Biohacking: what it is and the keto connection

Many of us practice some sort of biohacking or citizen science but don’t necessarily call it that. Feel a cold coming on so take extra vitamins or an herbal tea? Feel tired so up your hydration and/or caffeine? Those small self-directed additions to your routine are biohacking. It’s figuring out unconventional but natural ways to optimize health, energy, nutrition, fitness, and overall life.

On trend

Often biohacking is now talked about on a larger scale as many labs and researchers are working on realizing new limits of human potential. With social media and other internet resources these individuals can easily share their experiments and findings. It’s easier than ever to communicate results and even start a movement or community. Search for biohacking on reddit and you’ll get pages of forums with individuals all over the world sharing resources and their own experiences.

This recent article by Popular Mechanics magazine showcases several types of biohacking including using cryotherapy and sensory deprivation tanks, as well as nutritional “hacks”. The piece specifically mentions the keto diet, and how it’s being studied for positive effects and protection of the brain. Though the author (who experimented biohacks on herself) also talks about having a hard induction period transitioning to ketosis and that she didn’t stay with keto very long. I want to mention that this piece also discusses intermittent fasting which I’ll get into below in this post.

Search the term biohacking online and the top articles will likely include reference to the keto diet. Using ketones for fuel is a type of biohacking to tap into continuous energy and amazing cognitive benefits.

Bulletproof

A champion for biohacking, Dave Asprey created the Bulletproof company which is arguably responsible for the bulletproof or boosted coffee trend. It’s also a staple for many following a ketogenic diet. The practice generally involves consuming coffee blended with fat. The Bulletproof method involves the company’s own coffee beans, their Brain Octane product (a MCT oil based product), and grass-fed butter. There are skeptics online, and not much academic scientific info available, but the first-hand accounts of doing this are astounding. Personally, I have a boosted coffee most weekday mornings. I put MCT oil, butter or heavy cream, and collagen powder in my mixture. It satisfies me for quite a while and I think it does help with my thinking abilities. I notice negative differences on days when I don’t have this mixture, and I look forward to having it.

Intermittent fasting

The other big biohacking link to the ketogenic lifestyle is intermittent fasting or IF. Many keto folks purposely fast during their day and eat only during a certain ‘eating window’. A popular convention is the 16-8 one whereby a person won’t eat for 16hrs (inclusive of sleeping time) and then have an 8hr window for any food they consume for the day. The main argument for IF is to control insulin levels in the body. So many still consume some things (like water, plain tea) while you fast as long they don’t trigger an insulin response. The academic science AND personal accounts of the benefits of IF are abundant. In my opinion, one of the best description led of IF, its recent rise to fame, and benefits is this Harvard Health Blog post from earlier this year. And I recommend searching YouTube for keto-guru Dr. Berg’s IF videos because he presents a wealth of info succinctly in an easy-to-follow manner.

Like most other aspects of a ketogenic lifestyle, intermittent fasting goes against conventional health advice. Aren’t we supposed to eat ‘a balanced diet’ and have three meals with snacks in between? I don’t believe so anymore!

Personally, I try to do IF most days but have mixed results. I find my success depends on what I’m doing (and likely thoughts I’m having), and what I ate before fasting. I’m feeling better and better each day, but am still working through decades of food issues and metabolic damage (separate blog post on that to come!). Getting better or more sustainable at IF is one of my goals this year.

Do you biohack?

So do you do any sort of biohacking to optimize health or performance? I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at first when starting a ketogenic lifestyle. But I’m fascinated with the topic now!

Good read: Sugar’s Sick Secrets

I want to share articles and other good reads I find which highlight or discuss topics related to my own site’s main themes.

This good read article is called Sugar’s Sick Secrets and details work by researchers at UC San Francisco. It talks about trends in diseases and health troubles linked to overconsumption of sugar.

It makes a comparison between food policies, behavior, and marketing. Smoking was once the norm just as eating sugar-laden foods is currently our norm.

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The article also discusses evidence of the sugar industry funding research which set the course for our society’s obsession with everything low fat (but increasing sugars and carbs in food options).

This is a good read for anyone, but especially so if you’re interested in a low carb diet or ketogenic lifestyle.

Questioning conventional healthcare: advocating for yourself and doing your own research

I saw a post on keto-advocate Dr. Ken Berry’s Instagram page recently that rang true with me. It was a quote from Dr. Marcia Angell: “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine. “

This quote is from Dr. Angell’s review ‘Drug Companies and Doctors: A Story of Corruption‘ which is about big pharma and unethical trends in the medical community in America. It’s a fascinating but terrifying read. Where I live in Canada, we like to think things are in a better state of affairs but I can attest to the presence of lazy doctors (and/or they’re overworked and burned out) and a system of apathy. Conventional medicine looks to treat a symptom. From my own journey to help health issues, and through my own research related to keto and nutrition, I’m realizing that functional medicine with a holistic approach is my preference.

I have found more benefits being my own advocate and researching issues and solutions than talking to doctors or nutritionists. The book Undoctored by William Davis is a good read if you’re interested in all this. But even here I urge caution as this doctor is also selling a product. You need to trust your gut and go with the information that will serve you. Leave behind anything that doesn’t sit well with you.

When I first started a ketogenic lifestyle I came across more nutritional and health information than ever before. It’s amazing how much information is out there if we just want to look for it. And it takes so little effort now to look. Information is at our fingertips in the blink of an eye. All you have to do is go forward with an open mind, yet keep vigilant regarding the quality of the info and credibility of the source. Keep your wits about you and you’ll have a wealth of information in no time. And soon, in the not too distant future, there will be no stigma for Googling symptoms or seeking healthcare info online. In fact, Google has set up its own healthcare division with plans to utilize artificial intelligence to help individuals prevent, detect, and treat health issues.

Technology should be working for us and making our lives better. With a smart phone you can be a citizen scientist, journalist, photographer, writer, travel advisor, etc. So many people are already acclimated to looking for answers online. Need directions? Or product recommendations? Or parenting advice? Google it. There are videos, blogs, forums, reviews, pins, tweets, you name it. The internet has made all our experiences accessible and anyone can share their story or expertise. Plus you can access online teaching, courses, academic writing, library catalogs, and legit sources more readily than ever before.

It used to be that health advice came from controlled clinical trial or study results. These were written in an inaccessible way or with a narrow scope. Results were only available to those privileged ‘in the know’ medical professionals. Which in turn didn’t allow for much analysis or commentary.

But now, the internet provides an abundance of first-hand real-world experiences. We are telling our own stories. And although these accounts are not controlled studies with sound scientific methods they do offer us unprecedented access into others’ experiences with products, techniques, diets, programs, etc. A Reddit discussion becomes a case study, or an article’s comments section offers debate of different perspectives or experiences.

The internet is flooded with citizen science health and nutrition information. Trust me, I know a lot of it is bunk and you’ve got to weed through the garbage to find relevant and credible info. But I do believe group-sourcing and doing your own research is extremely useful. You need to be your own advocate and educate yourself. Doctors and other medical professionals are not all-knowing beings. They are human and fallible just like the rest of us. Our systems are broken so they’re overworked, and there’s too much influence from businesses and those with unethical agendas. Think for yourself and question what you’re told. It might save your life.

What is keto?

I figured the best place to start this site is at the beginning. I think it’s important to know some of the foundation info and history before starting a ketogenic lifestyle. Success and longevity for me is supported by knowing the ins and outs of what is actually happening in my body. I’ve become interested in nutrition and how keto works. Researching is a hobby and I now have many YouTube videos, TedTalks, articles, books, and postcasts about nutrition under my belt. I encourage you to do your own research but please be wary of the source and info quality.

Strap in for a long read. Yes, it will be detailed and scientific but that, in my opinion, is what makes keto so special and amazing. Disclaimer: I am not a scientist or doctor, and am recounting facts here from my own research and experience.

Keto basics
The term keto is short for ketosis which is a metabolic state of burning ketones for fuel or energy instead of carbohydrates. There are only three macro nutrients making up our nutritional pie chart – carbohydrates, proteins, fats – so when the amount of one macro is altered then the other two need to compensate. The keto diet promotes consuming very little carbs, high fats, and moderate or adequate protein. Typically, a keto diet is viewed as one which is derives about 5-10% of your daily macros from carbohydrates and and about 70-75% from fat. But there is a saying in the keto community: if it fits your macros. Everyone has different nutrition needs and you can do some experimentation and search online for a macro calculator to find your ideal nutritional ratios. Also, your ideal ratios will change if you gain or loose weight so you may need to re-calculate from time to time. Each person may have different macro needs or ratios. This is why it sometimes bothers me when I see something advertised as ‘keto’ as technically there is no real way to define if a food or recipe is or is not ‘keto’. Ketosis is a metabolic state and no foods are off limits as long as you can fit it in your daily macro limits. Perhaps the better phrase is ‘keto-friendly’? But for many people, counting daily ratios and nutrients is cumbersome and not realistically sustainable hence the generally understood principle is that ‘keto’ means a diet high in fat and very low in carbohydrates (and moderate protein – I’ll get into that later). This will promote the body to produce more ketones and use them for fuel.

Ketones
Ketone bodies are molecules produced by the liver from fatty acids when there is a restricted diet (fasting states, low-carb diets, after prolonged exercise, or starvation). The body produces ketones when there isn’t enough insulin to turn glucose (sugar) into energy. The keto diet essentially shuts off, or at least extremely limits, insulin responses in the body. Ketones are the body’s backup energy source and allows it to burn fat as fuel. With a keto diet, you can eat (ie. not starve!) to promote ketone production by limiting carbohydrates and consuming much more fat than the typical North American. The benefits of switching your body to this alternative source of fuel are many and I’ll get into those in future posts.

There are three types of ketones: beta-hydroxybutyric (BHB); acetoacetate (AcAc); acetone. The first two, BHB and AcAc, transport energy from the liver all over the body. Acetone is the least used ketone and is created as a by-product of AcAc. It typically isn’t needed for energy and breaks down and is removed from the body as waste. However, it’s presence is a tell-tale sign someone is in ketosis because acetone is the culprit for ‘keto breath’ or fruity breath of those in ketosis, as well as sometimes smelly urine.

Once the body is ‘fat adapted’ it will produce and burn ketones for energy. Ketones are a constant source of energy for the brain and rest of the body. Many find not relying on the standard energy source, glucose, freeing as they do not need to eat as frequently, stay fuller longer, and have that steady supply of energy which often translates to being more alert and efficient. Personally, I am more energetic and organized when in ketosis, and notice a less cravings for sugar. I sleep better, am in a better mood, and retain information better when in ketosis.

A carb is not just a carb
Just try to eliminate carbohydrates from your diet. You can’t. Carbs are in everything so even when you attempt to severely restrict carbs you will still inevitably consume some and that’s okay as long as it fits your macros. Additionally, the body makes glucose for any cells that need it all by itself. The liver converts amino acids (from protein) and glycerol (from fatty acids) into glucose by the process gluconeogenesis. Later in this post, this process will come up again with regard to over-consuming protein.

Many following a keto diet count ‘net carbs’ instead of total carbs when figuring out their macro ratios for daily nutrition. Net carbs are the total amount of carbohydrates in a food minus the fiber. Fiber isn’t digested and absorbed the same as other parts of carbs. The body’s gut bacteria breaks down fiber into fatty acids. Some individuals also back out any sugar alcohol as they find those don’t affect their blood sugar. Others avoid sugar alcohols altogether and I hope to write a post on sugar alternatives soon.

There are two types of carbohydrates: starches (complex carbs) and sugars (simple carbs). Starches are long chains of individual glucose or sugar units linked together. Though they take a little longer to digest in your system, starches are absorbed into the bloodstream the same as pure sugar. Sugar itself consists of much shorter chains and sometimes are just a single molecule. An example of a sugar short chain is lactose (glucose and galactose) and an example of a single molecule is just fructose by itself. These shorter chains or individual molecules metabolize very quickly in the body and are responsible for that sugar high and inevitable sugar crash after eating sweets.

Starches and multi-unit sugars are too big to be absorbed into the body so enzymes are produced to help break them down into single-unit sugars. Single-unit sugars are handled differently in the body depending on the type. I know! I didn’t know this until recently either. Glucose causes blood sugar levels to rise immediately and the pancreas produces the hormone insulin to deal with that and get it out of your bloodstream. Fructose goes straight to the liver which converts it to glycogen for storage. Small amounts of fructose found in real, whole food (eg. fruit) are typically handled well by the body. But consuming high amounts of fructose can be detrimental to the liver even though they may not spike blood sugar levels, such as in fruit juice, agave sweetener, soda, some salad dressings, etc.

What about protein?
If you recall, I mentioned that a keto diet consists of consuming moderate or adequate protein. This is because if you consume too much for your macro allowance then the body can convert the amino acids in that protein into glucose. This derails your efforts to get into ketosis. The body has a process called gluconegenesis whereby it turns non-sugar sources into sugar. So if the body is flooded with these amino acids, the gluconegensis process is triggered and starts providing glucose energy for the body instead of ketones. Protein also triggers insulin release which tells the body’s cells they don’t have to burn fat or produce ketones. So you can see why consuming more than an adequate amount of protein can derail your keto diet efforts.

A little history
Our bodies were built with the system for ketosis and our ancestors likely used it frequently when food sources were scarce. Even with food security, our typical North American diet didn’t consist of the same abundance and carbohydrate rich foods we see today. In a relatively short period of time in mankind’s history our food sources and culture has dramatically changed. Our diet has changed drastically over a relatively short period of time and our bodies adapted to the changes. Our livers took in more toxins, produced more insulin, and got fattier. Doctors started seeing increased mortality rates from diet-related illnesses as people’s bodies just couldn’t deal with the large amounts of new food that quickly became standard.

A ketogenic diet has been regularly used to help those with brain diseases such as epilepsy since the 1920s. Possible applications have been studied for other ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, brain cancer, Parkinson’s disease, even sleep disorders. Further, since keto first restricts a person’s sugar consumption, it has also been suggested for those fighting cancer or wishing to prevent it as cancer cells feed on sugar. Restricting carbohydrates can lead to healing the liver and pancreas for individuals who are pre-diabetic or suffering from diabetes. Many are able to manage their conditions with diet and avoid medications and complications. Finally, a low-carbohydrate diet has been found to help with some mental illnesses and I can attest to that personally. Kicking sugar and switching to a keto lifestyle has worked wonders for my own depression and anxiety symptoms. I think it’s greased the wheels to help my therapy and other interventions work more effectively. I’m going to get into that, and the link with fasting, in a future post, too.

A conspiracy
So why did our society switch to thinking fat is evil and we need so many carbs to complete daily nutritional recommendations? Canada’s food guide suggests adults eat 6-8 servings of grains each day and to limit butter and other sources of fats. And we’ve long been told to eat several small meals a day to keep a continuous supply of glucose energy and help regulate blood sugar. The body is a complicated machine and each one can differ from each other with regard to sensitivity and tolerance. Yet, we’re snacking all the time, eating low-fat Oreos, and no one is getting healthier or happier. Metabolic diseases and obesity are epidemics throughout the world.

Just sixty short years ago, a group called the Sugar Research Foundation – funded by sugar companies – published information refuting earlier claims that sugar aided heart disease. This was done without disclosing funders or motives. And the article pointed to dietary fat as the cause of our troubles. The sugar industry paid to change public discourse about their products. Blame was placed on fat and the marketing ploy worked to distract everyone from the harmful effects of sugar. Now we have low-fat everything on our grocery shelves. And if you look closely (which you will need to do if you decide to do ‘keto’) you’ll find that sugar is in everything.

There has been some debate about the sugar industry’s influence and the famous study conspiracy. But I think sugar tastes good, is addictive, and the business is a tough nut to crack. But as I stated at the beginning, if you alter one part of the macro nutrient pie chart then the other parts need to compensate. So if fat is lowered, and protein is expensive and not easy to add, then carbs need to go up. See for yourself by going to the grocery store and compare the regular and low fat versions of foods. And there’s lots to compare because low fat, no fat, and diet labels are everywhere in our society. Usually the lower fat ones have higher carb and sugar counts. And beware because there are over FIFTY different names for sugar hiding in those food nutrition labels. All the nutritional information presented above supports the idea that lowering carbohydrate (eg. sugar) consumption is beneficial and I know first-hand it’s helpful.

Looking ahead
Here are some specific topics I want to explore and write about on this site:
– Different types of keto
– Fasting
– Health worries
– Health benefits
– Supplements
– How to start (or how I started) keto
– Alcohol
– Navigating social situations while keto
– What to eat or best food options
– Insulin and glucose

I’ll add to this list as needed, and will link to each post when its created.

Thanks for reading!