Love him or hate him, whether you drink the Kool-Aid or not, (or Bulletproof Coffee, I should say) Asprey and his Bulletproof empire are here to stay.
In this latest book, Head Strong, Asprey sets his sights on mitochondria as the new scapegoat for just about every ailment a person can think of.
In a nutshell, Asprey's thesis is that mitochondrial dysfunction or insufficiency is intricately tied to these common manifestations of brain weakness:
- Food Cravings
- Inability to Focus
- Low energy
While mitochondria are central to Asprey’s recommendations on how to optimize mental performance and overall health, this post won’t attempt to navigate the scientific claims or biochemistry or these energy-producing organelles. For starters, that probably wouldn't make for a gripping article.
Instead I’ll share some of most valuable takeaways from the book that everyone from the seasoned biohacker to the tee-totaling health enthusiast can put into action today to help support the body's predominant energy production system.
As far as health and nutrition books go, Head Strong does not suck.
It is sure to be a divisive book in its reception by the academic community, as well as the lay audience, but really, that's the nature of the game.
If you pick up the book, you’ll find that Asprey has significantly toned down the rigid and dogmatic advice in lieu of something that is accessible, comprehensive and current, and ultimately -- inclusive.
Let's get to it.
Diet and Lifestyle Lessons from Head Strong
1. Prioritize polyphenols
When people say “eat your colors” they’re alluding to the benefits of polyphenols.
Polyphenols are powerful plant-based compounds (found highest in bright purple, red, and blue parts of plants) that are usually commended for their duties as free-radical scavengers, but the benefits don’t stop there.
They can also protect your gut and encourage the growth of “good” gut bacteria, increase neurogenesis via BDNF innervation (a protein that is directly involved in learning, memory, and thinking), help reduce inflammation, and directly support healthy cellular function.
Here are some of the best sources of polyphenols to include in your diet:
- Dark chocolate (85% and above)
- Grape seeds and skins
- Coffee (fun fact: coffee is the highest source of polyphenols in the American diet).
Eating a plant-based diet (not necessarily plants-only, a critical distinction few get right) is a start, but going out of your way to seek out polyphenol-rich foods is huge.
2. Eat the fat
By this point you’ve no doubt heard that fat is good for you.
Getting enough healthy fats in your diet is important for everyone, not just for your pal Ketogenic Kevin who spends his days measuring blood ketone levels while taking butter coffee intravenously.
When it comes to the healthiest fat sources, here's what you should focus on:
Saturated fats from egg yolks, butter, animal products, and coconut oil is what your brain uses to create strong, stable cell membranes, and it helps support healthy hormone production.
Monounsaturated fats from olive oil (never heated or oxidized) and avocados that are rich in potent antioxidants and are known for their ability to support cardiovascular health and the body’s anti-inflammatory response.
Omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish or supplements like krill oil are critical for brain health and development and are highly anti-inflammatory. DHA in particular, which is higher in krill oil, is the primary structural fatty acid in the human brain and is something we must get from dietary sources.
3. Turn your bedroom into a sleep cave
You spend a whopping one-third of your entire life asleep.
The more we learn about sleep, the more we realize just how important it is to every aspect of health and performance.
Getting 8 hours used to be the goal, but the real challenge these days is less about the sheer time you spend lying in bed, but more about maximizing the quality of your sleep during that time.
This is how you optimize sleep:
- Buy some black-out curtains, turn the temperature down nice and cool when you’re about to go to bed, dim the lights an hour or two before bedtime, turn off the phone and electronic screens.
- Minimize circadian rhythm disrupting blue light by either shutting off electronic screens, or with a combination of f.lux and blue light-blocking glasses like these:
- Experiment with supplements like melatonin, GABA, and magnesium for added support.
- Get as much natural sunlight during the day to support normal circadian rhythm cycles.
Sleep is sacred, there’s just no way around it. It's the time when your body performs its janitorial duties like cellular repair, memory consolidation, and when it comes to your brain, inadequate sleep can make you feel less energized during the day and decrease brain function.
4. Use temperature to your advantage
This hack will wake you up like a foghorn.
Stepping into a shower that’s turned all the way to cold is a miserable experience, but if you just white-knuckle it and make it through, there are some pretty rewarding benefits. Exposure to acute cold temperatures effectively “shocks” or stresses your mitochondria, which has benefits ranging from increased fat burning via enhanced mitochondrial activity in brown adipose tissue, to bolstered immune function to reduced inflammation.
In the spirit of the choose your own adventure book, benefits are to be had across the spectrum when it comes to cold thermogenesis -- it all depends on your grit and your tolerance.
Novice: turn down the thermostat in your room at bedtime (60 - 65 degrees or so)
Intermediate: place ice packs on your upper chest and or upper bath, turn the shower to fully cold for the last 30 seconds.
Pro: Ice baths or cryotherapy.
5. To be the best, you have to test
The future of health is going to be all about personalization.
These days, the general guidelines and nutrition recommendations just aren’t adequate for optimizing health and performance. To truly fine-tune your biology and learn what works and what does not, you have test -- food intolerance, routine blood testing, neurotransmitter balance and function, gut health, metabolic health, genetics, and even how rapidly you are aging on a biological level.
We already have the medical technology to determine all of these aspects of health, and when it comes down to it, unless you’re testing, you’re guessing.
And while an N-1 in scientific studies doesn’t amount to much, it’s always a good idea to listen to your body and be aware of how you are feeling throughout the day. While seeking professional help to get some testing done is the gold standard, you can learn a lot about self-experimentation with regards to energy levels, cognitive function, and well-being.
This is the biohacker’s way, after all and you’ve got to start somewhere.
6. Tap into the body's real detoxification systems
Promises of detoxification run amok in the health industry. Generally-speaking, anything that promises detox benefits (ahem, juice cleanses) is most likely to confer no such benefits.
We know the body is remarkably adept at detoxifying itself, but there are a few practices that are actually worth engaging in to give the body some extra support in disposing of metabolic byproducts, debris, and otherwise unwanted substances.
Sauna. A 2012 study of fifty studies found that sweating removes lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury from the body -- especially in people with heavy metal toxicity .
Spirulina and chlorella for heavy metal disposal
Fasting. Regular fasting is one of the simplest ways to switch on the body’s cellular cleansing process called “autophagy”, which is how we get rid of cellular debris, damaged proteins, and other cell parts. Additionally, fasting promotes apoptosis which is the process of programmed “cell-death”, one of the main built-in mechanisms in the body to neutralize damaged cells and replace them with healthy new ones.
7. Build metabolic flexibility
Metabolic flexibility refers to one’s ability to switch from a glucose-based metabolism to one that relies on fat with relative ease. We know that the body primarily runs off glucose, but there are also some unique cognitive benefits when we are in a fat-dominant metabolic state, not to mention improvements in glucose levels.
Following a ketogenic diet is one way to build metabolic flexibility, but it doesn’t have to the the only way.
One way to achieve metabolic flexibility it to follow a carbohydrate-cycling diet or a cyclical ketogenic diet -- where you manipulate carbohydrate and fat intake to match your activity levels in a given week.
To learn about the most effective way to build metabolic flexibility, check out this podcast we did recently with Dom D’Agostino and Dr. Mike T. Nelson aptly titled The Ketone Episode.
Another way to get the benefits of utilizing two different fuel sources is to incorporate medium chain triglycerides or exogenous ketones into your diet. Both of these are almost entirely metabolized into ketones in the body, which directly support brain function and help cut through brain fog.
8. Exercise smarter
When it comes to overall health and brain function, more exercise isn’t always better.
Contrary to the type-A cross fitters and ironman triathletes, a more conservative approach to fitness seems to be the most beneficial and the most sustainable.
To get the benefits of physical exercise requires alternating between intense performance juxtaposed with recovery. The goal is to find a sweet spot between the two, since overdoing either one can put undo stress on the body.
While there is no rule of thumb, incorporating one heavy weight training session and one high-intensity interval training session per week seems to be optimal for building strength, endurance, metabolic flexibility, and stimulating enough stress for the body to respond favorably and become a more robust, resilient organism.
For more information on optimal training methodologies, check out this podcast on BLANK or read this article we wrote called BLANK. HIIT vs cardio.
10. Efficient stress management
If you read this recent article called Hormesis: 4 Ways Stress Makes You Stronger, you learned that certain types of stress are actually highly beneficial. Much like not recovering from exercise fully, when we don’t effectively manage and reduce the stress in our lives, it can compromise our health and our mental well-being.
Some of the best ways to manage stress are exercise, getting enough sleep, and sticking to a diet that makes you feel good and energized.
One potent anti-stress activity that is gaining serious traction in the mainstream is meditation. Meditation can have a profound effect on your perception of calm, relaxation, awareness, and it has been scientifically-proven to affect the brain on a structural level -- able to influence how the brain processes information and increase mitochondrial energy production and utilization.
11. Focus on one decision at a time
Don’t take on too many changes at once.
Especially in the world of health and performance, it can be enticing to try and tackle too many variables at once. Instead, by focusing on one change or one variable to measure at a time, you’ll be setting yourself up to internalize the changes that work as habits.
And once you have those habits locked in, you can set out to create the next one.
Supplements to Boost Mitochondrial Function
Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant molecule that’s produced naturally in the cellular membrane of your mitochondria. It’s main responsibility is to help your mitochondria produce energy more efficiently while protecting against oxidative stress that energy production causes.
Vitamin B12 gets a lot of attention as an energy-boosting nutrient, but CoQ10 really deserves its place in your daily stack for supporting the body’s energy production system at the cellular level.
Recommended dose is 30 - 200 mg per day.
We’ve written about creatine’s effects on brain health, and Asprey gives it a nod in the book.
Creatine is one of the most innocuous, thoroughly-researched performance enhancing substances on the planet. While it has been a workout staple for decades, creatine monohydrate works by increasing ATP production in your mitochondria, and it has also been shown to improve working memory and intelligence in the brain.
Recommended dose for conventional creatine monohydrate is 20 grams per day for a week (as a loading phase) followed by a standard dose of 5 grams per day for maintenance. Alternatively, you can use Biocreatine and cut the dose in half due to its increased bioavailability.
14. PQQ (Pyrroloquinoline Quinone)
Structurally, PQQ is very similar to CoQ10 (and has some beneficial overlapping features).
PQQ has a measurable impact on mitochondrial function, can cause mitochondrial biogenesis, and also functions as an antioxidant to protect against oxidative stress and support the body’s response to inflammation.
The only problem with PQQ is that it is very poorly absorbed unless you take a supplement that has been optimized to survive the acidic environment in the stomach and absorb through the gut.
Recommended dose: 10 - 40 mg per day during an energy slump or before sleep.
15. Krill oil
Krill oil is rich in DHA, EPA, and astaxanthin, which collectively help maintain healthy brain structure, and keep the neurons in the brain communicating freely. Better communication in your nervous system means you will be sharper, smarter, and more mentally resilient.
Additionally, astaxanthin is the compound that makes salmon pink in color, and has been shown to protect mitochondria from oxidative stress, and support healthy function.
Recommended dose: 300 - 1,000 mg daily with a meal of before bed.
16. Neurotransmitter precursors
When looking into ways to optimize brain function, you’ll eventually land on the role of neurotransmission.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that send signals from one neuron to another. In order for your body to make neurotransmitters, it needs the right nutrients. If you don’t get enough of the right nutrients, neurotransmitter production and function can decline, which can impair their ability to communicate with each other effectively. This can lead to imbalanced mood, decreased motivation and focus, well-being, and other decrements in cognitive performance.
Here are four of the neurotransmitters which most impact your performance, plus the dietary sources to support your body’s ability to manufacture them:
Dopamine: Having adequate levels of dopamine is associated with positive decision-making abilities and performance; think of it as your “motivation molecule” that gives you willpower to avoid impulses and distractions and accomplish your goals.
Dopamine is synthesized from amino acids that are found in high amounts in foods like beef, chicken, turkey, avocados, and almonds.
Alternately, you can supplement with amino acids to support dopamine production in supplement form.
Serotonin: This neurotransmitter is most closely involved with mood. Having too little serotonin can be associated with feelings of anger, or sadness. Conversely, proper levels are important for quality sleep and positive mood.
Foods high in tryptophan include lamb, beef, chicken, turkey, and mackerel, but high-quality supplements are also available to support serotonin function and balance.
GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid): GABA is best known for its ability to calm the brain and reduce overwhelm. Without GABA your neurons fire too often and too easily, which can lead to excess brain excitation and over-stimulation. Having enough GABA is critical to feeling calmer in stressful situations -- think of it as a soothing belly rub for your inner Labrador.
The precursors to GABA can be found in foods like beef, lamb, chicken, eggs, and organ meats.
GABA supplements are also available as an alternative option.
These are 16 tips you can use right now to double down on your health, your performance, and your productivity.
P.S. I bet mitochondrial health is going to be the next big thing in the health industry in the coming years. Just watch.
CHALLENGE: pick a single tip from the article, and in the comments below let us know why you picked and and what you hope to achieve by incorporating it into your routine.
1. Stauber, J. L., & Florence, T. M. (1988). A comparative study of copper, lead, cadmium and zinc in human sweat and blood. Science of the Total Environment, 74, 235-247.