Can Cold Showers And Buttered Coffee Boost Your Brain – RISING Tested The 2-Week Plan

Dave Asprey plans to live to 180. He’s spent, by his own estimates, $1 million over two decades on smart drugs, devices, testing, and neurology equipment for his in-home laboratory. He’s gone from weighing 300 pounds and ‘feeling like crap’ to taking a dozen supplements a day and using infrared saunas and cryotherapy to stay on top of a multi-million dollar business. He’s a self-styled ‘biohacker’ with a legion of fans: but is he at the cutting edge of science, or right out on the fringe?

RISING is about to find out. There’s an express version of Asprey’s plan: a two-week diet-and-detox strategy available in Asprey’s new book, Head Strong. Some of his recommendations – eating dark leafy greens and pastured eggs, improving your sleep quality or meditating – are so widely accepted you’d get them from almost anywhere. Others – having cold showers and doing HIIT workouts – are pretty widespread, even if Asprey’s reasoning might be different from what you’ll see elsewhere. And some of the advice on offer – bounce on a trampoline to shake up the water in your cells and make them more efficient, blast yourself with a UVB tanning lamp – is, to put it mildly, controversial. But still, *something* is clearly working for the man, so I’m stepping up to spend a fortnight testing it out. Will it make me stronger in the head, or just crankier? One last toast-binge the night before (more on this in a second) and I’m ready to find out…

Day 1:

I wake up with ‘Bulletproof Coffee’, Asprey’s trademarked all-day energy blend of coffee, grass-fed butter (pastured cows are healthier), MCT oil (the purist’s version of coconut oil, a high-fat blend of medium chain triglycerides) and collagen protein (which contains the same nine amino acids as regular protein), which Asprey says the body uses to build mitochondria, the specialised cells the body uses for energy. It’s like an extra-creamy, extra-slippery latte and surprisingly tasty.

This recipe, inspired by Tibetan yak-butter tea, is my first step on the road to ketosis, in which the body uses fat (or, more accurately, ketone bodies, rather than glucose) as its primary fuel source, making energy production faster and converting your body into a fat-burning machine. There’s a catch – it means eating basically zero carbs for at least a couple of weeks – but Asprey claims you can get around this by cooking with his own-brand Brain Octane Oil ($21.56 for 16oz). I’ve never gone full keto before, though, so I’m trying the advanced version. It’s fine. For now.

In the evening, I move onto the ‘one-and-done’ list of stuff to get sorted before the fortnight starts properly: tweaking my environment to minimise blue light, which Asprey says will overstress the mitochondria in the cells of my eyes. Making my bedroom into a cave is easy enough: I’ve already got thick curtains and no TV. Cover up all the LEDs in my house with duct tape – Asprey also recommends TrueDark dots ($19.95 for a pack), which are semi-translucent to let you see whether your stuff’s on or off while removing damaging ‘light frequencies.’ Install F.Lux – an app which gradually filters more blue light from screens, mimicking the patterns of daylight – on all my devices. Dim my TV and reduce the blue tone, which my wife does not appreciate as we’re watching Orange Is The New Black. I have a deadline, so work for about twenty minutes on a very orange iMac before I find myself getting drowsy. Sleep like a tranquilised bear.

Day 2:

Start the morning with what Asprey calls ‘mitochondrial meditation’, a guided audio meditation focusing on following the body’s breathing: it’s certainly no weirder than the Headspace app, and Dr Barry Morguelan (narrator and grandmaster of ‘New Life Energy’) has a lovely soothing voice.

Follow up with the ‘Brain Sunrise’ breakfast: bacon, avocado and eggs lightly poached (Asprey: ‘eat your yolks runny, so you don’t damage the valuable cholesterol and phospholipids’). It’s delicious! Keto is easy.

Day 3:

Start the day by blasting myself in the face and chest with freezing cold shower-water for 30 seconds, to activate cold thermogenesis and give me more energy. Sheeeez-us it is cold. Bulletproof Coffee for breakfast again, then grass-fed beef (with grass-fed ghee) and asparagus for lunch. It’s pretty nice, but I really miss bread. I love bread.

Day 4:

Time to do some exercise. Pop into the gym for a rare swim – ‘just being in water up to your shoulders increases blood flow to the brain by 14%,’ says Asprey – and finish with a length underwater; apparently it’s a form of intermittent hypoxia training that grows mitochondria.

Have coriander-lime salmon with fresh blackberries for dinner, then treat myself to ‘Blueberry Un-Cheesecake’ made with coconut milk and gelatin for dessert. I would punch a man in the face for a slice of toast.

Day 5:

More meditation and showers. Decide to take on Asprey’s version of a HIIT workout: an all-out 400-metre sprint, followed by lying down on the floor for 90 seconds, and another sprint. ‘How easy is that?’ asks Asprey. Spoilers: not easy. Doing anything genuinely all-out for 90 seconds is awful, but at least it’s over with fast.

Also starting to flag in the afternoons, since Asprey insists that I switch to decaf drinks after 2pm – it might mean I sleep better, but while my caffeine-reliance is high it’s knackering my productivity. Still, coconut-lime curry for dinner! And I haven’t (yet) suffered the common keto side-effect of using generic MCT oil which Asprey calls ‘disaster pants’. This is fine.

Day 6:

Disaster pants! At least I’m working from home today...

Day 7:

The current heatwave is glorious: Asprey (alongside a bevy of health professionals) insists that getting natural light is important for a whole host of reasons. Living in Canada, he blasts himself with a UVB tanning lamp – occasionally without eye protection, which almost nobody else recommends – but I settle for reading in my garden with my shirt off.

In the afternoon, I suddenly feel absolutely zonked from the keto. This, apparently, is to be expected, especially since I’m not using Brain Octane Oil: but it still means I’m not capable of doing anything except lying on the sofa and watching old UFCs for the entire afternoon. Try to pick myself up in the evening with a square of dark chocolate, but somehow eat half the bar. This is a low ebb.  

Day 8:

Past the halfway point! Celebrate by graduating from cold showers to dunking my face into a bowlful of ice-cold water, which Asprey claims I’ll soon be able to tolerate for as long as I can hold my breath (‘This allows you to have intermittent hypoxia and cold thermogenesis at the same time!’) Last for ten seconds. Maybe I’m just weak.

Day 9:

Bust out my skipping rope. According to Asprey, ‘shaking’ the body during exercise turns the water stored in its cells into ‘Exclusion Zone’ or ‘EZ’ water, allowing the cells to do their job more efficiently. The science behind this is questionable, so rather than buy a Bulletproof Vibe ($1,495) or miniature trampoline to do the job, I’m going to spend my second week skipping. I’m pretty good at skipping and – full disclosure – I’ve always found it an energising way to start my workouts, so doing five minutes a day is no problem.

Energy seems to be coming back, and my bread cravings have subsided. Getting a bit sick of avocado, which is something I thought I’d never say.

Day 10:

Still meditating and cold showering. The latter is definitely the most instantly effective part of the plan: it’s energising and relaxing, exactly as advertised.

Feeling low on energy at the end of the day, so I close out with what Asprey calls a ‘Sleep Soundly Bite’ – a tablespoon of almond butter, alongside a tablespoon of raw honey and a dash of sea salt (pink Himalayan is preferred). It’s… moreish.

Day 11:

Have a go at Asprey’s recommended resistance workout, inspired by Dr Doug McGuff’s Body By Science. Honestly, it is boring, and not anything like what I’d normally do in the gym: mostly machine-based movements like the lat pulldown and leg press. Considering Asprey’s insistence that you do ‘meaningful movement’ every day, this is surprising. Still, I imagine it works for people who’ve never been to a gym before.

Day 12:

Asprey recommends abstaining from alcohol during the Head Strong programme, but I’ve got a rare night out with friends I haven’t seen for months, so that’s not realistic. Don’t fancy asking the barman if his wine is low-toxin, so I stick to vodka sodas, with slices of lime (vitamin C, apparently, can help your mitochondria survive a big session). Experiment with the Bulletproof Food Detective app (free!) which tracks your heart rate after foods you’re unsure of to see if you have intolerances. Turns out booze is probably bad for me.

Day 13:

Dunking your face in ice-cold water with a hangover is…invigorating. Can’t face another HIIT workout, so I decide on something different – I haven’t done tai chi for years, but decide to give it a go, since Asprey notes that, unlike walking (or maybe press-ups), movements where your limbs cross your midline result in more Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and cross-body co-ordination. Also, I quite like doing tai chi.

Day 14:

The final day! Go all-in with Bulletproof Coffee in the sun, a 30-second head-dunk in frozen water, morning meditation and a blast of skipping: it’s all done in half an hour, and I feel like I could probably fight a bear. Get a load of work done, have bacon and ginger scallions for lunch, then go for a sauna, which Asprey suggests can remove cadmium, lead, arsenic and mercury, via sweating. Have another cold shower afterwards. Am… am I addicted to cold showers now?

The RISING Verdict:

After two weeks on the Head Strong plan, I’m definitely feeling more energetic and less head-fogged, though without a ‘control’ to the experiment it’s difficult to say exactly why: is it the keto, better sleep, not boozing every other evening… or, in fact, just a massive wallop of the placebo effect?

The problem with being a biohacker, by definition, is that you’re experimenting with things that haven’t yet been scientifically verified, and so there’s no way to be absolutely sure that any of them work. The biggest immediate shifts I found were in post-shower productivity, and sleep: the cold showers left me energised every time I had them, and the comfy orange glow of my F.Lux-enabled monitor meant that even late-night sessions at the computer didn’t leave me as jittery as before.

Keto left me somewhat more clear-headed (after the settling-in period, anyway), but honestly, I think I’d find it impossible to stick to. For my own productivity and concentration, I find it better to stick to the tried-and-tested likes of miniature to-do lists, 25-minute chunks of work and an empty inbox. Dosing with MCT oil might work, but I want a solution that I can use anywhere.

What is clear is that there are several chunks of Asprey’s strategy – eating fresh, free-range or organic food, getting better quality sleep, meditating and mixing low-and-high intensity exercise – that everyone agrees works, even if we’re still quibbling about the mechanisms that make them so effective. So, for myself, I’ll keep sitting in that sweet spot of the Venn diagram, saving the buttered coffees for when I really haven’t got time for a more elaborate breakfast, and leaving the outlandish stuff until it’s better researched. Though I will, probably, be having a few more cold showers. At least while it’s sunny.

WHAT NEXT? Make today’s gym session a simple one: two all-out 90 second sprints on the cardio equipment of your choice, followed by a shower that finishes with 30 seconds of full-blast cold water. Then return to work invigorated – no coffee required.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.