By Dr. Mercola
Can you biohack your brain to get sharper, smarter and work faster? According to Dave Asprey, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, founder and CEO of bulletproof.com, and author of “The Bulletproof Diet” and “Head Strong: The Bulletproof Plan to Activate Untapped Brain Energy to Work Smarter and Think Faster — in Just Two Weeks,” the answer is a resounding yes.
In addition to being early internet adopters, Dave and I share similar interests with respect to optimizing brain function — something we both discuss in our respective books. I had the opportunity to preview “Head Strong” and really enjoy Dave’s approach.
It’s different from my book, “Fat for Fuel,” but the two books complement each other quite well. Dave approaches the subject of optimizing brain function from the perspective of having suffered serious health problems and seeking options for recovery, because the conventional route simply did not work.
At one point, he weighed 300 pounds, couldn’t lose weight, and was suffering the effects of multiple toxic exposures, including Lyme disease. He’s an inspiring example of someone who, despite not being a trained physician, is able to sift through the medical literature to unearth important health truths.
The Life Altering Impact of Brain Fog
Dave was a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur in the early days of the web. Then, he suddenly started gaining a lot of weight, and despite working out every day, six days a week, the weight gain continued. After going on a low-fat diet, he started experiencing severe brain fog — so much so, he feared losing his career.
“I ended up spending $1 million and 15 years fixing my body and getting all of the data. I lost 100 pounds. I ended up running an anti-aging, non-profit research group. Here I am, a formerly obese computer hacker by training, who realized I could hack my own biology.
When you’re taking over a computer system, you don’t know what’s inside it. You just need to know enough to change the system. I looked at my body and I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on in there. The doctors … barely know what’s going on in there.
Maybe I can use these techniques about managing a system even if you don’t know everything.’ It really changed my life. Years later, I have a deep knowledge of how the system of the body works and how the environment changes it.
You were one of the first guys to talk about epigenetics — this idea that your environment changes your gene expression. Like, whoa, wouldn’t it be easier to just change my environment instead of doing something? That’s where I was led to.”
It’s All About the Mitochondria
Health ultimately boils down to mitochondrial function, Dave realized. Both weight loss and improved brain capacity are byproducts of simple lifestyle changes that optimize your mitochondria.
Mitochondria are tiny organelles in your cells that can be viewed as cellular battery chargers. The mitochondria charge the structured water, which in turn operates much like a battery, thereby producing the energy (ATP) your body needs to function.
Disturbingly, research suggests half of people under the age of 40 have early onset mitochondrial dysfunction, and this phenomenon appears to be at the heart of most illness and chronic disease.
“That means their battery is weak before it’s supposed to be weak. Everyone over age 40 has mitochondrial dysfunction. It’s called aging,” he says.
“If you can hack those little mitochondria to make them leak [fewer] electrons, to make them more effective and efficient in creating energy, to make them [create] less inflammation when they make energy, you’re probably going to live a lot longer.
But however long you live, you’re going to … have more energy every day. That makes you a nicer person because you can regulate your emotions better … I’m calmer, more grounded and more focused because my battery is fully charged most of the time.”
Environmental toxins, be they natural, such as mold, or synthetic, such as agricultural chemicals and food additives, all have the ability to impede mitochondrial function and hence stifle your body’s ability to create energy.
The plan Dave describes in “Head Strong” revolves around reducing exposure to toxins that lower the efficiency of your mitochondria, and increasing exposures and activities that give you energy. As your disease risk goes down, the quality of your thinking goes up, quite literally making you more “headstrong.”
“What used to be a struggle stops being a struggle. It just feels kind of effortless and joyful,” he says. One aspect of his work that stands out is the importance of sun exposure. Not only does it provide your body with vitamin D, sun exposure also charges your mitochondria.
Sunlight ‘Charges Your Batteries’
In a nutshell, the near-, mid- and far-infrared light in sunlight can directly add electrons to these internal power plants, your mitochondria.
Infrared light — which is the part that provides warmth — actually changes the structure of the water in your cells, making it more structured, thereby increasing the efficiency of your mitochondria.
In simplified terms, you could say you can actually “charge” yourself with sunlight. In the absence of sunlight, you can also use near- and mid-infrared light bulbs. Groundbreaking science now also shows the near-infrared range is particularly important for your brain function. Dave explains:
“There are basically three different types of beneficial infrared ranges that humans have been able to recreate. There’s really a spectrum that’s unending of all these electromagnetic frequencies. We’re just talking [about certain ranges].
The near-infrared is one that you hear less about. This is warming, more so than far-infrared, which you oftentimes hear about [in relation to infrared] sauna, where far-infrared heats more deeply and near-infrared heats more of the surface.
You’ll find that all three types of infrared light are important, and that you get all three when you get natural sunlight. What I’m recommending in “Head Strong” is to go outside, take off your sunglasses or prescription glasses [because] that UV filter is actually filtering out [light] that your brain needs.
You need a little bit of ultraviolet light even in your eyes. It can help to fix near-sightedness. Take off your hat. You’re not going to get wrinkles in 20 minutes of sunshine. It’s OK. Don’t put on sunscreen. Take off your shirt and go for a walk in the sun.”
Near-Infrared for Brain Health
For nearly 10 years, Dave has been using an infrared LED emitter in the 810 to 850 nanometer (nm) range that can be placed on an injury or on your head to treat your brain. As discussed in my interview with photodynamic therapy researcher Michael Hamblin, Ph.D., such devices could be revolutionary in the treatment of dementia and other neurological problems.
“Most think that light is just light. Can I see or not see? What we’re discovering is that light is a drug. You can have the corn syrup of lighting, which is basically … blue LED light bulbs. We’ve allowed these into our environment the same way we allowed corn syrup into our food supply.
[Blue light from LED light bulbs] makes your mitochondria weak. It causes macular degeneration over time, which is a mitochondrial disorder. What I’m talking about here is the LEDs that replace your incandescent light fixtures so you can read, so you can watch TV and cook. You don’t want those [light bulbs] in your environment.
But red and infrared in targeted spectrum LEDs are actually game-changing. One of the reasons this works is because your mitochondria are semi-conductors. This was not well-established until maybe eight years ago. [A semi-conductor] conducts electricity at a lower speed than it would normally go. What this means is that one of the functions of mitochondria is to create photons.
They’re called biophotons. One of the primary functions of mitochondria is to receive photons. They’re actually able to communicate, we believe, with each other using photons. But certainly, they listen to the light around you, the same as they listen to what you put in your mouth.
Having these quadrillion little sensors in your body that are light sensitive means what you expose them to is going to change the state of your body. The recommendation in “Head Strong” is have less of these LED lights for vision, and to use LED therapeutically with red and infrared, or even ultraviolet. There are ultraviolet LEDs now. Go back to more natural spectrums.”
The Importance of Cyclical Ketosis and mTOR Activation
Another critical message “Head Strong” gets right is the importance of not remaining in continuous ketosis. This is part of the message I focused on in “Fat for Fuel” as well, because virtually no one is talking about this. Once you’re at the point where your body is efficiently burning fat as its primary fuel, you need to start cycling in and out of ketosis. This mimics the ancestral pattern of going through periods of feast and famine.
“It’s almost like doing interval training,” Dave says. “You don’t have to be in one state forever. In fact, your body doesn’t like to be in one state forever. That’s why we sleep and we wake up. We have all these different activities, why should you always be in one metabolic state?”
Another common problem is that people in ketosis are eating far too much protein, and often poor quality protein, which can fan the flames of inflammation. When you limit protein to only what your body needs, you suppress an important metabolic pathway called mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), thereby lowering your risk of cancer.
However, as with nutritional ketosis, you don’t necessarily want to suppress mTOR all the time either. You need to activate mTOR now and then to retain muscle mass. Dave explains:
"The three things that suppress mTOR … are intermittent fasting … exercise … and coffee … These push mTOR down. Then, as soon as you feed again (especially with protein), mTOR comes bounding back. This is when you'll put muscle on really rapidly.
This cyclical approach to ketosis and protein consumption will activate mTOR when you need it (ideally on days when you're strength training), so you get more return on the time spent exercising. You also lower inflammation and your cancer risk.”
Put another way, the “metabolic magic” in the mitochondria actually occurs during the refeeding phase, not during the starvation phase. Alas, you cannot get to that magic unless you first go through the starvation phase. Another part of the protein and mTOR conversation is collagen, which can provide you with the benefits of protein without the drawbacks. Dave explains:
“Collagen is the connective tissue in your face and your skin [and] also throughout your body, your bone matrix. It holds the fascia of your muscles together, and your organs. This is a protein we don’t eat very much of, unless you’re eating bone broth the way your grandmother did.
Muscle meat, [opposed to] organ meat, has amino acids that raise mTOR and insulin … When you consume collagen or bone broth with a meal, and you increase the percentage of protein that comes from that, you can actually get more collagen protein without hitting these protein limits, which has been really helpful for me. I might have an extra 10 or 20 grams of collagen without getting all the amino acids that are causing some of the inflammation.”
How to Regain Mental Clarity
Reduced hunger and food cravings, and significantly increased mental clarity are all welcomed side effects of nutritional ketosis. To understand the reasons for this, you need to understand the interplay of cholecystokinin (CCK), a satiety hormone, and ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Once you’re in ketosis, where you’re burning fat as your primary fuel, the ketones created go a long way toward warding off hunger.
Not only is fat a more slow-burning fuel than sugar, allowing you to feel energized longer, once your ketone level goes up, ghrelin, the hunger hormone, will reset itself. As your ketone level rises, CCK, a satiety hormone, is also activated. As a result, food cravings and hunger pangs vanish. Ketones are also a preferred fuel for your brain; hence, the improved mental clarity.
“If you don’t have ketones, you’ll always have the ghrelin, the hunger level, of whatever your maximum weight was. When I weighed 300 pounds, I had the hunger of a 300-pounder. If I went on a low-calorie diet and got down to 250 pounds, I still had the hunger of a 300-pound person … Resetting ghrelin [and CCK] with ketosis matters.”
While your body will produce ketones internally, you can also consume exogenous ketones. Bulletproof CoffeeⓇ is a well-known product these days, made from coffee free of mitochondrial-inhibiting mold toxins, Brain Octane Oil (a more concentrated form of MCT oil) and grass fed butter.
Others add butter, coconut oil, or MCT oil to black coffee, but it doesn’t raise ketones as much. Another intriguing mitochondrial supplement is good old-fashioned apple cider vinegar. It’s actually chock-full of acetic acid, which is a short-chained fat. Dave explains:
“This acetic acid is used in the mitochondria. There is a class of people [with] mitochondrial inefficiencies [in whom] acetic acid … turns their mitochondria back on. These people will take some apple cider vinegar … [and] it’s like the lights come back on. There are other people who have different inefficiencies in their mitochondria. They’ll take apple cider vinegar [and] don’t feel any energy difference whatsoever.
When your gut works really well, when you eat fermented vegetables … or perhaps resistant starch … your gut bacteria will make a lot of these short-chain fatty acids — things like butyric acid, which is one of the reasons butter is in bulletproof coffee … You also get propionic acid, which protects your gut from toxins made by bacteria.
Then you get acetic acid, which is from vinegar. Just by adding vinegar to your diet you may get a mitochondrial upgrade. You’re certainly helping your gastrointestinal tract [with] these really short-chain fats.”
Other Biohacks to Optimize Mitochondrial Function
Aside from cyclical ketosis and intermittent fasting, which Dave also touches on in this interview, other simple biohacks that boost mitochondrial function include:
• Cold thermogenesis. Exposure to cold temperatures (65 degrees F or lower) triggers fat burning and raises mitochondrial density. It also triggers the release of endorphins, which can have a mood-boosting effect, and stimulates collagen production and tissue healing. A simple way to incorporate cold thermogenesis is to take a cold shower in the morning. I like jumping into my non-heated pool after working out. Alternatively, cycle hot and cold in the shower, ending with cold.
• High-impact, high-intensity and/or resistance exercises and whole body vibration. Certain materials make electricity when bent or otherwise stressed. This is known as the piezoelectric effect.
Turns out your bones are piezoelectric, which means when your bone is flexed or stressed, an electrical signal is created, triggering the creation of bone morphogenic protein (BMP). This is why strength training and other high impact exercises are so good for strengthening and healing your bones.
• Walking or rebounding on a trampoline. Your cell membranes are also piezoelectric. What this means is that every time you take a step, the shock reverberates throughout your body. In addition to being light-sensitive, your mitochondria are also vibration- and pressure-sensitive. So anytime you flex your cell membranes, you’re making a little bit of extra electricity that your body can harness.
A fancier and more expensive alternative is to use an atmospheric pressure chamber. You will sometimes find them in high-end athletic clubs. The chamber alters the air pressure in your body, imitating the effect of going to an altitude of about 5,000 feet for about 10 seconds and then back to sea level. The cyclic pressure changes help clean and charge your cells.
• Neurofeedback. According to Dave, you can actually train the mitochondria in your brain to maintain a higher voltage than normal, and the way you do this is through neurofeedback. You can also train the neurons in your brain to fire faster. He does this at his neurofeedback facility in Seattle, 40 Years of Zen.
“You can tell the mitochondria in the brain to become more efficient at creating lots of power or getting power quickly,” Dave says. “For me, this has been really game-changing.” Breathing exercises and certain meditation techniques may also produce similar effects.
“We know the mitochondria in the brain can be trained. The neurons can be trained. Anytime you’re increasing voltage, you’re making the mitochondria stronger, and you’re exercising the mitochondria just by thinking and focusing on what matters,” he says.
• Radiant barrier to block cellphone radiation. Cellphone radiation, which has a range of adverse effects, can be reduced by using a radiant barrier between the phone and your body when carrying the phone on your body. A radiant barrier is simply a thick piece of aluminum foil, which you can cut to the size of your pocket. Placing the face of the phone toward your body, with the radiant barrier in-between, will further minimize your radiation exposure.
Demo of Radiant Barrier
Join the Bulletproof Conference to Learn More
If you’re intrigued and want to learn more, I recommend picking up a copy of “Head Strong.” You can read the first chapter for free on OrderHeadStrong.com. It’s a great complement to my new book, “Fat for Fuel,” which delves into the practical implementation of cyclical ketosis to optimize your mitochondrial function.
If you’re ready to take it to the next level, join Dave and me at the Bulletproof Conference 2017. The event, which features eight speakers including yours truly, takes place October 13 through 15 in Pasadena, California. It’s an interesting and a bit unusual conference in that it’s very experiential and hands-on learning-based. You get plenty of time to meet and talk with vendors and exhibitors to learn about the latest, cutting-edge biohacking technologies and techniques available.
As you can see, there are many ways to biohack your brain, and become sharper and smarter with age. So, don’t settle for brain fog and declining mental acuity. Such signs are really a wakeup call to address some fundamental lifestyle choices. Dave himself is proof positive you can completely transform your health and mental clarity if you’re willing to make some changes.