On an early April morning, Dave Asprey wakes up in Los Angeles and begins his daily routine.
First, he removes his Zeo, a small biometric headband that monitors his sleep and tells him that, over the past 774 nights, he’s slept an average of 5 hours and 58 minutes. He then opens one of three Ziploc bags filled with 30 pills each, a cocktail of yellow, amber, black, and white. “I don’t know if I can tell you what all of these are from sight, but I could probably guess on 80% of them,” Asprey says.
The pile well exceeds the daily recommendations for vitamins B12, K1, C, and D3, among others, not to mention a hit of L-tyrosine, an amino acid aimed at improving thyroid function, and several “smart drugs” with names like modafinil, Ciltep, and aniracetam, all of which, he claims, improve cognition. Asprey has gotten so used to downing this daily cocktail that he simply loads the whole thing into one hand and throws it back as if he were polishing off a large popcorn at the multiplex. “I remember my college days, when we did beer bongs,” he says. “It’s just like that.”
Asprey is a high-functioning 42-year-old with no major health issues—unless you count as a mental illness the fact that he, probably the world’s most famous “biohacker,” has spent some $300,000 in the last decade or so trying to hack his brain and body for peak perfor- mance. “I’m always running experiments,” he says. Done taking the pills, he rips the top off a plastic vial of pyrroloquinoline quinone and squirts it into his mouth (something he does four times a day hoping it will boost mitochondrial function), then knocks back a teaspoon of sea salt “mined in Utah or the Himalayas from pollutant-free ancient seabeds.” His breakfast is liquid, and took him seven years to perfect: 14 precisely measured ounces of coffee, to which he adds two table- spoons of butter and two of MCT oil, to create a concoction that looks something like a recently poured Guinness. All in all, he’s proud to declare his output “some of the most expensive pee on the planet.”
Depending on whom you ask, “biohacking” can mean anything from hooking up your brain to neurofeedback technology to “boost creativity” to engaging in mindful meditation to simply choosing to take the stairs instead of the elevator to burn more calories. “Bodybuilders are some of the best biohackers out there,” says Asprey. “They manipulate themselves for a goal.”
However, by far the most controversial part of the biohacking movement is in the category of nutrition, where a growing number of self-experimentalists are actively toying with diets many doctors would describe as extreme, if not downright dangerous. And it’s here where Asprey is making not only his name but also his fortune.
Asprey is the man behind Bulletproof Coffee, a proprietary version of his daily breakfast drink, which has spawned something of a craze: This summer, he opened the first official Bulletproof Coffee shop, in Santa Monica, and he has plans for more. An executive at Twitter has lobbied to get Bulletproof served in the company canteen, and on The Tonight Show, actress Shailene Woodley told Jimmy Fallon that Asprey’s coffee “will change your life!” As the drink gained in popularity, Vogue Australia asked, “Is Bulletproof Coffee the new green juice?” (“So far there are no scientific studies on the effects of drinking butter bombs for breakfast,” the magazine concluded.)
Asprey also runs an annual Bulletproof Biohacking Conference, which, even at $1,599 a pop, has routinely attracted hundreds of paying participants since its debut in 2013.
“Dave’s a marketing genius,” says fellow biohacker Steven Dean, who drinks Asprey’s coffee concoction every morning. “But I genuinely believe he’s interested in understanding the ways his body works.” Others have been more critical, pointing out that often his recommendations are made on the basis of shaky science. But Asprey remains undeterred. “It’s kind of a revolutionary act,” he says of the human experimentation he and other biohackers conduct outside the confines of the scientific establishment. “It’s scary. If I’m in charge of my body, I might make a mistake. What if I do something wrong?”
Asprey’s early routine on this particular day is in preparation for his address to 1,500 people at a raw vegan conference in Anaheim. Asprey, who’s 6’4″, with a graying but full swoop of hair, certainly looks to be in good shape even though he claims to do only about 15 minutes of concerted exercise—a high-intensity weightlifting routine comprising chest, leg, and overhead presses, plus a seated row and pulldown—every five to 10 days.
Among other attractions at today’s gathering, there’s a bar outfitted with a machine to serve shots of turmeric instead of Jägermeister, and a kiosk where convention-goers sit in chairs and have various nutrient combinations injected intravenously. A woman at the kiosk next to Asprey’s hands me a small sample of a drink called “Elixir of the Lake” and tells me my mental state after drinking it will “mimic the feeling of falling in love.” It tastes like pond water.
After his speech, Asprey spends nearly two hours signing copies of his book The Bulletproof Diet. By now he’s turned his personal biohacking journey into a full line of DIY products: His kiosk sells coconut charcoal ($19), orange iPhone screen covers to reduce blue- wave light from LED displays ($20), and GABAwave ($40), a supplement he says will improve focus. (His newest book, Bulletproof: The Cookbook, will be released in early December.) He’s been so successful that, at the home he shares with his wife and two children in British Columbia, he’s currently building a personal biohacking facility that will include not just some of the more traditional markers of healthy-living status—organic farm, yoga studio—but also an infrared sauna for LED therapy, a sensory-deprivation flotation tank, a cryotherapy chamber, and three neurofeedback machines.
When we sit down to talk, Asprey tells me he’s just completed seven days of using the feedback technology, which involves attaching electrodes to his scalp and performing a series of mental acrobatics, tasks, and what he calls “brain video games,” which, he says, will “reteach his brain how to respond to different emotions” and think more positively, and ultimately boost performance. The process is draining, he says. “None of the things that change the brain feel very good.” But the discomfort doesn’t stop him. He compares himself to Olympic athletes who are “willing to do anything, even if it shortens their life by five years, to get a gold medal.”
In other words: Asprey believes that an optimized life—not a longer life, or even a healthier life—is the only life worth living. “I don’t care about health,” he says. “Everyone wants health. I want high performance—which is an altered state that means I’m three standard deviations away from normal, in the positive direction.”
Judging by the throngs of people lining up for his products and even just his signature, it’s clear he’s not alone in his quest.
Asprey began his career in Silicon Valley, where the stress of working as an executive at several cloud-computing companies wore on his body: He was tired, suffered constantly from “brain fog,” and, at one point, weighed 300 pounds. He was so unhealthy he frequently ended work meetings early by saying, “I have to eat.”
A low-calorie diet and a heavy exercise regimen—90 minutes a day, six days a week—failed to produce results. Other dieting fads he tried didn’t work, either. So, desperate for answers, he decided to take the quantitative ethos of the tech world and turn it on himself. “That’s when I started paying attention to little variables,” he says. He compares the process to computer hacking, which involves “mapping out a system, then attempting to find one little hole to exploit.”
Asprey got his blood examined, tested his bowel movements, and had his saliva measured for hormone levels, which showed he had “less testosterone than my dad, and more estrogen than my mom.” So he took testosterone—until he started getting acne and his hair began to fall out. His stress levels were high, too, he discovered, so he purchased an emWave, an iPod-size heart monitor that, he claims, allows users to consciously manipulate their heart rate.
It was a pricey endeavor. So he sold his shares in tech firm Exodus Communications for $6 million and spent at least $50,000 buying “every expensive probiotic on the planet.” When he read about helminthic (worm-based) therapy—a cutting-edge and potentially legitimate treatment that may boost the immune system—instead of enrolling in a legit university study, he decided to try it himself: He had some porcine whipworm eggs shipped in from Thailand and swallowed them so they’d hatch in his gut. (It didn’t work.) When he had trouble balancing during yoga, rather than work on his quads, he tested his mercury levels to see if they were throwing him off balance.
In terms of diet, Asprey tried practically everything, he says, eventually settling on a high-fat regimen that gets 70% of its calories from fat. (For the record: The Institute of Medicine recommends 20–35%.) According to him, the coffee that’s the foundation of his diet offers enough of an energy boost to get him through an entire workday without eating again.
The theory behind it: Coffee is filled with beneficial antioxidants; so, instead of adding in milk—which can counteract its healthy effects—Asprey uses grass-fed, unsalted butter that’s higher in omega-3 fatty acids than your average Land O’Lakes. Adding that saturated fat, plus two tablespoons of what he calls “Brain Octane Oil” (a type of medium-chain triglyceride oil derived from coconut oil) to boost energy and prevent cravings, results in a 400- to 500-calorie, zero-carb drink that acts as a meal in itself. Assuming you’ve curbed carbs elsewhere in your diet and the glycogen stores in your liver are low, Bulletproof supporters will tell you, the pure butter fat in the drink will kick-start ketosis, the body’s fat-burning process. (While some nutritionists are on board with this, there have been no studies so far to support the weight-loss claims. But even more worrisome, say its critics, is the fact that, even if Bulletproof Coffee promoted weight loss, its high saturated fat content could raise cholesterol levels and raise your chances of developing heart disease.)
Of course, the coffee is on top of Asprey’s finely tuned cocktail of supplements and vitamins. “I change it daily,” he says. If he’s not sleeping well, for instance, he’ll pop an extra 100 milligrams of L-theanine, an amino acid that supposedly relieves stress. “When it comes to smart drugs, I’ve tried pretty much everything out there, including some, like, methylene blue”—another drug aimed at improving cognition—“that almost no one knows about, which may have some risks,” he says. In fact, when I later research methylene blue, I learn that it’s commonly used as an aquarium cleaner.
As for the supp-and-vitamin cocktail’s exact makeup, Asprey declines to give details, saying that the formula that works for him is something he’s arrived at after years of self-experimentation and won’t work for everyone. “I’m a 6’4″ guy who sleeps this much, who has this kind of a strange life, who used to be obese,” he says. “The last thing I want is a 90-pound Asian grandmother taking my regimen.” But Asprey does admit that his cocktail contains one of the more controversial trends in biohacking: nootropics, or “smart drugs.”
One such drug, modafinil, has been called “the cocaine of the 21st century.” It’s been approved by the FDA for treating narcolepsy, but is taken by Asprey and others who think it may boost cognitive performance in anyone. In fact, studies have found that modafinil helps the brain with problem solving, planning, and working memory—so much so that last year Duke University banned its use as an academic performance enhancer. But no studies have been done on modafinil’s long-term effects; and even less is known about the nootropic “stacks”—combinations of these drugs—that Asprey and others are experimenting with. “We don’t know how the different drugs might interact,” says Barbara Sahakian, DSc., a professor of neuropsychology at Cambridge. “And what we don’t know about the long-term usage is what worries me.”
When I describe his supplement cocktail to nutritionists, they wince. “I rarely suggest supplements at all, as there’s very little data to support supplemental micronutrients unless there’s a specific nutritional deficiency,” says Lydia Bazzano, M.D., Ph.D., director of Tulane University’s Center for Lifespan Epidemiology Research.
Asprey, however, isn’t just unfazed by the criticism—he seems to actually relish it for the opportunity it gives him to take shots at Western medicine. He proudly says he’s willing to take risks on things scientific research hasn’t yet proven. “Those guys say, ‘It’s impossible, therefore it didn’t happen,’ which is anti-science,” he says. Meanwhile, doctors and scientists have thumbed through the bibliography of his book and pointed out that many of the studies he cites to support his ideas are dubious at best. One, about the dangers of whole grains, is from the 1970s, and had only two subjects. Others were done only on rodents, another just on pigs. “Whether it’s a diet, a supplement, or any business, I’d hope people would think critically when something’s being sold to them,” says Lisa Dierks, R.D., nutri- tion manager for the Mayo Clinic’s Healthy Living Program. “It’s like buying a car. If you talk to one dealership, they’ll tell you theirs is best, then you walk down the street to a different dealership and hear the same thing. None of this is proven.”
Asprey’s quick to admit that his experimenting hasn’t come without cost. When he tried a no-carb diet popular with Eskimos, he suffered an extreme form of ketosis that often afflicts diabetics, and somehow developed a number of food allergies from which he’s still recovering. “That was a mistake,” he admits. Still, he says, the risk was worth it: “There are consequences down the road if you eat pizza and drink beer, but we already know those. So I’ll do what seems most likely to have the consequences I want—I may be wrong, but at least I tried.”
A few days after the raw vegan conference, I join a group of Asprey’s kindred spirits in the New York City offices of Noom, a weight-tracking app. It’s the monthly meeting of the local Quantified Self group, who gather to share their self-experiments on everything from blood sugar levels to sleep patterns to sexual habits.
Several biohacking celebrities are in the room, including a man known as Quantified Bob, who runs a website with the tagline: “Hack. Track. Analyze. Optimize. Rinse. Repeat.” He gets his blood, urine, and stool tested every couple of months and tells me he’s taking “a shitload of supplements right now”—40 to 50 pills a day. When I press him for any tips I can incorporate into my own diet, he advises upping my vitamin D, which, I tell him, is something any doctor would recommend to someone who spends too much time indoors. Then he mentions an antioxidant called coenzyme Q10 or COQ10, which early research has suggested can stave off the affects of Alzheimer’s. But I’m in my 20s, so I ask him if there’s anything else. He then suggests taking magnesium pills, which could help with sleeplessness—though he hedges, “I’m not saying they’ll work…” Still, he says, “you have to have the curiosity to uncover and understand what works for you.”
This is at least the fifth time I’ve heard a version of that statement—You have to discover for yourself what works for you—and I realize that Quantified Bob has touched on what is perhaps the most compelling allure of biohacking: the simple enjoyment that comes with experimentation. I confess that I felt it when I cruised around the Anaheim conference sampling turmeric shots and water mixed with blue-green algae; there’s something useful, and undeniably empowering, in feeling like you’re taking control of your own health. The sample doses I took were too small and benign to have any meaningful medical effect, but the psychological effect was palpable. The convention had the vibe of a tent revival: biohackers leaping out of their seats and cheering when Asprey delivered nutritional advice like, “Drizzle coconut oil on your sushi! That’s what being Bulletproof is all about!”
Even Asprey recognizes the possibility that at least some of biohacking’s benefits may result from the placebo effect—and doctors would agree. “Certainly when you take that many pills, the challenge is knowing how much of the benefit is in your head,” says Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program. “About a third of us seem to be wired to respond to, ‘I took some control, I have some autonomy, I’m doing this special thing that’s really gonna be good for my health.’ It doesn’t necessarily negate the potential value of what he’s doing, but you have to account for the placebo effect.”
And that isn’t the only possible upside to biohacking. At the Noom offices, I learn that biohackers are actively aggregating the community’s scattered assortment of individual experiments and attempting to turn them into something resembling scientifically significant mass research that could be applied more broadly. In effect, they’re trying to become the world’s largest human guinea pig. To help the effort, a company called Opt-e-scrip has developed a mail-order test kit that comes with placebos so people can test drugs on themselves and report back more reliable results. And biohackers have begun using crowd-sourcing sites such as PatientsLikeMe to gather large groups willing to participate in trials on specific foods, supplements, and drugs.
In theory, the data produced by biohackers could be applied more widely, and perhaps even spawn more clinical research. “The promise for the future is learning much more about what works for individuals based on much richer data,” says Mark McClellan, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Health Care Innovation and Value Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “Putting together smaller populations of clinical studies and bigger data sets from places like PatientsLikeMe does offer a much richer way of tracking the effects of medication.”
So far, though, PatientsLikeMe has been more effective at debunking myths than revealing breakthroughs. Most notably, after a 2008 study from Italy suggested that lithium carbonate might help patients with ALS, several hundred PatientsLikeMe members with ALS ran the experiment on themselves and found that, overall, it had little effect.
“This isn’t a barista. This is a coffee hacker.”
A day after the conference, Asprey sits in the Bulletproof Coffee shop he’s opening a few blocks from the beach in Santa Monica. He wears boots and jeans, a gray shirt, and orange-tinted glasses intended to block out (melatonin-inhibiting) blue-wave light. The shop is still under construction, and circular saws are buzzing as Asprey recounts the origin story of his most famous hack: In 2008, while hiking in Tibet, he drank tea with butter from milk from a yak, and suddenly felt rejuvenated. “The biohacker in me asked, ‘Why?’” he recalls.
Back home, he set about trying to re-create that feeling: He tested myriad coffees and teas, 25 different butters, and a variety of other oily additives including Jerusalem artichoke extract, a prebiotic fiber he stopped taking after gaining 10 pounds in a week.
At the coffee shop, Asprey looks up at the man behind the counter about to serve me my first Bulletproof Coffee (a large retails for $5.75). “This isn’t a barista,” Asprey says of the employee, who looks a lot like a barista. “This is a coffee hacker.” The coffee, served in a wide-brimmed lab beaker, tastes like a really good latte, and I admit that the table- spoons of butter carried me for most of the day.
It needs to be noted, however, that Asprey’s coffee hasn’t made him entirely bulletproof: While sitting in the shop, he starts coughing and sneezing from what he says are paint fumes (which, oddly, aren’t affecting anyone else). I ask him if he thinks biohacking is for everyone, and he acknowledges it isn’t. He also admits it comes with a steep price tag. “But so does cardiac surgery. So does cancer. A dollar spent now is a dollar not given to your HMO later.”
And for anyone looking for a normal cup of joe for a few dollars less, there’s always a Starbucks just up the street.