biohacking I: thoughts on dietary practice

When I find myself drowning my instinct is not to surface, but to swim deeper. I tend to operate at full capacity: three different undergraduate courses in two different states; drop-in tutoring on what would have been my off day; that god-forsaken memoir that accuses me every day of having given up what makes me truly happy. In theory, my dissertation proposal. In practice, an aggressive self-care regimen that, over a month in, appears to be working, and has gotten me thinking quite a bit about biohacking.

Given my academic interests, I had always thought of biohacking in terms of the cyborg: prosthetic additions, chip implants a la Black Mirror, Gibsonian body modifications above and beyond what I’d ever try. (Yes, Molly Millions is your stereotypical cyberpunk femme fatale, but retractable knife nails and implanted mirror shades? It reeks of awesome.) For the most part, I saw them as counter-hegemonic tools to extend our experience of the world in both quantity and perceptive type—or conversely, tools of the State deployed for the purpose of social discipline and codification.

But of course biohacking can be conceived in far more ordinary terms. Ranging from dietary practices to medication, it doesn’t have to be anything beyond the body itself. How to chemically hack and rewire what fuels us, what facilitates relief and rest, how often we need refueling.

In that respect, I’ve been trying to hack my body for years. For the first few years after being diagnosed, I bounced from pill to pill, hoping to find the magic bullet for chronic pain and fatigue. They all came with warnings about how the body would be changed, and for how long—altered libido, weight loss, weight gain, metallic dry mouth, split urine streams, muscle weakness, lethargy, suicidal ideation.

I’ve written extensively about my experience of Lyrica, which incidentally continues to serve me well now that I’ve had my abdomen surgically cleaned up.

Which brings me to the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet, also known as Paleo.

I have many thoughts about the Paleo “lifestyle.” I think Paleo as a “lifestyle” or an “ideology” (a status I barely want to confer onto it) is bullshit. It makes division of labor strikingly gendered; it can get pretty expensive; it is restrictive to the point of rendering you incompatible with the rest of the world if you adhere to it strictly; and it isn’t sustainable with an ordinary salary, steady employment, and little leisure time. I think there are very troubling race, gender, and class associations with Paleo—white, upper-middle-class or higher,

It’s trendy. It’s for weight loss. It’s, on the face of it, for white men and women with money and time to spend on fitness and the appearance of health.

But I’ll say this too: many of its practices—the less mainstream ones, of course—are standard dietary practices outside of Western countries. Eating raw, for instance, or eating offal, or dare I say it, eating raw offal. Organ meats are cheap and make quick energizing snacks when consumed raw, but you won’t be able to order 1/4 lb. raw liver and bacon at Hu Kitchen or Thyme (yes, I asked, and afterwards I swear they kept looking at my mouth like it was a disease-ridden deadly weapon). Insect-eating is another one. As for more common practices, bodybuilders, athletes, and laborers have long relied on some of these dietary “hacks” to get more out of the body, to bulk up, and to get immediately accessible protein.

So, as a so-called ideology, I find it disturbing, especially in its coding of gender (women as gatherers, nurturers, and cooks; men as dominant hunters; and the strange eroticism around videos of a Norwegian woman eating raw organs despite the fact that offal consumption is standard practice there—-she is “beautiful” and demonstrates how raw eating is acceptable for women too, creating an unsurprising linkage between women-beauty-raw meat, as opposed to men-strength-raw meat).

As a diet, however, it has improved my quality of life immensely.

Fibromyalgia is incurable and non-progressive, discounting flare-ups and seasonal anguish, so this isn’t a miracle-cure diet, and I strongly suspect that my chronic pain originated with some sort of gut problem, as the appendectomy relieved a lot of my lifelong chronic pain. I went Paleo out of necessity. I underwent surgery in the fall, during which my appendix and sundry organs were respectively cut out and scraped apart, and I’m at moderate to high risk of adhesions forming given how had become glued together from the internal leakage and bleeding. Post-operative recovery was fine, and while the scarring didn’t prevent me from eating and digesting, it did make the experience….interesting. Namely, my guts are so taut these days I become aware of every digestive motion after the food leaves my stomach.

Needless to say, it’s uncomfortable, and if I happen to eat something that isn’t easy to process it becomes a screaming nightmare.

When I realized how good I felt when I ate bone broth, I began seriously considering Paleo. It took me about a week to fully transition to the high-protein, high-fat diet, as I’d been a high-carb, high-protein, low-most-anything-else kind of eater. I’m still working out the kinks as I’m seeking to gain weight (not lose it), and I’m not very strict about it if I know I can tolerate a forbidden item (certain kinds of bread or pasta, for instance), but I’ve gone about 2 months and my muscle stiffness has decreased to the point where I can massage some of the kinks out myself.

Keep in mind that, prior to dietary changes and surgery, it took my Pilates instructor hours to get through what we called “the layers”: the unyielding muscles above the actual trigger point or muscle we wanted to work on or release. These days, I can work out the knots in my neck and shoulders on my commute from New Brunswick back home.

I used to avoid cooking because I lacked the strength and energy to wield pans, let alone clean them. I used to feel spikes in my feet when standing over the oven or sink. My wrists would threaten to unhinge if I tried to move a pot. I have energy for miles, and most importantly I have more clarity than I have ever had since the dreaded fibro-fog originally set in almost a decade ago. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s like being on a painkiller, moving and thinking and speaking through a cloud, your eyes seeing through a haze, grasping for things you know are there behind the mist but elude you when you look and interrupt when you need them least.

My multiple professions all involve my brain, and searching for the perfect drug cocktail (Lyrica and Savella, for me) was all about restoring my alertness and energy at least to where I could exercise my intellect and continue to teach effectively. I spent a year on an increased dose due to increased pain. Now, I’m finding I can manage the increased pain through food.

We don’t often think of food as medicine because the State promises health care and dispenses it in the form of prescription drugs regulated for reasons that are sometimes baffling (Lyrica as a case in point) and in doses we can’t modify (just do a Google search for tapering off Cymbalta and you’ll find a whole DIY community desperate to taper it more slowly than official doses allow). Food, on the other hand, despite naturally containing some of these chemicals and sometimes being contra-indicated with certain drugs or other food, isn’t the first thing we turn to.

So many of the Paleo practices that work for me are not standard American dietary practices. My breakfast of champions? A couple of teaspoons of coconut oil and ghee blended in my coffee plus a serving of natto to kickstart my brain and my appetite, both of which remain slow for hours after I get up, until I’m limber, or until medication-related nausea wears off. Now I’m alert and eating in 30 minutes or less. And I have an appetite. And I experience little to no digestive or menstrual pain. And when I consume raw liver or raw or rare heart, it’s like a vitamin shot, instant relaxation of all my usual suspect muscles, a fading of the aches, and energy for miles. It’s astonishing to me to think that in 2008 I would have to rest every 10 city blocks, 20 on a good day; that in Fall 2015 I had to take cabs everywhere; and that now I sometimes walk 50 and it doesn’t cost me a full day of recovery.

This isn’t an ideology to me, or a lifestyle. It’s more about relearning my body after it betrayed me in a terrible way: making me feel as though I knew its pain intimately, so intimately I assumed each rupture was a flare-up that would pass over time, and that the tender lump in my abdomen was some sort of muscle knot, and not a collection of blood and hardening tissues.

My assumption was wrong, and I’ve felt such guilt over not knowing, because we are supposed to know our bodies better than anyone else, and with chronic pain you keep your body closer than your best friend, your family, your shadow. It’s your nemesis, after all. You have to know the enemy if you want to defeat it, but this time the enemy knew me better and played me for a fool.

The guilt has gone, but I’m left with the reminder that even with this awareness I have—of what groups of muscles are doing or not doing, how to will them into activation or relaxation, how to find places of balance or easiness—I still can’t read the signals. The body speaks, and the language is foreign, and I guess out of context, and I’m wrong, and what if I’m wrong again?

Biohacking through dietary change isn’t just about being good to my constricted digestive tract, or maximizing my potential as a thinker and a human being, but also a means of hearing my body as though for the first time, as though the language I thought I knew was always in a different dialect. It’s a kind of jamming of eating culture and of my own cravings. It’s a strange new way of thinking the body machinic with its own particular desires for fuel, where the rules can always be bent to see what the consequences are, and to learn from those consequences how to read the distress signals your body sends you, when you are so used to those signals they map your skies like stars, too many to be divined.

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