All Stories

The Bulletproof Coffee Experiments

Coffee is extremely popular. In fact, coffee is the number #1 consumed drink in Canada and people worldwide have been drinking it for over 500 years. That's because coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant that makes you feel more energetic and alert. You feel that way because caffeine gets inside your brain and into your nerve cells, where it sticks to a protein. When caffeine is attached, the protein can't do its normal job, which is to make you feel drowsy. So, in binding to one type of protein, the simple little caffeine molecule causes sweeping changes to your brain's chemistry.

The caffeine in coffee can make you feel energetic and more alert, which is a great way to feel, especially first thing in the morning. However, these desirable effects are are somewhat short-lived and can be unpredictable. Caffeine consumption can also make you feel unwell and can cause health problems. For example, coffee can cause your heart rate to increase, also you might experience heartburn and/or anxiety and restlessness.

Wouldn’t it be nice if coffee drinkers could reap all the benefits of a caffeine boost, without any of the side effects? If only there was some life-hack for this. Well, there might be a recipe for such a thing and Science World bloggers, Alex and Elizabeth love coffee enough to find out!

Waving the flag of science, so-called “biohackers” want to revolutionize the average cuppa Joe into a carefully constructed chemical cocktail of brain-boosting awesomeness called “bulletproof coffee.”

If you haven't heard of the bulletproof coffee trend, the story goes something like this: founder and biohacker, Dave Asprey, staggers into a Tibetan guest house, is magically revived by yak butter tea and returns to found a startup company in the US that mixes quality coffee with grass-fed butter and a special blend of oils. If your skeptic alarm starts ringing at this, join the club with me and most of mainstream science.

While some biohackers use themselves as lab rats and experiment with chemicals that have unknown and potentially dangerous consequences, as biohacker newbies, we decided on the safe and scientifically sound route. We chose a recipe that includes theanine (a relaxant naturally found in green tea), clarified butter and coconut oil instead of more chemically adventurous variations.

Typical Coffee

Biohacker Coffee

Coffee (approx. 100mg caffeine)
1 tbsp 2% milk
1 tsp cane sugar

Coffee (approx. 100mg caffeine)
225mg theanine
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp coconut oil

Test #1

Elizabeth's first thought was that "the combination is a strange idea. Theanine is a relaxing ingredient and coffee is a stimulant." Surely, then, they will just cancel each other out? Well, it's interesting. There is some evidence to suggest that a mix of caffeine and theanine will improve focus more than caffeine alone, while at the same time it may reduce side effects like anxiety and increased blood pressure. This is what business people mean when they talk about "synergy"—bringing things together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Following a tentative first sip, we both agreed that the coffee tasted pretty good (it has butter in it, after all). After a small mug of bulletproof coffee, we went back to our desks and waited for the effects to kick in.

From the diary we kept of the hours that followed, it’s fair to say we both had a typical caffeine reaction. Elizabeth summed it up well: "my energy peaked, I felt a mood shift to a lighter state of mind, I began to talk and think a lot faster."

Not everything was the same, though. Elizabeth, a person who describes herself as "sensitive" to caffeine jitters, reported, "I didn't feel too anxious or scattered".

My experience was similar. I found it much easier to ignore distractions and focus on the tasks I needed to do. We both had the impression that the effects lasted longer than if we'd had a plain coffee. Though it's hard to say why that would be (perhaps the fats take longer to digest and so we were consuming caffeine for longer?). Needless to say, both of us shared a positive experience and felt that we should try another test.

Test #2

One week later, we still like the taste (like I said, butter is delicious!). Some of the other effects were similar to last time, too. I reported the same “caffeine peak without the jitteriness” and Elizabeth became “similarly chatty, very patient with people and able to pay very close attention to them”.

But, that’s where things veered away from test #1, for both of us. Elizabeth said she felt “over-stimulated, like there were too many things to focus on”, which is a classic symptom of coffee jitters.

Like Elizabeth, I had a bunch of tasks to focus on that involved running around and re-prioritizing things on the fly. I didn’t register any increase in focus this time, commenting in the bulletproof diary that “I don’t feel that the drink helped with these tasks, but it certainly didn’t hinder them.”

Conclusions

In scientific terms, two tests are not enough to draw any real conclusions. For me and Elizabeth at least, we found that DIY bulletproof coffee is not the magic solution to productivity problems at work we had secretly hoped it would be. This finding isn’t all that surprising given the brain chemistry underlying “how you feel” is hugely complicated, with many variables.

Perhaps Elizabeth’s jitters came from a reduced tolerance to caffeine after a recent attempt to reduce the amount of coffee she drank? Maybe I didn’t feel the increase in focus in the second test because the type of task I was doing was so different? It’s hard to say for sure.

What I am certain of is that was way, way too much butter to have in my life! I’ve since had 3 plain coffees with added theanine and found no difference in the effects between this and bulletproof coffee. After a bit of online reading it turns out that nutritionists think that butter might only help people on high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets and is not recommended for people like me, who love their carbs. Still, if I really need to focus on a task at work, I might slip 225mg of theanine into my coffee. 

Safe to say, for now, your Double-Double isn't going anywhere!

Fascinated by the inner-workings of the human brain? You might be interested in reading about Why We Dream or What It Means To Take On Someone Else’s Perspective.