There’s a new wellness trend in town.
Self-care gained new meaning in 2020, when many people were stuck at home, some in solitude. Even after emerging from lockdown, many have retained their new outlooks and understanding on issues like work-life balance. In the case of wellness, the focus has been on mental health, giving way to a new term called “brain care.”
“Brain care encompasses all the mental, physical and social activities that promote healthy brain development as you age,” said Dr. Bowen Jiang, M.D., a neurosurgeon and wellness advisor for the brand No. 8, which launched with nootropics gummies in October 2021. No. 8, which counts Halle Berry as a supporter, recently promoted the product through an event hosted at The Wing. “Just like our muscles and other body parts, the brain can grow new cells and form new neural connections through repeated use and exercise, a term we refer to as neuroplasticity.”
Nootropics, often referred to as “smart drugs,” are cognitive enhancers and a key component of the rising brain-care category. “They’re a class of substances that can enhance brain performance,” said neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, director of psychology practice at Comprehend the Mind. “They’re also known as memory-enhancing substances or cognition enhancers.”
ADHD and Alzheimer’s medications are two of the most commonly known prescription nootropics, as their stimulant effects can boost brain performance. Creatine and caffeine are examples of non-prescription substances that can have similar outcomes. Although they’re not used for brain diseases, they can positively affect memory, thinking and other brain functions, Hafeez said. As for other cognitive enhancers, like memory-boosting supplements, Hafeez said there’s insufficient data on whether they’re effective or safe.
The Nue Co., Goop, and meal-delivery and wellness company Sakara Life have all offered nootropics. This association with beauty and wellness brands has contributed to the rebranding of nootropics. What used to be viewed as a biohacker’s way to achieve productivity is now wellness maven’s tool to reach a meditative flow state.
Brain care is different and more in-depth than self-care, according to Dr. Jiang. He describes self-care as “a conscious act someone takes to enhance their well-being, that nourishes you and makes you feel connected and cared for.” Brain care, on the other hand, is addressing events that impair brain’s health, both neurological and mental health, and impacts the ability to pay attention, solve problems and resist stress.
The concept of No. 8, sold primarily on its DTC e-commerce site and select Four Seasons hotels, hails from Chinese culture. The number eight symbolizes harmony, balance and luck, and the gummies’ flavors are influenced by Asian cooking. The brand’s mission and messaging within its digital communications emphasize that effective, lasting results require adhering to positive habits that supplement the products. As the brand notes, brain care is not solely about psychostimulants.
According to a 2020 survey by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in five adults experiences some form of mental illness each year, while one in 20 adults experience serious mental illness each year. Mental wellness is one of two components to brain care, with the other being brain health. Brain health is about brain performance and cognitive function relative to one’s age when brain disease isn’t an issue, Hafeez said. In essence, brain care is about supporting brain health.
Brain-care takes into account the much-neglected physical organ itself. Dr. Jiang said taking care of our brain is something we should tend to daily, in the same way we take care of our teeth.
“Activities like meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, setting a time limit for social media and getting involved in community groups can have a positive impact on our mental wellness,” he said of common self-care practices. “Both brain health and mental wellness are interconnected because they have an impact on your mood and ability to focus and retain information.”
Ingesting an over-the-counter sleeping pill, for example, may aid your sleeping impairment for the night, but it doesn’t typically impact your overall brain health or help your brain set new patterns. Both Daniel Murray-Serter and Hafeez emphasize a holistic approach to maintaining a consistently healthy mindset.
“The way we care for our brains through good or bad habits will dictate how we feel, to a large degree,” said Hafeez. “Although no two brains are identical, there are certain practices that can help everyone.”
Murray-Serter, co-founder of plant-based supplements brand Heights, agreed, and said that nutrition is the “single most important aspect of brain-care.” The Heights’ first and only product is its $55 Smart Supplement, which includes Omega-3s, B Vitamins, Vitamin D and blueberry. “We recognize the brain is the CEO of our body,” he said.
Leading up to its January 2021 physical launch, Heights sent out “Sunday Supplement” weekly newsletters based on science papers that Murray-Serter condensed into high school reading-level content. It’s still in publication, with more than 200 editions and more than 150,000 subscribers. Murray-Serter does not have a medical degree. For the development of Heights, he consulted with Dr. Tara Swart, an Oxford University-trained medical doctor and neuroscientist. Swart is now chief science officer for Heights, working alongside dietician Sophie Medlin, as the brand’s head of nutrition research and insights.
The 2-year-old brand is sold DTC, and Murray-Serter is set on that option for now. “This gives us control over getting the freshest supplements into our customers hands,” he said. Because “brain care really is for everyone,” Murray-Serter said the brand doesn’t have a targeted consumer. But he said the psychological makeup of its consumer are people who are high achievers and want to function at maximum capacity in their professional and extracurricular lives. Heights counts British entrepreneur Steven Bartlett and author and clinical psychologist Dr. Julie Smith as loyal customers.
“What fascinates us is the cross section between nutrition and mental health, something hugely overlooked,” Murray-Serter said. “However, nutrition is one part of brain care — and we also educate our community on the other aspects — most of which are free, like hydration, breathing and moving daily.”