◍ Original photos taken at Next|Health ◍
Luke Storey commits his first hack at dawn—precisely when the sun crests the horizon at a 30-degree angle, providing a supercharged light that he swears optimally dials his circadian rhythm and neurotransmitters. Sungazing is often followed by a ten-minute plunge in an industrial freezer full of 40-degree water—a jerry-rigged ice bath. After toweling off, the rangy, six-foot-three 50-year-old then ascends to the top of his Laurel Canyon property where he has converted a toolshed into a new-age gym that looks like it was outfitted by someone who has watched the Iron Man trilogy a few too many times. There’s a hyperbaric chamber that he meditates in before he flips on the mitochondria-boosting light panels that hang from the walls. Naked, he stands for five minutes on a full-body-vibration plate before he plops into a chair covered by an infrared heating pad and plugs himself into several gizmos as he absorbs the natural energies emitted from a $15,000 machine called the Biocharger that, in theory, pumps up the voltage in human cells. His favorite biohack gadget, however, is in a nearby utility closet: a suitcase containing an aluminum canister with a tube that runs through a cooling mechanism ending in a foot-long catheter, five inches of which Storey inserts into his anus several times a week to pump ozone directly into his body. Once that’s all done, he’s ready for a cup of coffee.
For anyone unfamiliar with Storey’s popular podcast, The Life Stylist, on which he shares his experiences as one of L.A.s preeminent biohackers, this daily protocol may seem like the routine of a madman. Storey doesn’t entirely disagree: “I’m amazed my girlfriend puts up with all of it,” he says, referring to Alyson Charles, a local shaman who regularly walks in on her boyfriend with a contraption jammed into one of his orifices. But Storey, a recovering addict and former stylist for bands like Aerosmith and Marilyn Manson, takes his profession seriously, almost messianically. “What if you had a life where you never had to go to the doctor? And, instead, you became your own doctor? That, to me, is the essence of biohacking,” he says when asked to define what he actually does.
In fact, biohacking is an amorphous term that includes a wide range of activities—everything from sleep tracking, fasting, and meditation, to implanting chips and hardware into the body. However you define it, though, it’s becoming a booming new industry, with a vanguard of biohacking podcasters and deep-pocketed entrepreneurs pushing the movement into the mainstream—or at least mainstream adjacent. Pioneers include Bulletproof Coffee founder Dave Asprey, 4-Hour Workweek lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss, and fitness mogul Ben Greenfield. (Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is also an avid biohacking proponent.) In August, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a new venture aimed at creating electronic-brain interfaces that can extend, enhance, or restore human capabilities. Biohacking gyms and labs have taken root across the country, and especially in L.A., which has emerged, unsurprisingly, as the biohacking capitol of the world. Upgrade Labs has outposts in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, Next Health is headquartered in West Hollywood and has a second lab in Century City, OsteoStrong and Peak Brain are in Culver City, while Monarch and Remedy Place are in West Hollywood. Meanwhile, a new generation of L.A.-based biohacking thought leaders, like Storey, Max Lugavere, and Aaron Alexander, are becoming the sages of the biohack era, each boasting their own Avengers-like superpower. Keto! Movement! Consciousness!
Whether or not any of this actually adds years, or even minutes, to anybody’s life is debatable. But it’s clearly improving the health of a lot of people’s bank accounts. A recent McKinsey Global Institute study projects that biohacking could become a trillion-dollar industry over the next decade, an outlook that has attracted boutique investment firms like Laura Deming’s Longevity Fund and Sergey Young’s Longevity Vision Fund to pour millions into start-ups within the biohacking and longevity space. Apple, Amazon, and Google have all, in various ways, signaled an interest in competing in the sphere as well. And while the coronavirus pandemic has in some ways slowed growth, temporarily closing some of the biohacking spas, it’s also opened up opportunities and helped expand the movement’s reach. Now more than ever, people are looking for novel ways to tweak and improve their immune systems and increase their life spans—even if that sometimes means getting an ozone enema.
It should surprise nobody that Southern California has emerged as the biohacking capital of the world. Ever since its inception, the city has been a haven and a launching pad for some of America’s most famous—and far-out—alternative medicine and wellness practitioners, a parade of visionaries, misfits, and charlatans who came here eager to benefit from and capitalize on the wellness industry. Like Paul C. Bragg, who, soon after arriving in 1921, set up a health-food store on Seventh Street, just west of Figueroa, which he claimed was the first of its kind. He then started writing health columns for the Los Angeles Times in which he’d educate readers about the benefits of detoxification, dieting, and fasting. Bragg was later denounced by his critics as a quack, and there’s no evidence that he possessed any of the advanced scientific degrees that he claimed. But his name can still be found on the labels of a popular brand of apple cider vinegar which he introduced.
“There was a whole class of people called health seekers—people with tuberculosis and respiratory diseases who were promised that if they moved to San Diego or Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, they could be cured,” says David Sloane, a professor at USC’s Price School of Public Policy who specializes in L.A.’s history of wellness. Even back then—with the film industry in its incipient phase—L.A., with its promise of experimentation, attracted freethinking people. And the presence of Chinese, Japanese, Indigenous, and Mexican communities—all of which offered their own distinct medical philosophies—created a mélange of ideas and practices that were incorporated into exotic regimens. But it wouldn’t last long.
It should surprise nobody that Southern California has emerged as the biohacking capital of the world.
In 1910, the East Coast establishment cracked down on renegade practitioners with the release of the Flexner Report. Commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation, the report established new requirements for medical schools across the country, and narrowed the parameters of what was officially recognized as medicine. On one level, this was a welcome advancement, making the medical field more professional and accountable. But it also penalized those not practicing standard westernized medicine, making it difficult for them to get the necessary credentials to legally practice at officially sanctioned hospitals and clinics. This stigmatized alternative approaches and pushed the group underground, which only opened the door further to charlatans and quacks. “If you’re going to have people seeking health, there are going to be people to sell them something,” says Sloane. “Some are going to be nice, and some aren’t. There were quacks everywhere in the United States back then. And there were a lot of quacks here in L.A.”
Tracing the deeper origins of the biohacking movement turns up various combinations of epochs, cultures, and characters. Many point to the German philosopher Friedrich
Nietzsche, who introduced the concept of the Übermensch—the superman. The Italian futurist movement of the early twentieth century comes to mind on account of its near-erotic devotion to the fusion of man and technology. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León is credited with inadvertently discovering Florida while searching for the fountain of youth. And the counterculture movement of the 1960s is also relevant, as it elevated the idea of self-actualization and celebrated hallucinogens as a pathway to enlightenment. (That LSD and psilocybin are now being used to optimize the performances of tech bros, athletes, and CEOs, must have Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey spinning in their graves.) But the Greek myth of Tithonus seems most apropos. When the goddess Eos fell in love with the mortal Tithonus, Zeus granted Tithonus immortality. It was only later that Eos realized her mistake: she should have asked for Tithonus’s eternal youth. Instead, Tithonus simply grew ever older until Zeus turned him into a cricket to end his suffering.
It would be all too easy to dismiss biohacking as just the latest chapter in L.A.’s long and often fraught relationship with wellness fads. It’s entirely possible that this movement is merely a dusted-off version of the countless health crazes that came before—like the Atkins Diet or Herbalife International—this time, with a high-tech twist designed for the iPhone and Erewhon era. Mitochondria-boosting light panels? Full-body-vibration plates? Does anybody really take this stuff seriously?
Biohackers do. They see themselves as part of a genuine movement that prides itself on empirical research and honors the scientific method. “I like to be evidence-based but not evidence-bound” is how Max Lugavere describes his own rather nuanced relationship with science. The former Current TV anchor and author of The Genius Life—who also hosts a podcast by the same name—is a self-taught biohacker who often cites peer-reviewed studies in his books and interviews but isn’t married to them. “The data and science are all very important,” he says, “but I also recognize that science is not infallible, and that it’s a continual process.”
Elias Arjan, executive director of the L.A. Biohackers Collective, also takes science seriously, although, like many biohackers, he is somewhat unorthodox in how he applies it. He believes in the N-of-1 theory of biohacking, which holds that while most clinical trials use large control groups to determine the effectiveness of a treatment, that process isn’t actually necessary. Instead, N-of-1 reduces a clinical study’s control group to one person: you. Everything is bespoke, and if a biohack works for one person, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for anyone else. It makes sense, sort of, but it’s also a self-serving, circular logic that can provide cover for all sorts of bad advice. Like this: “We should be out there exposing our immune systems to as many stressors as possible,” Arjan says about our time in lockdown. “Instead, we’re being told to go live in a bubble, which causes our immune system to basically take a nap, making us totally susceptible.”
For now, there is scant oversight of the biohacking industry from federal or state regulators, and that may be one of the movement’s biggest challenges. Though some biohacks are backed by varying levels of scientific evidence, many aren’t, and the vast majority of the products pushed by hackers on their podcasts don’t require FDA approval. The squishiness of the science has made for some awkward alliances, attracting not only experimental free spirits but also those living in an alternative universe. A recent article in The New Republic examined how various right-wing personalities—like Ben Shapiro, Mike Cernovich, and Alex Jones—have all taken to endorsing various brands of nootropics, which are intended to heighten focus and brainpower and are accepted parts of a biohacker’s routine. (Not to be outdone, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop has also waded into the nootropics space with a product called Nerd Alert, which promises a month of “bite-sized mental boosts” for $55 a bottle.) In the Venn diagram of our choose-your-own-reality times, there’s space in the middle for both holistically minded, biocharging health nuts and ultraconservative conspiracy theorists who believe Venezuela stole the 2020 election.
And then there are the handful of practitioners who take biohacking way too far, giving the movement a bad name. After Zappos cofounder Tony Hsieh died last fall from injuries sustained in a fire, reports revealed that he was a biohacker. A Wall Street Journal article chronicled the final months of his unraveling and revealed some troubling practices. According to the Journal, Hsieh “became fixated on trying to figure out what his body could live without.” He tried not to urinate, deprived himself of oxygen, and starved himself.
All of this has people like Lugavere concerned. “There’s lots of extreme and unvetted practices in the movement, and ultimately I think there’s a lot of bullshit and profiteering going on,” he said. “If you have limited funds and are actually sick, you might fall victim to one of these alternative treatments and not get the care that you need from something that’s more science-backed.”
Arjan concurs. “At what point are you a biohacker or just someone who has an eating disorder?” he asks. “At what point are you just someone with OCD?”
Also, at what point are you a mark? Biohacking, it turns out, is an incredibly costly hobby. At Next Health, a single IV drip treatment with 750 milligrams of NAD costs $1,500. Two minutes in its cryotherapy chamber costs $45. Upgrade Labs is just as pricey: a membership there starts at $300 a month. Building your own biohacking home gym is also exorbitant. A red-light wall panel can run up to $7,000. The cost of supplements can easily climb into the low four figures—monthly. Iodine, NAC, taurine, niacin, CoQ10, magnesium, and probiotics—it’s an endless rabbit hole.
Still, according to Santa Monica-based biohacker Aaron Alexander, it doesn’t have to be that way. In between whipping up a smoothie (celery, apples, bee pollen, collagen, sea salt, and unsweetened almond milk), taking a ten-minute cold plunge, and holding a series of sitting positions and yoga poses, the 34-year-old fielded questions about his practice known as the Align Method, which considers technology part of the problem, thus making Alexander somewhat of a heretic.
“At what point are you a biohacker or just someone who has an eating disorder?”
“Structurally, our body starts to form our hormones, our neurochemistry, and our perception,” Alexander says. “If you outsource all of your thought to the memory of your phone, if you outsource your movement to the automatic garage-door opener—each of those movements are things that you would have naturally done and have done for millions of years. It’s the foundation of what your cells ride on.” He adds that it’s entirely possible to biohack your way to health without spending a fortune on high-tech gadgets. “You’ve got Dave Asprey saying, ‘Buy my shit,’ and this other person saying, ‘Buy my shit,’ and we have this echo chamber telling us you need to buy this shit in order to be healthy,” he says. “How do you know this? Because all your experts are saying that. But all your experts are being paid and working together. In general, most of the things being sold are fine. But they’re doing their best to replicate what nature has done since you were a single-cell organism.”
Dan Chavira is a Stanford-trained emergency-room physician who works out of one of UCLA’s hospitals. He’s taught courses on ethics, runs Paidea Health—a body-mind practice—and considers himself an amateur biohacker. He straddles the worlds of traditional and alternative medicine and sees strengths and weaknesses in both. He views the current trend of biohacking as a sign of late-stage capitalism. “The last 40 years have created a system of extreme wealth for a tiny portion of people, and that leads to distrust in the system,” he says. “You have this tiny portion of extremely wealthy people who are looking at their lives and thinking, ‘I’m clearly privileged, and there’s no better way to spend my money than on my health and capacity to live longer.’ So they’re pouring tons of money into this field. And it’s all very Nietzschean, this idea of ‘How do I optimize who I am?’” He adds, “People have gotten more and more drawn to this idea that ‘I’m going to take care of me and everyone else is irrelevant,’ even though we know that when we take care of other people, we live longer.”
Dave Asprey, the coffee mogul and biohack pioneer, is on a Zoom call from British Columbia, where he’s been hunkered down during the pandemic. He’s deconstructing what he calls “shadow-banning,” the alleged social media practice of silencing biohackers who publish information that challenges the status quo set by Big Pharma.
“Google destroys your search results so no one can find your blog anymore!” he says. “Your posts will get the big warning on them from Instagram, even if the post is true. But what they actually do is send less people to it so you slowly get silenced. I’ve interviewed the pioneers, the top people in the world—they’ve spoken at conferences about how ozone therapy has cured Ebola. Ozone therapy works very well for coronavirus. If I get COVID, I’d be doing ozone therapy on day one. So why is it that I’m not allowed to talk about that?” Probably for the same reason Twitter slaps a “disputed” tag on so many of President Trump’s tweets—because it’s not true. There is no credible scientific evidence that ozone has cured Ebola or does anything to help with COVID.
In any event, it would be hard to overstate the outsized role Asprey has played in the biohacking movement. He wrote the playbook on how to turn it into a profession and has since been mimicked by scores of others. He now oversees a sprawling empire that includes not just his coffee shops and restaurants but also biohacking gyms and dozens of products that can be found in thousands of retail stores throughout the country.
Clawing his way to the top of the biohacking world hasn’t been easy. As it turns out, the biohacking business is a jungle. Despite all the New Age trimmings and techno-Zen babble, there are hidden feuds and bitter rivalries just beneath the surface. Asprey, for instance, has long been engaged in something of a cold war with bro-whisperer extraordinaire Joe Rogan. Indeed, the famed podcaster and former mixed- martial-arts announcer—who started pitching his own biohacking drinks and other products around 2014—even concocted a scheme to hurt Asprey’s Bulletproof Coffee business by investing in a direct competitor, Caveman Coffee. Asprey rolls his eyes when Rogan’s name comes up, mocking him for, among other things, promoting kale smoothies on his podcast. (Many people know, thanks to research unearthed by Asprey six years ago, that kale is full of oxalic acid, which causes kidney stones and joint pain.) “There are some people who’ll say, ‘I’m going to try to take over the movement,’ but it’s like taking over Anonymous,” Asprey says, referring to the decentralized hacktivist group whose members sport Guy Fawkes’ masks at protests. “Anonymous is a loose collective of people, and you can’t take over Anonymous because someone else will put on the mask. And that’s the same with biohacking—you can’t take over biohacking.”
In this era of QAnon and incels and Proud Boys, biohacking risks drifting in a much more toxic direction
Biohacking is largely a male domain. Female biohackers make up a tiny fraction of the community, and all of the major thought leaders are white men. An undercurrent pulses through some of the darker corners of biohacking chat rooms—a mix of dogma, obsession, slight paranoia, and arrogance. At biohacking’s core are seemingly benign notions of wellness, self-reliance, and experimentation, but in this era of QAnon and incels and Proud Boys, biohacking risks drifting into a much more toxic direction, especially when its dogma intersects with an agenda that is inherently suspicious of anything to do with establishment thinking or practices. Say, for instance, vaccinations. “Look at the vaccine industry—it’s unequivocally the most diabolical niche within the pharmaceutical industry,” says Storey, who has been criticized in the past for spreading conspiracy-laced information on his podcasts, a number of which have been removed from YouTube. “I would be supportive of anyone who voluntarily chooses to inject themselves. But when it comes to me taking the vaccine, I would literally die before I would let that into my body.”
Sadly, that could actually end up being the case. But in this post-truth world, there’s a flexibility about what actually constitutes a fact. And inherent to biohacking is an abiding distrust of traditional health-care practices. At its fundamental core is the belief that America’s health-care system has been irredeemably corrupted by Big Pharma and other special interests. As a result, many of the movement’s gurus argue that the health-care system has failed the majority of Americans, leaving most of us in dire health or at the very least woefully uninformed. And they aren’t entirely wrong. Studies now regularly show the U.S. health-care system as being one of the worst in the industrialized world, even though the U.S. spends vastly more on health care than most other countries.
But we’re at a dangerous inflection point right now, and the arrival of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is pushing the biohacking and alternative-medicine communities to a crossroads. The campaigns to undermine and discredit the largest vaccination program in human history are well underway even though large clinical trials have shown the vaccines to be safe and effective. It’s generally believed that a minimum of 60 percent of the U.S. population would need to be vaccinated to bring about herd immunity and end the crisis, although those numbers have recently been boosted to as high as 85 percent by the well-respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci. And yet, shockingly—though not surprisingly—not a single one of the professional biohackers interviewed for this story say they plan to take the vaccine.
Despite all of that, though, biohacking still has a near-irresistible appeal that somehow transcends reason and logic, especially now, in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic. For all its scientific fuzziness, its testosterone-
driven in-fighting, its Trumpy conspiracy theories and dangerous ignoring of critical public health warnings, a lot of otherwise sensible people are finding themselves drawn inexorably toward biohacking’s supercharged light and the promise of all the wonderful things it can do to your circadian rhythms.
“COVID has made people concerned about their mortality, and the data is very clear that if you’re only kind of healthy your chances of dying are way higher,” says Asprey. “And biohackers have been around making humans more resilient, giving them more energy and more power, and making them harder to kill.”
It’s the oldest siren song in the book—immortality! Eternal youth! And it’s hard for even the most skeptical mortal to resist. I should admit that over the course of researching and reporting this article, I have adopted a number of biohacks in my own life. I’m a 44-year-old, college-educated, white male who now wears an Oura Ring and Garmin watch to track my sleep and exercise. My diet has drastically improved, I fast regularly, and the medicine cabinet is now bursting with supplements that, just a year ago, I’d never heard of. An infrared sauna sits in my closet and, much to the horror of my wife, I regularly browse Craigslist, hunting for an affordable hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Some of these changes might actually have been good for my health, some of them only good for my soul. None of them have been great on my wallet. So far, though, I have not yet pumped ozone into my body through my anus.
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