An Intro to Biohacking and the Quantified Self Movement
How to get started with tracking and DIY experiments, with biohacking expert “Quantified Bob” Troia
If you follow people like Tim Ferris or Dave Asprey — or just know a lot of people in the tech industry — you’ve probably heard them talk about biohacking. From implanted glucose monitors to brain-boosting nootropics, from cryotherapy to trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, biohacking is a hot topic these days.
That said, it’s something few people understand very well. The term itself lacks a common, clear definition. I’ve been interested in biohacking for years, but even I can’t say I understand it fully. That’s why I decided to talk to one of the leading voices in the biohacking movement.
Bob Troia is a New York City-based technology entrepreneur, biohacker, and self-quantification geek who has been at the forefront of digital innovation and emerging technologies for two decades. A leading voice of the Quantified Self and biohacking movements, “Quantified Bob” documents his own efforts focused on the intersection of data-driven citizen science, health and wellness, human performance, longevity, and personal optimization at QuantifiedBob.com.
I asked Bob a few questions about biohacking and self-experimentation. His answers were enlightening.
How did you first get into self-experimentation?
I’ve always had a curious mind and a desire for self-knowledge. As an athlete in high school and college, I was looking to understand how to best optimize my performance through diet, exercise, supplementation, etc. — back then we were using simple tools like tape measures, stopwatches, pens, and paper!
It’s only been over the past seven or eight years where technology is allowing us to understand ourselves in ways never before possible — from wearable tech to advanced lab tests available to any consumer. Now that I am older, I am looking to balance performance with longevity.
Can you explain why you started Quantified Bob and what your mission is?
I had been doing a bunch of self-tracking and personal optimization experiments for some time, but didn’t realize there were other people out there interested in the same thing! It wasn’t until I attended the annual Quantified Self conference back in 2012 that I realized there was this awesome, global community of like-minded people. It was so inspiring.
That night, while back at my hotel, I decided I would start documenting and sharing some of my adventures in data-driven optimization. I needed a domain name, and “QuantifiedBob.com” was literally the first thing that popped into my head. At the time I was the founder/CEO of a digital marketing/technology firm, so the blog was just a small personal passion project. I had no idea that the information I was sharing would resonate with so many people.
Some of my earliest posts were related to rethinking my approach to diet (going bulletproof/Paleo/gluten-free) and addressing some underlying issues. But then there were fun things like measuring my body’s physiological response to watching an IMAX sci-fi blockbuster or gambling.
Biohacking is one of those words that’s hard for people to define– do you have a precise definition of it?
There are actually 3 different definitions of “biohacking” — the oldest reference to the term I could find was from back in the 80’s, related to DIY biology and using tools to genetically modify bacteria, yeast, cells, or organisms in a petri dish.
Another definition, also known as body hacking or “grinding”, involves human augmentation by attaching or implanting objects into the body to enhance or gain new abilities or senses.
But from the standpoint of wellness and personal optimization, the definition I most often come across is using science, technology, and self-experimentation to “hack” and optimize one’s own biology, mind, and life.
[John here: I don’t find this definition all that satisfying, partly because it uses the word “hack,” and partly because it’s overly broad. I will note, however, that biohacking tends to focus on things that are cutting-edge and unproven, and once something is commonly accepted as effective, it tends to stop being viewed as biohacking and start being seen merely as “health” or “fitness.” Thus, the common perception that biohacking is just a bunch of stuff that isn’t supported by science tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.]
You mentioned lab tests — are there any in particular that you’ve found to be extremely valuable?
Assuming someone is already getting basic workups done (complete blood count, comprehensive metabolic panel, lipid panel, etc.), there are hormone tests like the DUTCH, toxic metals tests, and tests that look for chronic and acute autoimmune issues or lingering Lyme disease co-infections, EBV, etc..
Yes, this can all get rather expensive if you start going down a rabbit hole wanting to try every little specialized test (especially if not covered by insurance). Affordable full-genome testing is nearly here as well, but what really excites me is the promise of -omics testing (metabolomics, proteomics, etc.).
How do you design a good self-experiment? With only one subject, how do you know the results are valid and not just statistical noise?
There are two ways to approach this. Many times, my “experiments” are actually insights I discover from data already collected. For example, I would wear a continuous glucose monitor for two weeks, then look back at the data, then cross it with other data I have been collecting to better understand its relationships with diet, exercise, and sleep.
With Quantified Self and self-experimentation, we often use “n=1” (n of 1, or single-subject) to describe our experiments. The fact that two people could do the same experiment and see different results is a powerful concept — it doesn’t mean one person is “wrong” and another is “right”, but rather that we are all highly individualized!
Other times, I may be looking to test a theory or replicate an interesting study (i.e., does fasting for five days, then re-feeding, result in a surge of growth factors in my body, per what some studies have shown? Yes!) The most common ways to structure a self-experiment are A-B, A-B-A, or A-B-A-B, where A represents a baseline condition, and B represents some intervention. These experiments can range in duration from hours to months.
There will always be noise in the data being collected (activity, weight, etc.) — for example, I have several home smart scales and they will show my body fat percentage shift as much as 3–4% day-to-day! This is largely due to things like hydration. But if you zoom out the data and take a moving average, the overall trend is pretty spot on.
Which self-experiments have been the most productive for you and what did you learn from them?
Definitely — the deeper I dive into glucose tracking, the more I am able to “dial-in” things like what I eat and when I eat in order to maintain optimal glucose levels, or even how to prevent sleep disruptions due to my blood sugar dipping too low overnight.
Incorporating various forms of fasting (intermittent fasting, 3-day water fasts, 5-day “fasting-mimicking diet”) has given me great insights into how my body “resets” (growth factors, improved sleep, HRV), and how metabolically flexible I am in term of rapidly shifting to ketones for energy when needed, even though I would never say I follow a “ketogenic” diet.
The experiments I have done to measure and optimize my indoor environment (air quality, water quality, EMF/radiation) have given me many actionable insights in terms of addressing some issues in my home and has really had an impact on things like sleep quality, as well.
What exactly is a “fasting-mimicking diet,” and how do you do it? What’s the benefit of it?
The “fasting-mimicking diet” (FMD) is a 5-day program that involves restricted caloric intake (and macro/micronutrient profiles) that has been shown to mimic the effects and benefits of a similar full-on fast, from shifting to fat and ketones for energy, to autophagy (cellular recycling/clean up), to a boost of growth factors upon refeeding at the completion of cycle.
Those not experienced with fasting find doing an FMD a bit easier since they can still consume (very) small amounts of food. The original researchers have since developed a commercial product called ProLon, but I share my experience and how-to for doing a “DIY” version on my website.
Which self-experiments (particularly popular ones that a lot of people try) have you found to be overrated or unproductive?
I don’t think any experiment is overrated or useless if at the end of the day people are gaining some insights about themselves. Understanding what *didn’t* work can be valuable information!
I also caution people about putting complete faith in the data collected by their wearables — while these are valuable tools, understand the data is often off considerably (especially sleep data) — not because the devices or algorithms are particularly flawed, but because there’s potential for the devices to shift and affect data being collected.
What if you wake up in the morning feeling great but your sleep tracker says you only got 1 minute of deep/restorative sleep? Do you still feel great, or start worrying? Pay more attention to trends.
What do you use to track your sleep?
I have gone through many devices over the years, but I am currently using an Ōura ring, a Biostrap, and a Fitbit. It’s always good to get a second (and third!) opinion, since no single device is even close to 100% “accurate” (compared to polysomnography), and often the devices don’t correlate with each other when it comes to sleep stage detection.
Which changes have you found had the biggest benefit in terms of helping you sleep?
Going to sleep at a consistent time each night, avoiding large meals late in the evening to prevent my metabolism from being elevated overnight (which can adversely affect sleep), and optimizing my sleep environment (cooler, darker, less humid, ventilated).
Incorporating supplements and tech to help sleep are nice occasional tools, but if you have to rely on them every night to sleep, you aren’t addressing larger underlying issues.
Which self-experiments do you think most people should try?
I think everyone should at the very least start to understand their glucose and heart rate variability trends. And have some sense of how their sleep is looking, especially overall duration and consistency of asleep/awake times — that in itself can reveal a lot about one’s lifestyle.
How can people start experimenting with glucose tracking? Is there a guide to that?
All you need is an inexpensive glucose meter, test strips/lancets, and a spreadsheet. I have a few posts that start by taking a fasted reading every morning about an hour after waking up. Over a week or two, you’ll have a better understanding of your baseline trends (I share my experience here).
Then you can start looking at variability throughout the day — take a reading before a meal, then readings 30/60/90 minutes afterward. If you want to “level up”, there are now continuous glucose monitors like the FreeStyle Libre and Dexcom G6 that will give you even better trends (such as what happens while you are sleeping). You can even see how things like fasting can affect your glucose readings.
[John: My doctor also uses a continuous glucose monitor, and I plan to get one sooner or later. I definitely would put this near the top of my list of self-experiments everyone should try– just below anything to do with sleep optimization, or testing your carb tolerance and eating for it.]
What can people use to measure and track heart rate variability? Also, can you explain why heart rate variability is important and what a good target for it is?
There are several ways to track HRV. The most accurate way to measure HRV is with a chest strap that runners often wear, paired with an app like SweetBeat HRV or EliteHRV. I personally take a three-minute reading every morning upon waking up (before getting out of bed) using an app called HRV4Training.
Devices like Oura will track HRV overnight while you’re sleeping, but the average value trends they report will not be the same as waking HRV trends (you need to pick one to use as your baseline).
HRV is highly individualized, so what’s most important is looking at your own baseline/trends and seeing how you compare each day (and always seeking to increase it).
What mistakes do people need to avoid making when designing and running their own self-experiments?
Biohackers tend to get very motivated to dive in and try 20 different things at once in an effort to want to see some sort of result, but unfortunately, that makes it very difficult to correlate what is/isn’t working. So people end up wasting time and money on 17 things that may not be moving the needle when there might be just 2 or 3 things that get them 99% of the way there.
Recap and Links
To recap, if you’re interested in biohacking, here are the first few things you should look at, in order:
- Getting basic blood work.
- Testing and eating for your carb tolerance.
- Optimizing your sleep.
- Getting a glucose monitor and learning how to maintain steady, healthy blood sugar levels.
And that’s your intro to biohacking!