How Bulletproof Founder Dave Asprey Became the Ultimate Biohacker – Men's Health
Biohacker Dave Asprey built his multimillion-dollar brand Bulletproof around his quest for longevity. But is any of it legit?
Ten days before I met him at his home in British Columbia,
Dave Asprey went to a clinic in Park City, Utah, where a surgeon harvested half a liter of bone marrow from his hips, filtered out the stem cells, and injected them into every joint in his body. He then threaded a cannula along Asprey’s spinal column and injected stem cells inside his spinal cord and into his cerebral fluid. “And then they did all the cosmetic stuff,” Asprey told me. “Hey, I’m unconscious, you’ve got extra stem cells—put ’em everywhere!” Everywhere meaning his scalp, to make his hair more abundant and lustrous; his face, to smooth out wrinkles; and his “male organs,” for—well, I’ll leave that part up to your imagination. According to Asprey, what he’d just endured was “the most extensive stem-cell treatment that’s ever been done on a person at one time.” All told, it was an expensive and invasive procedure, which is particularly striking considering that there’s nothing wrong with him. Nothing wrong, that is, other than regular old human aging, which is not part of Asprey’s plan. As he’s fond of saying, he has no interest in being average. Asprey, who is 45, has made the widely publicized claim that he expects to live to 180. To that end, he plans to get his own stem cells injected into him every six months, take 100 supplements a day, follow a strict diet, bathe in infrared light, hang out in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, and wear goofy yellow-lensed glasses every time he gets on an airplane. So far, Asprey says he’s spent at least a million dollars hacking his own biology, and making it to 2153 will certainly take several million more. Currently, Asprey is best known as the founder of Bulletproof Coffee; he’s the reason everyone started slipping a pat of butter into their coffee a few years back. At least one of the Kardashians is a fan, and Jimmy Fallon has extolled the virtues of the high-fat beverage on The Tonight Show: “It’s the most delicious thing ever. But it’s actually good for you. It’s good for your brain.” Asprey estimates that people have drunk more than 150 million cups of the stuff since he first posted the recipe online in 2009. Various bottled versions are now the three highest-selling ready-to-drink coffees at Whole Foods. But while the coffee is what put Asprey on the map, his aspirations are much bigger than that—and having the longest human life span ever recorded is just one part of his plan. Asprey has parlayed the success of the coffee into one of the most coveted roles in 21st-century America: He has become a lifestyle guru. Over the past decade, he’s published five books on subjects ranging from fertility to “how to kick more ass at life,” including Game Changers, which came out in December. His podcast, Bulletproof Radio, has been downloaded more than 75 million times. He tweets inspirational messages, tagged #BeBulletproof, to his 332,000 Twitter followers. Asprey happily shares his opinion on how often men should ejaculate (once a week, but have sex more often) and how long they should sleep (six hours is good; eight hours is too much). He thinks you should go to Burning Man (because it’ll activate your creativity) and stop eating kale (because it contains trace amounts of oxalic acid). This eclectic advice all falls under the general umbrella of biohacking, which Asprey defines as the use of “science, biology, and self-experimentation to take control of and upgrade your body, your mind and your life,” or “the art and science of becoming superhuman.” At a period of American history when mistrust of institutions seems endemic, Asprey is a man suited to his times. He has no medical degree or nutritional training. Depending on whom you ask, this makes him either a visionary willing to explore bold new frontiers or a huckster who overstates the results of mouse studies. Where the gurus of the 1960s promised access to arcane spiritual secrets, Asprey cites research and sells supplements. But the underlying appeal is not so different: Your life needs to transform, and this guy is the one who can tell you how to do it. A few years ago, Asprey and his wife, a physician he met at an antiaging conference, concluded that the Bay Area wasn’t the best place to raise kids, so they relocated to Canada, where they live in bucolic splendor (and where Asprey can take a short flight to the Bulletproof offices in Seattle). The property features an extensive vegetable garden, a small flock of sheep, and two charming pigs—Brussel Snout and Sven—whom I tried not to get too attached to, seeing as they were due to be butchered in the near future. His home office, which he’s nicknamed Alpha Labs, features a number of gadgets and gizmos that he uses regularly: a cryotherapy chamber, a bed of infrared lights, a platform that vibrates 30 times per second, an atmospheric cell trainer that virtually transports you from the top of Mount Everest back to sea level within a few minutes. Alpha Labs also has high-tech versions of exercise machines, including a recumbent device fitted with cooling compression cuffs that leads you through a high-intensity interval circuit and promises to deliver two and a half hours of exercise in 21 minutes. In person, Asprey is a dimpled, affable guy with an undercurrent of intensity, like a dad you might meet at a PTA meeting who’d casually mention that he runs ultramarathons. (Not that Asprey would run an ultramarathon; it’s an inefficient use of time. Plus, as one of his podcast episodes warns, “Aerobic Exercise May Be Destroying Your Body.”) He speaks with an unflappable confidence born of years of self-study. To hear him tell it, he’s been adjacent to many major developments of the Internet era. In college, he was “the first guy to sell anything over the Internet,” he told me. (It was a T-shirt that said caffeine is my drug of choice, which he listed for sale over Usenet; buyers faxed him checks.) He says he “taught working engineers how to build the Internet” via a teaching job at the University of California-Santa Cruz’s Silicon Valley extension. He worked for the company that hosted Google’s first server. He did ayahuasca “20-something years ago, before it was cool.” (It was actually in 2003.) At the same time, Asprey didn’t feel like his best self. Over the years, he’d been variously diagnosed or self-diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, attention-deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, arthritis, fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s disease, chronic Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic strep throat. At his heaviest, in college, he says he weighed 300 pounds. At first, Asprey followed the standard medical advice for losing weight—restrict calories, exercise—but even when he was working out for 90 minutes and eating 1,500 to 1,800 calories a day, he wasn’t dropping pounds. “I got healthier, I was probably stronger, I could max out every machine but two at the gym,” he said. “But I still weighed the same amount.” Doctors were no help; they took one look at him and assumed he was sneaking Snickers bars. Asprey comes from a family of experimenters—his grandmother was a nuclear engineer who worked at Los Alamos. “There seems to be strange inventor genes on that side of the family,” he said. “The other side’s from Roswell. So I’ve got aliens and radiation. That explains a lot of it.” Fed up with his conventional options, Asprey decided to experiment on himself. He tried out a low-carb diet he’d read about in a bodybuilding magazine and lost 50 pounds. “That taught me that what I eat matters more than how much I exercise,” he said. “And from there I started learning.” He ordered $1,200 worth of smart drugs from Europe, which pepped him up just as he had hoped they would. He promised himself that he would learn more about these miracle medications: “Every night after I finish work, I’m going to go home and just read about this stuff and study. I’m going to troubleshoot this myself, because I am not getting help from the medical establishment. And I did that for four years. Every night, I would just study.” Eventually, Asprey’s roving curiosity about how to optimize his body and mind led him to the Silicon Valley Health Institute, a collection of Bay Area residents who met to discuss health, nutrition, and longevity. By the time Asprey came on the scene, most members were decades older than him, but they found common ground nonetheless. As Asprey continued to experiment on his body, downing a daily cocktail of supplements bolstered by modafinil (a so-called smart drug for “wakefulness” that was originally developed to address narcolepsy) and testosterone, he was also experimenting on his mind. He took personal-development workshops, explored his traumatic birth (his umbilical cord had been wrapped around his neck), and used an EEG machine to train his brain to be less reactive. In the mid-2000s, Asprey was still working for various tech companies; in his spare time, he began putting some of the information from the health institute online. Many of Asprey’s preoccupations—biofeedback, the dangers of fluoride in drinking water—were familiar, fringy New Age ideas. His genius was adapting them for a tech-obsessed world. After feeling like an outsider for much of his life, Asprey was thrilled to discover that the rest of the world was beginning to catch up with him. In the hypercompetitive environment of Silicon Valley, people were looking for whatever edge they could get. Tech executives began touting the benefits of meditating: It improved productivity! It boosted creative problem solving! Psychedelics and pills were no longer the domain of hippie losers. Now start-up guys were flying shamans in from Peru on private jets for personal ayahuasca ceremonies. Suddenly everyone was talking about nootropics and microdosing. Jeff Bezos got swole. Mark Zuckerberg started training for a triathlon. Everyone was desperate to upgrade. Biohacking was the perfect ethos for the moment. It took Silicon Valley’s obsessive preoccupation with productivity and disruptive technology and added a dash of L. A. in the form of herbal supplements, vague spirituality, and self-help. Finally the time was ripe for Asprey, a guy who had been tweaking his own internal systems for years; who knew how to help you get a better return on your meditation investment; who claimed he could feel when his mitochondria were underperforming; who promised strategies for turning humans into superhumans. Bulletproof initially launched as a food and beverage company, selling coffee, collagen, and supplements. Asprey also opened a flagship coffee shop in Santa Monica where the baristas are called coffee hackers. The products took off, and Bulletproof was soon doing a brisk online business. Even so, Asprey never expected to get venture-capital funding—“we’re in too many categories, we’re not a fit”—but it turned out that the VCs disagreed. “We think lifestyle brands are important,” Asprey said his eventual funder told him. In 2015, Bulletproof got $9 million in initial funding from Trinity Ventures, an early investor in Starbucks and Jamba Juice. Another $43 million from other investors followed in the next few years. Asprey’s biohacking empire was on its way to greatness. Beyond his own goal of life extension, Asprey speaks of biohacking as empowerment. As wearable devices become increasingly sophisticated, even those of us who aren’t wealthy and who aren’t scientists have the ability to turn our bodies’ confusing signals into clean, personalized data. Asprey dreams of a world where, instead of deferring to medical experts and profit-driven drug companies, we become experts in our own systems and experiment on them at will. Unsurprisingly, this has made Asprey suspicious of regulation. “Regulation got us the food pyramid that causes heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in unprecedented numbers of people,” he told me. “It got us an incredibly slow-to-innovate medical system that’s now being disrupted. It is antihuman to tell someone that they do not have the choice to put whatever they want into their bodies. It’s a basic human freedom. I think it’s unethical that I need to spend $150 and an hour of my life to get a permission slip to take a substance. There is no, no reason for that.” (Asprey’s wife disagrees.) All this self-experimentation is not without risk. Asprey once took a nap surrounded by ice packs, since cold exposure has been said to correlate with increased resilience; he woke up with first-degree burns over 15 percent of his body. Another time, he zapped himself with infrared light to test the assumption that it would help him learn faster; instead, his speech was garbled for hours. Some of Asprey’s more extreme interventions, such as the stem cells he gets injected into his brain, are not yet supported by studies in healthy humans. Two weeks after my visit, some of the most widely celebrated evidence of stem cells’ effectiveness in treating heart failure turned out to be a large-scale fraud. Most of Asprey’s acolytes aren’t likely to take things as far as he does, but even low-key biohacking has potential problems. The Bulletproof Diet advises getting 50 to 70 percent of your calories from fats, compared with the 20 to 35 percent that the USDA recommends. While nutritionists have begun to back away from the 1970s-era assertion that saturated fats are harmful to the heart, that doesn’t mean that going to the opposite extreme is necessarily a good idea. For every online anecdote about a devotee who lost 50 pounds on the Bulletproof Diet, there seems to be someone else who received alarming results on their lipid panels after they began putting two tablespoons of butter in their coffee every morning. In any case, there’s a lack of large-scale, long-term research in humans to back up Asprey’s more grandiose claims about his diet. Fad diets tend to succeed based on black-and-white, anxiety-stoking pronouncements, and Asprey’s is no different: He asserts, for example, that olive oil is a suspect food, that kale can be toxic, that legumes are inflammatory, that gluten should be avoided by everyone, not just those with celiac disease—ideas that are disputed by mainstream dietitians. “This follows the same pattern as every fad diet. They all say the same thing: oversimplifying the situation, promising a life-changing experience, making unrealistic weight-loss claims,” says Abby Langer, a registered dietitian based in Toronto. “Part of the appeal is psychological. People like to feel like they belong to a group with access to secret knowledge.” If you follow Asprey’s advice to a T, you’ll be spending a hefty amount on dietary supplements with names like NeuroMaster and Unfair Advantage. The evidence for their ability to “provide brain-enhancing energy” or make you “feel cognitively sharper” is not as clear-cut or definitive as Asprey makes it sound. (Some also have the unfortunate side effect of causing what he refers to as “disaster pants.”) The nootropic smart drugs that Asprey touts aren’t problem-free, either; some users report jitteriness, difficulty sleeping, and addiction issues. “Cognitive enhancement is most likely a zero-sum game,” says P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., a brain scientist and physician at Duke University Health System and a member of Men’s Health’s advisory board. “When you enhance certain cognitive functions, it usually comes at the expense of others.” Langer points out that Asprey’s lack of official credentials benefits him in two ways. “There’s a huge distrust of mainstream medicine now, so not being a doctor probably actually does him favors,” she says. “Also, it’s hard to make false claims when you have a licensing body overseeing you. If I said some of these things, I’d be investigated.” To critics like Langer, Asprey points to his track record: “Whether or not you have a piece of paper isn’t a great indication of whether you’ll help hundreds of thousands of people.” Whether the science is robust or reproducible matters less than whether any given product or strategy delivers results. “The bottom line,” he says, “is if the risk-reward ratio is pretty good and you want to be in control of your own biology, why not try it?” Asprey’s enthusiasm can make it difficult to determine where his desire to educate ends and the sales pitch begins. In his books, podcasts, and blog posts, he is a proponent of several companies he either owns or has a stake in: the one that sells yellow-tinted glasses that protect you from “junk light”; the one that sells stickers you put over your devices’ lights; the one that sells five-day, $15,000 brain-training retreats that promise to raise your IQ and put your mind in the same state as that of a Zen monk who’s been meditating for 40 years. He insists that most coffee beans are tainted with toxic mold—a claim that even Joe Rogan rolls his eyes at—and also happens to sell mold-free coffee beans that cost $20 a pound. It’s not always easy to parse which of the many biohacks Asprey touts are scammy or overstated, which are plain old common sense, and which are poised to become the hot new thing. Back in my hotel room that evening, I sipped on a Bulletproof Fatwater and tried to determine whether my mitochondria felt any perkier. It was hard to say. Here’s the thing: A lot of what Asprey says makes sense. So many of us have lifestyles that could use a little hacking. We’re tethered to our electronics, anxious and overworked and not sleeping enough; we self-soothe with the very processed foods that are likely to end up making us feel worse. If we’re fortunate enough to have insurance, we’re treated by a health-care system that often acts as though it doesn’t have our best interests at heart. It’s not so wild to feel that something is wrong with the way we’ve been incentivized to live our lives. At the same time, we’re unhelpfully inundated with information about what that wrong might be. The Internet is chock-full of studies and articles and dubious Facebook posts: Did you hear that aerobic exercise is actually bad for you? Did you hear that kale has arsenic in it? Did you hear that putting collagen in your coffee will make your hair glossy? The process of sorting out what’s bullshit from what’s legitimate is, frankly, exhausting. If you opt into the current trend—intermittent fasting or krill oil or cryo—are you a sucker? If you opt out, will you be left behind, foggy brained and unvital, as everyone else goes on to conquer the world? I’ve felt it myself, the desperate desire to have someone just tell me what to do. Doctors hem and haw; they speak in hedged probabilities and avoid making bold claims. Asprey, in contrast, is happy to tell me that there are “absolutely” several ways to reverse Alzheimer’s, that he can more than double the average life span, and that we are all able take control of our own biology and make our bodies do exactly what we want them to. In 2017, Asprey opened Bulletproof Labs (now expanding as Upgrade Labs), a gymlike facility in Santa Monica where you can play around with his favorite biohacking tools. I went a day after meeting Asprey. I got cryogenically frozen for two minutes. I climbed inside a float tank that was supposed to help me meditate faster through a combo of high-frequency sound waves and strobing lights, but that mostly just stressed me out. I was zapped with electromagnetic pulses by a PEMF machine that was supposed to activate my cell regeneration, improve my circulation, promote bone healing, and relieve the symptoms of depression. The coffee shop next door to Bulletproof Labs serves only Bulletproof-approved food and drink, and there’s a vibrational platform you can stand on while you wait for the grass-fed butter to get mixed into your coffee. A sign on the wall reads wake up. crush it. repeat. I spoke to a bald, affable man there who assured me that he’d been into biohacking since the late 1990s, way before Asprey made it trendy. He went to the conferences, read the research papers, swallowed the supplements. So when he was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer in 2016, he developed a plan that incorporated both conventional and alternative treatments. He went into remission, started a website, and began to be featured on blogs and podcasts: “How Eric Remensperger Cured His Own Cancer.”He started writing a book; maybe he, too, could be a lifestyle guru. But then a few months ago, the cancer came back—in his bladder this time. He had a new treatment protocol and was feeling optimistic. Still, it had been a humbling journey. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your biology won’t behave. Sometimes the superhumans turn out to be humans, too. I spoke to Asprey one last time, a few days after his forty-fifth birthday. He was choosing to look at aging in the most positive way possible. “I think of it as, I’m now 25 percent of the way to my minimum goal [of living to 180],” he said. “So I’m officially a young adult. Is living a long time a kind of superpower? Yes. Although I might die trying.”