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Extreme Biohacking: Self-Improvement or Mental Health Concern?

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Key Takeaways

  • Extreme biohacking techniques lack substantial research and may come with serious health risks. 
  • Trying risky and unproven biohacks may be a red flag for an underlying mental health condition.
  • Experts recommend getting a thorough understanding of the risks and desired outcomes of extreme biohacking before trying it.

New Year’s and self-improvement go hand-in-hand. This time of year, many of us are planning resolutions to eat healthier, exercise more, stop smoking, reduce stress, or achieve any number of other health goals we’ve been putting off.

There’s nothing wrong with tried-and-true tactics to better our lives. But what about more experimental methods that may come with some major health risks? 

It’s a technique called biohacking. Popular with wealthy individuals and Silicon Valley tech executives, this do-it-yourself biology involves trying to engineer our way past our physical and mental shortcomings.

Some biohackers have taken things to the extreme, with reports of people getting transfusions of plasma from young donors to fight aging, dripping chemical cocktails into their eyes to induce night vision, and even trying to edit their own DNA for muscle enhancement. Not only are these techniques extraordinarily expensive, their long-term health outcomes are still unknown.

The recent passing of Tony Hsieh, former CEO of Zappos, highlights the intersection of biohacking and mental health, as his struggles with substance abuse and extreme biohacking practices were well known.

Taken outside the biohacking community, these high-risk techniques start to look like a dangerous obsession with functional perfection. Could extreme biohacking be a symptom of a mental health condition? Here’s what mental health experts have to say about the endless quest for self-improvement.

Delusional Disorders May Drive Extreme Biohacking

Does trying biohacking mean you have a mental illness? Not necessarily. There are any number of rational reasons a person may try self-improvement techniques, even if they come with some risk.

“Most of us try to do things to improve the states of our bodies and minds, from wearing a Fitbit to trying the Mediterranean diet. It all falls into that genre of biohacking,” explains Laura Rhodes-Levin, LMFT, founder of The Missing Peace Center for Anxiety in Agoura Hills, California.

However, engaging in some of the more extreme forms of biohacking may be a sign of an underlying issue, especially if a person has a deep-seated belief that an experiment can lead to some sort of superpower or immortality, mental health experts say. 

Petros Levounis, MD

The hallmark difference between a pathological delusional disorder and being misinformed or extremely adventurous to the point of potential self-harm is the issue of belief beyond any doubt.

— Petros Levounis, MD

“The hallmark difference between a pathological delusional disorder and being misinformed or extremely adventurous to the point of potential self-harm is the issue of belief beyond any doubt,” says Petros Levounis, MD, professor and chair of the psychiatry department at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and chief of service at University Hospital in Newark.

He pointed to young blood transfusions as an example. The biohacking technique, said to offer a myriad of health effects, from slowing down the aging process to preventing diseases like dementia, has been called out by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as having no proven clinical benefit.

“If you ask a patient if they think that maybe these young blood transfusions will not help you become younger, or they can be harmful, and they respond that they are absolutely, 100% convinced that the transfusion is going to be a good thing for them, then we’re really entering the realm of a delusional disorder,” explains Dr. Levounis. 

Biohacking as a Mechanism for Control or Coping

Extreme biohacking can be an unhealthy way for a person to try to gain control of their bodies and lives—a potential symptom of a psychological condition.

“Where biohacking gets concerning from a mental health perspective is when it becomes obsessive and it’s about control and insecurities,” says Rhodes-Levin. “Somewhere in your life, you’re not feeling in control, so the only thing you can control is your body—what you put into it, what you do with it—and when that goes to an extreme, there’s always a potential for a slippery slope.”

Some dangerous biohacking techniques may even be a coping mechanism for someone dealing with negative circumstances in their lives. This can be especially true if someone ignores the potential for unproven biohacking techniques to cause long-term health implications.

Jeffrey Ditzell, DO

There are a number of personality disorders as well as classic psychiatric diagnoses that might lend someone to be irrational, impulsive, or not thoughtful in their approach to pursuing life.

— Jeffrey Ditzell, DO

“There are a number of personality disorders as well as classic psychiatric diagnoses that might lend someone to be irrational, impulsive, or not thoughtful in their approach to pursuing life,” says Jeffrey Ditzell, DO, a general adult psychiatrist working in private practice in New York City. “You could have obsessive compulsive disorder or an anxiety disorder that drives anxious rumination, and in a search for some way to alleviate that you may try all sorts of things.”

Approaching Biohacking Mindfully

Most people won’t be able to try extreme biohacking, even if they want to. The procedures can be prohibitively expensive and may require special access to technology or labs.

However, there are a range of other biohacking techniques, like taking dietary supplements or trying intermittent fasting, that are more accessible. How can you approach biohacking in a healthy way?

Laura Rhodes-Levin, LMFT

Ask yourself why you're doing it. Is it to be healthy? Is it to avoid something you’re afraid of? Biohacking can be a way to try to fight destiny, and there’s fear beneath that.

— Laura Rhodes-Levin, LMFT

“Ask yourself why you’re doing it,” says Rhodes-Levin. “Is it to be healthy? Is it to avoid something you’re afraid of? Biohacking can be a way to try to fight destiny, and there’s fear beneath that.” 

Then, research the potential risks involved. Meditation, for example, promises a number of health benefits with little to no risks involved, making it a pretty safe biohack to try for certain goals. Many biohacking techniques haven’t been studied in depth, though, so you may need to seek out an expert to evaluate any potential dangers.

“Check it out with a doctor. See if he or she has a more sophisticated idea about what you’re about to try,” says Dr. Levounis. “A physician’s advice will narrow the range of both the efficacy and safety of whatever you’re thinking of pursuing.” 

If the biohacking method you’re interested in comes with serious downsides, like high costs or adverse health consequences, explore whether a simpler and more trusted self-improvement technique could help you achieve your goals. Things like eating moderately sized meals rich in nutrients, getting enough rest, and exercising on a regular basis might bring you more physical and emotional benefits than the quick-fixes offered by extreme biohacking.

“There are things right in front of you that can help you boost your performance, versus these very costly endeavors that just seem like a waste of resources,” says Dr. Ditzell. 

What This Means For You

Popular among Silicon Valley executives and wealthy individuals, extreme biohacking techniques can seem like a shortcut toward longer lives and better performance. However, the potential risks of these untested techniques may outweigh their perceived benefits, and experts say that trying dangerous procedures could be a sign of an underlying mental health condition.

Before trying potentially risky self-improvement methods, ask yourself what’s driving your interest. Understanding what’s really behind your desire to biohack could help you find less risky, less expensive, and more proven techniques to help you achieve your goals. 

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  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., and Director of FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., cautioning consumers against receiving young donor plasma infusions that are promoted as unproven treatment for varying conditions. Published February 19, 2019.

  2. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation: In Depth. Updated April 2016.

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