From 'extreme fasting' to 'radical life extension', the dark side of body optimization

How tech bros in Silicon Valley are rebranding eating disorder-like behaviour as "extreme fasting." And, a look at the problem with Silicon Valley's obsession with agelessness and living forever.

Exploring Silicon Valley's obsession with longevity and bio-hacking

Is there a problem with Silicon Valley's obsession with agelessness and living forever? (Pixabay)

James Strole plans to live forever.

At the biological age of 70, he has spent his entire life trying to find a cure for aging, and ultimately death, optimizing his body through techniques like cleanses, fasts, blood transfusions and even skin patches that claim to help reverse aging at a cellular level.

"Let's put it this way: I'd do anything that I feel safe with," Strole said in an interview with Spark host Nora Young.

Strole, who appears lean and energetic and sports a full head of greyish-white hair, is the director of the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, an organization that brings together scientists, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts who are passionate about physical immortality. Their overall aim, Strole said, is to conquer aging and eventually death.

James Strole

"To be clear, we're talking about living with vitality and vigor. We're talking about getting better all the time, not in some decrepit state," Strole said. "Why wouldn't we want to live longer if you're living really great?"

Silicon Valley and 'extreme fasting'

While some may write off the super longevity seekers as a fringe movement, this obsession with using science to carefully measure and quantify our bodies in an attempt to make them better, faster and stronger is becoming more mainstream.

Maybe not surprisingly, Silicon Valley — where the food-replacement product Soylent flows freely — is at the forefront.

In January, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that he had "been playing with fasting for some time" and does "a 22 hour fast daily (dinner only), and recently did a 3 day water fast." 

This revelation prompted Guardian journalist Arwa Mahdawi to remark that these "extreme fasts," which have become increasingly common among Silicon Valley's tech bros and entrepreneurs, are in fact nothing more than re-branding of eating disorders. But now, instead of women trying to get thin, it's men who are just "optimizing" their bodies.

"Silicon Valley has really kind of normalized a lot of obsessive behavior that is normally associated with eating disorders," Mahdawi told Young. "For example,  obsessively checking how many calories you're eating, obsessively checking your weight — that kind of thing is on steroids in Silicon Valley."

Arwa Mahdawi

Mahdawi said she also spoke to people who consider themselves "biohackers," which are those who measure certain markers in their bodies and experiment on themselves using various techniques with the goal of optimizing their health. 

"Some of them will go and they'll get special glucose implants in their skin, so they can test their glucose, and that's something that diabetics normally have," Mahdawi explained. "These people are not diabetics. They just want to check." 

These behaviours, Mahdawi said, are troubling. "They are basically treating themselves like computers: If I don't eat, how does my blood sugar react? If I eat this, how … did my metabolic markers change? And that degree of obsession, really, I think can be quite problematic."

Unintended consequences

James Horton, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Bath, has also written about the darkside of this obsession with body optimization and longevity. 

In his article "Silicon Valley's quest for immortality – and its worrying sacrifices", he argues that there is a real danger to some of these practices that certain tech companies are touting.

"Some are great," Horton said. "They're basically just encouraging us to live healthy lives and you know, if that brings us extra longevity and lifespan, healthspan, that's fantastic."

James Horton

Others — and Horton points out that most of these are startups — are more radical in their approaches.

"They also have this monetary incentive as well, so it's a really weird thing," he said. "They use these sort of stunts. Lots of people put these videos online and stream themselves injecting these viruses or other means that they can actually go in and change their actual genetic code, which can be incredibly dangerous. They can get cancers of all sorts."

Another unintended consequence: it turns out that when you try to extend a cell's lifespan, you can actually end up suppressing the immune system. Our bodies, Horton explained, have evolved to what they are today for a reason, and these radical therapies can disturb that balance.

"It's very hard to get to have your cake and eat it. Usually there's a price to pay," Horton said. "Taking a step back and looking at it objectively, it would be very bizarre if it turns out there's just this one thing in your cell that if you switch it off you live forever. You'd think, 'Well, why didn't we just turn that off already?'"

Despite these warnings, the human quest for health and longevity is something that has spanned the ages, and we probably won't see an end to it anytime soon. As Horton explained, there are biological reasons for it.

"There's that massive evolutionary drive for everything to want to survive … We've always had that desire and we always will have that desire," he said. "And I think when humans set their mind on something, they will go to pretty much any lengths to try and get their goals, I think. And this is a very powerful driver."