You found it. Your Achilles heel. Thanks to an engrossing podcast that awakens you to new possibilities. The guest makes some extreme claims but backs them up with evidence.
You’re left in the dark, decyphering ten-syllable molecules and thirty-step biological processes that are at the crux of their argument. And the host doesn’t do anything to clarify it.
This is your antidote.
A biohacking glossary for the most common terms, definitions, and processes thrown around by biohackers. By the end, you’ll be able to understand researchers and get more out of highly complex conversations. Bookmark this page as I’ll update it with the latest technologies, compounds, and biohacking trends.
Bioharmonizing & Biosynergizing
Biohacking is the art and science of upgrading your biology with ancestral wisdom paired with modern science. But there’s no biological free lunch. Over the long-term, the body always wins. It compensates by upregulating and downregulating systems as necessary to maintain homeostasis.
True performance optimization results from harmonization with our environment. In ways science continues to discover every day, human biology requires connection to the natural world.
Bioharmony and biosynergy are the levels above biohacking. These two synonyms encompass how humans operate at the highest level when fully aligned with our evolutionary roots.
Any experienced biohacker knows to stack their routines.
My article on stacking biohacks describes the process of combining compounds, therapies, protocols, or habits for greater effect and/or to save time. You’ll eventually come across natural pairings. Like meditating while in the sauna. Or practicing breathwork while submerged in the cold. Exercising while learning.
Minimum Effective Dose (MED)
You have three groups of people: more is better. Less is better.
A third group takes an entirely different approach. Instead, looking for maximum efficiency. Or in other terms, “the lazy person’s approach to” fill-in-the-blank-topic.
Popularized by Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Body, it’s an application of the Pareto Principle. The minimum effective dose (MED) is the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome. Proponents of the minimum effective dose use it for all kinds of things:
- Kettlebell training
- Super slow strength training
- HIIT workouts
- Drugs like metformin and caffeine
When time, money, and resources are short, The MED offers the efficient approach
Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule)
Often huge effects come from just a few factors. This concept of disproportionality dates back to economist Vilfredo Pareto’s 1896 discovery that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.
The Pareto Principle is an optimization methodology where concentrating time and resources on only the top 20% yields 80% (or more) of the results.
Applied to other domains
- Business: 80% of revenue comes from 20% of clients.
- Wealth: 80% of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the richest 20%.
- Sports: 80% of training outcomes come from 20% of exercises.
For biohackers, the implications are vast:
- Learning: 80% of knowledge from 20% of sources.
- Memory: 80% of memory comes from 20% of the strategies & techniques.
- Supplements: 80% of benefits come from select 20% supplements (like adaptogens).
- Therapies & Protocols: 80% of favorable outcomes result from 20% of the possibilities.
Virtually any situation can be viewed through the Pareto Principle to optimize time and resource allocation.
Resilience & Antifragility
Biological systems learn to self-regulate (maintain homeostasis) from repeated exposure to micro-stress. Each time the body is thrown off balance, when given adequate recovery it bounces back stronger.
As I explained in building personal resilience, common “health” practices work by increasing your ability to adapt to new and changing environments:
- Intense exercise.
- Extreme temperatures.
- Working through trauma.
Professor Nassim Taleb differentiates resilience and antifragility. He explains that antifragile systems thrive in response to stress and adversity. Though for most intents and purposes, people (myself included) use the two terms interchangeably.
Business, deadlines, and fast-pace permiate the modern world.
Stress comes in two flavors. Whether it is positive depends on how long you experience it, and your perception of the stress. Too much “good stress” can become “bad stress”.
Eustress is beneficial stress that improves our health and wellbeing in the long-term. Examples include:
- A short injury or illness
- Completing a challenging project
- Losing someone
Eustress won’t necessarily feel good. The key concept is that it sparks a large, positive change greater than the initial stressor.
On the opposite end of the stress spectrum, is distress. Distress is negative stress that harms our health and wellbeing in the long-term. It is the classic form of stress we experience in everyday life. Examples include:
- Running late
- Sleep deprivation
- Chronic anxiety
- Death of someone important
An important distinction between the two forms is that the burden of distress outweighs any positives.
Your body is a capable and extremely adaptable machine. Hormesis is the idea of a poison in small doses causing benefits, while larger doses cause damage or death. Hormesis is the mechanism behind low doses of stress becoming net positive. Thus, hormetic examples include:
- High-intensity exercise
- Strength training
- Caloric restriction
- Intermittent fasting (IF)
- Oxygen deprivation
- Certain medications
- Cold exposure therapy
- Sauna therapy
- Phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables.
Examples are everywhere. Something typically considered harmful in normal or large quantities can have the opposite effect in minimal doses.
How does it work?
Hormesis works by helping you build personal resiliency over time.
Remember that a large dose of a stressor can transform the positive eustress into negative distress. The key is to moderate dosing and fully recover afterward.
Mobility & Flexibility
Mobility and flexibility are not interchangable. And mobility is more important.
- Flexibility: the ability for muscles and tissues to stretch.
- Mobility: the ability to generate force through your entire range of motion.
Flexibility is included in the umbrella term mobility. For functional purposes, mobility is more applicable to every day life.
Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) & Kaatsu Training
One of the most exciting trends in exercise science, BFRT combines bodyweight training with extremely light wrapping of limbs to enhance growth and accelerate recovery. Used by Japanese doctors for decades to great success, BFR training is now catching on in the west.
BFR is like having an entire gym in your pocket.
I wrote an entire guide to effective BFR training. Done properly, the technique is safe, hyperportable, low-impact, and affordable.
Kaatsu is a similar protocol, but the elastic cuff used to occlude blood flow is pressurized and run by a computer. While it is better researched than standard BFR banded training, a proper setup is a considerable investment.
I personally use the technique in some form most days. Since 2013, BFRT has been integral in keeping my fitness up while injured, traveling, or when I didn’t have access to a gym.
Micro-Movement & Micro-Workouts & Trigger Sessions
You may already practice micro-workouts throughout you day without realizing it. These are fancy terms for punctuating sedentary periods with brief spurts of movement. The body produces brain boosting chemicals like BDNF and NGF from movement. Something as simple as walking increases mood, fat burning, learning and memory, and countless health benefits.If "sitting is the new smoking", "micro-movement" is the new aerobics. Click To Tweet
The key distinction between micro-movement and traditional workouts is the dose and frequency. Where a typical gym session might last an hour every day (or few days), micro-movement breaks up long periods of sitting with 1-10 minutes of activity.
Another popular fitness approach, slow strength inverts the traditional training paradigm. Instead of going through multiple sets of maximal resistance, slow strength does the opposite.
One set per exercise of either bodyweight or minimal resistance. Each repetition performed as slowly as controllable. An entire workout lasts 10-15 minutes and is performed once or twice weekly.
Learn more about this effective but efficient approach in my guide to slow strength training.
A cult-like form of fitness that combines a close-knit community with intense training. The exercise programs can be brutal and aren’t for the faint of heart. To prevent overtraining and dangerous degenerative conditions like Rhabdomyolysis, participants should have their nutrition, sleep, and recovery in place before committing.
Diet & Nutrition
Nutraceutical is the term for the compounds naturally contained in food and drink. They’re also called “functional foods” and occupy the class between normal food and drug. Most medication is derived from plants, fungi, and other substances discovered in the outdoors. Nutraceuticals are powerful and more biocompatible than traditional drugs.
Time Restricted Eating (TRE) & Intermittent Fasting (IF)
Both TRE and IF are forms of meal timing that do not restrict food type. Proponents enjoy the same foods but restrict when they eat. There are many different forms from extreme one-meal-a-day (OMAD), to relatively simple 12-hours-eating-12-hours-fasting. In the literature, you’ll encounter “eTRF” as the shorthand for “early time-restricted eating”. Ancient Ayurvedic wisdom supports the idea of eating earlier in the day and stopping well before bed.
“Macros” is the abbreviation for macronutrients. They refer to the composition of food. The primary food macros include: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Alcohol is in its own category, and scientists are pushing to get a high-performance brain fuel called ketones their own macro category as well. You’ll often hear macros referred to in the context of diets like keto or among athletes talking workout nutrition.
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals found in food. Unlike macronutrients, micros are in comparatively trace quantities. Micros don’t get nearly as much attention but are equally important. The difference between regular and high-quality food is primarily in the micronutrient and xenohormetic content. Popular diets like IIFYM ignore this foundational aspect of nutrition.
Elimination diets are a broad category of eating patterns that removes the most commonly problematic foods. Avoiding certain foods can uncover food allergies and more subtle food intolerances. They’re highly restrictive and usually short-term. After a washout period, those following elimination diets slowly reintroduce questionable foods and note how their body responds. Symptoms of intolerance show hours or even days after reintroduction.
Carnivore is a zero-carb elimination diet popularized by Dr. Shawn Baker and Dr. Paul Saladino. To summarize: those two doctors theorize that, because plants can’t move, they’ve developed potent toxins to deter predators. In their clinical and personal experience, human health improves by completely removing processed and plant foods. Thousands of case studies online report great results. I tried carnivore and had mediocre results. However, if I had an autoimmune condition or need to uncover food sensitivities, I’d start here.
Food allergies change over time. In fact, I plan on doing a one-month carnivore reset every year to improve metabolic health and test for new food sensitivities.
Polyphenols are a category of chemical defense compounds made by plants to deter predators. Since humans evolved alongside plants, we’ve developed our own ways of handling these toxins. Most current research shows a beneficial hormetic effect from polyphenols in the doses found in foods. I’m not convinced that huge doses of polyphenol supplements (isolated from their natural foods) are a good idea. Nonetheless, these nutraceuticals are probably safer than other medication options.
Antinutrients are a class of chemicals that interfere with your body’s ability to use other (beneficial) nutrients in foods. Antinutrients essentially lock up nutrients. Common examples include:
- Trypsin inhibitors
Proper preparation through sprouting or soaking can disable anti-nutrients. Certain “healthy foods”, like quinoa, look good on paper but are high in these compounds. Meaning your body cannot actually use the vitamins and minerals (and they pass through you).
Resistant starch (RS) is a special subcategory of carbohydrates that your body processes differently. Instead of breaking down into glucose, these starches resist digestion. Resistant starch is a form of prebiotic that feeds your gut microbiome. Probiotics should be stacked with resistant starches or prebiotics for maximum effect. RS foods include:
- Cooked and cooled rice
- Green bananas
Cellular Carbs & Acellular Carbs
Not all carbohydrates are the villain portrayed by health advocates. But a specific type, called acellular carbs, are.
- Cellular carbs are the good ones, found in root tubers, fruits, and vegetables. Their carbs are locked away inside cells and packaged with fiber.
- Acellular carbs are refined and processed. They’re dense sources of carbs and calories, highly associated with disease.
Cellular carbs are harder for the body to use and more get burned rather than spiking blood sugar and stored as fat. Carb-heavy diets can only be healthy if comprised of cellular carbs.
Sweet is one of six major tastes. And sugar has pervaded virtually every modern cuisine. So much so that Irish courts ruled Subway bread is a dessert. How else can we get that taste without the deleterious effects of sugar? Enter artificial sweetener chemical. Chemical engineers around the world produced molecules similar to sugar, supposedly without the drawbacks.
However, research has found negative effects on everything from the gut microbiome to the brain. The gut is the foundation of health. I only like a few sugar alternatives:
- Monk fruit extract
Longevity is the study of living a long, effective, vibrant life.
Humans are nearing promising lifespan breakthroughs. Although living to see two centuries isn’t enough.
Lifespan and healthspan have a large difference.
The quality of your years. Living to 150 (long lifespan) doesn’t sound quite as appealing if the final 90 years are spent in a nursing home (poor healthspan) without the ability to care for oneself. Researchers have begun focusing heavily on healthspan instead. Healthspan posits that the quality of your final years matter.
No matter your reason for living a long time, you’ll probably want to be fully functional throughout those years.
Autophaghy is a cellular recycling process that occurs when caloric energy availability drops. This process ramps up from various lifestyle influencers, most notably fasting and heavy exercise. The body wants to become more fuel-efficient, so it optimizes. It locates ineffective cells and repairs damaged components. Then they perform as they should.
Autophagy is one of the primary mechanisms we understand behind the benefits of fasting. Another way of hacking it is through autophagy tea.
Mitophagy is the same process as autophagy adapted specifically to repairing damaged mitochondria. Since the mitochondria generate energy, act as signaling molecules, and are key components of health, mitophaghy is particularly important.
Also known as Sirolimus, Rapamycin is a drug touted for its anti-aging effects. It was discovered on Easter Island in 1964. Decades later, Rapamycin entered the drug market. Follow up studies showed impressive life span extension in animals. However, this compound also suppresses the immune system (likely how it exerts anti-aging effects). Rapamycin reduces activity of the mTOR pathway (see below). Making it a bad choice for those engaged in rigorous exercise. Doses used for anti-aging purposes are minuscule compared to their original use.
Metformin is another drug extracted from either the French Lilac plant or Goat’s Rue. This compound is commonly used as a medication to treat type 2 diabetes. It works by blunting the inevitable insulin surge response to (processed) carb-heavy meals. Like Rapamycin, metformin became popular amongst the longevity and anti-aging crowd after esteemed researcher David Sinclair boasted that it took two decades off his biological age.
However, biohackers have another option. You can get many of the same anti-aging effects of metformin with natural and effective alternatives.
Peptides are small strings of amino acids (building blocks of protein). Experts consider them the next frontier of medicine and among the most important research of the 21st century. That’s why they made my list of exciting biohacking trends of the future. These chains naturally occur in the body. One crucial difference between peptides, drugs, and supplements is that peptides send very specific signals. Unlike other compounds that bluntly regulate the body, peptides are precise. The body interprets and acts on specially targeted messages created by peptides. Which brings overactive systems down, and underactive systems up. As a modulator, the body can choose to ignore them, reducing potential side effects.
In our lifetimes, I expect the field of peptides to explode in growth.
Dubbed the “metabolic master switch”, AMP Kinase (AMPK) is the fuel gauge that helps the body decide whether to grow or break down. AMPK is also like a tuning fork for your mitochondria. AMPK and mTOR are inversely related. The greater mTOR activation, the lower AMPK. When this pathway is stimulated by fasting, exercise, and healthy lifestyle hormetics, it responds by increasing energy production. Autophagy can only occur when AMPK is elevated.
While increasing AMPK is associated with longevity, overactivation can lead to tissue degeneration. Like most pathways, it should be balanced. Most humans, however, eat around the clock and prevent meaningful levels of AMPK activation.
Directly opposing the catabolic fuel switch AMPK, is the growth pathway mTOR. Wrongly villified in biohacking circles, mTOR is necessary for cellular repair. It promotes anabolic processes that build. Sufficient mTOR activation prevents age-related frailty. Primary mTOR activators include dietary protein and abundant calories. The latter being one reason caloric restriction is the gold-standard for life extension. Considered the anti-aging protein of youth, mTOR too requires balance.
Bodybuilders and competitive athletes do everything they can to create the ideal internal environment for maximum growth. This comes at the cost of longevity, as cancerous cells use the same pathway to replicate faster.
Sirtuins are a family of genes responsible for controlling the body’s metabolic, epigenetic, and growth pathways (AMPK). Sirtuins directly and indirectly regulate genetic expression. This is another popular field of recent interest. Fasting, as well as certain ingredients called Sirtuin activating compounds (STACs) increases Sirtuins. Currently studied sirtuin genes include SIRT1, SIRT2, SIRT3, SIRT4, SIRT5, SIRT6, SIRT7. Each regulates different bodily functions and systems. If you’re curious, SelfHacked & SelfDecode can help you understand your Sirtuin expressions.
NRF2 is another pathway that protects against toxicity and chronic disease. It’s considered the master regulator of antioxidant proteins, cell defense, detox, and mitochondrial growth. Some scientists consider NRF2 activation the future of cellular protection. You can boost it through common lifestyle practices like exercise and fasting. Via supplements like curcumin, CBD, ketones, and molecular hydrogen. Or through diet.
Any biohacker worth their salt will have heard of NAD by now. NAD is a pathway popularized by Dr. David Sinclair in his book Lifespan. What you might not know, however, is that the body’s main source of NAD is recycled through what’s called the salvage pathway. NAD levels naturally rise when cellular energy is low (think high AMPK/low mTOR). The body can produce NAD through an essential amino acid called tryptophan (another reason I supplement essential amino acids).
You can naturally increase NAD without supplements. But most of the hype is around two supplemental forms: NMN and NR. Research shows real results only from IV NAD treatment. There are a few other important things to know.
- The Pau D’ Arco in Dr Mercola’s autophagy tea recipe also regulates NAD.
- NR is an extracellular signaling molecule that indicates the cell is damaged.
So is artificially increasing extracellular NAD levels a good idea? Maybe. But there will probably be repercussions from NAD injections.
Hormones are powerful chemical messengers produced inside the body that affect different organs, tissues, and processes. Different hormones impact every cell in the body. Hormones are often divided into endogenous (produced inside the body) and exogenous (synthetic administered).
Metabolism is the scary term for how your body transforms food and nutrients into energy. That energy makes you, you. The calories you burn at rest depends on your the speed of your metabolism. Most healthy activities increase metabolic activity, while aging, lack of activity, and chronic stress decrease it.
Wearables & Self-Quantification
The original biohacker’s wearable device in the form of a stylish ring (my opinion). Most notably a sleep and recovery device with only minimal fitness tracking abilities. The first device came out many years ago (in wearable tech time), and the latest v2 in 2017. Read my Oura Ring review here.
If you already own it, I drew on over three years of daily use to write the Oura tips, tricks, and hacks I’ve learned along the way.