly never far apart, whether in laboratories, real life or Limitless (the movie). Downsides are all but unavoidable: if a drug enhances one particular cognitive function, the price may be paid by other functions. To enhance one dimension of cognition, you’ll need to appropriate resources that would otherwise be available for others……..
“Despite decades of study, a full picture has yet to emerge of the cognitive effects of the classic psychostimulants and modafinil. Part of the problem is that getting rats, or indeed students, to do puzzles in laboratories may not be a reliable guide to the drugs’ effects in the wider world. Drugs have complicated effects on individuals living complicated lives. Determining that methylphenidate enhances cognition in rats by acting on their prefrontal cortex doesn’t tell you the potential impact that its effects on mood or motivation may have on human cognition.”
Gaining momentum in the tech world, ingesting tiny amounts of psychedelic drugs is supposed to be safe, enhance creativity and alleviate depression.
“Here’s the thing about taking drugs at work: You think no one does it, but they do. In Silicon Valley, at least. ‘People are microdosing all sorts of things in Silicon Valley,’ says Molly Maloof, a bubbly M.D. with a personalized medicine practice in San Francisco that specializes in helping biohackers try their tactics safely. ‘People microdose mushrooms, they microdose LSD, they microdose research chemicals. It’s a weird world.’
“Proponents claim that minuscule doses of psychedelics enhance creativity and productivity while reducing depression, anxiety, and cravings for cigarettes and alcohol. But no one’s really studied it. ‘The most important thing to emphasize is we really don’t know,’ says Matthew Johnson, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies potential therapeutic effects of larger doses of psilocybin. Still, the questions being asked are smart, he says. ‘There’s every reason to think that tinkering with that receptor system could have antidepressant effects, and it’s never been systematically manipulated in that way.’”
The entire body is cooled in a sleek-looking tub of nitrogen. For $90 per session inflammation is claimed to be reduced, among other health benefits.
“Yet the science behind these devices is decidedly lackluster. In July the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning stating that there is no evidence these technologies help to ease muscle aches, insomnia or anxiety or provide any other medical benefit. Instead, it said, they may cause frostbite, burns, eye damage or even asphyxiation. In a statement to Scientific American the agency added, ‘The FDA has not approved or cleared any whole-body cryotherapy devices, and we do not have the necessary evidence to substantiate any medical claims being made for these devices.’ The agency based its warning on its own informal review of published literature and generally recognized hazards associated with exposure to the gas that creates the cold conditions in the treatment chamber…..
“As for the effects of whole-body cryotherapy on all the other ailments it can purportedly address beyond athletic injuries, the science is virtually nonexistent. The claims have not been subjected to the rigors of a randomized trial. Nor do researchers have definitive answers about whether exposure to gasified liquid nitrogen produces beneficial effects on heart rate, blood pressure or metabolism—effects that, if they occurred, might help ease anxiety, treat migraines or fuel weight loss, among other aims.
“Mark Murdock, managing partner at CryoUSA, does not dispute that whole-body cryotherapy lacks evidence for many of the uses claimed for it. The company promotes the devices for reducing pain and inflammation and increasing energy, but in his view, that use provides ‘comfort,’ not medical assistance. He adds that medical claims, such as that the devices can drive weight loss, are ‘crazy.’ He also says he supports the FDA’s decision to release the warning it issued in July and thinks the agency should ultimately step in to regulate the industry and curb such assertions.
“Not only are the supposed benefits of cryotherapy chambers unproved but scientists also lack a clear understanding of any risks they might pose. No studies have focused on adverse effects. And not all whole-body cryotherapy is created equal: treatments vary in duration, temperature and which body parts are spared contact with the subzero vapors. How long a person is exposed, at what temperature and under what conditions matter for safety, says Naresh Rao, the USA Water Polo Olympic team’s physician.”
Mind and body sensory deprivation in an enclosed pool of water. For $50 to $125 stress is likely to be reduced and a better night’s sleep enjoyed that night, provided you effectively discipline your mind and relax while in the tank.
“Floatation-REST (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy) reduces sensory input to the nervous system through the act of floating supine in a pool of water saturated with Epsom salt. The float experience is calibrated so that sensory signals from visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, thermal, tactile, vestibular, gravitational and proprioceptive channels are minimized, as is most movement and speech. This open-label study aimed to examine whether Floatation-REST would attenuate symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression in a clinical sample. Fifty participants were recruited across a spectrum of anxiety and stress-related disorders (posttraumatic stress, generalized anxiety, panic, agoraphobia, and social anxiety), most with comorbid unipolar depression. Measures of self-reported affect were collected immediately before and after a 1-hour float session, with the primary outcome measure being the pre- to post-float change score on the Spielberger State Anxiety Inventory.
“Irrespective of diagnosis, Floatation-REST substantially reduced state anxiety. Moreover, participants reported significant reductions in stress, muscle tension, pain, depression and negative affect, accompanied by a significant improvement in mood characterized by increases in serenity, relaxation, happiness and overall well-being. In reference to a group of 30 non-anxious participants, the effects were found to be more robust in the anxious sample and approaching non-anxious levels during the post-float period. Further analysis revealed that the most severely anxious participants reported the largest effects. Overall, the procedure was well-tolerated, with no major safety concerns stemming from this single session. The findings from this initial study need to be replicated in larger controlled trials, but suggest that Floatation-REST may be a promising technique for transiently reducing the suffering in those with anxiety and depression.”
Specialized Nutrition Via Genetic Testing
Can a doctor create an effective personalized diet and exercise program with the help of genetic testing?
“While there's support for considering genetics in making prudent decisions about diet and exercise, the ability of genetic testing that aims to personalize dietary and fitness approaches to improve your health long-term remains to be seen. ‘While some of the info provided can be a game-changer for some people in terms of their compliance to better habits, the directness of the advice and claims appears to be largely over-hyped,’ says Paul Kriegler, a Chanhassen, Minnesota-based registered dietitian and program manager for nutritional products at Life Time.
“For example, the jump from say, having a gene variant linked to lactose sensitivity to believing you should avoid dairy is a big one that ignores all of the other many, still not well understood, factors that influence how you tolerate milkshakes and yogurt. ‘How you live your life, the kind of diet you have, do you have any infections, do you have high stress, do you live in a polluted environment – that sort of thing is significant,’ says Robin Foroutan, a New York City-based integrative medicine dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“It's also important to recognize that personalized genetics companies differ in their testing methods, the scientific basis for those tests and how they translate results into advice for readers……..
“‘They all have slightly different methods for sequencing genes [and] the scientific understanding of gene expression is still in its infancy, so there’s a lot of conclusions left up to interpretation,’ says Kriegler, who received some conflicting recommendations after using Pathway Fit, Nutrigenomix, 23andMe and Simplified Genetics. Most such companies that provide genetic testing kits for fitness and nutrition purposes make it clear that genetics are only one part of a complicated health picture, and allow consumers to connect with professionals like registered dietitians to help make sense of the data.”
Home Microbiome Tests
One of the more popular health trends is the study of multiple types of bacteria in the human gut and how it affects everyday health. Home kits and analysis can cost up to $400.
“Startups are offering new services to analyze the complex community of microörganisms that live in the digestive tract—called the microbiome. Customers receive test tubes in the mail and send them back with fecal swabs to be analyzed in a lab. The companies say they can do things like make diet recommendations and predict risk for certain diseases based on a person’s unique microbial makeup. While these tests could probably tell if you have a serious bacterial infection, scientists say they can’t yet diagnose patients with diseases and they are doubtful the tests can reliably provide the kind of personalized information their makers claim they will.
“‘The enthusiasm of their manufacturers simply goes well beyond where the science is right now,’ says Rob Knight, a leading microbiome researcher and professor at the University of California, San Diego. Knight is the cofounder of the American Gut project, a crowdfunded study to map the human gut……..
“Knight says what people can realistically expect to learn from these new commercial tests is more along the lines of a snapshot of how a participant’s microbiome compares to others with different diets, ages, and lifestyles, or in different places around the world. The American Gut project gives this kind of analysis without making disease risk predictions or doling out health advice.”
Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation, CES
Brief, low-level electric currents are sent by electrodes on the scalp with the intent of stimulating the brain and providing health benefits.
“CES is similar to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) but stimulates the brain with electric current rather than magnetic pulses. CES has attracted attention due to aggressive marketing by Fisher Wallace Laboratories of the Fisher Wallace Stimulator, which has received positive coverage from CBS, Fox News, Huffington Post and other outlets. The firm’s main marketing strategy is claiming that its CES device, which costs $699 and can be used at home, is cheaper and safer than other electro-cures. The company claims that ‘more than 20 published studies prove the safety and effectiveness of the Fisher Wallace Stimulator’ for treating depression and anxiety. Cochrane carried out a review in 2014 and found ‘no high quality clinical trials comparing CES with sham CES in people with acute depression. Currently, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of CES in treatment of acute depression.’”
“Twenty-eight articles from 26 randomized trials met eligibility criteria. The 2 trials that compared CES with usual care were small, and neither reported a statistically significant benefit in pain or anxiety outcomes for patients with fibromyalgia or anxiety, respectively. Fourteen trials with sham or placebo controls involving patients with painful conditions, such as headache, neuromuscular pain, or musculoskeletal pain, had conflicting results. Four trials done more than 40 years ago and 1 from 2014 provided low-strength evidence of a possible modest benefit compared with sham treatments in patients with anxiety and depression.”
Best-selling author and eccentric biohack guru Tim Ferriss comes up with outlandish health hacks that are perplexing not only to the medical community but to anyone with basic common sense. Just one example is his claim that anyone can function on just 2 hours of sleep per day.
“How? It involves taking six 20-minute naps, spaced evenly over a 24-hour period. Ferriss admits he reserves this method, a version of what's known as ‘polyphasic sleep,’ only for meeting emergency deadlines. So Dustin Curtis, credited simply as an ‘experienced polyphasic sleeper,’ served as Ferriss' go-to source on the approach. Most people sleep eight hours a night, Curtis says, but spend only about two hours in so-called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Because non-REM sleep is just ‘unnecessary unconsciousness,’ says Curtis, polyphasic sleepers ‘train’ their brain to go right into REM sleep during each nap. Over 24 hours, he claims they amass two hours' worth of REM, about the same amount a normal sleeper gets during a full night's rest.
"Experts say: So can you really function just as well on two hours of sleep? ‘The short answer is, if I may speak in medical terms, hell no,’ says Matt Bianchi, a neurologist and sleep physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. To say non-REM sleep is unnecessary is ‘foundationless,’ says Bianchi. ‘I would challenge anyone to come up with a sliver of data to support that.’ Consistently depriving yourself of sleep will hurt your body in some way, be it through heart or brain problems, he says.”
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