The word hacking comes from the computer world and is defined as:
- Gain unauthorized access to (data in a computer)
- An unofficial alternative or addition to a commercial program
In this article we creatively interpret hacking as:
- Achieving certain results that are thought to be impossible (e.g. we don’t have access to certain functions)
- Alternatives to common knowledge / common sense that get the results we want
This is not going to be your average article on health and fitness. We’ll discuss things like analyzing your genetic code for $99, not eating anything for 18 hours to activate certain metabolic pathways and taking nootropic supplements that boost your brain function.
Some of this stuff will be soft-core health stuff. With that I mean things like a basic diet. Others will be hardcore health hacking lifestyle changes that are not for the weak willed. Choose what you need and adapt it to your life.
- 1 The Basics
- 1.1 Basics 1: Healthy Diet
- 1.2 Your body needs what it was evolved to use
- 1.3 It is simple, so keep it simple
- 1.4 What about science?
- 1.5 Basics 2: Drink tea
- 1.6 The effects of different teas
- 1.7 Basics 3: Simple Exercise (and Cheap Too)
- 1.8 The slow way
- 1.9 The power way
- 1.10 Basic 4: Turn stress into power
- 1.11 Research: knowledge is power
- 2 Experimental protocols
- 3 Self-quantifying
- 3.1 Quantify 1: Genetic test for $99
- 3.2 What will they tell me?
- 3.3 Quantify 2: Activity (automatic)
- 3.4 What do I need?
- 3.5 Quantify 3: Sleep (automatic)
- 3.6 Ooh, shiny, what do I get?
- 3.7 But I don’t want to spend money!
- 3.8 Quantify 3: heartrate, temperature, blood oxygen, movement, sleep (automatic)
- 3.9 Gimme!
- 3.10 Quantify X: Manual
- 4 Common Harmful Myths
Basics 1: Healthy Diet
NO. Just NO. I can feel you wanting to skip this section. It sounds boring and useless, but in truth this is the hardest and most effective way to optimize your life and health in so many ways. For some obscure reason people think that the complexity of the body means it’s controls are complicated too.
Pop culture gives us:
- Weight loss diets
- Weight maintenance diets
- Diets to boost the immune system
- Diets to improve brain function
- Etc etc etc ^ 9
This is bullshit (oh by the way I settled on not minding my language during writing any more). The reason magazines come up with a new health ‘revolution’ every so many months is that they need stuff to write. Governments on the other hand are advised by lobbyists and misguided public opinions.
A healthy diet is not what you think (probably) and it will in one swat optimize all of the above. No it will usually not work 100% as effective as a 100% specific diet. But in one go it will get you to 80% on all scores. Plus it is far more simple.
Your body needs what it was evolved to use
The body is complex as hell, we don’t even understand it properly with all our lovely science. So when we try to press specific dials we just mess stuff up. This is what happens when you take supplements to increase your health. You are like a monkey trying to use a digital spreadsheet.
Getting the body what it needs is actually really simple. Don’t manually try to figure out what it needs and buy it at the drugstore. Instead give it what it has evolved to run on: real food.
Your body has evolved to live off of plants and animals. Now ask yourself these questions:
- Did your body have a lot of sugar sources during evolution?
- Did your body have 3 consistently spaced meals during the day?
- Did the area in which it evolved even have rice/potatoes?
- How much grain did your body encounter during evolving?
- BONUS: Did your body to evolve to eat fruits during winter?
I had a supplement phase, but now only use them on-demand for very specific purposes. Supplements can’t match the power of real food. For example, beta-carotene as a supplement can be a health hazard while in vegetables it can boost your health in a myriad of ways.
It is simple, so keep it simple
So your body evolved to live off of a wide variety of nutrient rich substances. If only there was a supply of diverse found sources that contained effective cocktails of these substances…. OH WAIT, there is. Nature.
Your body evolved to live off of nature so stick to the damn guidelines. Trying to outsmart evolution is not a good game plan.
The simple rules:
- Eat stuff that came from something living
- If it was introduced to your region: ignore or ration
- Nature has no staples, eat diversely
Eat stuff that came from something living
The reasoning is really simple here. There was simply nothing else available while your body evolved. Foods that come from living things contain complex mixes of nutrients. If you are confused about what is and is not allowed here, use common sense. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats etc are allowed. Candy bars do not grow on trees so don’t take them. Soda is not bottled from a river, so no. Did organic, superfood, enriched granola bars grow on a tree? No dammit, ignore those too. Clear?
If it was introduced to your region: ignore or ration
Potatoes only came with Columbus (very short term in evolution’s eyes) and rice was introduced from China. So while they are plants that grow naturally, your body did not evolve to eat them, let alone in big quantities. Does that mean you should never eat sushi? Hell no, sushi is yummi. But it is supposed to be a treat, not a daily thing.
Nature has no staples: eat diversely
How much grain do you expect your ancestors encountered during evolution? And how much of that tiny amount was processed until it was entirely white? Yea, none.
How often did your ancestors eat a single food every day for a prolonged period of time? Well, we can debate that, but I’ll assume here that that was uncommon. So why eat bread every day? Don’t.
Try to eat different things every day, or at the very least rotate what you eat periodically. Also, think about food availability. Fruits are candy from an evolutionary perspective since they are only available in certain seasons. Eat in season to make it easy in yourself.
What about science?
A bodybuilder doesn’t need to understand mTor activation to lift weights and get bigger muscles. The same way, you don’t need to go monkey on this spreadsheet by trying to influence your health by manually incorporating research. The above diet already incorporates scientific principles:
- You will eat low-GI foods mostly (good for weight loss)
- You will get synergistic nutrient cocktails
- You will avoid diabetes causing insulin spiking foods
- You’ll get complete amino acid profiles
- Etc etc
Is this the complete story? Of course not. But if I start going waaaay into depth, I’ll lose your interest within a couple of minutes. You want to know more? Ask google and as always: ‘Trust but verify’.
If you really want to know some more about weight loss techniques (and how that actually works) check out the 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferris. We have a summary as well.
Basics 2: Drink tea
Seriously? Yes seriously. Different tea variants have been shown to have different health benefits. The only tea I’ve come across with negative effects is sweetened tea. Some example of what this hot liquid can do:
- Prevent cancer
- Through the downregulation of angiogenesis, no joke
- Improve concentration
- Detoxification of the body
- And much much more
For a nice talk on the topic at TED, check out William Li’s talk on using food to starve cancer.
The effects of different teas
As a general rule tea is good. Just don’t add sugar, learn to appreciate the pure taste. The following effects are take straight from WebMD.
- Green tea
- Rich in EGCG
- possible anti-cancer effects (bladder, breast, lung, stomach, pancreatic, and colorectal)
- Prevent clogging of the arteries
- Burn fat
- Counteract oxidative stress on the brain
- Reduce neurological disorder risk (e.g. parkinsons and alzheimers)
- Reduce stroke risk
- Improve cholesterol levels
- Black tea
- High in caffeine
- Reduce stroke risk
- May prevent lungs from cigarette smoke damage
- If you smoke, stop now, show us your willpower
- White tea
- Anti cancer properties stronger than other teas
- Improve cholesterol
- May aid weight loss
- Reduced LDl cholesterol
Basics 3: Simple Exercise (and Cheap Too)
Getting exercise doesn’t need to be hard, time consuming or expensive. To be honest all I really do is bike to appointments and swing around a kettlebell in my room.
Most people who do sedentary work (read: not lugging things around all day) get problems with back aches and the like. The simple reason for that is that your muscles lose strength, balance and don’t support your posture properly anymore.
The slow way
Just walk. Preferably get a fitbit, fuelband, jawbone or otherwise self-quantifying device (we’ll talk about them later on). Then just set yourself a goal. There are 2 options really:
- A quantified goal (if you have a step tracking device)
- A set routine
The quantified goal can be something like my personal 5000 steps a day. This only works if you can actually check your steps through a device.
The routine is something more along the lines of, I’ll go for a walk in the lunch breaks and stroll around the block before bed.
The power way
Get a kettlebell. They cost maybe 25 euro/dollar (yes, yes fitness geeks, that’s a starter model) if you find a good deal. They are basically a lump of metal with a handle and can exercise pretty much all of your muscles. I swing mine around about 5 minutes a day. It’s efficient and diverse.
The advantage of having one at your place is that ‘I don’t feel like going to the gym’ is not an excuse. Anyone can take 5 minutes before dinner to swing that thing around. if you are njot sure how to, there are plenty of “for dummies” youtube videos.
Have no motivation? Watch this, every day.
Basic 4: Turn stress into power
Does stress cause health problems? For some yes. But you wouldn’t believe what separates those who are harmed by stress and those who it gives more energy without side effects.
Whether they believe stress is harmful of a good thing.
Now, this is not a hippytime theory. Just cold hard science. Long story short, it is the placebo effect at it’s finest.
Research: knowledge is power
Imagine two groups of people. The one group believes stress is bad for them, the other believes stress is good for them.
The effects on group 1:
- Narrowing arteries
- Bad blood values
- Cognitive impairment
- and so on
Effects on group 2:
- Relaxed arteries
- Better blood flow
- Increased blood oxygenation
- Better performance
- Oxytocin production (good)
WTF?! It gets even better. The researchers went up to group 1 and told them this:
“Stress is your body preparing for performance. Your heart beating faster is your body improving energy dispersal. Breathing faster if your body putting more oxygen in your blood. Stress improves your performance.”
The result: the first group now didn’t get narrowed arteries or other hallmarks of negative stress. Their bodies produced oxytocin, which is sometimes called the cuddle hormone since it works on bonding behavior. Oxytocin however is far more complex than that. in this specific case it couters the negative effects of stress.
Basically, knowing stress is good makes it good. Now you know. You’re welcome.
Try any of these at your own risk. Personally I think they are harmless and beneficial, but in some cases research on humans is scarce or has only been done on the short term.
Protocol 1: Drink alcohol every day
Let’s get some things out of the way:
- Alcohol does not kill brain cells
- This was a mistake in the original piece of research
- Alcohol use and abuse are not the same thing
- 1-2 standard glasses per day for women
- 2-3 for men
- Moderation is key
It has been shown statistically that people who drink alcohol live longer, if in certain amounts and types.
Not all alcohol is created equal
it turns out that red wine is the best. There is some debate about why, and it is not entirely clear. The most prevalent theory is that is contains resveratrol and other polyphenols (talk about those later). What resveratrol can do is activate certain genes of the SIRT1 group which activate cell-protecting functions.
Besides that some people argue that the simple relaxation effect of alcohol provides health promoting effects. Regardless of why, red wine improves health and life span in most people. It even gives a mild testosterone support for men.
Other types of alcohol have also been associated with health benefits. The progression in general:
- Best: red wine
- Ok: white wine and spirits
- Little to no effect: beer
- Don’t: sugary mixes
Protocol 2: Intermittent Fasting (IF)
The protocol itself is dead simple. You are only allowed to eat 8 hours per day. In my case for example that means only eating between 16:00 and 24:00. Indeed no breakfast, lunch etc. Drinking is fine, but only water, tea and black coffee.
This goes against common knowledge. After all we have all been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But as I keep asking my friends when they bring that up: “Who told you, and what is their expertise?”.
Contrary to common knowledge, this protocol is backed up by science. Studies have been done in mice, and on humans in the short and relatively long term too.
What happens short term
Your body has 2 types of metabolism it can rely on. One is based on glucose, and the other on fatty acids. The analogy I usually make is that the first is a sprinter type metabolism while the second is more like a marathon runner. Be aware this is a gross simplification.
The glucose metabolism is very volatile and prone to ups and downs. It’s function is to provide peaks of energy, like a low gear when driving a car. When you eat your body will release insulin and cause a drop in energy levels and concentration. The same as in a car, you don’t want to be driving around in 1st gear all the time.
The marathon metabolism only gets activated when the body is not getting food. If you eat all the time you are basically telling your body to stay in first gear, because you will soon have to go into energy storage mode.
Only after a while of not eating does your body go from energy conservation mode into the second type of metabolism. This metabolism is far more steady resulting in better mental focus.
Many people instinctively respond that starving your body is not a good idea. For those, here is two important facts:
- The body can survive 3 weeks without food
- While fasting your body releases Growth Hormone (yes, seriously)
Does a body that creates growth hormone sound like one that is in starvation? Starvation is exactly that, starvation. And that does not occur after a day of not eating.
What happens on the long term
Now this is where it gets interesting. Let’s have a look at the results, and after that briefly discuss why they occur.
Looks complex? It is really quite simple. IF results in:
- Neuroprotection (brain = protected)
- Better insulin sensitivity
- Increases synaptic synthesis (brain = smart)
- Sirtiun activation
- Longer life
- DNA protection and repair
- Better blood sugar regulation
- Increased fat burning
- Inflammation mediation
- Reactive Oxygen Intermediate detoxification (by FoxO complex)
- Indications of Parkinsons protection
- Indications of Alzheimer protection
Why does all of this happen? Well the simple story is that your body is preparing itself for survival. During periods of intermittent fasting your body activates it’s defenses and conserves the body. When you constantly eat your body is too busy managing all the incoming energy that it never goes into conservation mode.
Want to know the science behind this? Read it here.
Protocol 3: Some supplements
In general try not to use supplements to achieve health, only to modulate certain things on demand. There are some interesting supplements, but I in general recommend using food and lifestyle as a primary health enhancing factor.
Resveratrol is found in red wine, but commercially extracted from japanese knotweed. In limited tests resveratrol has been shown to extend life and improve health. In tests on rodents animals that got resveratrol supplements not only lived longer, but had little to no effect resulting from unhealthy lifestyle.
Wait what? Yes indeed. They ate too much, got fat and didn’t exercise, and still stayed healthy and lived long. The effects are remarkably similar to intermittent fasting, such as SIRT activation.
A note of caution. When humans take resveratrol the liver metabolizes it very quickly. In practice this means it is less effective on humans, or that is the current theory anyway. Tests in humans have been relatively short term. If you do want to take resveratrol, the following may help increase efficiency:
- Take a quercetin supplement with it
- Promotes resveratrol stability
- Has health effects of it’s own
- Take it with red wine
- The polyphenols etc in red wine appear to enhance effectiveness
- Consider holding it in your mouth for a while
- Absorption of resveratrol through the cheeks is surprisingly effective and bypasses the liver
Supplement: Fish Oil
BORING. Yes. Useful? Also yes. There is some debate, and research tends to be a bit fuzzy on some details, but in general fish oil has been shown to:
- Improve/maintain vision
- Improve brain function
- Improve cholesterol levels
- Improve mood
- And other magically delicious stuff
Personally I take 4 grams every day. It started as a brain optimization thing, but after my genetic test (more on that later) I’m prone to vision issues at a later age, so fish oil will mediate the damage.
If you are going to take any supplement, start with this. Every cell has a cell membrane consisting out of phospholipids. Fish oil contains the type of building blocks that make your body happy.
When buying a supplement just make sure it is filtered so there is no heavy metals and the like in there. In most countries this is standard procedure, but better safe than sorry in this case.
L-theanine is an amino acid present in green tea. On its own it increases Alpha brainwaves is certain regions of the brain (read: relaxed state of concentration) and boosts the immune system.
Although it does have health benefits, it shines as a brain enhancer. The main reason I include it here is because of the effect it has on me. Namely, it buffers the jittery effects of caffeine while giving a productivity boost.
Caffeine in combination with L-theanine (ratio 1:1 or 1:2) has been used as a nootropic ( = brain enhancer) for a while. To me specifically it means I can drink coffee without starting to feel a bit anxious and jittery. I love coffee, but it’s effects on me are very strong.
A combo of an espresso and 100-200 mg of L-theanine provides a very nice working mindset. It is available in stores and research so far has proven it beneficial and harmless.
Things to pay attention to:
- Make sure your supplement has sun theanine (brand)
- A lot of L-theanine supplements are actually D-theanine. It is the same amino acid but without biological function.
- L-Theanine can be confused with other substances
Self quantifying is broad indeed. It basically comes down to wanting to know about yourself in a quantitative way. For example:
- Knowing how much you eat (precisely, humans lie to themselves unless checked)
- Knowing how much you move
- Knowing how efficiently you sleep
- Etc etc
Quantify 1: Genetic test for $99
Stop. No stop it right now. Unless you know what you are talking about you are probably thinking “but I don’t want to know my future!” or something like that.
Well, you can’t.
Genes do not tell you what you will die of or when. They simply show how high your risk is compared to the general population.
Genes will tell you risk, and turn you can mitigate those risks. For example, let’s say 20 years from now you are at your doctor’s with a severe problem and the doctor says:
“If only you would have known 20 years ago, a piece of chocolate a day would have prevented this”.
Sound stupid? Well, it’s not. In my personal case, my genetic test showed I’m at risk for macular degeneration (eye trouble). Eating fish regularly (or taking fish oil supplements, i do both) will significantly improve my chances of having less trouble.
What will they tell me?
Risks for diseases, drug sensitivity, ancestry and some fun facts. For now, have a look at my results as a preview. Here are my LOWERED risks. These are things that I have a below average chance to get based on my genetics:
As you can see they give the risk of your genes, the average risk and the confidence at which they think your genes predict this probability. Of course the above info makes me very happy ^^.
Another element which is really useful is drug sensitivity. I’m sensitive to certain treatments, here is a preview based on some of my typical sensitivities. IfI were over or under sensitive, it would say instead of ‘typical’.
The other stuff the test will tell you:
- Inherited conditions
- Whether you are a carrier for certain diseases
- Genetic traits (e.g. caffeine metabolism)
- Ancestry of your DNA
- Maternal and paternal origins
- % of neanderthal genes (I have .1% above average)
Getting your genes tested is the single most important thing in quantifying yourself. Consider genes the tools you got to live your life. Depending on which ones you have, certain strategies will work out best.
So where get your genes tested? 23andme.com of course. Don’t ask you doctor, he/she probably won’t know. Mine dismissed it with a ‘just send it to the secretary for the archive’. Screw that, take control and responsibility for your health.
Quantify 2: Activity (automatic)
Research into longevity actually shows that formalized exercise (e.g. fitness, cardio etc) is no more effective than just going for a walk every day. Note that that presupposes a good diet and healthy lifestyle.
How much you move every day is a very important metric. When you get actual data by a device lying to yourself (often unintentional) becomes impossible. It doesn’t matter whether you are a runner, an active person or a desk worker. Data on how much you move will help you improve your lifestyle.
Some activity tracking options you have:
- Low tech pedometers (pedometer = step tracker)
- Those gimmicky devices made of cheap plastic
- Higher tech pedometers
- Wirelessly synchronizing devices with data analysis platforms
- Often have better form factors like for example bracelets
- Pedometer apps
- For your phone
What do I need?
Depends on you. Personally I recommend getting a dedicated device. The advantage they have is that they are unobtrusive and have a long lasting battery life. Right now I have a fitbit flex (tracking bracelet) which has a battery life of 5 days and syncs with my laptop and their web platform.
When in doubt: start with an app to see your data, then move on to a device when you see how useful data is.
Some options to look at:
- Fitbit devices
- Established player in the market
- Web interface
- Note, they also have a wireless scale
- Fitbit bracelet devices (currently Flex and Force)
- Also track sleep
- Look quite cool actually
- Very comfortable due to silicone bracelet
- Tracks sleep and activity
- No web interface
- No wireless sync
- Nike fuelband
- With GPS
- Bit more bulky
- Often used by runners
Quantify 3: Sleep (automatic)
Sleep is fascinating. Not just how much you sleep, but how efficiently and restfully. Most people overestimate how much they sleep, and underestimate how important sleep is for them.
In the past sleep was regarded as the stuff of life, the fuel of champions. Our current culture marks sleep as a non-activity for pussies and old people. Regardless of how much you sleep, sleep cycle data is brilliant.
What a sleep tracker will tell you:
- How much you sleep
- How long it takes you to fall asleep
- How deeply you sleep
- How often you wake up
- Often they will set your alarm to the most efficient moment
Ooh, shiny, what do I get?
You have a number of options. Most trackers track your sleep based on movement. There is a clear correlation between how much you move and what sleep cycle you are in.
This is an example of my data from last Wednesday:
Some popular sleep tracking devices:
- Fitbit flex and force
- Lark (only sleep, no activity)
But I don’t want to spend money!
No worries, you can do this with your smartphone too. There are apps that are surprisingly accurate. Just go to the appstore and search for ‘sleep tracker’.
For android I recommend SleepBot. It is very accurate, and free as well.
Some things to keep in mind when using an app:
- If you are in bed with someone else, their movement is often recorded too
- Bracelets have this problem way less obviously
- Make sure your phone is on airplane mode
- No reason to be bombarded with radiation while you sleep
- Make sure your battery is full, or the phone is plugged in
- This depends a bit on your usual battery life
Quantify 3: heartrate, temperature, blood oxygen, movement, sleep (automatic)
What if you want the whole package? If some simple activity data is not enough, there are more superpowered options. They used to cost a couple of hundred, but by now there are projects making them at $135.
How is this even possible? Well, acoustic sensors can get your heartrate. Optic ones can get your blood oxygen (iphone cameras are powerful enough to do this). Accelerometers measure your movement and sleep. A simple thermometer tracks your temperature. Then a Bluetooth 4 chip transmits the data to your phone/computer in real time without wasting power.
In the coming years sensors will become even more powerful. Eventually an optic sensor will be able to tell you your blood glucose, cholesterol and so on. Sound farfetched? The technology already exists, I literally met the people working on those. The biggest delaying factor is actually legislation, not the technology.
I know of one device on the market, and one released soon that will give you all this data. Currently the Basis watch is for sale at about $200, but in the past they ran out of stock pretty quickly.
A current (time of writing) indiegogo project called Angel is even more amazing. Not only does it measure more than the Basis, is is also cheaper and in my opinion prettier. The Tel Aviv company behind it consists out of some amazingly passionate people who are very friendly. I currently ordered 4 of them, the expected delivery is April 2014. Ordering them now means you get a discount and support the founders in creating the device. I highly suggest you do that.
Quantify X: Manual
There are a lot of things you can track that give interesting data:
- Food intake
- Water intake
- And so on
There are a gazillion health trackers out there. if you want to track a specific variable, just Google “<your variable> tracker” and something is bound to pop up.this is the 4628th work of this post already. Instead here is some fuel for your curiosity and a launchpad into your own research.
- Alcohol does not kill brain cells
- Mistake in the original research: simpsons paradox
- Eating cholesterol does not increase blood cholesterol
- Check out what the WHO says about it
- Research fructose and hepatic pressure
- ‘Normal’ sugar = 50% fructose 50% glucose
- High fructose corn syrup is in a lot of stuff
- Saturated fats are not bad per definition
- Including for cholesterol
- Junk food does not cause acne
- High GI foods often do
- People have different metabolism types
- Research high protein / low GI diets and acne
- Hygiene as recommended by some immunologists (cleaning everything) is really bad
- Your immune system needs to be challenged to remain efficient
- You need to come in contact with bacteria and virusses to be healthy
- There are more, in general: “If you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect” ~ Mark Twain
- Doctors are just people too, they are smart but limited to what they have been told
- Trust the data you find, Google Scholar is your friend
- Don’t ignore doctors advice, but feel free to challenge them if you think they are wrong
- Don’t be discouraged by friends/family who think you’re an idiot