Biohacking – By Dr. Alan Christianson
Hey, there! Dr. Alan Christianson here with you from my place way out in the middle of nowhere! It is times like these that I get the clearest perspective on what’s relevant – what really matters for healing. I want to talk about why I am not a biohacker. If you look at the whole history of this long, human endeavor to stave off illness and extend lifespans, we have not made much progress.
I think one of the biggest boosts was our understanding that germs cause illness and our ability to prevent or treat those infections. It was a blessing for health and for those whose lives were saved, but as far as concepts and understandings, I think it has almost been a curse. It has given us the idea that things go wrong because of a small reason, and if you change one chemical facet of illness, you can change the illness itself. This concept has led to the whole idea of drug-based therapies for chronic illness. We now try to isolate one, big cause behind the problem and the one pill that can change the cause.
A case in point can be cardiovascular disease and cholesterol. We think about the horror of heart disease and the lives it has claimed, and we try to find what things are associated with it. Early on, researchers found that those with heart disease have higher cholesterol levels. So, we started to make the assumption that this correlation was somehow causative, meaning one caused the other. There are many, well-referenced books arguing how this thinking really did not pan out. Cholesterol is not the smoking gun we thought. Lowering cholesterol does not make the differences we expected.
The real, deep question is for those of us who are more progressive thinkers, who are more natural-based and lifestyle-focused. Can we make the same mistakes and get caught up in this same dogma? This is a concern.
The wrong mindset is that disease is an error. It says something like, “If we have heart disease, it is because something went wrong in our body.” “If we gain weight, it is because we put too many calories in or took too many calories out.” “What is the glitch or problem?” Consider this: What if disease was not an error? What if disease was an adaptation, of sorts? What if there were ways our environment, circumstances and our genes were the trigger for disease? What if managing these factors is our best attempt to reach a state of homeostasis?
Let’s take weight, for example. We argued for so long that weight was really a math problem. Many in the public health sector who set policies still hold onto that idea, even though researchers have abandoned it. Obesity has grown at an unprecedented rate. It’s even affecting animals whose groups are not relevant. We still cling to the idea that obesity is caused by some error or shortcoming. We are now just starting to gain an understanding that these problems are more adaptive. It is the body going into a survival response. If I was out in a place like this without a great food supply for quite some time, it would be to my advantage to hold onto the weight for as long I could. We all still have those mechanisms inside of us, and they are ready to act at a moment’s notice.
We see this a lot in terms of trying to engineer modified diets. I noticed that extreme, low-carb diets are becoming the trend. The idea behind these diets is if you want to yield energy from fat, trick the body to only burn fat. I get the logic behind it, but the body is so complex and so interconnected, it does not work that way. The whole concept of thinking is that the body is a dumb machine or empty tool that needs to be hacked, tweaked or poisoned (fed toxic chemicals in order to shift its chemistry in some way). This mindset is problematic.
We can adapt to so many conditions, but the real thing we are seeking is to be in a state of flow, balance, harmony and peace. Our function is greatest when we are at ease. So many things disrupt our balance and then, push us into that state in which we are storing fat, not burning energy well and not sleeping well. We end up not very happy. We don’t enjoy so many of our efforts, such as trying to make ourselves exercise. For example, you’re told to just go to the treadmill and log an hour a day, and you will lose weight. Well, not really. Not if you do not want to. Not if you are fighting yourself. If it is something you aren’t happy about doing, you will not lose weight from it. On the contrary, you will go into a deeper state of stress and a further state of storage. So, it is not about hacking or engineering. It is really about healing. It is understanding the circumstances of health and reproducing those circumstances.
It’s not about knowing the markers of health, for there are many of them. There are things we can measure, such as our blood sugar, our resilience and levels of brain chemicals. All too often, we fall short and think about changing those markers rather than the conditions that gave rise to them. Cortisol is a great case in point. When I first started practicing, there was an old book by Dr. William Jefferies, called the Safe Uses of Cortisol. This was in the mid-nineties when a new, radical concept arose that if something was wrong with the adrenals, it was something other than adrenal disease. People have conditions where their cortisol level is too low, so they’re given more cortisol. Theoretically, you would think that should help. It seems simple enough, and I regret to say I followed this idea for a short period of time. However, I saw very quickly that people did not achieve greater health. They would become more anxious, gain more weight and have higher blood sugar. I realized low cortisol was certainly a marker of being unhealthy, but it was not the cause. If it were that simple, then adding cortisol should raise vitality. Instead, I saw people becoming more imbalanced.
So, I realized these markers of vitality can be relevant road maps, but they are not the actual levers. They are not what creates vitality; they are what manifest in a state of vitality. So, we don’t want to abandon these measurements or tools, as we can find great utility in evaluating what we do and what habits are probably more effective than others. However, the pitfall lies in thinking of these measurements as the levers in and of themselves, and if we just change them by any means necessary, our health will improve. That is what a lot of hacking is about.
So, I think our new trend moving forward is shifting the mindset more than anything. It’s not about what we can hack or measure, but how we can live. We are living in cities by and large. So, in the confines and context of the modern life, how can we thrive again? How can we create a life in which these positive signs of health naturally show up and flourish? That is what healing is all about. That is why I think less about hacking and more about healing.
Dr. Christianson here. Thanks for spending some time with me. We will talk again real soon.