In recent years, a growing number of people have been willing to risk experimenting with novel technologies and hacks, ranging from diets to the implantation of medical devices and alteration of their genome. This is the biohacking community of viral YouTube videos, novel experiments, and wellness trends. But what lies beyond the obvious clickbait? From pseudo-science to founded research, actors in the space congregated in London over a weekend at the Health Optimisation Summit in order to offer their products and their vision to those in search of the elusive holy grail: optimal health. Here are my top takeaways from the summit.
Health is more than the absence of illness.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health corresponds to “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO 1948). Many seek medical advice only when suffering from the symptoms of a disease. Today, a more proactive approach to health is on the rise, where physical and mental practices are adopted in order to attain the greatest possible state of wellbeing. Indeed, why take action only when the human body or mind has broken down to the point where its signals of pain and discomfort can no longer be ignored? This shift marks the transition from symptom-based medicine to a culture of optimal health.
Technology could democratise peak performance.
Peak performance is typically associated with the lifestyle and regimen of top athletes. Their preparation involves more than mere exercise and can encompass precise tracking of physical and mental data. The rigorous attention, tools, and methods developed by this community to optimize performance hones in on a key idea: to measure is to improve. With the advent of devices tracking physical data (such as smart watches), the culture of peak performance and optimal health strategies have been brought to market in a more affordable way.
At the same time, a new trend of specialized health labs offers blood tests and many more physiological measurements to uncover the secrets the body has in store. Once all this information is gathered and synthesized, the following questions can be probed: What is going on inside our body? And what can we do to make it better? The analyzed data may then be used in order to track health over time, inform lifestyle choices, and indicate the very early onset of disease. This is the start of not only a new industry but, potentially, a new way of looking at the human body.
Know your genome.
As science progresses, the model of the human body is continuously refined; today, we have a picture of processes occurring at a cellular level. Quick biology recap: Each person is born with DNA, each half of which comes from one parent. A gene is made up of DNA, which is fixed from birth. It determines, for instance, physical features (such as eye color) and potential susceptibility to disease (such as the BRAC gene relevance for breast and ovarian cancer). In total, each individual has 20,000 to 25,000 genes.
Today, new techniques targeting cellular and genetic function are being developed and tested. Furthermore, getting to know one’s genetic makeup can mean added insight into potentially deadly risks and predispositions. Whilst CRISPR gene editing (i.e. genomic alterations) and other such technologies are nowhere near market ready, there nonetheless already exist options for those seeking to exploit genomic knowledge.
Epigenetics are controversial.
Epigenetics is a novel and controversial field of research, probing the question of how the environmental choices made throughout life impact on the genome. More specifically, this field considers epigenetic markers and tracks the changes in them. Indeed, genes can be switched on or off, a phenomenon known as gene expression. Epigenetics tell cells how and if to read genes. It is thus essentially the study of changes in genes that do not involve alterations to the genetic code.
Chronomics is a Cambridge-spun start-up that sends you a saliva test kit and performs DNA sequencing on the sample sent back. You own your data, while Chronomics provides insight, a health plan, as well as access to professionals. Its pitch is that lifestyle and environmental decisions impact our cellular makeup and that, with appropriate action, these can be reversed. Crucially, it is the breakdown of cellular function which over time can cause disease and death.
Understand your biological age.
Aging is frequently defined in cosmetic terms – as skin deterioration – but aging is fundamentally more than this: it is the aging of human cells, which then causes a breakdown of body function, as in the case of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and more. A disease is defined as “a disorder of structure or function…and is not simply a direct result of physical injury”. Indeed, not all diseases are due to external agents. For instance, cancer is caused by cells dividing at an out-of-control rate. Similarly, cardiovascular diseases, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, strokes, and more are all the consequence of the human body breaking down. Whereas chronological age refers to the amount of time that has passed since one was born, biological age captures the amount of aging undergone at a cellular level. For example, take two individuals aged 50, one whose cells are healthy and the other whose cells have undergone damage. They would both have the same chronological age, and yet different biological ages.
Cellular aging will be treatable.
During his talk, Aubrey de Grey, chief scientific officer and co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation, presented the hallmarks of cellular damage (cell loss/tissue atrophy, cancerous cells, mitochondrial mutations, death-resistant cells, extracellular matrix stiffening, extracellular aggregates, Intracellular aggregates) that are responsible for the breakdown of the human body over time. The focus of SENS is on researching and developing new products to both halt and repair cellular aging. I spoke with de Grey, who told me that the foundation’s approach is to maximize the likelihood of solving the problem i.e. to reach the capacity to do targeted and combined treatment of all aging mechanisms. He stresses that the human body is a complex, interconnected, dynamic system of millions of parts interacting with each other, and that exclusively targeting one of the aging processes would mean another would ultimately lead to disease and possibly death. Thus, for health to be maintained, all of these hallmarks must be simultaneously addressed. However early stage these projects might seem, de Grey estimates that there is a 50 percent chance that, in 17 years, this research will result in a new approach to treating aging.
Anti-aging supplements will be big.
Anti-aging supplements claiming to support cellular health are booming. Metformin, rapamycin, and nicotinamide riboside (NR) have become buzzwords in the circles of those seeking optimal health. Just like vitamins, these products fall under the umbrella of supplements, offering the promise of an easy fix. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) are the gold standard of medical evidence whereby the impact and effectiveness of a treatment is established. Crucially, the claims made by supplement companies are typically not supported by RCTs and thus their true benefits as well as potential drawbacks remain unchecked.
I spoke with Frank Jaksch from the supplement company TrueNiagen, a form of NR, which claims to increase levels of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), a form of vitamin B3. The idea is that levels of NAD decrease with age and that supplementing these will have a positive effect on cellular health. With an increasing number of scientific publications studying these mechanisms, a clearer picture of the benefits and drawbacks is starting to emerge.
Beware of the pseudo-science.
At the summit, the main hall buzzed with excited voices asking questions, but mostly, seeking answers. I was at times left confused by some of the claims and baffled by all the pseudo-science. In the domain of healthcare, taking liberties with the truth is potentially dangerous. RCTs allow us to determine whether something is effective or not. The rigorous insights they provide is offset by the difficulty and length of the process. The road from fundamental research to regulated medicine is long, going through multiple stages and potentially taking decades. This is the price we pay for safety and knowledge. Some are willing to directly experiment on themselves, taking risks others won’t. Ultimately, it remains up to each individual to make their own informed decisions.
Don’t forget your emotional health.
In the midst of the busy conference, I met Eugene from Acroyoga Dance. Taking a break from the biochemical aspects of health, I experienced acroyoga for the first time. I was reminded of the importance of human connection and trust, which is crucial to emotional health.
It’s time for data-driven medicine.
Over the course of the weekend, someone asked me, “Do you think you are your own best doctor?” I reflected. We know that the earlier an illness is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat i.e. solve a problem while it is still small. Perhaps to be “one’s own doctor” is to have access to more complete knowledge and understanding of one’s own body, and furthermore the capacity to make better lifestyle decisions. Maybe one day, symptom-based medicine will be a thing of the past. In practice, this could mean having complete knowledge of one’s very own predispositions and physiological tendencies in parallel with access to healthcare professionals. This raises the possibility of a future where personalized healthcare will be the low-cost path to avoid painful and expensive diseases.
In philosophy, holism is defined as “the theory that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole, which is thus regarded as greater than the sum of its parts.” Perhaps, this is the dawn of data-driven health holism. But, these are as yet early days and, as Aubrey de Grey mentioned, “There are many things we don’t know, because we don’t know them yet.”
Naïri Gaspari is a research scientist, physics PHD, and writer, driven by questioning the world within and around us.