The latest extreme trend for the fitness-crazed: Biohacking for DIY bodies

Kris Gethin (in the ice bath) and Ben Greenfield. Photos: Courtesy Kris Gethin
This is extreme. Please do not try to visualise it. The experiment requires a blender, a strainer, a few healthy donors and a recipient who has been fasting. Faecal matter taken from donors is whipped together in the blender along with a saline solution. The slurry obtained is strained and the liquid is inserted into the recipient’s colon with a rectal syringe or an enema bottle.

As grotesque as it sounds, Faecal Microbiota Transplants (FMTs) or stool transplants, are not as rare as you might imagine. The idea is innocuous enough: to cultivate healthy bacteria in the gut of patients suffering from extreme diarrhea because of underlying conditions such as Clostridioides Difficile Infection, or CDI. Usually, donors are pre-screened for infections and the whole thing is performed by medical practitioners in a hospital. But the one detailed above is a DIY hack posted on Reddit by a self-styled biohacker.

“I know someone who has done it. But honestly, I am yet to see any results,” says celebrity trainer Kris Gethin, who is as popular for getting actors Hrithik Roshan, John Abraham and Ranveer Singh into their desired shapes as he is for his wacky biohacker lifestyle. He wears a pair of red tinted glasses, likes ultra-violet therapy when he can’t be in the sun and bonds with friends over ice baths and cryotherapy sessions. But even for Gethin, a stool transplant is an extreme biohack. And a DIY one even more so.

At its simplest, biohacking means using science and technology to make one’s body function better. The processes involved range from intermittent fasting to injecting older people with the blood plasma of young individuals in an attempt to slow down ageing. DIY biohackers are testing out gene-editing on bacteria, plants, dogs and even themselves. Most enthusiasts are conversant with the basics of health science and the daredevils — some would say the reckless — among them often try new therapies and drugs.

Gethin soaking in some infrared light during a UV therapy session.
Gethin is among the latter. A few months ago, he underwent stem cell therapy at the Centro de Celulas Madre Y Biotecnologia in Pereira, Colombia. “It was to strengthen my knees and shoulders, the areas where the load is more. I am going to be in the gym even when I am 90. I have no plans of slowing down,” he says. It was one of his biggest self-experiments to date, details of which are available on his weekly podcast, The Knowledge and Mileage, which has over 100 episodes. Milder stories of physical transformation, such as how Roshan went from a few slipped discs and chain smoking to a chiselled superhero for the film Krrish 2, can be found in his books.

At 45, Gethin says that he feels and performs like he is 20 — a claim that resonates within a close group of popular biohackers. Some of them look it, too. But what makes people like Gethin convincing is that they run marathons, participate in triathlons, and gain and drop kilos almost at will.

Unlike “grinders”, more extreme biohackers who have undergone magnetic, near field communication (NFC), radio frequency identification (RFID) and even bioluminescence implants, “purists” like to focus on understanding one’s body, collecting and interpreting available data and applying “hacks” to achieve better performance. A qualified nutritionist could do that for you, but biohacking is about taking charge of your own mind and body.

Gethin breathing pure oxygen in a hyperbaric oxygen therapy machine.

For the clients he trains, Gethin first orders a complete blood test, including a vitamin and mineral profile and a test for heavy metal toxicity, followed by a hair follicle test to ascertain the effects of prescription medication or drug abuse before devising a diet and exercise plan. He says it helps him to quickly plug nutritional deficiencies.

“Dietary supplements and heart rate monitors are the most basic biohacks,” says Jag Cheema, Gethin’s business partner and CEO of Kris Gethin Gyms. He says that there needs to be accountability as well as a measure of performance. High Intensity Interval Training, for instance, is based on the principle of keeping the heart rate in the “fat burning zone”, which is about 70 per cent of one’s maximum heart rate. “But the problem with people is that they are impatient. Hacks can’t bypass the foundations,” he says. 

Author and entrepreneur Dave Asprey, 46, got his Silicon Valley colleagues, including Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, hooked to a lifestyle of restricted eating. His book, Head Strong, focuses on the nutritional and lifestyle changes that help strengthen the neural networks of the brain and the functions of mitochondria, known as the powerhouse of human cells. Mitochondria generate a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cell’s energy that powers a body’s metabolic processes. 

Asprey’s controversial but popular “Bulletproof Diet” is based on a cyclical ketosis diet — high in fat for 5-6 days followed by 1-2 days of carbs re-feed — which claims to cause weight loss and address complaints such as memory loss. He likes his morning “Bulletproof Coffee” with some unsalted butter or ghee and a brand of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil that his company sells.

Jag Chima in a cryotherapy chamber.

Ben Greenfield, 39, is another popular biohacking author. Greenfield prefers his coffee with some L-theanine, an amino acid that occurs in tea leaves, or even tulsi. The claim that it increases the secretion of inhibitory neurotransmitters, such as Gama Aminobutyric Acid or GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine, which suppress stress and anxiety, echo the teachings of ayurveda. His simplest hacks include Buteyko Breathing (similar to pranayama), a five-minute shower that alternates between hot and cold water, and completely avoiding all vegetable oils. But biohacking is a slippery slope. His simple methods ultimately give way to extremes such as the use of “nootropics” or “smart drugs” such as Qualia Mind and even microdoses of LSD.

A deep dive into biohacking, however, does not necessarily include extremes. Pranav Anam, a geneticist and the founder of a B2B startup called The Gene Box, has a way of looking at someone’s DNA and suggesting more lasting hacks than a one-diet-fits-all approach. “We all say we are unique but we don’t really implement it in our food and lifestyle choices,” he says. The genetic test that costs between Rs 12,000 and Rs 20,000 uses a simple saliva swab to analyse up to 70,000 genetic markers. It claims to be able to predict everything from a predisposition to a disease such as diabetes to how well carbohydrates or a certain vitamin B12 is being metaboilised by your body. The company was recently signed by German football club Werder Bremen to do the testing for its athletes.

Brittany Ford, a “holistic nutritionist” in Vancouver, Canada believes in analysing as much data as possible but has a simpler approach on most days that falls back on the principles of biohacking. “For instance, if you had a loaf of bread and felt bloated or were constipated within the next 48 hours or had acne, you know that it doesn’t work for you,” she says. “Biohacking also means being self-aware.”

Even Kombucha is a biohack. And so is Shilajit, an ayurvedic substance obtained from mineral formation in rocks. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is for the body and sensory deprivation tank for the mind. There’s a biohack for every purpose. You just have to be willing to be your own rat.

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