Unsatisfied with one-size fits all solutions, an increasing number of people are taking their health into their own hands. Biohacking, or do-it-yourself biology is a new way to approach health and self improvement. It goes where traditional healthcare doesn’t and aims to address health problems of any shape or size in new, customizable ways.

Customizable health solutions

Burt Campbell is the main organizer of BioHack YYC, a meetup group for people exploring alternative solutions to health problems in their lives. These can include things like poor sleep or anxiety. Campbell’s journey started with migraines and anxiety. He had suffered with these for almost 25 years and as a result lacked cognitive energy, focus and concentration. “I was frustrated. I was not happy in life and I was looking for results,” he says.

In order to cope he was taking lots of over the counter pain medications and briefly tried antidepressants, but he felt as though these solutions weren’t addressing the underlying issue.

The doctors, despite running MRIs and brain scans, never had an official diagnosis for him— so Campbell began his own research.

“Without realizing it, I was already biohacking,” he says, “Once you can see all the pieces and identify its root, it then becomes much easier to manipulate or tweak to your liking.”

Campbell says one-size doesn’t fit all when it comes to treating anxiety or low productivity and that’s what makes him, and others like him, want to experiment and create their own, customizable solutions.

He eventually found out that anxiety was at the core of his migraines— tensing his jaw and shoulders was affecting nerves and muscles in his back. This was the cause of those nasty headaches.

Today, Campbell shares what he’s learned through his own journey with others through a meetup group called BioHack YYC. “I’ve been down this road and see how things can be done better,” he says “I help others get exponentially faster, easier and more permanent results than they would by more traditional methods.”

But his journey isn’t over. His migraines managed, Campbell now focuses his time on things like longevity, cognitive performance and energy. Part of the pursuit of these elements of self improvements are Nootropics, which we will get into later.

Spill BottleBecause many Nootropics are not regualted in Canada, online retailers are the primary source for consumers. Photo by Cassandra Woods.

Going beyond traditional health solutions

Deepak Saini, in addition to being a member of BioHack YYC, is a health transformation coach. That means exactly what it sounds like— his job is to help people get healthier, primarily focusing on weight loss and pain reduction.

Like Campbell, his biohacking journey began through his own health struggles. “I was always the chubby kid,” he says, “I’ve struggled with my weight for as long as I can remember.” He also suffered with frequent bouts of illness and joint pain thinking “that’s just how life was.”

Throughout university he had been highly active, and although he had no trouble gaining muscle he was still struggling to lose fat. When Saini started a family, his health struggles continued. A sedentary office job meant that his weight loss attempts fluctuated and he was still getting frequently ill.

He consulted his primary care doctor who simply told him that it was normal for parents of young children to get sick, saying, “You’re just going to be sick for the first five years of their life.”

“I thought ‘that can’t be the answer, that doesn’t make sense,’ so that’s when I started doing some research on my own,” says Saini.

Wanting to try something different he went to a naturopath who found out that he had a very low white blood cell count. Together they tweaked his supplements and Saini began to get healthier.

“It’s at the point now where I basically never get sick anymore.”

Another struggle was raised when Saini was doing intensive cardio in order to prepare for a marathon, and ended up severely injuring his back. He went back to his primary care doctor who misdiagnosed his pain as a bulging disk. He gave  him a list of ultimately ineffective exercises, but Saini was fed up.

“My low point was when my youngest daughter who was under a year, would reach up like ‘Daddy, pick me up,’” he says, “I couldn’t even pick up my own child off the ground.”

That’s when the focus of his research changed and he began looking into ways to help his back. “I kind of started looking into these more alternative medicines and supplements, and that sort of thing and then I came across platelet rich plasma.”

Platelet rich plasma or PRP, is a series of injections that takes platelets (which aide clotting and wound-healing) from one’s own blood and injects it right into the problem area to help promote healing. The treatments were completed at Paradigm Health and cost $700 each.

Saini then learned that eating clean could reduce inflammation and help the PRP to work more effectively. He began experimenting with this and found it helped his back, and the recovery time after the PRP. He went from eating clean one week before and after the procedure to eating clean full-time.

Saini ended up going back for six sessions of PRP. While recovering, he noticed that he was experiencing less pain and was feeling better in general, but the real shock came when he went to put on a pair of pants that he hadn’t worn for a while and realized that they were too big.

“That’s when I realized that I had lost all this weight, without that being the intention.” After just a few months of his new lifestyle, Saini had lost 40 pounds of pure fat, and now that he’s got his symptoms under control his goal is to “go beyond” biohacking. His new focus is on longevity and working with his clients to meet their own goals in terms of weight and lifestyle.

Noot BoxWhile there are conflicting opinions about supplementing with the Nootropic piracetam, it remains one of the most widely used Nootropics to date and was first synthesized in 1964. Photo by Cassandra Woods.

Biohacking in YYC

Campbell says that BioHack YYC has over 1,000 members, who like Saini, are taking health into their own hands. When Campbell first began his journey, he says the community was almost non-existent, but now, the community is growing in Calgary.

He says the majority of members are people who are committed to pursuing better productivity. According to Campbell this includes “CEOs, executives, people that are a little bit more in tune with themselves.”

The pursuit of improved productivity and other biohacking goals can sometimes involve Nootropics.

What are nootropics?

Nootropics aren’t pills prescribed by a doctor. They’re supplements, drugs or other kinds of substances that claim to do things like; enhance mental cognition, improve memory and aid in learning. Most often, they claim to enhance your productivity overall.

They claim to work in 3 ways:

  • Altering neurochemicals in the brain.
  • Improving the brain’s oxygen supply.
  • Stimulating nerve growth.

Nootropics are referred to as “smart drugs,” but aren’t to be confused with drugs like Adderall. Adderall requires a prescription, but, according to a study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, an increasing number of 18 to 25 year olds are misusing the drug.

Adderall, and other prescription drugs of a similar nature, can sometimes come with less desired effects including heart palpitations, insomnia and nervousness. Nootropics claim to offer a more “natural, side-effect free” version of drugs like Adderall— so you can get your grind on, without the anxiety.

Not miracle drugs

“I think a huge problem with society today, or at least Western society, is not fixing the underlying problem,” Campbell says, “So if you’re starting to take these enhancers you have to kind of ask yourself, ‘Why?’ which a lot of people don’t.”

“A good example is, if you’re taking melatonin so that you can sleep at night,” he says, “You have to question, why isn’t my body actually producing melatonin naturally in the first place?” Because many Nootropics are not regulated in canada, online retailers are the primary source for consumers.

Campbell says that taking multiple supplements each day is not a quick-fix to the underlying problem, and eventually, it’s just not going to work.

Nootropics make a lot of claims about what the user will experience while on them, but due to the relatively unregulated market, Carrie Innes, a sport dietician consultant, says that “there’s no way of knowing for sure” if those claims are accurate.

For example Piracetam, the first and arguably most popular Nootropic, claims to “enhance memory and boost cognitive function,” but evidence that this is true is largely inconclusive. In a study on crayfish neurons, Piracetam increased the lifetime of degrading neurons, but only when given in high concentrations. Degrading and dying neurons can cause brain diseases like; Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, impairing the ability to even do day to day tasks.

Innes says that while tests done on animals “definitely do show some effect,” the question of how these results translate to humans still remains up in the air.

Other studies on Piracetam have involved experimentation on patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or similar diseases. In one study, published by the Clinical Journal of Neurology, there was evidence to support that long-term treatment at a high dose could slow down the progression of brain diseases. However, this doesn’t conclude that the supplements will have positive effects on healthy brains.

Many Nootropics like Piracetam can fall into this sort of “grey area,” which means they can be imported for a personal supply from an online manufacturer but are not permitted to be sold within Canada as they are unregulated.

Innes says that this essentially means, “Health Canada is saying you know we aren’t approving these, we don’t know how to classify them so, therefore, we’re not supporting them.”

While there are conflicting opinions about supplementing with the Nootropic piracetam, it remains one of the most widely used Nootropics to date and was first synthesized in 1964.

This story appears in the November-December 2018 print issue of the Calgary Journal, on stands now!

Editor: Shelby Dechant | sdechant@cjournal.ca

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