© Joe Pugliese
Ben Greenfield: Does this biohacker live the perfect life?
The man is Ben Greenfield, who’s arguably the world’s fittest most healthy man, and almost certainly the most influential biohacker on the planet.
Depending on your perspective, he comes pretty close to being either a terrifying or inspiring idea of the perfect way of life. Our conversation with Greenfield covers genetic testing, the cold, eating tapeworms, man as a machine, running barefoot, self-absorbed bullshit, God (literally) and the world (again, literally) – and why it’s a good idea to only answer emails in the afternoon.
Ben Greenfield lives on a farm in the middle of the woods in Spokane, Washington, with its own ice bath and its own gym. He and his wife teach their 13-year-old twins at home, and not just the regular curriculum. The boys have their own podcast and go hunting with bows and arrows in the woods with their father. What they kill they eat.
Ben Greenfield reads one book and releases two podcast episodes a week. He gives talks all over the world (his dollar fee is well into five figures), he’s founded the supplement company, Kion, and his book, Boundless, is currently the standard reference work on the subject of biohacking. His sex life is also top-notch (he gave those hacks their own podcast episode) and is deeply religious.
He normally gets up at about 4 am and works on his books and podcasts until 11 am. He also finds time to study, work out, meditate and take care of the family – unless, that is, The Red Bulletin Innovator asks him for an interview, in which case, exceptionally, he allows himself to do something else before 11, and we appreciate that. The following interview was conducted by Andreas Breitfeld and Stefan Wagner. They both lean towards atheism but since speaking with Greenfield, Breitfeld has seriously considered getting himself a Bible.
THE RED BULLETIN INNOVATOR: Ben, the headline to this article reads, “Does this man lead the perfect life?” So does he?
BEN GREENFIELD: Physical, mental, spiritual perfection? No. But if you asked me, “Does this man strive to live the perfect life?” I’d say yes. But does he live it? No. Nobody does. And I don’t even want to.
Why don’t you want to?
The fact that we always get hurt or sick and that we’re unhappy or dissatisfied enriches our lives. The Sisyphean uphill battle is good for us. It keeps us humble because it reminds us that we are mortal. Imagine if we were all perfect. Would we make new discoveries in medicine, technology, in health matters if that were so? No. Because there’d be no need to. In my case there were intestinal and sleep problems and as I dealt with those I learnt a lot about how I could help others and ultimately make the world a little bit better too. No, I don’t live a perfect life and never will but I’ll keep on trying to every day in the knowledge that I’ll fail in my attempt every day too.
Is that the meaning of life for a professional biohacker – to strive for perfection?
I do at least think life is about getting closer to the optimal level the body, mind and spirit can function at. We have an amazing number of options at our disposal: tools that are both thousands of years old and hyper-modern, red-light therapy devices, hyperbaric oxygen tanks, supple¬ments, nootropics, smart drugs and our enormous wealth of knowledge regarding nutrition, hyperthermia and thermogenesis. It’s just up to us to make the most of those options. And very, very many people could get a lot closer to this optimal state very easily.
Do a genetic test, man! The effort is ridiculously small compared to the knowledge you get.
You’re a man of deep faith. How does belief in a higher power tally with the basic idea of biohacking? Biohacking is, after all, about consistently taking responsibility for your own life.
Why should I grapple with that question? I am a Judeo-Christian. God is the authority of absolute truth in my life. I have accepted that that authority cannot be fully explored. I don’t have 100% influence over my life and never will so I do what I am able to do. I wake up every day and look for ways in which I can have more energy, how I can improve my mental performance, how I can optimise my life span and health span, how I can deal with the ever-increasing stress, with environmental pollution and unnatural electromagnetic radiation. How I can grow spiritually and come closer to God. I just wake up every morning hungry – literally hungry – for new things. I want to read this article, those books, listen to these audio-books or podcasts. I want to be able to go to bed every night and say, ‘I know more about my body, mind and soul than I did this morning.’ And I want to put what I’ve learnt to good use. For me, yes, but much more for the sake of my family and friends and other people.
Okay, so in one sentence, what’s the meaning of life in the words of the world’s most influential biohacker?
The meaning of life is to savour and enjoy God’s creation. To wake up every day with a broad smile on our face because we get to live on this magical planet. To love others and follow the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. To make decisions that are of use to others and not just yourself. To find out what your strengths are and to use those strengths to influence the planet every day that you have the good luck to be on it. That’s how I see it. From an evolutionary perspective, we might just be a few hopeless chunks of flesh on a rock hurtling through space as we try to work our way up through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by eating, drinking, having sex and climbing the social ladder. I’m not willing to settle for that. I say do what you’re best at and make the world a better place while you do it. And love.
It's funny that the French woman, who currently holds the record, at 121 or 122 years of age, smoked a cigarette and drank her drink every day.
And the bedrock of it all is your own health, right?
Erm, no. That’s totally wrong. It’s not about your health. It’s about the health of other people, the physical, mental and spiritual health of all the people connected to you. Your own health is just a tool to that end. You have to be healthy enough to be able to be there for others. Many people are cult-like about their health, performance, productivity and about how fit they are so they can look better and earn more money. That’s egomaniacal, narcissistic and selfish. And crazily unsatisfying. It’s not about optimising yourself. It’s about being in good enough shape to be able to be there for others. Try it. You’ll see how incredibly satisfying it is! Only then do health, fitness and biohacking have any meaning and depth. And as soon as you understand that, you automatically set a limit for the time and effort you invest in biohacking. That’s when terms like minimal effective dose come into play. Two hours at the gym? That’s nice but you could achieve the same effect with 20 or 30 minutes of high-intensity training or super-slow training. You don’t need 30 minutes of exposure to the cold if you sit in zero-degree, icy water for two minutes. Same effect but a fraction of the time. That’s my approach to biohacking. It’s not about how much time I can spend on it. It’s about how little. And how much more time that gives me for my wife and kids and people who could do with my help.
Where’s the border between necessary and unnecessary in practice?
It’s about being efficient and effective. Three things will help you there. The first is self-assessment. Get your blood, microbiome, hormone status, saliva, urine, genetics tested. A couple of years ago this still cost tens of thousands of dollars, but now you can have all these tests sent to your home for a few bucks. The advances made in the area are just incredible. There are really good devices for measuring your heart-rate variability and sleep. It gives you laser-sharp feedback on everything you do. And, most importantly of all, you’re no longer flying blind as you work to make improvements or wasting a whole load of time optimising things that are fine already. So the first thing to do is get a wearable that tracks your sleep, HRV [heart rate variability], resting heart rate, daily steps and body temperature. Get yourself thorough genetic testing. Have a stool test to find out if everything is okay in your gut in terms of yeast, fungi and parasites and see how your inflammation levels look. Have your hormone status and neurotransmitters checked via your saliva and urine. Invest in a really good blood count with micronutrient status.
Give energy to other people. Help them. It doesn't cost you any energy, there are some. Try it!
Doing genetic testing at home isn’t quite mainstream yet. Can’t we start with a slightly lower threshold?
There’s no reason not to do it, man! Genetic testing means swabbing your mouth with a cotton bud. It’s laughably little effort when you think of all the knowledge and clarity it brings you.
OK, so number one was getting tested. What’s number two?
Make it part of your conscious mind to be there for other people. To love others. That is the innermost and most important focus in your life. If you lose that, you’ll wake up in the morning and the only thing you’ll think about is: what good thing can I do for myself today? Then you’ll get all the affirmations: I’m great, I’m amazing, I can achieve whatever I want in life. That’s self-absorbed bullshit.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
I ask myself what I am grateful for. Who can I wish well, who can I do something good for? That evening I’ll ask myself what I could have done better. At what point today did I feel the deepest inner connection to the meaning of life? If I’ve spent two hours that day at the gym, another 45 minutes in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and done long sauna and cold sessions, there’s not going to have been much time where I was there for other people. It might well have been the perfect biohacking day from other people’s point of view but for me that would have been a wasted day, a day with too much biohacking.
Okay, so we’ve had getting yourself tested and love as the first two reference points on the crossover between efficiency and effectiveness. What’s number three?
Now some people will say this is a little, um, bizarre – but that doesn’t matter. The root of human emotions has never been and will never be the brain. It’s the heart or, as people say, our gut feeling. Number three is ask yourself honest questions and let your heart answer them. Your heart knows the answer.
How would you captivate, in just two minutes, someone who had never heard of biohacking before, the opportunity to improve their own and other people’s lives by taking responsibility for their own health, performance and happiness?
I’d put it this way: the human body isn’t a computer but you can programme it. There is something machine-like about it and there’s a great deal you can do to make sure that it runs better, more smoothly.
What’s the first hack you recommend?
First I’d ask you what you’re unhappy with. If someone already knows how important training is and moves a lot in their daily lives instead of just sitting around, then we don’t need to discuss that first. And even if sleep is fundamental, I won’t give you any sleep tips if you go to bed at a reasonable time, keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet and don’t mistreat it as a place to work or watch TV because there’s a lot you’re already doing right. Of course you could always make improvements, if you wanted. In which case I’d recommend a Chilipad, which carries 12-13°C water under your body while you’re in bed, and some woollen socks to keep your feet warm. I’d also recommend you take a cold shower three hours before going to bed to lower your body temperature. If anyone says they’re having intestinal troubles: stool analysis. There’s no way around it. A food allergy test, a DNA test. It helps us say exactly where in the world your ancestors came from and which foodstuffs you’re evolutionarily suited to and which play havoc with your immune system as a result. We’ll use the tools gained from the tests to adapt your nutrition in the best way possible. Bar a couple of basics, your nutrition is individual. What’s right for you might be totally wrong for someone else.
What are the nutritional basics that apply to everyone?
Avoid processed foods and refined vegetable oils, not too much sugar or alcohol and don’t overdo the caffeine. Just eat natural stuff and fast a bit every now and again.
If someone more or less has a handle on movement, sleep and nutrition, then that’s real biohacking starting right there, isn’t it?
That’s when it’s time for the from-good-to-great approach. Number one is a no-brainer: use the power of photons. Light. That huge star up above us is a source of pure energy. Get out into the open for 20 to 60 minutes a day and if you want to increase the effect, take something like methylene blue or chaga extract. Your body can then make more efficient use of the photons to produce electrons and ATP [adenosine triphosphate]. Install infrared panels in the office. Sit in an infrared cabin. You can manage your circadian rhythm by using blue light selectively, in the early or late mornings, with devices like the human charger or re-timer glasses. So number one, if you have your movement, sleep and nutrition halfway under control, is light. Number two is making the most of the electric potential of the planet we live on. Walk barefoot on natural surfaces, on grass or in the forest. Make contact with the surface of the planet. Swim in a natural body of water. Climb rocks and trees. Take your shirt off. Lie in a meadow. It’s incredibly good for you. It stops inflammation. It accelerates ATP production, just like those photons from the sun do. Numbers three and four are heat and cold. It is now crystal clear that it does your longevity the world of good to regularly leave your temperate comfort zone. Heat and cold are workouts for your cell health. The next thing is water and minerals, preferably water that’s as close to spring water as possible, structured in such a way as to supply your cells more efficiently.
Most of these hacks are accepted by science. Others aren’t, or aren’t yet. What’s your take on earthing, for example?
Watch the documentary Earthing and read the book by Clint Ober. There’s more than enough scientific evidence for the anti-inflammatory effects of earthing. Look at the tonnes of research done by everyone from NASA and beyond on PEMF, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, the Earth’s own concentrated form of biohacking. But, okay, let’s say something doesn’t have any scientific proof. That’s where the self-assessment comes in. The famous biohacker study whereby n = 1, that’s to say you’re the only participant in your own study. You find out what improves your HRV and sleep, what gives you greater power to train, observe your body temperature or blood values or whatever else you can measure. That’s how I do it. I test and take readings and then go to the PubMed website and inform myself on previous studies on the subject.
PubMed is an important scientific online database. How much time do you spend on it?
PubMed and specialist articles combined – about seven to eight hours a week. But people don’t have to do that. It’s part of my job to do the research and sum up the most important parts for people.
On your website you describe yourself as a “relentless self-experimenter and guinea pig” – what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever tried?
I don’t do anything which I consider super crazy like the earliest biohackers who injected their eyeballs with chlorophyll to improve their night-vision. I don’t do that sort of thing. One thing you might find crazy was the helminth therapy I did to strengthen my immune system when I was travelling a lot.
I’d read a lot about how eating certain worms could strengthen your immune system. So I got some from a lab and took them for six months and genuinely didn’t get sick once, even though I was taking two or three flights a week. Or here’s another one. I wanted to find out if I could build muscle just through electrical muscle stimulation, without training. The experiment lasted eight weeks. No training, just high-intensity EMS. The result was I gained ten pounds of muscle. Ingesting tapeworms or inflicting electric shocks on your muscles might sound crazy, but I do very thorough research on the subject for weeks in the run-up. And there was solid evidence in both cases. There is EMS research from Russia dating back to the 1950s.
Biohacking also covers longevity, especially how one can remain healthy into old age. How will things be when Ben Greenfield is an old man?
According to current research, maximum human life expectancy seems to be somewhere between 115 and 121. It’s pretty funny that the Frenchwoman who currently holds the record – living to be 121 or 122 – smoked a cigarette and drank a little glass of something every day. So what was her trick? She had really good relationships in life and a lot of love. That kept her healthy. And as for the cigarette and the daily tipple… We know that some poisonous plants, herbs and spices, as with sunlight and heat and cold, can, in small doses, be good for our health. Three hours in the sauna, an hour in an ice-bath, eating a kilo of cinnamon… That would all be harmful, of course, but in small doses, super. There is even a hypothesis that the daily cigarette the Frenchwoman smoked actually made her stronger according to the hormesis – or adaptive response – concept: the body strengthens itself via contact with a toxin.
How old do you want to live to be?
I don’t care how long I live. What’s important to me is that I can be there as much as possible for other people as long as I live. If I die at 80, that’s fine with me. It’s not about a number. It’s about the contribution I can make to society as long as I’m here. That’s something I’d like to warn people in the biohacking industry about. If you absolutely want to make it to 150 but you feel like crap, you’re cold and hungry, you have no libido and spend half your day in a cryotherapy chamber, the sauna, a hyperbaric oxygen chamber or all three, what is that is not pure selfishness and mental masturbation about living a little longer than other people?
Identify your own purpose in life. what you’re on this planet for. when you know that, it’s damned hard not to be motivated.
What do you do if you aren’t motivated to do anything good for yourself? We all know those days where we just want to hang around the house.
You can very effectively reduce the risk of those days happening to you. To virtually zero. To do so, you have to identify your own unique purpose in life. I went into this in detail in my most recent books, so I’ll be brief now. Look for things that make the time pass without you noticing, things you’re naturally good at. From there come up with a phrase or pithy statement that will remind you again and again what you’re here on this planet for and how you can improve the life of others. That phrase is like the lens through which you observe every day of your life. And when you have that phrase, it’s a damned sight harder not to be motivated. But if you have that phrase and are still unmotivated, the absolute best thing you can do – I learnt this at an extreme camp, a sort of civil equivalent to the Navy SEAL Hell Week – is to give as many other people as possible energy. That energy will come back to you. Help somebody. Look after somebody. It may sound strange, but it won’t take any energy out of you. It will give you energy. Try it! Thirdly, don’t forget decision fatigue. So do the things that take creativity and concentration early in the day. I only produce podcasts and work on my books from 4 to 11am. You can do stuff like answer emails and make phone calls – things that don’t require mental firepower – in the afternoon. And, last of all, the best quick kick to get yourself motivated and give yourself mental energy is to jump into cold water, take a freezing-cold shower or dip your face in icy water; those things will work better than any stimulant, drug or food supplement.