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I ‘Biohacked’ My Body—But My Body Hacked Me Back

An intrepid journalist tries Bulletproof to achieve a perfect, healthy body and eternal life. What could possibly go wrong? by Tasbeeh Herwees

March 7, 2017

Education and Technology:

Microsoft Learning Tools is software that helps improve reading skills by reducing visual crowding, highlighting words, and reading text aloud, so students can engage with words in a whole new way.

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Dave Asprey is trying to promote his new book. The press invite I received promised a meet and greet with Bulletproof Coffee’s CEO and founder, as well as “Bulletproof ice cream, cauliflower mash, bone broth, organic avocado yucca toast with wild smoked sockeye salmon, meatballs and more.” I was curious about the man who took the coffee world by storm with the suggestion that adding butter to your cup of joe would help you lose weight and live longer, but I'm also a real big sucker for avo toast.

So, I book it to Bulletproof’s sleek new location in Los Angeles’ Arts District. The first thing I notice is how good-looking and fit the customers are, because I’m vain. If we’re talking demographics here, everyone at the café looks like an extra on the set of a hip CW teen drama where all the actors are 30, but playing 17. I become very self-conscious, immediately, about the strength of my jawline and avoid eye contact with all the dudes who look like Hemsworth brothers.

Upon arrival, I’m handed a clear mug of the coffee mixture that made Bulletproof famous (or “infamous,” as the press invite described it). You might remember it—in 2014, it inspired a minor craze, featured on Good Morning America and immortalized in The New York Times write-up titled “The Cult of the Bulletproof Coffee Diet.” Asprey—a self-proclaimed “biohacker”—was trying to sell America on his new coffee, made with beans that were supposedly low on mycotoxins (a fungus that Asprey claims makes you sluggish—like “Kryptonite,” but hackable). “There’s three components to the coffee. The beans are one of them,” he tells a group of journalists on a Thursday afternoon. “Almost every country on the planet has laws about toxins in coffee. But the U.S. doesn’t have them.”

The full Bulletproof arsenal.

The other two ingredients in a proper cup of Bulletproof coffee are grass-fed clarified butter (ghee) and a substance he refers to as Brain Octane™ oil (also known as MCT oil, which is derived from coconut oil—remember this part, because it becomes important to the rest of this story). This recipe, he tells us, is “carefully engineered to not give you a crash.” He also says it’s supposed to taste creamy, not buttery—but this is the precise moment my body begins to reject the Bulletproof diet. I take one sip and I already know I won’t be coming back for more. The artificial, greasy aftertaste lingers in my mouth for the next two to three hours.

Asprey’s claim—that adding butter to your coffee will help you suppress hunger, lose weight, boost energy, and even, yes, raise your IQ—is so irresistible it has intrigued the likes of Divergent actress Shailene Woodley, failed football star Tim Tebow, and the Silicon Valley elite. Plus, he has the kind of compelling third world-to-first world origin story—that delicious element of exotic mystique—that every tech-bro entrepreneur salivates after: He got the idea, he says, after a trip to Tibet, where he tried yak butter tea for the first time while learning to meditate.

Since launching Bulletproof three years ago, Asprey has expanded his line of products to include a robust portfolio of oils, collagen protein bars, dietary supplements, and other kinds of merch a soft-bodied person like myself might be tempted to buy. He has also opened two cafés, both in Los Angeles (the Arts District location is their second). Asprey, meanwhile, has forged a lucrative speaking career—he travels around the country preaching the Bulletproof diet, which involves “avoiding the things that make you weak first. And then doing the things that make you strong.”

'I want to live beyond 180 (which is) very achievable,' says Asprey. Like most Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, he’s obsessed with the notion of living longer, and maintaining his youth.

Then, he tells us, “You’re doing things every day that make you gain weight. Why don’t you just stop doing those?” A woman—a fan, I think, not a journalist—nods vigorously.

The first thing I am served is something called “FATWater™,” a relatively new addition to the Bulletproof roster. It’s a “mental refreshment” enhanced with B vitamins and, of course, Brain Octane™ oil, available in three flavors. “We looked at the rule that says oil and water don’t mix, and we said, ‘Are you kidding? We’re biohackers,’” says Asprey. It tastes like off-brand Gatorade, and the flavor of the Stevia—with which it is sweetened—is overwhelming. Again, the Brain Octane™ oil leaves an unpleasant slick on my tongue. I put it down after a couple sips. I notice that most of the other journalists are also carefully nursing their drinks.

At one point, someone mentions Asprey’s boot, which is loose around his ankle. He lifts his ankle up and pulls out a small black device. “I’m running an electrical current on my ankle,” he says, laughing. He sprained it a couple of days prior, and injected peptides into the injury. “Even by my standards, this is ridiculous.” Everyone laughs politely, and I wonder if I’m the only one entertaining some healthy skepticism.

Finally, the food begins arriving. I’m starving, and I am desperate to chase the taste of the FATWater™ out of my mouth. The avocado toast is admittedly beautiful—a piece of smoked salmon atop each one. (Sockeye salmon, says Asprey, is “the healthiest of all the salmon.”) I don’t know it yet, but the avocado is laced with Brain Octane™ oil. (Remember this. The sound of my gurgling tummy portends this important right about now.)

Brain Octane™ oil drenched avocado toast (aka the beginning of the end)

I strategically position myself near the toast with the most generous helping of salmon, but the yucca “bread” falls apart in my hand. I stuff the whole thing in my mouth before I lose it to the floor. The yucca toast is really thin, and it has the consistency of cardboard. Oprah would not approve. Neither did I. But I’m hungry, so I treat myself to a second.

“I want to live beyond 180 which is very achievable,” says Asprey. Like most Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, he’s obsessed with the notion of living longer, and maintaining his youth. Last July, he recorded himself receiving prophylactic stem cells taken from his butt and injected into his spine (to benefit his brain) on Facebook Live, a procedure he plans to regularly receive for the rest of his life. He’s also “banked” his stem cells, for what it’s worth. “I’m not going to be old when I’m old,” he assures us. “My brain isn’t shrinking the way 44-year-olds’ (brains do).”

He’s ‘hacked’ his cells. He’s ‘hacked’ his sleep. He’s even ‘hacked’ his wife’s womb.

The whole premise of the Bulletproof diet is that you are “biohacking” your body by producing more mitochondria (the “powerhouse” of cells, as your sixth-grade science book once taught you). “It’s a whole new game of understanding how to hack your cells to get more energy,” he says. It’s true, I learn through my own research, that you can encourage your cells to grow new mitochondria, but you can also do that with simple exercise.

But this is Bulletproof-speak, a kind of sci-fi jargon that sounds techy but is really just half-baked startup mouth-garbage. He refers to everything he does as “hacking.” He’s “hacked” his cells. He’s “hacked” his sleep. He’s even “hacked” his wife’s womb.

“My wife was infertile when I met her,” he says, without warning. “I decided that was hackable.” He put her on the Bulletproof diet (high fat, low carbs), and they soon had two children, no IVF necessary. This claim sounds especially outlandish to me, so I consult Google. On his website, he markets the diet as a one-size-fits-all solution to infertility, and publishes a blog post by “Ashley” who says she solved her barren womb with the Bulletproof diet (and had a “BP baby”), without ever specifying the cause of her infertility.

Lana Asprey, Dave’s wife, on the other hand, was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which causes irregular periods (and, therefore, irregular ovulation). In an interview with a website called PCOS Diva, she says:

Within seven months on this program, I for the first time ever had a regular cycle. I could not believe it, because at the time, I was 38. It was like a miracle to have a regular cycle, to know that, ‘Aha, this is now day 27 and tomorrow my flow will start.’ It did. It did the same thing next month and the month after because I had lived with this irregularity my entire life.

I’m no fertility expert, so I send the link to someone who is: Dr. Kristin Bendikson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at USC. “Weight loss can be beneficial for all overweight women and lead to improved fertility, especially in PCOS women,” says Bendikson. “However, there isn't any conclusive data for thin PCOS women, that if they change their diet, they're going to regulate their period and improve their symptoms. There's no body of research that shows that specifically.”

So it’s not totally unlikely that Lana Asprey, after adhering to the Bulletproof diet, and possibly losing some weight, was able to ovulate regularly and conceive children. Bendikson, however, takes issue with the insinuation that women with PCOS can’t ever conceive, or that the Bulletproof diet can help women with other fertility issues overcome their challenges. “She claims you can slow down the clock,” says Bendikson. “No one can slow down the clock.”

But back to the meal. I thoughtfully consider a breakfast burrito—made with a coconut flour tortilla, eggs, and turmeric rice—that they place on the table before me. It doesn’t taste so much like a burrito as it does something an alien would make once you attempted to describe to them what a burrito was. It’s a vague approximation of a burrito—like a collection of ingredients playing dress-up as a burrito. This has to do with the “grain-free tortilla,” which fails to accomplish a tortilla’s only job in the case of burrito making: Hold it together. Asprey admits his chef found it challenging to make a tortilla using coconut flour, and I can see why. This tortilla disintegrates at the slightest touch. It’s grain-free, because grains have “toxins” on them.

Brain Octane™ oil-drenched burrito-like items.

These dastardly toxins he so often refers to are “mycotoxins,” but Asprey is wrong when he says that the United States doesn’t regulate them. As Brent Rose wrote for Gizmodo in 2015, “Mycotoxins are everywhere, including human breast milk, and a lot of the meats Asprey recommends in his own Bulletproof Diet.” Asprey has a long list of things you should avoid, because “toxins.” Among these are rice, black pepper, regular non-Bulletproof coffee beans, corn—there are more, but, at some point, I just lost track.

But more importantly, I’m starting to feel a little strange, and I have a strong suspicion why. Everything—seriously, everything—was dosed with the MCT Oil, Asprey tells us. I only figure this out after I’ve eaten two helpings of the toast, two helpings of the burrito, the meatball on top of cauliflower mash, a small vial of Bulletproof “bone broth,” and a bite of the chocolate ice cream. It’s weird, because he describes the MCT oil as a “hunger suppressor,” but I couldn’t stop eating. I’m starting to feel a little weird, anxious, my heart beating faster, feeling light-headed, I write in my notes. I get an odd head buzz, the kind like when you’ve had too much of an edible. I start to freak out, a little, and wonder if I’ve … overdosed?

When I get home, I vomit myself dry.

This is followed by a frantic Googling of “MCT overdose.” My symptoms, apparently, are pretty common among users. All the BP commenters insist it will pass as you continue the Bulletproof diet. In case it hasn’t been made clear, I will not be continuing the Bulletproof diet. For one thing, it took me awhile to get the aftertaste—something like a chemical oil—out of my mouth. For another, it’s out of my price range—12 ounces of their ground roast can set you back $19 (12 ounces of a Starbucks blend goes for $9). And you know what? I like my coffee black anyway.

Illustration by Jean Wei

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