This started off as a post called Don’t Hack Your Health. Basically it was my thoughts on people who try to find ways around the body, find shortcuts and trick the body into getting what they want. People have been trying to change and manipulate the human body for a long time but lately a growing realm/world called “biohacking” has developed that has both intentionally (and often unintentionally) promoted the idea that we can hack the body. Whether it’s through behaviors, supplements, exercises or fancy gadgets people are finding ways to outsmart the body. I have no problem with working with the body to change it for the better. I have a problem with trying to hack it.
Don’t try to hack your health, try to restore it. Restoring your health or reprogramming your health is fine. Trying to find shortcuts and trick the body is a recipe for disaster. If you are trying to hack your health, you’re thinking about the whole concept wrong and probably doing something ineffective at best and damaging at worst. People who hack their health either don’t achieve what they want or do but end up paying in the end. Just like a computer system, mess around with the programming too much and the system will either freeze, crash or get completely wiped out. Once your body crashes after a hack it can take a while to rebuild. Take the time to do it right in the first place.
The body is smarter than we are. By far. Do not forget this basic concept no matter how clever we might think we are, how much we think we figure out or how convincing a new doctor/trainer/health guru might sound. Maybe one day we will get a little better at understanding it the body in all its adaptive marvel but we are not there yet.
So whether you are doing something simple like trying some supplement/medication to force insulin sensitivity, lower cholesterol or reduce blood pressure or doing something that seems a bit more extreme like strange diet tricks or trying to get by on less sleep via tinted glasses, brain wave training or sleep window manipulation, anything we “pull off” or manipulate is temporary at best and is likely going to be fixed by the body.
*If you don’t watch the show Scandal, you may not know what I’m talking about but hopefully this will all make sense nonetheless.
The body is like Olivia Pope. We create a mess and the body comes in and fixes it whether we like it or not and in a way that we may or may not be happy with. Sometimes it happens right in front of us but usually it’s behind the scenes (just like when she restores order in Washington DC) as the body restores order/homeostasis without messing around too much. Like Olivia, the body is ruthless, does what it knows is best and doesn’t sugar coat anything.
Enter alkaline water, sodium and dieting…
These aren’t necessarily the popular biohacks going around the health-sphere but serve as good and simple examples of how we think we are doing something that ends up not quite working in the way we assume and might end up working against us.
Alkaline water (and diets) are a big thing right now. The idea behind them is that our body is healthy when slightly alkaline and unhealthy if acidic. Therefore our logic says doing something like drinking lots of alkaline water will make our body more alkaline.
Unfortunately this doesn’t really pan out for a couple of reasons. First, this water (with a pH of 8 or so, compared to tap water at neutral ~7) goes into our stomach which is extremely acidic (a pH of somewhere between 2-3). Any alkaline substance is immediately turned more acidic. The only thing it accomplished was to make our stomach acid less acidic, which for most of us results in digesting food less well. Alkaline water is usually filled with minerals, which might be a good thing but only if those are what your body needs. Additionally, the body regulates its blood ph very tightly to keep us alive and functioning well. If we were actually able to influence it by simply drinking alkaline water we would fall apart physiologically at best and die at worst. It’s actually a good thing we can’t chug alkaline water and change our bodies chemistry.
Many people are familiar with sodium’s impact on water retention and/or blood pressure. The common belief and practice is that if you eat too much sodium you’ll get bloated and high blood pressure so if you want to get rid of water or lower your blood pressure you cut back on your sodium. Sounds simple but the problem is that it only works like this some of the time and very briefly.
Sodium levels in the blood/body are also very tightly regulated because our health depends on it. Our cellular interactions need to happen in a very narrow range so when something alters it the body kicks in to fix the problem pretty quickly and effectively. So when we do something like cut back on our sodium to reduce water retention or blood pressure it might work for about a day or two until the body, sensing the stress of dropping sodium and blood pressure (a.k.a. a change in homeostasis), does a clever thing: increases production of the hormone aldosterone which signals the kidneys to reabsorb sodium and water while secreting more potassium. All of this adds up to an increase in water retention and increases in blood pressure and blood volume. So when we think we are getting the body to one thing it’s making a few behind the scenes adjustments to make sure we stay right where we were in the first place. Keep trying to force the issue (super low sodium diets/intakes) and it will get even more drastic.
The biggest hack of them all and the kind of job Olivia likes best: intense, complicated and urgent. When a diet comes to town, the body gets its Pope gloves on and gets ready to do some serious fixing.
When you look at what a diet is attempting to do it seems like a very simple intervention. We are trying to manipulate/coax/force the body to change from it’s status quo. How do we do that most typically? By reducing energy in and increasing energy out. Another simple approach that seems like it should work based off what we think we know about the body.
What we have to remember is that, in the grand scheme of things, the body doesn’t always work like we think/wish it would. In an attempt to survive, reproduce and maintain homeostasis, the body is constantly fixing what we do to it. Usually they’re pretty minor things and we never quite realize they’re even happening. If we start trying to limit incoming energy and pair that with increasing the outgoing energy we have created a nice little metabolic disruption. In the short term the body pulls out a little fat and stored carbohydrates to make up the energy difference and makes it through a day or two with simple adjustments. If everything goes back to normal, the body is happy. When you keep this problematic behavior (diet) going it starts to want to fix things. Just like Olivia Pope, the body has some gladiators (fixers) and they get things done.
If you’re going to run in an energy deficit, Olivia sends Mr. Hunger in. If you don’t listen to that straightforward suggestion she gets a little more subtle and puts Mrs. Energy Efficiency to work. She pulls a few strings and every cell in your body starts running more efficiently and requires less energy resulting in you expending a lot less and no longer running at a deficit. Still don’t listen? Mr. Fat Blocker comes in to slow fat cells from releasing fat and brings Mrs. Fat Finder along to encourage all the hormones and processes that store energy more efficiently. Still not taking the hints of hunger, fatigue, slowed/no fat loss and stubborn fat? Mr. Muscle Burner comes in and starts breaking down your precious, hard earned and metabolically costly muscle tissue, leaving you with an even slower metabolism and less muscle to exercise with. End result is you’ve caused a mess and the body fixed it and set things up to protect it from you in the future. Congratulations, you’ve just been Olivia Poped.
This may not seem fair but it’s how things work. This is why it can be so hard to change the body. This is why trying to change our cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes or weight is so tough. The body fixes it right back. Sometimes you get the body to respond to something like weight loss but it’s usually because you allowed your body to lose weight and it was in a comfortable place to do so which means you didn’t hack your weight loss, you got healthier. Some people can (and do) outsmart or stay ahead of Olivia Pope for a while but those are typically the ones who end up really getting burned in the end. My advice: know that she’s out there and she pays close attention to everything you do. It’s going to be really hard to get away with anything because she and her gladiators fix nearly everything you try to get away with, particularly the more scandalous it is. Get to know her, make friends with her and her team and get them working with you because in this crazy world it’s good to have the body on your side.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
P.S. I’ve covered this concept before, here’s one of my favorites: The Marvel.