Kayla Osterhoff on How To Hack Your Biology and Take Control of Your Health

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on 1 July 2020

Kayla Osterhoff is a functional health and wellness coach, a co-founder of the Women’s Biohacking Collective, host of the BioCurious podcast, heath scientist and researcher.

She is also a professional biohacker, nationally ranked athlete in the USA, and doctoral student of integrative mind-body medicine.

In this interview, we spoke about a range of topics, including her top biohacks for travel and her journey into the #health space.

We also spoke about her role in the Women’s Biohacking Collective and what biohacking really means to her.

It was great to chat to Kayla and I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!

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So Kayla, thanks so much for taking the time to speak to HumanWindow. You’ve just flown in from Atlanta?

Yeah, I took a red-eye from Atlanta. And unfortunately I didn’t get any sleep, but I did do all my travel biohacks. So I’m feeling pretty good right now.

So you’re a functional health and wellness coach. You’re the co-founder of the Women’s Biohacking Collective. You’re the host of the BioCurious podcast, a health scientist and researcher and a nationally-ranked athletes. And you’re also a doctoral student of integrity, mind-body medicine. Welcome to the show!

For anyone who’s not so familiar with your story and your journey, could you give us a bit of a kind of background about how you found your way into this space?

Sure. So, my training, or I guess my interest, in health started in undergrad. I grew up in a lower income family with four kids. And so, you know, we grew up eating Mac and cheese and chili out of a can and white wonder bread and all the things that you wonder how you survived.

It’s just because my parents didn’t know any better and you know, they did the best they could. And so my interest in health or like even any sort of knowledge in health didn’t begin until college.

I always knew I wanted to work in the health field and mostly that’s because growing up my mom told me that I’m going to be a brain surgeon my whole life. And I was like, OK, I guess I’m going to be a brain surgeon. Which I’m not, it didn’t work out.

I think it did plant a seed, for me to be interested in health. And I’m definitely fascinated in the brain and neuroscience and how all of that works. But, in undergrad I studied pre-physical therapy and I was going to be a physical therapist. And I worked in a physical therapy office for six years.

When I graduated, right around that same time, my mom was struggling with opioid addiction and she actually overdosed a couple of times and almost died from it. She had a stroke and had permanent damage from it. And luckily she’s great now, she’s recovered. But so many people don’t recover from that. And the opioid epidemic is massive in the US and it’s just completely preventable – and it all comes down to health policy. And so I kind of made a shift to work in health policy.

So I got my Master’s in public health. My undergrad was in health ecology. And then from there I went on to become a health scientist for the centers for disease control and prevention. And that’s where I work now.

I work in global health and during all of this time, I really got interested more and more in my own health and wellness and my own health journey. I started to run and I found the paleo diet, you know, all throughout this process. And it really kind of started me off as a biohacker before it became like a cool thing or before it became a term.

And then, you know, thanks to Dave Asprey, we created a term for it, which is super cool and I love the term biohacker. I really started to dive down the rabbit hole of health optimization in general. And so that’s when I decided to go back and get my PhD in mind body medicine, which is essentially as close to a biohacking doctoral degree as you can get.

So it’s really cool. They are super fascinating things. Some neuroscience, biofeedback, how the mind and body are connected and how all of that works. So it’s, it’s been a really fun journey so far and I’m excited to see where it goes.

Really cool. I think biohacking, to people who are familiar with the space, it’s obviously a commonly used term, but a lot of the kind of general public possibly don’t really understand what it means. What’s your definition of biohacking?

Yeah, so to keep it really simple cause people ask me all the time, like for instance, on my flight today, the person sitting next to me wanted to know what it was and probably has no knowledge of health or health science at all.

And so the way I described biohacking to that person is that it’s taking control and changing either your internal or external environment. So that could be where you live, the toxins in your home, even like the relationships around you. Internally, it could be your gut microbiome, it could be your neurology, your diet. And so changing those things so that you can have control over your biology for a specific health outcome that you’re wanting.

So you just said you’ve just flown over from Atlanta. You probably didn’t manage to sleep very much. You mentioned that you’ve got a few hacks. What are some of the travel hacks that you do when you’re on long flights like that?

Yeah, so it kind of starts before you leave. And mine actually starts the day before because I like to do a 48 hour fast, where the travel is at the end of that. One of the reasons why is to boost your self-healing mechanism and also to boost your mitochondrial health and so that you don’t get as much damage from the flight.

So it starts with intermittent fasting. Usually 48 hours, sometimes less, at least 16. And then before my flight a few hours, I’ll make sure to get a good workout in. You know, definitely work up a sweat and that helps to prime your body to reduce inflammation so that you get good circulation because you’re about to sit for so long.

This really gets the blood moving through your body so that you can front load that. Then on travel day or when I’m at the airport, I like to make sure that I drink lots of water that day. But then also at the airport I will drink mineral water there.

Then also during the flight I will bring my minerals to add to the water. Any sort of trace minerals that you would find in what they call raw water, like natural spring water is what you would want to include. And that basically increases the bioavailability of your water so that it is actually taken up into your cells instead of just being peed out essentially.

Then you want to avoid the harmful effects of the flight. One is the junk light, so wearing blue blocking glasses. And then I also just like to cover up all of my skin basically. So I looked like a totally different person on a flight! I was telling you before – probably my best travel biohack is pretty simple. I put a hoodie on backwards and then I just put the hood over my face. Junk light is absorbed also through the skin.

So if you could just cover up all of your skin, definitely your eyes, get sleep if you can and stay hydrated. And then I also like to wear earplugs or my air tube headphones. That reduces that noise pollution as well, just so you’re not like so overstimulated, it’s already a really dry environment.

With that recycled air, your blood oxygen levels plummet while you’re flying. So anything you can do to avoid more of that negative stimulation is best. And then when I arrive, I like to do a couple of things. One is I like to get natural sunlight.

Then I also like to do a bit of grounding, so I’ll just take my shoes off. Like when I got here, I just did it outside on the pavement, and just stood in the sun for like 10 minutes. I think those are the best things to do once you get to your location.

Kayla Osterhoff and Martin Caparrotta

Kayla Osterhoff chats to Martin Caparrotta of HumanWindow

What are some of your favorite biohacks?

My favorite things are always free or cheap – and they also happen to be the most impactful. So one, as far as diet goes, I don’t like the word ‘diet’, but, food lifestyle, I would say just cutting out sugar, which is super inflammatory. Cutting out toxic foods. So anything that has glyphosate in it, any grains, anything that is inflammatory for you. Some people don’t have an issue with dairy, but most people do. And everyone does have an issue with grains, at least in the US because most grains have glyphosate in some capacity.

So just eating really clean, eating as whole food and as close to the natural source as possible. Heliotherapy, which is light therapy, so not only getting natural sunlight but also red light therapy and blocking blue light is all how you can hack light.

Then intermittent fasting is one I do most days if not seven days a week. So that is just eating in like a 16-8 window.

Sometimes I do more of a OMAD, which is one meal a day. But we have all these names for all these things. Keto, intermittent fasting, OMAD, reduced time-window eating, whatever you want to call it. But essentially it’s just figuring out what works best for you.

And honestly, what works best for me like right now versus when I’m in training season is totally different. So, it’s also eating with the seasons, but eating also with your personal seasons of what your needs are.

Very cool. So you’re one of the founders of the women’s biohacking collective. Could you just give us a bit of an information about what that is, what you’re planning to do?

It’s the first women centric holistic health information. Um, online magazine. It’s like an online magazine, but it’s more of a course. So every month is a new edition that has a specific theme.

For instance, the last one was on skin health and the one prior to that was on brain health, or on brain fog specifically. And so we bring in experts from around the world who provide some insight into what you can do as a biohacker to address these things or to optimize these things. So each month is like a pretty in-depth course that will likely take somebody a month to get through. But it’s, it’s really valuable and it’s a cool community. We also have what’s called the forum, which is a closed community so that women can feel safe to bring specific questions to the community in a open and trusted way.

Then we also have online events where we do similar but live conversations with the group. We’re doing all of this to build a community of informed women who can take control and ownership over their own health and wellness and biology. The four of us founders are women in the sciences. And we know as researchers that essentially all research is done on either males or on women who are post-menopausal. As a researcher, I understand the issues with working with women of reproductive age because they have certain risks that you don’t want to really mess with.

And it makes it really challenging to research on those populations. So there’s a lot of misinformation out there. The recommendations that are out there are essentially for men or post-menopausal women, and so they’re not going to work for everyone.

So then we really dive into how you can align biohacks with your specific hormonal cycle and because there are certain times of the month where different hormones are going to peak. And so you really want to time your biohacks with those times to be really effective and not have contraindications.

So one of the things I’ve been trying my best to improve recently is sleep and trying to hack my sleep as much as I can. I’ve been making little tweaks where possible. Have you got any tips or advice for improving sleep?

Number one, and this is probably the health scientist in me speaking, but what gets measured gets used. You need data to know if you’re making progress. So track your sleep with a wearable. I wear bio strap. There’s the Oura ring. Even on your phone you can do it. There’s a lot of things out there, but whatever it is, use the same device every night.

It doesn’t really matter which device and it doesn’t really even matter how accurate the device is, as long as it’s consistent and that you’re using that same device for you, then you can actually see your changes over time. So that’s number one before you go out and you start to try to do biohacks. You don’t know if you’re making progress if you don’t measure it.

Then I would say there are three things that work best for me. I don’t know if they’re going to work best for everyone, but one is supplementing with magnesium. That really helps me to get more deep sleep.

The other one is getting exercise during the day and not too close to bedtime. And then also your eating window shouldn’t be too close to bedtime either.

So you want to time that out and it’s good to time that around your workout. And then the other one is blocking blue light at night so that you don’t screw up your circadian rhythm.

Sure. So one of the things that you’re big on is biohacking to empower your clients and give them control over their health. Why is that important do you think?

So this goes back to the reason why I’m a public health scientist.

I got into this because I want to empower people to take ownership and control over their own health and stop relying on insurance or doctors or whoever to tell them what to do with their health.

You should be in charge of your own health. You should never just accept recommendations blindly, even from your doctor. Research it. Get a second opinion, figure out what the best option is for you. See if there are natural options. Don’t just accept a pill.

A lot of times, people just to do whatever insurance covers and whatever’s easiest – and that takes all of the power and onus off of them and it puts it onto big business in general, big pharma and the public health system, which I worked for.

I realized the issue with this is that it disempowers the individual and when you’re working from a giant construct like that, it’s really hard to know what is best for each individual. In fact, it’s impossible, but the individual knows what they need.

So it’s more about like tapping into your innate knowledge and building your own knowledgebase so that you can control your own health.

Cool. One of the things Dave Asprey speaks about a lot is that fundamentally he’s saying that if people feel better, they do better. Essentially, they do better things for the world. And so that’s an important mindset as well, isn’t it?

It is. So when I work in really low income countries, when you’re going in and you’re trying to provide them with an intervention that is essentially going to save their life, say like, cardiovascular disease intervention, like some sort of cardiovascular disease medication or protocol, you’re trying to get people to do some of these lifestyle changes.

So they needed to do diet, exercise, and then also adhere to a medication a lot of times. But people are not able to do these things if their baseline needs are not being met. So you can bring up all these things that would be helpful to somebody for their health.

But if their baseline needs are not met, meaning emotional, physical, just on a biological basis, nutritional, having good relationships. If you are not complete in that way, you could throw all this information out there and it’s basically not going to stick.

So to tie that back with what Dave is saying is that when people’s needs are met and when they’re feeling really good, then they can start to focus on the more important things, like the things that will move us forward as a society. But we can’t really expect them to do that if they’re sick and they’re not feeling well, they have brain fog and they have poor relationships and they have no self-awareness.

What nutrition tips do you have for someone who’s maybe watching this and wants to make a change and become slightly healthier?

Yeah, so three easy things. Cut out processed sugar. If you can’t cut out all sugar, cut out processed sugar, cut out processed food, and anything pre-packaged.

There’s this kind of myth out there that prepackaged food is cheaper. It’s not. There are ways that you can eat not prepackaged fresh foods that can be just as affordable.

Then I would say just be mindful. We have this idea in our society that we have to eat three meals a day. We could probably go weeks without ever feeling hungry. That’s not right. We’re supposed to eat actually when we feel hungry.

So try listening to your body and realize is it just you’re eating because it’s time to eat or are you actually hungry? Like we know what that real feeling you have of being hungry is – your stomach is kind of like growling and you feel like it feels empty. That’s actually being hungry. Craving a doughnut is not being hungry. That’s something else.

So we have to kind of tease out whether it is more mental or physical and try to eat more on that physical level and be really in our bodies, understand when we need to eat and then what our bodies are asking for.

If you had to choose one health product that you couldn’t live without, what would it be?

I would just say sunlight because vitamin D is essential and we can get it for free from the sun. And so maybe it’s Vitamin D.

The way I like to get it is from the sun. Vitamin D is a cofactor for so many important biological processes. So even if we’re just getting that one nutrient, we’re going to be better off.

Very cool. So this is a question I’ve been asking everyone that I’ve been interviewing. If you could go back knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

Hmm. Yeah, so my 18-year-old self, as I mentioned, was not very healthy. So maybe one would be like start paying attention to your health, but earlier, because I think if you start investing in your health at a younger age, obviously you’re going to have better health outcomes when you’re older.

But maybe more important than that is to learn a hard lesson that I’ve had to learn and only recently – maybe in the last couple of years have I really taken this to heart, which is you can only control yourself. You can’t control things external to you.

So in any situation, even if you’re dealing with like a person, a relationship that you’re in and the person is not doing what you want them to do, think about what you can do because you can’t change them or you can’t change the situation. But what is a step that you could take?

So for instance, if you’re in a relationship with somebody who’s doing something you don’t want them to do, what you could do is, is model what you’re wanting them to do.

And hopefully they’ll follow through. And if not, at least you’re investing in your own health. If I could have learnt that lesson sooner, I think it would be really good.

Great advice. Where’s the best place for someone to keep in touch with your work and what you’re up to?

So I’m on Instagram as @biocurious_kayla. That’s probably the best place to get in touch with me because I’m on there all the time. It’s just me. I don’t have anybody managing my page. So if you message me, I will absolutely message you back. I message every single person back who messages me. So I would love to connect with you and then you can also check out the BioCurious podcast and see what’s going on there.

Awesome. Kayla, thanks so much for your time. I really enjoyed it and keep doing what you’re doing!

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