Physician, hack thyself

Biohackers are gulping down Dave Asprey's Bulletproof Coffee Breakfast. What the heck is it?

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

My friend Adam, an obstetrician, was getting married. It was the early 1990s. Beside his bride he beamed in the receiving line.

“Congratulations, Adam! You look amazing!” I said, adding awkwardly: “Jeez, how’d you lose so much weight?”

“The old-fashioned way,” the good doctor said. “Laxatives and speed.”

Laxatives and speed. That was two decades ago. Over the years, while trudging the righteous road of kale and crunches, I’ve often recalled Adam’s can-do mantra. Laxatives and speed. The old-fashioned way. The hack that doctors know. Metamucil and Adderall. The hack that works.

So maybe I was unconsciously vulnerable two weeks ago, while I was logging new habits on Lift, a retro good-girl app that encourages me to drink more water and call my mom. My heart unexpectedly revved when I noticed a new habit trending among users of the app. It wasn’t “do more cardio”—oh no. It had the ring of a big, fat health hack.

There I saw it: Bulletproof Coffee Breakfast.

Curiosity hit, then thrill—and in seven days that adrenaline took me from those three weird words, “Bulletproof Coffee Breakfast,” to the architect of the phrase, Dave Asprey, a nutty, charmingly solipsistic rich person, hacker of his own biology and brewer of the hot buttered joe that gives the "Bulletproof Coffee Breakfast" its name. Some consider the coffee—for now—the world’s ultimate wellspring of lean muscle and manly, laserlike focus.

It sounded too good to be true. And too good to be not true—both. Once I suspended my dutiful, ladylike commitment to incremental self-betterment—in a split second—I threw in with a biohacker of the first rank.

So yes, I’ve been drinking the steaming blonde elixir, which looks like the amber-white lava flow at Yellowstone, if you know what that looks like, each morning since and the results have blown my mind—

Oh, but I’ll get to that.

I found Asprey, of course, where the mentally healthy California rich belong, and neurotic East Coast cardio chumps like myself do not: cavorting with dolphins and children in somewhere called Roatán. (Where’s Roatán, Wikipedia? “Between the islands of Útila and Guanaja, it’s the largest of Honduras' Bay Islands,” naturally.)

Forunately, Asprey, holder of a dozen superhero titles and currently VP of cloud security at Trend Micro, could get some satellite action for his iPad on the boat. He probably could use his ears as a wireless router, if pressed. He agreed to ignore the dolphins for awhile and answer my questions about biohacking and coffee.

Yeah, he is a biohacker, one of those dudes like Tim Ferriss and Josh Whiton, who think way too much about women’s orgasms, the weight of their own feces and how to game the Red Cross so they can do more bloodletting. Once again, I’m not kidding. These are the guys, many from the tech world, who nap bionically, intermittently fast, binge on bacon and ketose, swing paloelithically from trees and aim with gadgets and venture capital to drive their IQs and erections into the stratosphere. Some of them even embrace transhumanism—the sort of neo-Nietzschean notion that mortality can and should be transcended with technology.

They’re insufferable, in other words.

Which is not to imply that I didn’t knock back Aspey’s buttered Kool-Aid—and that I don’t recommend the coffee and the concept to anyone who’ll listen.

So how did Asprey find his way to buttered coffee, and a life of biohacking in the Honduran Bay and beyond?

“Enlightened self interest,” Asprey told me by email. “I weighed 300 pounds and had cognitive dysfunction in my mid twenties, despite being a very successful entrepreneur and exercising six days a week.”

Fact check: Asprey was a computer-science major who got his start online as Cyboman, e-tailing t-shirts emblazoned with caffeine molecules and spent the turn of the century doing strategic planning and product development at infrastructure-as-a-service companies, from the obsolete Exodus to the marquee Citrix. Asprey, who worked on WAN optimization and other wack protocols at a critical time, is considered a pioneer in cloud computing.

But back to biohacking. “It helped enormously that I was wealthy enough to do what I wanted at a young age, and my health was poor enough to motivate me,” Asprey explained. “I was doubly motivated by a 3D SPECT scan of my brain showing poor blood flow and likely cognitive dysfunction, and other tests showing I was at extreme risk for stroke and heart disease.”

Become rich and smart and sick! And let my condition incentivize an upgrade! Why didn’t I think of that?

“I decided to use the same techniques we use to manage very large, very complex systems like the Internet in order to upgrade myself.” (Biohacking in a nutshell.)

What Asprey came up with—after much grueling testing on his own body, and discussions with every doctor and research scientist he could get his alpha-male hands on—is a diet based around heaps of extremely pure meat and fat, squeaky-clean organic fruit and vegetables and zero milk, cheese, soy or grains. Beef plasma, ghee, sardines and pastured pork are your friends. Tangerines and soy are to be avoided on pain of obesity, ADD and brain fog. The diet is free in a downloadable infographic here.

A screenshot from the Bulletproof Diet, available in downloadable form at bulletproofexec.com


The Bulletproof diet, Asprey told me, is what first turned him Nietzschean; it’s at the heart of his superpowers. He lost 100 pounds and found he could focus better. But then Asprey hacked his nervous system, too. This part took chutzpah. Like many meditators and cognitive-therapy patients, Asprey realized he was ill-served by reflexive brain patterns like jealousy and greed that may have more properly served the primitive brain in a earlier and more hostile environment, Asprey now says he has trained his brain to “turn off“ the "useless survival reflexes” that were inhibiting him.

Finally, he says, he hacked his brain with a form of “neurofeedback” that showed him how his brain worked and automatically kicked off an “optimization” and “upgrade” of his mental operating system.

“One specific form of neurofeedback I did allowed me to do in seven very intense, very expensive days what it normally takes you forty years of daily Zen meditation to achieve. One hour of this kind of biohacking equals two-hundred hours of doing it the old way. The process took one week instead of two thousand weeks.”

It took a few days for this to sink in: Dave Asprey was talking about enlightenment. Insta-enlightenment. He’s also a guy who stays in top shape exercising about 45 minutes a month. You read that right. 45 minutes. Per month.

Now, I like this guy’s spirit, and he’s evangelically persuasive, but because I generally favor health systems like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Alisa Vitti’s WomanCode that emphasize yin-yang “harmony” over Max-YANG “performance,” I thought I’d ask Asprey if his Bulletproof health strategies plays well with women.

“You’d be surprised”—he said, though I wasn’t at all surprised, and I braced for salespeak—“Forty percent of visitors to bulletproofexec.com are women. It’s because both men and women want to be in control of their bodies and minds. Biohacking is about using technologies – old and new -- to take control of your biochemistry and your nervous system. Men and women want the same things – to feel unlimited energy, to feel in charge of their emotional states, and to be able to focus when and how they choose. They also want to look good naked.”

Which brings me to the coffee. Asprey recommends the coffee for “mental clarity,” but says a side-benefit is weight loss. I was in it for both—but mostly I did it just to show I could do it: Be game, be alpha, give Bulletproofness a shot. I’ve spent decades in the Gretchen Rubin “Happiness Project” trenches of becoming happier by doing nifty little things like deep breathing, kissing more and laughing with your friends. I’m pretty happy these days. But nothing in the Rubin approach brings the supercharge or the bulletproof or the Tony Robbins/Tim Ferriss laxatives speed muscle mass zero fat executive kickboxer sharpshooter billionaire. In my heart of hearts, I sometimes crave that drama. That hacker’s exhilaration.

I ordered Asprey’s special coffee: expensive and processed or grown or roasted with some cockamamie idea that it is supposed to eliminate the hideous brain-damanging “toxins” that pollute ordinary cups of Starbucks. I swear I tried hard to understand what was so great about the coffee, cold-washed and toasted and charcoal-filtered with rack-and-pinion steering, or...something. Low in something that’s bad for you or high in something that’s good for you, I know that.

And then by gosh I brewed it, and melted two tablespoons of good unsalted butter in it, and put the whole thing in a blender. I microwaved it for extra heat (hopefully the microwave did not add back extra toxins) and out came a very, very, very delicious cup of insanely creamy coffee.

Yes, it was delicious. Unsalted butter blended into coffee does not taste like butter: it just tastes good. I made cups for my friends, for my boyfriend, for the babysitter, for my neighbors. Having drunk the buttered coffee, some of us have found, unscientifically, “clarity,” some jitters, some food cravings, some suppressed appetite, some dizziness, some nothing at all.

One thing we’ve all found though: a love for the taste of Bulletproof Coffee. And, I have to admit, in the two weeks I’ve been drinking it, I’ve lost about four pounds. Who knows?

I have to admit something, though: one day the stuff made me super-dizzy, nauseated and faint. That was the day I made it with Asprey’s special MCT oil, which he thinks makes the drink a real stand-out. I couldn’t tolerate the MCT oil at the recommended dose, and I found out on Asprey’s website forums that others can’t either. I started to hunt down the reason for that and was led to the idea of organophosphate poisoning, which, by the way, accounts for about of a third of suicides worldwide, especially in rural areas. Maybe I couldn’t process the MCT oil because my liver was deficient and I’d need to—do something to restore it. Maybe I was having a “candida die-off” because, inspired by Asprey’s meat-fat diet, I wasn’t eating as much sugar and starch.

That’s when it hit me: I could try to hack my biology, and think I had found a shortcut, but then like any hacker I could spend the rest of my life debugging the code that was supposed to make everything so instant and quick and easy. I could spend thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars hacking my own biology, as Dave Asprey did, but I’d rather just spend the two thousands hours meditating, finding enlightenment (or not) the real old-fashioned way.

Do you ever feel guilty about hacking? I asked Asprey. Like you should be more methodical and conscientious, like a scientist instead of a hacker?

It’s fair to say Asprey scoffed.

“LOL, God no I don’t feel guilty about any kind of hacking, including biohacking. Hacking is about figuring out how things work so you can control them. It’s about discovering unwritten rules so you can break them, even if you don’t. It is the cutting edge of science, where innovation happens long before double blind studies will ever get funded.”

It helps that Asprey long ago hacked his emotions.

“Guilt is an emotion that you can quantify, with specific feelings in your physical body. It’s not something I waste much energy on because I trained my nervous system not to do that to me. I would be doing myself a disservice, and taking away from my family and my community, if I intentionally wasted time based on outdated puritanical guilt. I save energy by recycling – why wouldn’t I do it with biohacking too?”

So what’s the biohacked existence like? You don’t feel guilty about hacking because you’ve hacked your conscience. Got it. And the time you save not feeling guilty you can spend debugging your hack—looking up stuff about your cortisol levels and aiming for different kinds of orgasms as a way to “win” at the biological part of life. For some, maybe that is meditative. And in itself maybe it’s an electrifying way to be alive.

But I don’t think it is for me. Not because I’m so principled, but because I don’t like the part of me that likes to find quick responses to the eternal verities—love and grief and guilt and fear and rapture and aging. That hacker in me has led me to take apart many laptops, and lose no end of data. The desire not to feel guilt, or anxiety, also led me for years to wine, Ambien and Xanax—my most successful hack, maybe, if not highly original. It worked wonders. Until it didn’t.

So now I opt for a measured and sober way, for which I credit some very happy years. But, wow, I still admire guys like Asprey, who style a fanciful “edge” and then contrive to live on it. And I still drink coffee with butter in it. Because it’s delicious, and easy to make, and it makes this failed lifehacker feel like I’m getting away with something.

Join the author Virginia Heffernan, Bulletproof Coffee Breakfast creator Dave Asprey and Woman Code author Alisa Vitti for a live chat about biohacking at 12:30PM EST on Monday.

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