Braincare Is the Latest Wellness Trap
Listed on the Instagram account of model Bella Hadid — below the follower count (52 million), the verified blue-check category (“scientist”), the emojis scattered throughout (🧿🫀🕊🔅🔆) — is the requisite influencer brand partnership. For Hadid, it’s with Kin Euphorics, a brand of non-alcoholic drinks that touts long-term brain benefits and “feel-good vibes.”
Fair enough. Kin might seem like any start-up drink in the burgeoning sober space. Founded in 2018 by wellness entrepreneur Jen Batchelor, it has — in addition to the enviable asset of Hadid as its brand partner — $5 million in funding and is carried in nearly 800 Instagrammable cafes, health food grocers, and upscale supermarket chains. It comes in groovy-looking cans with flavors that have “herbaceous notes of ginger, bitters, and citrus.” A single can goes for about $6.50 in stores.
This is where things get weird. Kin bills itself as a line of beverages catering to “braincare,” an emerging category in the wellness space. The core premise of braincare is that we don’t take care of our brains are therefore unprotected against cognitive decline. According to its gospel, the secret to mental and physical well-being starts with taking care of the brain first. The name sounds like self-care, a more consumer-friendly term than brain health (the sometimes accepted medical terminology); but it’s also just clinical enough to suggest some scientific backing. It offers a quick fix — a sip, a supplement, a scan — that will make your cerebrum good as new: wellness for the mind, not just for the body.
Lucky for all us idiots, there are now plenty of supplements, functional snacks, beverages, and brain-scanning devices that claim to optimize cognitive function. The Sonal, a $6,000 “Personalized Braincare™ Device” that was launched by Wave Neuroscience and is available at elite wellness centers like the Well in Manhattan, supposedly “reshapes your brainwaves to effectively improve your brain health for general well-being.” Braincare startup Heights claims that 93 percent of participants in a trial the company conducted saw an improvement in their “brain health score” after using its Smart Supplement ($54 for a month’s supply). In an April vogue profile, Hadid said that the stress-busting adaptogens and brain-boosting nootropics used in Kin Euphorics drinks alleviate her brain fog, adrenal fatigue (a medically unsupported condition), and myriad other physical and psychological symptoms related to her Lyme disease and hypothyroidism.
Hadid isn’t the only celebrity to put their name behind braincare. British footballer and “celebrity investor” Chris Smalling is among the backers of Heights. Maria Shriver and her son, actor Patrick Schwarzenegger, are the founders of MOSH, a line of protein bars chock-full of “brain nutrients” that purport to pray “bye bye brain fog — hello ageless vitality and wellness.” And Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus are reportedly patients of Daniel Amen, the purported spiritual godfather of braincare and the inventor of a discredited neuroimaging technology that claims to detect brain activity by monitoring changes in blood flow.
But, for all its buzz, braincare in its many forms is no more than another variation on a classic grift. While some studies support the functional effects of substances like adaptogens, medical evidence is insufficient to support the claims made by brands, self-appointed gurus, and “doctors” hawking cerebral elixirs and tonics that promise to make you smarter.
For instance, the results of neuroimaging studies often rely on a high degree of flexibility in data analysis, so it’s difficult to draw conclusions from them, let alone use them to provide a clear picture of brain health, as brain scanning evangelists claim to do. “If you have a patient with chronic fatigue, you won’t see this in one scan,” says Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist and neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of The Mind Gut Connection† Perhaps if you used artificial intelligence to compare a single scan against a database of 100,000 scans, the technology might prove statistically significant — but, according to Mayer, that’s not how Amen makes his diagnoses. (He describes Amen’s Theranos-like exploits more explicitly: “complete snake oil.”)
For all its buzz, braincare in its many forms is no more than another variation on a classic grift.
Other braincare products, from the Sonal to various supplements, lean heavily on the unquantifiable promise of improved mood, sleep, and focus. Symptoms like fatigue or brain fog may be real, but they are also subjective, ambiguous, and potentially physical, physiological, psychosomatic, or all of the above. Edward Shorter, a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, equates brain health supplements to thermal spas used to relieve nerve pain in the 19th century. “Every epoch has its range of pseudo cures for pseudo diseases,” says Shorter. “And these different dietary supplements for brain health are just the latest installation in that long history.”
Part of the problem with the flurry of new supplement brands and functional products is that we don’t definitively know which nutrients our brains need, per Shorter. In fact, there isn’t really clear consensus within the neurological community for what brain health looks like. Broadly speaking, experts define a healthy brain as one free of mental and physical disease or injury, like Alzheimer’s, stroke, or depression, and whose cognitive functions, including memory, focus, and attention, are in working order. Sleep, exercise and diet — namely, one rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — all contribute to optimal brain health, improving cognition and preventing disease. Unless you have a significant vitamin deficiency, these kinds of supplements probably won’t improve your cognitive or physical health. There is growing interest in the brain-gut connection and the field of nutritional psychiatry, which focuses on how food impacts our mental health. But generally, there’s a degree of ambiguity and variance in neuroscience, especially as it intersects with psychiatry, nutrition, and functional medicine.
Purveyors of braincare products capitalize on that scientific ambiguity, making strong claims based on weak science. Often, these companies rely on preclinical trials — the “less triggering word [for] pseudoscientific data,” says Rashmi Mullur, an integrative endocrinologist at UCLA — the findings of which are not as robust or generalizable as clinical trials. Some enterprising entrepreneurs tap on medical experts to lend an air of credibility to their claims; for instance, the co-founders of Heights, neither of whom have any apparent medical experience besides running a newsletter about nutrition and optimizing cognitive performance, hired an Oxford-trained neuroscientist and a media-savvy dietician to lead the company’s scientific research. With experts on board — and, it should be noted, “physicians are subject to nuttiness as easily as anybody else,” says Shorter — who’s going to fact check a claim that 99 percent of people “don’t get the nutrition our brain and body need from diet alone”? And even if you were, the Heights has that covered, stating on its website in the finest of fine print: “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Stigma around mental illness may in part be driving braincare’s popularity. For many patients, being diagnosed with a psychological illness might wide shame, despite the topic of mental health becoming a larger part of the cultural conversation; a physical illness is concrete, palatable, and more socially acceptable than, say, a depression diagnosis, Shorter points out. There’s also the reality that patients who suffer from chronic illness or hard-to-treat conditions often struggle to find affordable and appropriate medical care — especially if they are racial minorities or low-income — and the approaches of conventional physicians who practice modern medicine can be reductive or dismissive.
Who wants to truly help people and who just wants to get rich?
But the problem, says Mullur, is that the places where patients are getting their information and their supplements “do not have their best interests at heart.” Some patients do feel better after trying supplements, other alternative products, or different kinds of therapies — but administering them safely with the correct dosage requires a tailored approach from a trained expert, which is “not the goal of the wellness industry,” says Mullur. so what is the goal? “To sell supplements and to market themselves as the path to healing,” naturally. Patients may be experimenting with a new product that could prove effective, or they could just be partnering with “another shark in the water,” per Mullur. In the messy collision of medicine, wellness, and money, motives are never clear-cut: Who wants to truly help people and who just wants to get rich?
It doesn’t help that the supplement market upon which the braincare industry relies is almost entirely unregulated. Under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, manufacturers and distributors cannot make false claims about dietary supplements, but critics say this bill is weakly enforced and serves the interests of the supplement industry. The American Medical Association has called for stricter regulation of dietary supplements and considers the widespread practice of physicians selling them to be an ethical violation and a potential conflict of interest, but that hasn’t stopped dodgy practitioners from using their medical cred to peddle questionable wares .
Social media is partly to blame for how easily untested products, therapies, and pseudosciences spread. Braincare, like most wellness traps, capitalizes on consumer fears about the state of our minds and bodies to prey on the desperate, the gullible, and the curious. As public trust in the medical system wanes and conspiratorial thinking rises, more people are seeking out alternative treatments. Braincare brands like Kin and Heights are there to fill the gap, couching their flimsy scientific credibility in slick branding, millennial-speak and an inviting social media presence (or “community”) to market themselves directly to, in Shorter’s words, “people who are subject to suggesting themselves into illness, and whose illnesses are cured by suggestion.”
At their most harmless, these products are a waste of money. At worst, they’re an actual health risk; several Kin hopefuls have alleged that the drinks gave them diarrhea and gastrointestinal issues, while others report feeling duped by the lack of the drink’s advertised effects. (Representatives from Kin, along with Heights and Wave Neuro, did not respond to a request for comment.)
For braincare companies, the pandemic has provided the best market research any salesperson could ask for. Our brains have taken a beating over the last two years, with the growing number of people experiencing chronic stress, cognitive impairment, and other neurological or mental health issues, like long Covid or depression, forming a massive market of people seeking a salve or solution — and investors, wellness entrepreneurs, and physicians alike have seized the opportunity to sell us cures for our apparently declining cognition. Kin is betting on the $110-billion functional beverage market, which is expected to double over the next decade. Meanwhile, Heights is riding the wave of the global brain health supplement market — set to hit nearly $20 billion by 2030, up from $7.7 billion in 2020 — and promoting its wares as goods for daily rituals and long-term use. That a drink, a supplement, or a brain scan is an empowering personal health choice is a message increasingly shoved in our faces.
But would-be braincare suckers would do well to remember: None of this is an exact science — at its core, it’s marketing. Your brain will probably be just fine.
Josh Greenblatt is a writer from Toronto.