What If You Could Hack Your Brain?

By Cathy Cassata 01/25/15

Professional biohacker Dave Asprey says you can with his Bulletproof lifestyle plan.

Dave Asprey

Overweight as a child and young adult, Dave Asprey reached his highest weight at almost 300 pounds during his junior year of college. After undergoing three knee surgeries before 24 years of age, he vowed to make a change by cutting calories and exercising more. 

“I worked out more than my thin friends and ate less than them, but I was still heavier. I felt like a failure,” says Asprey. “I was doing everything I was supposed to for that time and I was using up all my willpower, but wasn’t getting results. Eventually, I realized that it wasn’t that I wasn’t trying hard enough, it was that the message about how to lose weight wasn’t right,” he states.

Rather than feeling guilty or resigned about your addiction feel empowered to make changes in the environment around you, or in your own biology

Asprey started researching food, and began gaining insight on things like how fruits and carbohydrates can make you overweight, something that wasn’t well-known in the early '90s. As a result, he began a low-carb diet and cut back on gluten. 

“I had a boost of energy, got a lot less angry, and I could think better. I was able to lose 50 pounds in 3 months, but the other 50 pounds weren’t going anywhere. It took multiple years of trying and experimenting to understand that even though I was cutting calories, some protein can make you fat and the wrong kind of fat can make you fat. I began to understand what different foods and ingredients do to your biology and then put them together like a jigsaw puzzle with the goal of maximizing the way I felt and minimizing inflammation throughout my body. With all that, I eventually lost another 50 pounds and began to feel good all the time,” he says.

During this time, Asprey was also advancing his career as a computer hacker in the computer security industry. At 26 years old, he worked for a company that was worth six million dollars before it went bankrupt. His concentration was in decision support systems, which is a subset of artificial intelligence. 

“I literally was a computer hacker and I applied the things I used to troubleshoot problems when there was a computer security issue to my body. In that industry, you don’t know the whole picture, and you only have a few pieces to work with. This was the same thing with fixing my own health. When I was 300 pounds, my brain didn’t work, I had sinus infections every month, I had lime disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, arthritis in my knees, and I had toxic mold exposure. I decided to turn all that around and be as resilient as I could by hacking into my own biology and uncovering what controls what and how I can change things to get the results I want. Today, I feel more in charge of my own biology than I ever have.”

In 1996, Asprey started a personal website to share information about both his passion for eating well and overall health, as well as how to succeed as a high performance entrepreneur. 

“I realized that in order to have a successful career I needed to feel good. Some of the diets I had done contributed to me having major brain fog, so I started taking brain drugs to support brain function. I ended up putting together a plan for feeling good and having the ability to do things that used to take a lot effort,” he says.

So began Asprey’s development of being “Bulletproof” what he describes as the state of high performance where you take control of and improve your biochemistry, your body, and your mind so they work in unison, helping you execute at levels far beyond what you’d expect, without burning out, getting sick, or allowing stress to control your decisions. 

In 2011, Asprey founded The Bulletproof Executive. Prior to founding the company and during its existence, he has spent 15 years and over $300,000 to hack his own biology from private brain EEG facilities hidden in a Canadian forest to remote monasteries in Tibet, from Silicon Valley to the Andes. Asprey used techniques to upgrade his brain by more than 20 IQ points, and lowered his biological age while learning to sleep more efficiently in less time.

The Bulletproof lifestyle consists of the following 5 steps:

1. A Bulletproof Diet 

2. Sleep work

3. Smart drugs and nootropics

4. Hacking your nervous system

5. Neurofeedback

“Not all of these steps are necessary to make a difference, but I am a professional biohacker and I am fascinated and full of joy by seeing what my body can do. I feel better and have more energy and use my energy to help me reach my full potential,” says Asprey. “I never had this energy when I was 20. I was always tired, my brain was foggy, and I was floating in and out of paying attention, so I consider all of this a gift. How could I not experiment with all these new toys and share the results with others?”

For the past 10 years, Asprey has been sharing his Bulletproof insights with consumers of the program and as the president and chairman of the anti-aging, non-profit research and education group, Silicon Valley Health Institute.

He shared more thoughts on the Bulletproof lifestyle with The Fix.

Do you have to do all steps of the program?

It’s not about doing all of them, all the time. There’s ones that have the most impact for me so I do those the most. There’s an amount of effort you apply and an amount of results you get. Sometimes, I have more time than others. For instance, right before our call, I had about five minutes to spare so I stood on my whole body vibration platform for five minutes since I had been sitting for an hour before that. But I don’t do that every hour or even every day. Also, I got home at 1:00 am last night from the airport so I only got five hours of sleep, rather than the normal six I usually get, so it’s not about being perfect, it’s about knowing whether the decision I make is improving, keeping me even, or moving me in the wrong direction, and then accepting that decision and doing something to counter it if I don’t like the results I got. 

Smart drugs and nootropics are part of the Bulletproof lifestyle. Do you think addicts should avoid these altogether?

Addicts do not need to avoid nootropics; on the contrary, maintaining healthy levels of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine can dramatically reduce cravings. A few drugs that are addictive are sometimes included in the category of smart drugs; things like Adderall, which is a prescription form of methamphetamine are not technically smart drugs, but there is some confusion about that. Obviously, addicts would want to avoid this type of drug!

Heavy people know they’re heavy, and they’re doing everything in their power to resist it, but there’s something called willpower fatigue and it’s part of the whole decision making cycle.

Does the Bulletproof Diet work better for some people than others?

There are core guidelines that everyone can go by, but there are genetic variances. Some people need more or less fat. That’s why the Bulletproof diet is 50-70% fat and some people might need even more. That’s also why we have three categories of food on the spectrum. The best foods are the Bulletproof foods that are lowest in naturally occurring or manmade toxins and the least inflammatory and most nutritious. So most people, unless they have allergies, do really well on those foods. 

Then there’s a middle category which I call “suspect foods” and those cause major problems for major chunks of people. They may or may not cause problems for you, but if you eat all of the problem foods and eliminate one of them you may never know what and what didn’t cause your problems. What you do is what a detective does. You eliminate suspects by eating only Bulletproof foods for a couple of weeks and then add the suspects back in and see which ones make you feel not so good. It’s kind of dramatic what happens.

Since it’s hard to figure out what food may have caused what reaction, we have a free app called Bulletproof Food Detective that looks at your heartrate. Your heart rate changes predictably if you eat foods that you’re sensitive to. This is like your kryptonite detector. For instance, if I ate a meal and something in that meal made my heartrate rise in a pattern that is associated with food sensitivity, I’m able to narrow down my list of suspect foods to something that was on my plate. 

The last category of food is kryptonite foods that you should avoid.

Protein and fat intake seem to play a big role in the diet. Is that correct?

The idea behind the diet is that you should eat what works for you with the principles of eating lots of low-inflammation, high-quality foods and avoiding eating too much protein or dairy depending on how much you work out and how much muscle you carry, etcetera. For most people, if you eat more protein than you need, it will cause inflammation and that’s hard to get rid of. Bottom line is protein is good; too much protein is bad. 

On the fat side of things, the basic principles are that you need saturated fat to function well, so some people may need more and some less, but there’s no one who should have no saturated fat. In my book, The Bulletproof Diet, I recommend the types of fat and the right ratios of fat to eat. I also suggest eating less toxins. Some people handle toxins better than others, but I recommend foods with less sprays, chemicals, and additives and also foods that have less mold toxins because of the way they’re created or stored. Mold toxins can cause DNA damage and they’re common in low-quality food. The damage is low fertility, cognitive function, among other things.

What are your views on sugar?

Sugar causes food cravings when you eat a lot of it or if you eat it at the wrong time of day. So eating sugar in the morning tends to cause the 10 am craving for a bagel, cookie, or snack. You get an energy dip, which sets you up for unstable energy all day long, whereas if you focus on fat and protein you don’t get that dip. This is why I created the Bulletproof Coffee, which fulfills you enough so that you don’t have an interest in food for several hours.  

The Bulletproof diet suggests that on many days you don’t eat any sugar because you want to put yourself into the fat burning mode called ketosis. You also want to try to have a day where you eat some carbs, like a sweet potato or white rice or butternut squash, which over time do convert into glucose, yet are better than eating straight table sugar or high fructose corn syrup, which contribute to fatty liver, diabetes, feed yeast in your body, and mess with your head by pushing dopamine receptors. For your brain to focus and do all the things you’re capable of doing, we want stable energy, and sugar brings about just the opposite of that.

Do you think the Bulletproof lifestyle can help with food addiction and other addictions?

I had a client who had such bad sugar addiction that she had no food in her house. She would only go out to buy food because if she had it in her house, she would eat everything. She had a map in her office of every person who kept a jar of candy at their desk so she could go around and take a piece from different people throughout the day. She felt helpless to resist that temptation. 

After she had Bulletproof coffee for the first time, she called me at the end of that day and said, “Oh my God, I went all day without eating any candy. I didn’t even want it.” 

Also, I do believe in emotional eating. In fact, I’m certain I did that when I was younger. I didn’t know the happiness skills that I have now. It wasn’t the reason I was obese, but it was a contributor. Today, I am comfortable saying if you have a food craving, it’s your fault. Not because you’re a bad person, but because you did something to trigger it, like most likely something you ate earlier or something your body was exposed to. When your body is exposed to certain toxins, your liver wants to oxidize the toxins so it recruits blood sugar. For example, the other day I was using a nasty chemical with warning labels on it outside, and I got a lung full of it. Within five minutes, I had the first sugar craving that I had in three months. Why? Not because I’m a bad person or I’m addicted to sugar, but because my body was saying, “I need some energy to deal with this toxic stuff.” 

If you’re eating fried foods in a restaurant where the oil has been completely damaged by high temperature for many hours, you can bet, especially if they sprayed msg on it, within an hour or two you’re going to have a food craving, and if you give in to that food craving it’s easy to say that you’re a food addict, but you’re not, you’re someone who’s biochemistry was wacked over the head and now your body is desperate for this food. 

Of course there are biochemical addictions where your cell receptors are modified and you need certain things or you go into withdrawal, but when we’re talking about something like food, what’s happening is your body is saying, “I don’t have enough energy to oxidize the toxins or get rid of this bad food to deal with the blood sugar crash the msg caused. Emergency. Eat something now.” Then you can resist for only so long before you give in and say, “I’ll just eat half of it.” It’s that giving in that's at the core of what some people call addiction because they can’t not eat it. They burned their willpower to resist the craving, but if they knew the secret to not triggering the craving, they would have saved the willpower and wouldn’t feel guilty about eating the bagel.

Are you saying you don’t believe in food addiction?

No. There is a food addiction that is very real that comes from the cortisol response we get from eating food that we’re allergic to. Those are the ones that often times we crave the most. It feels great to have a spike of cortisol; we always talk about cortisol as being this death hormone, which is wrong, but if you don’t have enough cortisol, you die, and if you have too much cortisol, you die. It’s a very useful hormone. But if you get a spike of it, your heart rate goes up, your energy goes up, and your brain clears, which are all good because cortisol is there to fight a tiger or run away from a tiger depending on how big you are. If it turns out that you’re allergic to gluten, dairy or protein, you are very likely to be addicted to pizza, and the reason is that every time you eat pizza or something with one of those ingredients, you are triggering a cortisol response, which makes you feel good. But then when the cortisol wears off, you’ll get the negative effects from those foods. When you eat those, you trigger the opiate receptors and feel good then once the opiate and cortisol crash comes, you say, “Give me more.” That’s when you eat a few cheese pretzels. This is a real addiction that involves an opiate response and a cortisol response, so when you stop eating these foods, you feel like crap.

Food addiction is real, and if you add emotional eating on top of that, then eating can trigger a profound biological need for more energy, which becomes addictive.

Many times when people are overweight, others think, “Well, just stop eating, and you’ll lose weight.” It seems that the Bulletproof lifestyle is showing you how to add things into your life that will help you stop eating poorly.

It helps. For instance, even if you clean up your diet, but you’re not getting quality sleep—many people sleep poorly, so even though they’re getting their necessary six or seven hours, the quality is not good—that can contribute to obesity and the inability to regulate your blood sugar well. 

On the topic of perception, I find that overweight people have more willpower than thin people, yet the stereotype is that obese people are lazy. It’s quite the opposite. The obese person is having intense cravings that they’re saying “no” to as much as possible. Heavy people know they’re heavy, and they’re doing everything in their power to resist it, but there’s something called willpower fatigue and it’s part of the whole decision making cycle. So every time you decide to say “no” to that bagel in front of you, you’re using a decision and making up willpower, which we’ve proven is a finite resource.

The Bulletproof diet suggests foods you should say “yes” to so that the other foods will stop yelling at you.

Can you talk about heart rate variability, which falls under step 4?  

The sympathetic nervous system is your fight or flight response to an emergency. Let’s say when you were a kid, your parents always got into fights during meal times. You are going to naturally develop a fight or flight response when you sit down to eat. This isn’t going to happen because you thought about it, but because your body felt it to keep you safe. It’s not entirely a conscious behavior. But with heart rate variability training, you can actually teach yourself to recognize when this fight or flight reaction occurs. It was a revelation for me to realize that dozens of times a day my body goes into fight or flight mode for no reason, it just does it to try to keep me safe. One of the behaviors that people pick up when they feel unsafe is to eat or numb those feelings with other substances or behaviors. If you’re unaware of those feelings, then you’re not going to know what to do. So what heart rate variability training does is it allows you to know when your heart rate fight or flight is triggered, and gives you a toolset to turn off the fight or flight response. 

To learn this, you use an inner balance sensor (it’s only $99). I use the emWave2, a small device that turns green when your heart rate and breathing are synchronized (like meditation), which has a huge effect on productivity. It’s such a powerful piece of technology because it teaches you to stop reacting to things and to notice when you’re reacting so you can get back in control of your own biology. 

You practice with the sensor for 10 minutes a day for six weeks. By the end of the six weeks, you’ll recognize when the fight or flight happens and you’ll learn to flip a switch in your body. I don’t have a name for this switch and I can’t label it, but what you’re doing is changing the spacing between heartbeats and moving yourself from fight or flight sympathetic mode to rest and recover sympathetic mode. You learn to do this consciously just like snapping your fingers. People who do a lot of meditation learn this over years, but a little technology can teach you how to do it quickly.

Step 5 is about neurofeedback, which involves putting EEG sensors all over the scalp, in order to monitor your brainwaves in different areas. Can you explain this?

This is about showing the brain what it’s doing because the brain is the most self-optimizing organ in the body. It’s the only organ that has no sensing apparatus of itself. There are nerves inside our other organs so they can heal, but during brain surgery we can open up your brain and poke around in there and we don’t feel anything, so the brain doesn’t know what it’s doing, or not doing, well because it doesn’t mirror or have a way to see itself. 

Neurofeedback basically shows the brain what it’s doing and the brain will eventually fix itself. With some of the more advanced techniques you can actually teach the brain new skills, like you can teach it to have the same brain state as someone who has spent many years practicing meditation. You can also teach the brain to notice when it’s tuning out, which is a common problem for people who have addiction. If they’re body is stressed by something in the environment, they’ll tune out and be attracted to things that help them tune out.

Neurofeedback machines can start at $400 for ones you can use at home and go all the way up to $5,000 for clinical machines that are good for hundreds of sessions. A therapist or physician can also perform neurofeedback on you.

I have to ask about inversion therapy or hanging upside down. Is this something you practice?

Oh, yeah. I hang upside down. It’s amazing that it can help you grow new capillaries in the brain. And it’s important to get more blood flow to the brain. I train the blood flow in my brain by doing this, and I do think that my blood carries oxygen more efficiently because of it.

Did you consult with nutritionists, physicians, or other specialists when developing the Bulletproof lifestyle?

I have worked with several world class physicians, functional medicine experts, and PhDs on both improving my own health and in shaping The Bulletproof Diet and Bulletproof Coffee. Over the last few years, I've invited many of these medical experts to share their learnings on the #1 ranked iTunes podcast, Bulletproof Radio.

Any last words for Fix readers?

There’s a biological basis for your addiction and you have more control of your biology now than any human in history so rather than feeling guilty or resigned about your addiction feel empowered to make changes in the environment around you, or in your own biology, which will reduce the power of the addiction or even turn it off entirely. I really believe that is possible.

Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about addictions to sugar and tanning and interviewed trauma advocate Tonier CainConnect with her on twitter—@Cassatastyle.

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Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She is a regular contributor to Everyday Health and Healthline. View her portfolio of stories at https://cathycassata.contently.com. Connect with her on Twitter at @Cassatastyle.