Bulletproof yourself: How Dave Asprey is teaching Valley insiders to hack their biology

By Michael Carney , written on February 14, 2014

From The News Desk

Dave Asprey isn’t your typical Silicon Valley advisor. For evidence of this fact, look no further than the contents of his briefcase. Alongside the predictable notebook, tablet, and sunglasses, Asprey never leaves home without a bar of Kerrygold grass-fed butter. It’s one of his secrets to hacking his biology for maximum brain performance.

But it’s not just the butter. Asprey walks around with a (not shady looking at all) vial of Himalayan sea salt, a small squeeze bottle full of medium-chain triglyceride (MTC) oil, and a syringe full of glutathione, among other oddities. After an hour listening to his personal story, and learning the method behind his madness, most people end up doing the same. Now Asprey’s methods are helping VCs and entrepreneurs hack their own performance and gain that critical edge in the hyper-competitive Silicon Valley environment.

Asprey wasn’t always a nut (his word, not mine). In the last decade he’s held several CTO, director of technology, and director of product management positions at companies including Trend Micro, Blue Coat Systems, Citrix, Speedera Networks, and 3Com. He was also an Entrepreneur in Residence at Trinity Ventures before co-founding Basis Science (he left the company pre-funding).

But 15 years after losing more than 100 pounds and discovering what he believes are they keys to supercharging the human brain, today his full time focus is on running his health consultancy slash media company, The Bulletproof Executive. Asprey is also the Chairman of the Silicon Valley Health Institute, a Palo Alto-based non-profit.

Asprey teaches his clients, including a number of Valley entrepreneurs and investors as well as pro athletes and average Joes, a wellness and performance driven diet and lifestyle. More than anything, he’s famous for a drink he calls Bulletproof Coffee. The brain-health focused cocktail contains low-toxin coffee (not all coffees are created equal) and a few tablespoons of both grass fed butter and MTC oil, all blended together to form a creamy latte like nothing you’ve ever experienced.

Bulletproof Coffee is one of those things that when you first hear about makes you want to gag. But people swear by it. (I swear by it.) Hundreds of professional and Olympic athletes are avid bulletproof drinkers, as is most of the CrossFit world, which is where I first met Dave in person.

Asprey borrowed the idea for Bulletproof Coffee from a Tibetan version made with tea and yak butter. After drinking the creamy beverage following a particularly draining Himalayan hike, he found himself revitalized and alert. He brought that experience back to the US and began experimenting with coffee-based versions. The result is a drink that delivers sustained energy and mental alertness without the usual jitteriness or crash associated with most caffeinated drinks.

Now before you call the American Heart Association or dive into a rant about the obesity epidemic, know that putting butter in your coffee won’t make you fat or give you a heart attack. Unlike cream, butter is low in sugar, high in vitamins A, D, and K2, and has more of the anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acid, butyric acid. Studies have shown that it can promote brain function and gut health. The MTC oil, on the other hand, contains short-chain fats that digest quickly and are unlikely to be stored in fatty tissue. Consuming it can actually promote weight loss, as well as boost energy and mental performance, according to some research.

“Most people spend the day stressed out, eating like crap, and then wash it all down with a few beers at the end of the day,” Asprey says. “All they’re doing is dulling their mental performance and limiting their opportunity for recovery.”

Asprey is more than just a wacky barista. Although he’s not a doctor himself, he’s worked with dozens of them to refine and vet his methods. He regularly uses hormone analysis and a variety of other tests to better understand the way each client’s body is responding to dietary changes and to develop unique prescriptions. The fact that he’s an angel investor in personal wellness and quantified self startup WellnessFX doesn’t hurt.

“We look at what happens to inflammation markers and triglycerides,” Asprey says. “We then tune our recommendations to match each person’s genetics. It’s very data driven.”

In addition to Bulletproof Coffee, he generally advocates for eating a gluten free diet, full of healthy fats. It’s not a radical prescription, but paired with mindfulness and healthy sleeping, it’s one that has proven itself effective.

“It all comes down to energy and recovery,” he says. “I just advocate making good eating decisions and sleeping well. I tell people, don’t just manage your business, manage your body, manage your energy. Small changes in energy can result in big gains in performance.”

For Asprey, the number on the scale and how many pushups his clients can do is less important than how sharp their minds function in a stressful meeting and whether they perform as effectively at the end of a long day as they do at the beginning. The end goal for all this is to leave his personal coaching clients and readers of his blog with the ability to assess their own health and physical performance and then make the necessary tweaks to hack it. Call it the “teach a man to fish” school of biohacking.

Trinity Ventures general partner Dan Scholnick is a devotee of the Bulletproof lifestyle. Born with a family medical condition called hypercholesterolemia, Scholnick has been taking high cholesterol medicine since he was 8-years-old and was always taught to eat a low fat, high grain diet. When he first meeting Asprey, it was during his stint as an EIR at the firm – one who was always carrying strange food into meetings and who had unusually high energy.

Although never overweight, Scholnick says, like most people, he could have stood to lose a few pounds at the time. But more importantly, he says, he was in a constant state of lethargy and brain fog. After months of giving Asprey a hard time, Scholnick finally sat him down and asked him what his deal was.

“I had one of those moments of, ‘Is it possible that everything I’ve been told to do is based on faulty science and I may be making the problem worse not better?,” he says. It is, and he was.

What followed was months of personal study on nutritional science, while also working with Asprey. In classic Valley style, Scholnick A-B tested a variety of dietary tweaks and other bio-hacks before finding the exact recipe that made him feel his best. He lost a few pounds, getting down to his college weight (for the first time since graduating) without restricting calories in his diet. But the biggest change, Scholnick says, was in his energy levels.

“I can now sleep five to six hours per night and feel well and perform well next day,” he says. “I used to need eight to nine hours and I’d still feel foggy. That alone has almost given me a full day’s worth of time back per week.”

The changes in diet also lowered Scholnick’s stress levels, he says, something he measures objectively through tracking his cortisol levels via regular blood tests. Convinced that this was truly a better way to live, he became a self-described evangelist for Asprey and biohacking in general.

“I don’t really go out of my way, but it always comes up in conversation during meetings when I’d be eating something weird,” he says. “We all struggle with health issues like fatigue, weight gain, stress. I found that people were really interested.”

One of the groups that Scholnick shared this with was Trinity Ventures’ portfolio CEOs.

“We realized as a firm that entrepreneurship is a highly personal endeavor that requires good personal health and wellbeing,” he says. “We believe that if our entrepreneurs are feeling better and their personal lives are better, they’ll perform better at work. I don’t think anyone would disagree.”

Scholnick invited Asprey to speak at Trinity’s annual CEO dinner. The results were somewhat predictable, he says. About 50 percent of the CEO’s at the dinner took the talk to heart and made real changes, while the rest asked if the firm had gone off the deep end. One of those executives who took the bait was Owler founder and CEO Jim Fowler.

“Usually the people that speak at these dinners have something to do with negotiations, fundraising, or sharing their exit story,” Fowler says. “I remember reading the headline about how he’d hacked his life and raised his IQ and gotten a six pack. I thought to myself, this has got to be a joke. When he first started talking, I thought this guy is a nut. But the idea of hacking your brain resonated less with me.”

Most CEOs have ADD, Fowler believes. It’s a natural given the job description of paying attention to tons of different things across the business. But without the ability to hone and focus that energy, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Like Scholnick, Fowler, who’s 49 years-old, lost weight – 15 pounds, getting him down to the 180 pound mark at which he graduated college. But the bigger change was in his levels of focus. Through a combination of reducing his sugar intake and taking up yoga and meditation he now finds himself concentrating better when angry or frustrated.

“I’m just generally a lot happier,” Fowler says.

The idea of hacking your performance is nothing new. A-types from Silicon Valley to Wall Street have been looking for an edge forever. But the methods are different now. While just five years ago, people may have turned to Adderall or Provigil for a little chemical pick-me-up, today it seems like more natural and sustainable methods are in vogue.

“The culture of entrepreneurship is changing a bit,” Asprey says. “You will always see people burning the candle at both ends, but now more people are thinking about longevity and the impact that this has on their bodies and their families.”

One of the biggest shifts he’s seen is the open mindedness of young entrepreneurs. While the invincibility of youth is a meme as old as time itself, many of Silicon Valley’s youngest disrupters are entering the game looking for a competitive edge through diet and exercise, Asprey says.

“There are some interesting things happening now with food in the Valley,” he says. “Google started the trend of not just ordering lunch for your team but ordering customized meals aimed at boosting performance. They didn’t do it because they wanted people to want to work there. They did it because they wanted them to be effective while doing so. Spending $25 for a tray of shitty meat, rice, MSG, and canola oil is the worst investment possible.”

Not everyone will be open to putting butter in their coffee. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But contrarians like Dave Asprey are proving that there are real performance benefits to be achieved through monitoring what we put in our bodies and the energy outputs they create.

“In general, I think there’s an explosion in learning happening around human biology and how the combination of genetics and environment affect our performance,” Scholnick says. “On one hand there’s this explosion of knowledge, but we’re still pretty dumb and don’t quite know how to put it all into practice yet. People need to realize that they can take this knowledge and apply it to themselves with some experimentation. You can really move the needle, so people are willing to try. If the effects were at the margins, that may not be the case."

[Image via Wallwides]