The world of nootropics is mysterious, new, and much talked about. While the world continues to attempt to find a cure for stress, weight loss, or energy, a small group of individuals want to keep the machine that runs our body, the brain, healthy. One person doing this tenfold is Caroline Rasmussen, founder of Antara. A Harvard-trained lawyer, she was born in Bangkok, Thailand, a wellness culture at the crossroads of Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Her father’s Dementia and Parkinson’s diagnosis compelled her to leave her corporate life. She returned to her hometown to study herbal medicine, meditation and how to keep the brain healthy.
Beyond running a successful startup, Caroline is also trained in herbalism, Reiki, meditation, cognitive neuroscience and hypnosis. While she was back home, she discovered an endless supply of nootropic herbs and adaptogens traditionally used to create a flow state and fuel performance, while also nourishing and protecting the mind. Today, Caroline is passionate about using nature’s pharmacy for the mind to create brain nutrition. We interviewed her about Antara, the art of nootropics, and more!
1) Tell us about yourself and why you decided to create Antara.
The process of creating Antara began with my father’s diagnosis of early onset dementia and Parkinson’s. At the time I was working as a corporate lawyer in NYC, living a very unhealthy and stressful lifestyle, and his diagnosis caused to me realize how much my own mental health had declined and how much I had lost purpose in what I was doing. I ended up quitting my job and returning to Thailand, where I am from, to restore myself and learn about the brain in an effort to better understand the diagnosis and how it had come about. It was a shocking and confusing event, especially because we had no history of Alzheimer’s or dementia in my family.
The pathology of Alzheimer’s and neurodegeneration begins in the brain. This is decades before symptoms show. Knowing this, I turned to herbal medicine and meditation, two mainstays of Thailand’s traditional healthcare system, to learn on a practical level how these ancient practices could potentially help promote modern mind wellness. Many herbs that have been used for centuries in the East to achieve flow states not only promote focus, alertness and creativity in the moment but also are powerful brain healers that counter toxic exposures, chronic stress and other sources of inflammation which are key contributors to cognitive decline. On a personal level, using these herbs combined with establishing a strong meditation practice took me from a foggy, depressed and low-energy state to one of clarity, mental sharpness and optimism. My own transformation, combined with all the research around herbs and meditation that substantiated their benefits more broadly, created a passion around mind wellness that ultimately became Antara.
2) What are nootropics? How do they tie in with traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine?
A nootropic is any substance that improves cognitive function. Nootropic herbs have a long history of use in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. This class of roots and plants can be segmented into herbs that have more powerful direct effects on neurotransmitter levels, such as rhodiola rosea and mucuna pruriens, and herbs that may also influence neurotransmitter levels but primarily support mental function by acting on global brain health factors such as circulation and oxygenation, the growth of new brain cells and dendrites, myelination, protection against oxidative stress and reduced inflammation of brain tissue. These latter herbs, including ginkgo biloba, Lion’s Mane mushroom, bacopa monnieri and gotu kola need to be taken consistently. They provide peak brain health and nutrition.
3) There are myths about brain-boosting supplements (like 5-HTP to elevate mood) not being able to cross the blood brain barrier. Basically only having the ability to go straight to the intestines. Could you tell us more about the science behind this?
It’s a great question as the brain is on high guard due to the presence of the BBB. At a basic level the BBB has a similar structure to the gut lining. Just as we want to avoid a leaky gut lining that allows large molecules and toxins into the bloodstream via loose tight junctions (protein structures between endothelial cells that help regulate the passage of substances through the membrane), a permeable BBB is a sign of poor brain health and can allow molecules into the brain that shouldn’t be there. However, while a tight BBB is a good thing, it presents difficulties for the delivery of nootropics and therapeutic agents into the brain. 5-HTP, a precursor to the mood-lifting neurotransmitter serotonin, can actually cross the blood barrier quite effectively, as does L-DOPA, a precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine (although serotonin and dopamine themselves cannot). The ability of a compound to cross the blood brain barrier is related to its size, fat-solubility, and whether it is a molecule that the blood brain barrier is designed to allow into the brain via specialized channels and transporters. There isn’t a formula for whether something will be able to cross the BBB, this varies even across serotonin precursors specifically, for instance while 5-HTP doesn’t require a transport molecule to get into the brain, the serotonin precursor L-tryptophan does. L-tryptophan actually shares its transport molecule with several other amino acids. It has more competition and a harder time crossing into the brain than 5-HTP.
4) What is it about Antara that is different from other nootropics on the market today?
Unlike most herbal products, the Antara Brain Foods have a focus on bioavailability and clinical efficacy. While they are based on traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal preparations, ultimately the formulas rely on bioavailability. Most bioavailable extracts of each plant, in clinically proven amounts, for maximum potency. For instance, Dharana Focus & Energy Brain Food is formulated with ginseng root extract standardized to 10% ginsenosides (bioactive compounds known to stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine) rather than raw milled ginseng, which is what you find in most herbal supplements that include ginseng. Similarly, Amrita Anti-Aging Brain Food uses ginkgo biloba extract standardized to 24% ginkgo flavone glycosides and 6% terpene lactones. It also uses a form of curcumin that is 285x more bioavailable than standard turmeric due to lipid-based delivery technology. UCLA neuroscientists’ studies specifically address the challenges of crossing the blood brain barrier. This lipid encapsulation allows Amrita curcumin to circulate in the brain. The focus on clinical effectiveness also was a factor in choosing a capsule. The format for the Brain Foods that ensures convenient and accurate dosing, in contrast to free powder products.
5) What is your favorite product in the line?
That’s a difficult question! Our brains face challenges today, from brain fog and low mood to neural inflammation. If forced to choose one I would probably say Dharana Focus & Energy Brain Food because it is just so fulfilling to see the immediate effect of enhanced focus, motivation and creativity in people. While they increase mental sharpness and attention, the herbs in Dharana act as adaptogens as well.
6) Where do you see brain-boosting supplements in the next five years?
I believe that many more people will be using them. There are many industry reports predicting significant growth in the market. For instance a recent Grand View Research report estimated it could reach $10.7 billion annually by 2025. Mostly driven by concern around things like Alzheimer’s disease, depression and anxiety. In the United States alone, depression affects 16.2 million adults, anxiety 18.7 million, and dementia 5.7 million . But it’s not just looking at the numbers – you can see and feel the cognition crisis around us every day. There’s an incredibly high volume of information and other stimuli that if not managed, can really fracture our emotional regulation. But there seems to be more and more of a recognition arising that our minds are our greatest resource. It’s important to protect and promote that, including by using quality brain-boosting supplements, which is very encouraging.
While you’re here, check out what a triple threat dietician, personal coach, and athlete eats in a day.