Biohacking 101

The Basics of Biohacking


Biohacking refers to the use of various tools and techniques that speed our adaptation and ability to thrive in various (often less than desirable) environments or under certain conditions. By less than desirable, we could mean, working long hours or staying up at night, living indoors under artificial lighting or simply needing to perform better under stress. Like a hacker would gain insight into how your computer works and try and take it over, bio (from biology- which means the study of living systems) hacking, technically means to understand, access and be able to manipulate your metabolic pathways and the way your body works.

The biohacking tools we use help our clients optimize brain function, memory, sleep, and much more. These tools may include:

  1. Meditation and brain training. Nothing has been proven to be better at preventing brain ageing, increasing resilience to stress and promoting longevity. We also use the Muse headband, that uses biofeedback to help “teach” you how to meditate.

  2. Cranial Electrical Stimulation.  These are medical devices that you wear, that deliver tiny amounts of electrical current to improve certain neurotransmitters, encourage various brain states and relieve stress

  3. Blue light blocking glasses and phone/computer apps - to help sleep and protect our melatonin or sleep hormone levels (thus protecting all of our other hormones potentially and reducing our risk of cancer).

  4. Paleo or ketogenic diets and “bulletproof” coffee. Helps our brain switch from glucose to ketones as fuel, and this may improve memory and cognitive function.

  5. Adaptogenic herbs. These plants literally help our bodies adapt to stress.

  6. Genetic testing.  This allows us extra information about the substances your body needs more of and how it will work under various conditions, as well as the optimal diet and type of exercise program for you.

  7. Sleep monitoring and activity monitoring wearables and apps.

  8. Hemi-sync/Holosync/Binaural audio tracks.  These help increase the cross-talk of your brain hemispheres and help induce certain brain states.

  9. Environmental “hacks”, such as making sure your bedroom is cold and dark enough for optimal sleep.

  10. Nootropics or “smart drugs” these are substances both natural and man-made that help our brains work better. In order to be considered a “nootropic” substances must meet the following technical guidelines:

    • Help the brain Function under disruptive conditions, such as Hypoxia (low oxygen)

    • Protect the brain from chemical and physical assaults, such as certain medications or illicit drugs

    • Increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms in cortical and subcortical regions of the brain

    • Possess few or no side effects and be virtually non-toxic

    • Enhance memory and ability to learn.

My own personal experience with biohacking and nootropics began quite by accident. My mom owned a health food store franchise and as a naughty 15-year-old, i remember pinching bottles of “energy boosting” supplements from the shops.  I loved the clear buzzy feeling and not having to eat all day.  Unbeknownst to me, I was probably inducing a state of mild ketosis which helped me stay focused and was taking what we would now call “nootropics” (L-tyrosine, Rhodiola, Acetyl-L-carnitine, Ginkgo etc).  

My dad, also a physician was the Original Gansta of Biohacking.   From treating patients with Ozone back in the early nineties, to using various vagal nerve stimulators, infrared sauna and lasers, Rife machines and another crazy tech from Europe, it was not unusual to walk in and see my dad doing some sort of procedure or experimentation on himself.  When I was a teenager he got us into Hemi or Holosync CDs.  I would listen to them while studying and found almost photographic memory and intuitive “knowing” of answers when it came time for exams.


When I left the Bahamas to go to university in the US at 17, I kept using my study music and again found amazing results. I also got my first cranial electrical stimulator at this point and began to combine the music with CES.  It was a fancy little unit for the time that included some funky 80’s style glasses embedded with LED lights and a black box that generated special tones collectively called audio-visual entrainment. It was meant to induce certain brain states, and while i don't have empirical proof it did, at times during a session I would have full on out of body experiences.   I loved my little “bling-bling” as I called it, and found it helped my sleep and mood immensely.

In grad school, I upped the supplement game, adding in traditional Chinese herbs, medicinal mushrooms, L-theanine/Lavela, more adaptogens, kept using my CES device and had to biohack my home environment after my stress levels soared living in an 11th floor condo in downtown Toronto.  While i had meditated in the past, i became a yoga teacher soon after finishing med school as i awaited my medical license.  I quickly realized how absolutely critical meditation was to my mental health, focus and concentration. Ill say it again and again, there is nothing you can do that will benefit your mind and body more than simply sitting still for 5-15 minutes a day.   I rarely would study more than a night or two before an exam, and found that board and medical licensing exams were still challenging but not completely overwhelming like many of my burnt out colleagues had expressed.

My Current Favorite "Biohacking" Tools and Techniques (each one of these could be a blog by themselves):

1. Infrared sauna and modified cold thermogenesis .  My partner and I use the sauna 4-5 time a week for an hour at 60C with 2 g Niacin, then 2-5 mins (ok... ok...working up to 5....) ice cold shower or ocean swim.  Human studies from Scandinavia show sauna to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, protect against Alzheimers and decrease all cause mortality. Ive had a sauna for the last 5 years at home, and find it helps my mood, sleep, pain levels, and makes my skin glow. I became interested in Ir sauna therapy when working with breast cancer patients. Many of these women had high levels of persistent environmental pollutants, that acted as Xenoestrogens (substances that stimulate estrogen receptors int eh body).  Many of these are stored in fat cells and are very difficult to rid the body of.  Sauna therapy is an effective way to support detoxification.

2. CES devices etc. I recommend the following units:

Fisher Wallace Stimulator.  I like the research on this unit but find the headband and damp sponges a bit annoying.  
CES Ultra. These units are easy to use, and comfortable to wear. 
Sota BioTuner.   These little units have only one main setting and an intensity dial. Great to fall asleep with as they turn off automatically.
Altered States- BT-PLUS OR BT-11.  This local Kiwi company manufactures some seriously trippy and out there little devices.  The owners of the company are very open to answering any questions.  If you put it on the low setting (0.5htz) and turn up the intensity, you'll feel like your sleeping on a ship in the middle of a storm. The only reason i would not recommend the BT Plus, to the first time user is you CAN turn it up TOO high. I have scarred ear lobes from dialing it up then falling asleep! 
DAVID PAL.  This one is fun as it comes with the whole "audio-visual entrainment" system. Flashing lights, trippy binaural tones and syned CES with your own music make this experience feel more like Burning Man, than a therapy session.  Rest assured your brain thanks you. 

 3. Om Harmonics/HemiSync/Binaural audio's.  This type of audio file, plays different versions of the music to each ear encouraging brain coherence or "crosstalk" between hemispheres of the brain. Great for those that have trouble quieting the mind or staying focused.

4. Meditation! I don't care how you do it or what technique you use, just do it!  We all  have 5-15 minutes a day to make time for meditation or mindfulness and i guarantee there is nothing else you can do that will give you the same bang for your brain-health buck.  Try Calm/Headspace/Mindbliss etc apps for your phone, or just search Youtube for anything meditation related.  There are an infinite number of resources online.  Stop with the excuses and take some initiative if you are serious about your health.   

5. Phenibut/GABA/Gabapentin/L Theanine/Kava.  Naturally i'm an over thinker, a worrier, a stressy-reactive personality type so anything that helps me relax and allows me the emotional resilience to take a breath before reacting is hugely beneficial.  Ill use phenibut 2-3 times a week max, and GABA/theanine or Gabapentin to fall asleep occasionally.  Most forms of GABA have poor ability to cross the blood brain barrier when swallowed. You can remedy this by opening your GABA capsule and emptying it under your tongue. Leave it there for as long as you can.  I do the same with my L-Theanine.  Gabapentin/Neurontin is used primarily for seizure and neurogenic pain, but has been shown to be neuroprotective in various trials.  I have two herniated disks and sometimes have back and hip pain that disrupts my sleep.  I do not like Benzo's or Z drugs (Zopiclone) as we know that while they make you feel like you've had a full night of sleep, they actually disrupt sleep architecture so that your brain doesn't benefit in the same way it would from natural sleep. To me Gabapentin was the least of all "evils" when it comes to something that helps with occasional insomnia. 

6. Morning Routine.   My morning routine would be the envy of any hippie worth their weight in weed. As soon as i wake up, i go to the deck and sit facing the sun (even if its covered by clouds) and do a 15 min guided mediation, while getting early morning light to help set my circadian rhythm.  After that i have a Matcha green tea, read something inspiring and do a 3 minute "rampage of appreciation".  I set 180 seconds on my phone timer and looking around me rampage out loud about all the things i love and im grateful for: 

After that my chihuahua Niko and I walk for 30 min as i drink a coffee.  Then I do flat out 30 second sprits, with the little rat-dog nipping at my heels, either on the beach or in the park (barefoot).  Its only 5-6 min of exercise, but it leaves me completely invigorated. People with anxiety or insomnia especially benefit from sprints, as it helps us to use up excess adrenalin and stress hormones.  If you do not already, i highly recommend finding a morning routine that works for you, and sticking to it every day.  

7. Evening Routine. Around 9pm, we bust out the blue light blocking-orange lens glasses.  Not only do we look extra cool sitting around the house with dark shades on at night but i've found that this easy biohack greatly improves sleep without me having to give up on Netflix.  We also are diligent about turning the wifi off at night and sleep downstairs in a cool and pitch black room. It makes a huge difference to sleep.  If you do not use blackout curtains, get eyeshades, earplugs and tape over any annoying LED lights from devices. I also recommend not keeping your phone within 2 feet of your head while sleeping, and to place it on airplane mode at night. Please check out Building Biology NZ, for much more info on EMF and all things related to building biology.  

8. D Minder App.  Thirty percent of all New Zealanders are low in Vit D levels according to the Ministry of Health.  I would say the percentage of people ive seen in my clinic that have optimal Vit D levels is below 10%.  I would recommend most of us  aim for blood levels of Vit D in the 58-80ng/dl (120-200mmol/L).  I do not however advocate high level VIt D supplementation for most people.  There are benefits to being outside and exposing our skin to UV light beyond simply making Vit D. Being outside without sunglasses and exposing our skin to the sun helps us make serotonin (often referred to as the "feel good" neurotransmitter) and later on melatonin (that helps us sleep), explaining, in part, why after a day on the beach, you feel great and sleep deeply. UV exposure increases a cell messenger called nitric oxide, which supports cardiac health.  Exposure to sunlight also modifies genetic expression, with one study showing that in the summer exposure to more sunlight turns on anti-inflammatory genes and less exposure in the winter up regulates genes that have to do with a more vigorous immune response.  
No one is advocating you go and get burnt to a crisp, but at the same time there are only certain times of the day the sun is at the correct angle to make vitamin D.  While i sometimes also suggest supplements i encourage every patient and client to at least spend 20-30 min outside per day.  The D minder app is a fantastic little tool that advised you on when you can make Vit D, and how long you can stay out without getting burned based on your skin type and latitude. 

9. Adaptogens and Brain Boosting herbs. So much to say here. My favs currently include Bacopa, Lions Mane, Ginkgo, Cats claw and Angiographis (help reduce intestinal inflammation that underlies brain fog). Adaptogen wise id have to pick Maca, Astragauls (im prone to viral infections under stress so i love the immune/adaptogen magic of astragalus) and Ashwaganda (supports the thyroid, important as high cortisol impairs T4->T3 conversion), is awesome for mood and protects the brain.  Remember with herbal products the brand matters.  Generally picking up a standardized extract of a herb (or whole herb standardized to certain components) is a good way to ensure your getting the real thing with enough of the active constituents to have a therapeutic effect.

10. Personal growth around mindset.  I always thought of myself as upbeat and positive.  A few years ago when my partner pointed out that i naturally gravitated to worry and expected the worst (especially under stress), always finding reasons why things "probably wouldn't work out" I had a self awareness epiphany.  I knew i had to change. Without getting too much into my personal beliefs many scientific thinkers, quantum physicists and spiritual leaders agree, that "we are what we think", and how the content of our thoughts, how we feel when we think them and what we choose to focus on does impact our reality.  By monitoring our thinking and developing self awareness about how we feel when we think in a certain way about something we can begin to realize just how profoundly we hold the power to create our own personal heaven or hell from within our mind.   This website is fantastic:  Greater Good, is run by USC Berkley and gives scientifically proven tools to help us cultivate gratitude and optimism, improve emotional resilience under stress, remain open even after we've been hurt and find joy everyday.  If you are new to this area, i suggest listening to Dr Joe Dispenza, Gregg Braden , Bruce Lipton, Esther Hicks, or reading any of Dr Wayne Dyers books. 

Here are some of my favorite "biohackers" Podcasts and websites. I encourage you to check out: 

1.  Bulletproof Radio/Dave Asprey.  Gotta give mad props to the man who made biohacking a household term.  Everyone sipping their butter coffee's and wearing blue blockers probably at some point has been influenced by Dave.  This is one of my favorite podcasts as they span health, success, mindfulness/spirituality and Dave is just a great host and excellent interviewer.
2.  Dr Jack Kruse.  He doesn't give a crap what you think about him and will rip the "Food Guru's" for putting too much emphasis on what we eat. Dr Kruse while feels are the more quintessential factors that driving health - namlely light, magnetism and water.  He's a biophysicist, and brain surgeon with the ability to connect heavy science with common sense.  Highly intriguing, out of the box thinking from a truly entertaining doc who's had enough of his own industry's bullshit.  

3.  Dr Rhonda Patrick is a compelling speaker and has a fantastic podcast interviewing researchers around the world on all things related to longevity, improving performance and optimizing health. Dr Rhonda is very research heavy, but beautifully explains topics so that everyone can understand.

4. Smart Drugs Smarts Podcast. This is  a great podcast on all things Nootropics.  From Nicotine to Teacrine, Psychedelics as potent anti-inflammatory agents and "Dognition", this podcast pushes the enveloped and has introduced me to 'smart drugs' i had never even heard of. 

5. I am continuously impressed by the clarity, style and professionalism of Joseph Cohen's "Self Hacked" page.  I love the amount of references, and layout of the site, downloaded the book and read his blog weekly.

Dr. V

Vanessa Ingraham