"Biohackers" are striving for human 2.0, the optimized body and mind. Their methods range from lifestyle changes to experiments with one's own DNA. A trend with risks.
More beautiful, healthier, more efficient: so-called “biohackers” set themselves the goal of optimizing their bodies – by changing their organism with chemical, technical or biological means. Cases of amateur biologists who carried out genetic experiments on their own bodies in order to promote muscle growth or cure hereditary diseases have become public. Other do-it-yourself researchers implant microchips, magnets or even antennas into their bodies.
By no means all “biohackers” go this far. Most are content to apply the lever to their lifestyle in order to become an optimized self. But doctors are also skeptical about such less drastic forms of “biohacking.” After all, the ultimate goal is the same as for garage biohackers: to become some kind of superhuman.
“Lifestyle biohackers” try to optimize their everyday lives: from diet and exercise to concentration and learning ability, to rest and sleep. Professor Claudia Witt, institute director of complementary and integrative medicine at the University Hospital Zurich (USZ), does not fundamentally question the medical sense of many of the propagated routines. “That meditation, sleep hygiene and exercise are important for health has long been known,” she says. She views with concern the all-encompassing system of strict behaviors to which “lifestyle biohackers” submit. “Constantly subjecting yourself to routines, deadlines and rules can lead to stress. The pressure to self-optimize could then ultimately even be detrimental to health,” she says.
Witt also considers it problematic that superfoods and herbal preparations are offered on the scene websites, the effects of which have not been scientifically proven. Behind the “biohacking” websites there is often a marketing machinery. In addition to instructions for everyday life, this also offers herbal and chemical supplements as well as tracking products with which the “biohackers” can constantly monitor their progress.
Eating disorders a common consequence
“Lifestyle biohackers” often also focus on eating behavior. Intermittent fasting, for example, is widespread. This involves eating only within a time window of eight or fewer hours a day – otherwise, fasting takes place. “We see a lot of young people on crazy diets,” says Professor Gabriella Milos, senior attending physician at the Clinic for Consiliary Psychiatry and Psychosomatics at the USZ. These would often aim for a body with lots of muscles and as little fat as possible. “However, fat is not ballast, but also important for the metabolism,” says Milos.
As a result of such malnutrition, many sufferers develop eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating. Milos therefore also considers the trend toward self-optimization to be dangerous. “It doesn’t make people happier and often leads to psychological compulsions and disturbed eating behavior.” She considers prevention to be a social task. After all, she says, the causes lie in the world we live in. “In the past, young people compared themselves within the school class. Today, they do so with the whole world via social media such as Instagram.” It is therefore important to help young people achieve a healthy self-worth at an early stage, which does not depend on outward appearances.
For those who want to make their daily lives healthier with medical guidance, there are also more moderate alternatives to the “biohacking” trend. As part of “Mind Body Medicine,” Professor Claudia Witt and her team have launched a website with tips and tricks for a healthy lifestyle.