I admit. I am a biohacker.
For over three years I’ve been searching for ways to improve my biology, to have more energy, sleep better and feel better. My biohacking story started in January 2016 as I got severely ill: my energy levels crashed and even getting out of bed seemed like a day’s worth of work. The condition was later diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, an illness where your body’s cells energy centers, the mitochondria, stop producing energy and turn in to a sort of hibernation. As conventional medicine couldn’t offer any help to my symptoms, I started doing my own research in the world wide web. That’s how I started my loving relationship with adaptogens, superfoods, meditation and other biohackery stuff. These day’s getting out of bed is no problem and I’m completely fine with my heavy stress-load work thus my body still struggles with physical exercise.
In the winter of 2016, I got my Oura ring and noticed that I was barely getting any deep sleep during the nights. I could go through the night without having even a minute of deep sleep and in the good days (or nights?) the maximum deep sleep would be around 15 minutes. That’s when I realized I really needed to start doing some serious sleep hacking. A year and tons of blue blocking glasses, herbs and strategies later, the amount of deep sleep would vary around 15 to 45 minutes.
Last April I got the privilege to start acting as a guinea pig for a bunch of biohacking tools that are supposedly making you happier and calmer, making you sleep better and improving your brain function. In collaboration with Mikko Kemppe, the founder of Biohacking Center Finland, I did a ten-month period of testing their biohacking equipment while wearing tools to monitor my brain activity, heart rate variability and sleep quality.
The aim of this experiment was to test whether these biohacking equipment actually did anything they were marketed to be doing.
As I work full time and have a wife and couple of dogs at home that need attention and taking care of, being able to do this every day was not an option. The aim was to do these as often as possible which ended up ranging from 0 to 4 times a week. We also wanted to keep the setting as similar as possible so only work days were included.
I had been hacking my sleep for about 18 months with my Oura ring before the experiment so it was very interesting to see whether using the Biohacking Center equipment would result in better sleep and if it did, how big would the improvements be.
Devices and therapies
The therapies from Biohacking Center that were included in the experiment were:
A device called NeurOptimal which monitors your brain activity while playing a brain entrainment music track that changes its entrainment frequencies in real time as a response to your brain’s activity. The idea of Neurofeedback is to provide a feedback loop or in effect a mirror to the brain to optimize its own performance. NeurOptimal is supposed to help with a wide variety of symptoms from addiction and depression to sleep disorders and tinnitus. They have quite a good amount of research to back the claims. You can check them from here. For the experiment we chose the 35-minute program.
Biohacking Light / Light Lounge
A brain entrainment device Pandora Star which consists of white LED lights flashing in different sequences and frequencies. You lie down under the light with your eyes closed. The idea behind the biohacking light is to help train your brain to achieve certain different brain wave lengths, e.g. gamma waves that might help you to have lucid dreams. For the experiment we chose 40-minute Gamma wave -program.
A mattress that vibrates in low frequencies (20-100 Hz) making your nervous system to calm down, aiding in muscle recovery and helping you sleep better. Neurosonic has some clinical trials behind the claims which you can check from here. For the experiment we chose the 39-minute relaxing program.
The sensory deprivation tank was left out since wearing electrical monitoring devices while lying in the water would not probably be a very relaxing experience. 😊
We also wanted to a kind of placebo control and compare these devices to relaxations and meditations you can do at home. So, in addition to Biohacking Center’s devices I also did at home:
Meditation has a ton of research behind the positive effects of it ranging from improvements in mental conditions, like depression and stress to reduced pain and improved cognitive and social skills. For the experiment we chose to sit in a comfortable and quiet place and focus on the breath for 30 minutes.
Meditation with Muse
Meditating using Muse’s feedback feature which gives you sound clues of your brain’s activity. When you hear birds, your brain is calm and when you hear rain, your brain is active. Muse has also some research behind it. It should at least help with attention, learning and reduce somatic symptoms like headaches and other pain. The meditation was done for 30 minutes.
Sitting in a comfortable and quiet place doing nothing. No meditation but also no reading, watching TV etc. Just sitting quiet for 30 minutes.
The equipment that was used to monitor my body were:
Muse headband to monitor my brain activity during the activities
Polar H7 chest band with SweetBeat HRV app to monitor my heart rate variability (HRV) and the activation of the sympathetic (LF) and parasympathetic (HF) nervous system during the activities
Oura ring to monitor my sleep quality and night time HRV
We decided to compare all the other results to the baseline measurement. In other words, does using the Biohacking Center’s devices or meditation at home make a difference when compared to 30-minute sitting on the home sofa?
As you can see from the graph above, the biggest variations in the scores were found in Muse calm time, SweetBeat lf/hf and Oura deep sleep.
The calmest time measured by Muse was, surprise surprise, when meditating with Muse. I reached an average of 39% calm time when using the feedback of Muse while meditating. The second calmest time was reached by using Neurosonic and the third place went for normal home meditation without any feedback. The biggest surprise was the Neurofeedback with only 7% of calm time. The feeling when doing the neurofeedback felt like you’re in very deep state but apparently according to the muse readings your brain is very active during that. Note that baseline didn’t offer very calming effect either with only 19% calm time.
The HRV measurements during the activities didn’t vary a lot. The best HRV score of 53 was reached both by using the Muse feedback meditation and Light lounge. Note that Neurofeedback had the lowest score again.
The low frequency – high frequency -ratio had the biggest differences between the different activities. For some reason, the home meditation had the highest score meaning that my sympathetic nervous system was the most active during that. Meditation with Muse’s feedback had also significantly higher lf/hf-score than the rest. Here the best results came from Neurofeedback.
The average sleep scores didn’t vary that much which is understandable since the sleep score is affected a lot by the total time of sleep which basically is just about what time you go to sleep.
The differences in deep sleep were quite significant as nights after the Light Lounge produced an average of 51 minutes whereas nights after baseline it was only 33 minutes. Here the top three scores come after using the Biohacking Center devices and the least deep sleep came after the home meditations and baseline.
Nightly HRV didn’t vary significantly.
During the six-month period the calm time measured by the Muse headband during the activities slightly dropped from around 28% to 22%. The reason for this is unknown. My best guess is that since my fall was very challenging and busy at work, it influenced my ability to calm down. On the other hand, the change is so minor that it doesn’t necessary mean anything.
Neither the HRV readings during the activities nor the low frequency (LF) – high frequency (HF) -ratio varied significantly.
My average sleep score increased from 79 to 88. Night time HRV increased from 25 to 28 which doesn’t hold any significance.
My nightly deep sleep time doubled from 30min to 60min which is quite a change!
The lessons learned and some criticism
The Muse headband is very sensitive for movement. It takes a while to get it connected and calibrated but even though you have calibrated it properly, it doesn’t mean that it will stay that way. I encountered many times that the headband had lost the connection during the session (even though I was just lying down!) so some data had been lost. I also felt that the Bluetooth connection affected my brain in an unpleasant way. For future experiments I would search for an alternative that would not be so sensitive to movement and other disturbances and maybe could be connected with a cable so the wireless radiation wouldn’t be blasting right to your head.
I also encountered some disturbances with both Oura ring and the Polar H7 -chest strap. Oura ring had a small period of not saving the results from the whole night but only from couple of hours. Polar chest strap was few years old, so I guess it wore down as it started to have problems finding the heart rate. It affected couple of measurements but as I figured out what the problem was, I bought a new strap.
The SweetBeat app was not the best choice for measuring the HRV. Even though the app itself worked fine in iPhone, it was really hideous in Samsung phone. The SweetBeat cloud was also a disappointment. You couldn’t get the same readings from the cloud that you would get from your phone.
The experiment was n=1 so the data from it is not the most reliable. Even though I tried to do it as often as possible the number of sessions for each device/activity was left to only 8. I was also the judge and the jury as I measured the data and collected it, so this wasn’t exactly a double-blind study 😉. There was also no REAL placebo control; I was aware which devices/activities I had done, and they were the real deal each and every time.
For future generations
If there was a re-match for the experiment it would be interesting to see the results from a continuous use of one particular device/activity eg. using neurofeedback as many times as possible for a month and then do a month of nothing or couch sitting. More people in the experiment would also bring up the numbers of the sessions so the results would be more significant. Maybe collecting the data in a way that the participants would not see them would also be an improvement to the quality of the experiment.
I would also add the sensory deprivation tank to the experiment even though having wearables in the water is not possible. Seeing just the effects it might have to sleep would be worth it.
What did I get out of the experiment?
The whole experiment was a very very pleasant experience for me. I really enjoyed being able to go to wind down after a busy day of work. The Neurofeedback really touched my brain somewhere deep and I felt somehow more connected after each session. I also felt I slept the best after these sessions even though the results speak otherwise.
The best way to describe Biohacking Light is getting wasted without any alcohol or experience hallucinations without psychedelics. For me the experience was even more powerful than Neurofeedback. It took my mind to another world, like seeing dreams but being awake. I felt like my brain had been reset every time I came out from the Biohacking Light.
Neurosonic was the gentlest one of the Biohacking Center devices. It obviously relaxed me and sure helped with my tired-of-wearing-safety-shoes-legs. After each session I felt nice and relaxed but no deeper effects from this device.
Even though I had meditated before the experiment, meditating for 30 minutes in a row was a new experience to me. Especially when there was no guiding voice being focused on the breath for such a long time was quite hard! I really had to push myself to be able to do that. I would guess that pushing myself was the reason the LF/HF was so high in those sessions.
But meditation with Muse’s feedback was even harder! The instant feedback was at first so brutal that I really got mentally exhausted (even though it was relaxing, weird!) at the first times I was using that.
Sitting in the couch doing nothing was also surprisingly hard. In modern life where there’s new inputs coming all the time everywhere (messages, calls, TV etc.) being still for so long time doing nothing was really boring but I felt nice and relaxed afterwards.
So, what happened to me in the long run?
I had the best sleep I’ve had for years! Even though being so busy and stressed at work I was still able not only to put out some quality zzz but to actually improve my sleep and hit some records in the amount of deep sleep I’ve ever measured! For someone who has had not the best sleep for most of his life this was a really profound effect that I’m truly grateful of!
I also feel that my resilience to stress has increased. I’m able to be more present even in the most challenging situations and somehow things are just… easier.
I will most definitely continue to use the services of Biohacking Center and recommend everyone else to do it as well. Will meet you there!