Biohacking is having a moment. While once this 'health optimisation' movement was largely dominated by tech bros in Silicon Valley who were obsessed with leveraging their biology to enhance their performance at work or in the gym, now more women are getting on board, adapting the concept of 'biohacking' to take into account our hormone fluctuations.
In the US, Higherdose founders Lauren Berlingeri and Katie Kaps, who create high-tech wellbeing tools such as the infrared sauna blanket and PEMF Pulsed Electro Magnetic Therapy mats (a quick lie down on one of these is said to be the equivalent of an hour's meditation!) launched a wellness series Biohack-hers earlier this year in a bid to find the best biohacking technologies for women. They trialled everything from ketamine IV drips for trauma therapy to stem cell skin rejuvenation treatments. Meanhwhile, in the UK, self-professed biohacker Davinia Taylor, 44, has amassed one million Instagram followers eager to lap up her biohacking tips — which include taking a cold shower before bed every night. Her book/memoir detailing how she beat her cravings and got 'lean' without willpower This is Not a Diet has become a best-seller. Olympian Jessica Ennis Jennis fitness app is based around 'cycle mapping,' or planning your workouts around your menstrual cycle, a technique she used to win heptathlon gold.
What is biohacking?
“Biohacking is a trendy way of saying ‘optimisation,’" says Rhian Stephenson, nutritionist, naturopath and founder of Artah supplements. "It's about personalising your routine – using nutrition, supplements, exercise, and other wellness habits – in order to optimise energy, health and wellbeing.”
"Biohackers tend to be several steps ahead of modern medicine, instead of trying to fix the body when it has gone wrong, the idea is to prevent and even go one step further to optimise it,” adds Dr Nichola Conlon, a molecular biologist and founder of Nuchido Time+ NAD Supplements. "While we cannot stop time, studies show that we do have more control over how we age than once thought, and multiple lifestyle practices have now been identified which can help keep you, younger for longer."
The practice is massive in America, where healthcare is not free and there is more of a focus on longevity and staying well, giving rise to a huge biohacking podcast community. Early adopters include billionaire and former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, whose wellness habits include eating only one meal a day and using a standing desk under infrared light. Then there's Dave Asprey, the founder of Bulletproof Coffee — aka ‘butter’ coffee who, among other things, sleeps on a magnetic pad in a bid live to 180. Both spend millions on their biohacking habits. Asprey’s podcast The Human Upgrade, is now one of the most listened to in the States. Biohacking continues to gain traction in the UK, too, with the annual Health Optimisation Summit in London getting bigger each year.
It's gone on to spawn some of the edgiest and weirdest wellness trends, from spiking your morning lattes with medicinal mushrooms to indulging in an infrared sauna (or building your own for the lucky few), hitting up a freezing cryo chamber, having IV drips, and of course, the OG biohack: time-restricted eating. Many of these seem almost normal now.
While some biohacks, such as the £300 Oura ring beloved by Harry and Meghan, which measures everything from sleep to stress and activity, or the £4,000 at-home Cold Plunge bath no billionaire biohacker’s bathroom is complete without, require a tech giant salary to indulge in, many draw on centuries-old holistic practices as simple as yoga or breathwork. “Biohacking incorporates a wide range of means or ‘biohacks’ – some might seem logical, and others quite extreme – in order to optimise wellness, both physical and mental,” offers registered nutritionist Charlotte Faure Green. “They tend to sit outside of conventional medicine, and are considered ‘alternative’, even though they may have been practised safely and widely in ancient cultures for years.”
It's still an unregulated space, however, with many self-experimenters and whacky claims, which is why it’s important to follow trusted experts, such as those below. But at its heart, biohacking is about staying sharp, strong and balanced and living longer in good health.
What are the benefits of biohacking for women?
While many biohacking practices could benefit everyone, regardless of gender or age, Dr Conlon says, “women have the added complexity that their biology can change quite dramatically on a monthly basis due to their hormones." This is because women have an ‘infradian rhythm,' a 28-day cycle that regulates their menstrual cycle, also referred to as the body's 'second clock' (after the 24-hour circadian rhythm). "This has been found to powerfully impact how a woman’s body and brain will function at different points in their cycle and there is now good evidence that women will benefit if they adopt diet, exercise and work patterns that support their infradian rhythm, as opposed to a ‘same-thing-everyday’ lifestyle that seems to work well for male physiology. This is why many more women suffer from hormone-related imbalances than men.”
In practice, this could involve doing gentler workouts during certain phases of your cycle, or if you're a fan of intermittent fasting, also limiting this to certain phases in your cycle when your body is naturally under less stress. Stephenson elaborates: “As male biology works on a 24-hour clock, their energy and metabolism are more stable and less dynamic than that of females. As such, they can benefit from doing the same thing every day, but because our biochemical landscape is constantly changing, something that would suit us in the early follicular phase could stress us in the luteal phase [during ovulation]. Likewise, a woman in her reproductive years trying to get pregnant will have different needs and energy than a post-menopausal woman, so learning how to optimise your biology at every stage and age is key to building resilience and vitality.”
How is biohacking beneficial in menopause?
Rebekah Brown, the founder of MPowder, which specialises in supplements for perimenopausal and menopausal women, adds that biohacking for women in menopause can be crucial in helping you to navigate biological changes. “A curious mind is perhaps the most valuable practice we can adopt in menopause. Medical practitioners and complementary therapists would agree that every journey is different and that 'layering up' with a range of practices that nourish the body and mind is key. I see the non-negotiables for a healthy transition as sound, regular advice from your GP, good nutrition and daily movement. Biohacking, once those firm foundations are set, help us truly harness our hormones to make 'part two' a stepping up, not a fading away."
Below, we spoke to five women about how they incorporate biohacking into their daily routines at different stages in their lives.
‘Vagal toning, mouth taping and Himalayan pink salt in water’
Charlotte Faure Green, 36, is a registered nutritionist and mental health advocate
Give vagal toning a go to improve sleep and reduce stress
“The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve connecting the brain to the rest of your body. It passes through the neck down to the abdomen, including your heart, lungs, gut, liver and pancreas. It regulates functions of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that operates without having to think about it. When we are chronically anxious and stressed over time, we lose our vagal tone, and it starts to respond inappropriately to what we deem as a threat. It affects our sleep and digestive function. I researched vagal toning when a small glass of wine started to interrupt my sleep and came across the Sensate device. I use this pretty much every night to improve my vagal tone – I can now have a glass of wine and not worry about not being able to sleep (terrible nutritionist!), but it supports my stress response and improves the quality of my deep sleep.
"Vagal toning activities that are free include gargling, cold water swimming, cold showers, singing and meditation.”
Add Himalayan pink salt to water for extra hydration
“I add a tiny pinch of Himalayan pink salt to each glass of water I drink, particularly when I’m working out. This helps to hydrate cells by balancing electrolytes. It is impactful for health and prevents excessive urination. Overhydration (too much water) can cause the cells to be underhydrated by flushing out the toxins that get the water where they need to be, by replenishing them you reduce that issue.”
Try mouth taping while you sleep
“I have become increasingly aware of the research behind the oral microbiome and how it feeds into all facets of wellness. What happens in the mouth doesn’t stay in the mouth! Our oral microbiome is a driver for systemic diseases, such as dementia and neurodegeneration, heart disease, arthritis and other auto-immune diseases, cancer risk, gut health, and even Type 2 diabetes. At night I often pop a small piece of micropore tape vertically across my lips to encourage nostril breathing over mouth breathing – mouth breathing reduces saliva production which can lead to pathogenic bacteria formation increasing the risk of gum disease and inflammation.
“Biohackers believe that reducing mouth breathing at night also improves REM sleep and thus better focus and concentration the following day – while the scientific jury is out on this, anecdotally I do feel a difference when I do it. Truthfully, I do this for a few days consecutively and then fall out of the habit. I should do it more, but it’s not always convenient as I like to sip water in the night if I wake, and my husband thinks I’m bonkers.”
Hit up an infrared sauna
“I have an autoimmune thyroid disorder called Hashimoto’s disease. Although I am now eight years in and manage it very well with lifestyle, nutrition and medication, having a far infrared sauna once or twice a week has impacted my energy and stress levels positively. The thyroid is responsible for metabolism and raising core body temperature and a sauna session can temporarily do this job for us, giving our thyroid a much-needed break. Allowing the body to be under hormesis (a mild stress) in this case brought on by the increasing of core body temperature, heart rate and sweating, incites a positive response that boosts the body’s ability to respond and adapt to stress (both emotional and cellular). Physical and psychological stress are implicated in the development and progression of autoimmune diseases (and in fact many diseases) and so improving the body's ability to adapt to stress may improve the progression — it’s also just incredibly relaxing.
"When lockdown hit and we couldn’t get to the gym to use the sauna we invested in a little pop-up FIR sauna, £339, for our home.”
'Daily meditation, tapping and ashwagandha for anxiety'
Rebekah Brown, 49, is the founder of supplement brand MPowder, which formulates products specifically for women in perimenopause and menopause
Image: Instagram @mpowderstore
“Did you know that our bodies naturally suppress the production of our sex hormones when we are stressed? In menopause, when progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone are already fluctuating and depleting, the presence of cortisol makes it harder for our bodies to be in balance. And makes it harder for our stomachs to digest food too. A daily meditation practice can build in terms of impact. Make it as habitual as cleaning your teeth. And over time you'll feel real value.”
Tap to release tension
“As I've become more comfortable with being uncomfortable (menopause does that to you), I've also become better at stepping outside my comfort zone. The Emotional Freedom Tapping technique is a practice that I would have dismissed two years ago, but there is a growing body of research pointing to its efficacy in releasing tension, with near-immediate impact. Scientists believe that the practice relaxes our central nervous system and reduces cortisol, which in turn allows us to feel greater optimism.”
Add ashwagandha to your supplement drawer
“For me, my biggest biohack has been the inclusion of the ancient adaptogen ashwagandha. I've struggled with anxiety throughout my menopause journey and this clever herb has been shown to help with mood, libido, sleep and more. It's important to remember that not all supplements are created equal — look for Ashwagandha KSM66 — it's the best researched and, although more costly, you can be sure of the source and therefore the active ingredients. You can find it, at therapeutic dosage levels, in MPowder Meno-Boost too.”
Apple cider vinegar before meals and cycle sync fasting and fitness
Mother-of-two Rhian Stephenson, 40, is a nutritionist, naturopath and founder of Artah supplements
Image: Instagram @rhianstephenson
Regulate your blood sugar
“Blood sugar regulation is one hack that I actively use because of how transformational it is for energy. Apple cider vinegar is a biohack that has had a lot of criticism for being a detox fad without the science, but while it's definitely not a miracle cure for detoxification, it does have benefits when it comes to glucose control.
"Studies have shown that taking vinegar before a meal can reduce postprandial glycemia, which means the rise in blood sugar after eating, by 20 to 30 per cent. This means the spike in blood sugar and subsequent insulin release can be smaller, which is better for energy, mood and immunity. I always look for raw unfiltered organic brands, like Bragg Organic Apple Cider Vinegar with The Mother, £3.50. I take two tablespoons in water before that are heavier in carbohydrates or sugars, and also use it a lot in salad dressings."
Move after a sugary or carb-heavy meal
“I always move after a carb-heavy or sugary meal. If we have an increase in blood sugar but are sedentary, the body has no use for it and will store it. Muscles are metabolically active and use up blood glucose for fuel, so moving after an indulgence can help diminish the swings in blood sugar. This can be anything. You can do a brisk walk or some quick bodyweight movements that involve the legs and glutes, so squats, jumps, lunges etc.”
Cycle sync your intermittent fasting
“Periodic fasting is one of the most common biohacking practices. I regularly use intermittent fasting to stay energised, and there are two ways I personalise it to add a 'biohacking' angle. Firstly, I only fast in the follicular phase of my cycle [which starts on the first day of your period and ends in ovulation] because it's more effective and more comfortable. In the luteal phase [during ovulation], we need more nutrients, more calories, and more nourishment in general. We're hungrier, our mood is slightly depressed we're working hard to build the endometrium, so fasting is biologically counterintuitive. Secondly, I use electrolytes when I fast. In addition to losing electrolytes while we sleep and through exercise, we lose electrolytes if we fast or follow a low-carb diet. When I fast, I have 500ml water with Artah’s Cellular Hydration, £32, first thing, and it helps improve mood, energy, metabolism and appetite control.”
Try pranayama breathing
“Breathwork is an amazing tool that is huge in the biohacking world. Breathwork can help stimulate vagus nerve activity, and so helps to reduce the stress hormone cortisol, inflammation, blood pressure, and anxiety because it relaxes the nervous system, it's also been shown to help with insomnia. There are lots of free tools online you can use, including the 4-7-8 breath pattern, a pranayama technique which is a big element of yoga and focuses on controlling your breath by inhaling, exhaling and holding your breath, and Wim Hoff breathing techniques.”
‘Get the basics right first and boost your NAD+,’’
Dr Nichola Conlon, 35, is a molecular biologist specialising in the study of cellular ageing and founder of Nuchido TIME+ NAD Supplement
Images: Instagram @drnicholaconlon
First get the basics right with regular exercise, a balanced diet and enough sleep
“We have all heard time and time again that exercise, diet and sleep are all important for our health, but research now shows that they are probably some of the best tools we can use – particularly when it comes to ageing well. This is because recent research has shown that these lifestyle practices reverse your biological age – which is the age at which your cells are ageing inside – meaning they can literally turn back the clock. So while they may sound like old advice, they are the cheapest and most effective ways to optimise your health.”
Boost your NAD+
"Science shows that a natural molecule found in every cell in your body called NAD+ is critical to supporting cellular health. It’s vital for energy production and switching on cellular maintenance and repair pathways, but, unfortunately, it declines with age, contributing to the signs of ageing we see and feel, such as a reduction in physical and mental energy and slower recovery.
"The good news is that there are several scientifically proven ways to boost your NAD+ levels. One increasingly popular way is to use an NAD+-boosting supplement, a fairly new addition to the supplement market, but one which has the credibility of strong scientific research supporting it. Benefits often associated with boosting your NAD+ include improved energy and endurance, better sleep, reduced brain fog and improved mental sharpness. At a cellular level, higher NAD+ means improved DNA repair, so cells can quickly respond to damage; improved mitochondrial function leading to more efficient metabolism and the activation of multiple longevity pathways, that are associated with healthy metabolic function and ageing."
‘No caffeine after 10am, magnesium baths and 8 hours and 15 minutes sleep (to be exact!)'
Tara Swart, 49, author, neuroscientist and psychiatrist
Deep breathing first thing to oxygenate the brain
“My day looks a bit like this: wake up and do deep breathing to oxygenate the brain, breathe into any areas of muscle tension, and shift stuck energy. The brain is small but it is a very energy-hungry organ — the two resources for the brain are glucose and oxygen so a healthy balanced diet and deep breathing are important to provide it with what it requires to function. Stress and device usage can cause shallow breathing or breath holding, something I call 'tech' or 'screen apnea', so the idea is to intentionally counteract this. Doing it first thing is partly to ensure that it gets done before we become busy and distracted but it also sets the tone for the day. Plus, if you regularly do deep breathing upon waking, you are more likely to notice how you are breathing during the rest of the day. I like box breathing and the physiological sigh (my Reel on this has had 2.2 million views). Proper breathing also assists the brain cleansing that occurs overnight via the glymphatic system."
Biohack your diet with plants, probiotics and supplements
"After 10 minutes I'll drink a glass of water to hydrate and have a cup of tea with Neutrient Butterfat Keto MCT Creamer, £39.98 [for an energy boost]. Supplement-wise I take a probiotic Symprove (from £39.99/month) and Seed when I travel (because it's in tablet form). Probiotics promote the gut-brain bidirectional relationship by improving the quality and diversity of the gut microbiome. I also take a smart supplement called Heights (from £40/month), which provides the essential vitamins and minerals for the brain that people may not be getting enough of through their diet, and adaptogenic herbs and medicinal mushrooms, which help to improve resilience to stress — stress is the biggest factor that reduces brain productivity.
“I only eat between 12 noon and 8pm and eat an organic plant-based diet with small amounts free-range, grass-fed dairy products and small amounts of wild fish to avoid the steroids, antibiotics and hormones (both injected sex steroid hormones and cortisol from stress) in factory/farmed livestock (I don’t eat meat but the same would apply if I did). I also make sure I have probiotic foods like Biotuful Kefir, £2.75, River Cottage Organic Kombucha, £1.75, or Yumchi Kimchi products at least three days a week for gut health.”
Magnesium baths, no caffeine after 10am and aim for exactly 8 hours and 15 minutes sleep
“Exercise-wise, I’ll do some foam rolling or Sivananda yoga to improve muscle and joint flexibility and I walk in nature with ankle weights for an hour most days and swim once or twice a week. I dry body brush to promote lymphatic circulation and bathe in Better You Magnesium Flakes, £10.95, three to five times a week to reduce stress and replenish magnesium levels (this helps with mood, sleep, musculoskeletal junctions and nerves). I don't have caffeine after 10am because if I do, I find it disrupts my sleep, and always aim to sleep for 8 hours and 15 minutes (more can be depressogenic [can cause depression]) and less is not long enough for the brain cleansing system to clear out toxins overnight."