Women We’re Watching: Caroline Rasmussen, Founder & CEO of Antara
Caroline Rasmussen is a trained herbalist and mind expert who is passionate about the health applications and transformative potential of herbal and meditative therapies. Driven by her father’s early onset dementia diagnosis, Caroline gave up work in the corporate world and headed back to her native Thailand to develop her expertise in mental wellness. She has a firm grasp of both the physical aspects of the brain as well as the more subtle, yet powerful, mental and emotional aspects of the mind, and how we can harness the potential of neuroplasticity, the brain’s incredible ability to change throughout the lifespan, to grow healthier and happier. Caroline is a meditation teacher, Reiki master and member of the International Association of Counselors & Therapists, focusing on cognitive neuroscience and hypnosis. All of that, plus the brand she’s building to support brain health, is why she’s one of the Women We’re Watching.
Tell us your story of transitioning from corporate life to focusing on herbal medicine and wellness.
My father’s early onset dementia and Parkinson’s diagnosis was the catalyst. Especially with no history of it in my family, it came as a terrible shock and really shook me out of what I would call the “unthinking” life that I was living as a corporate lawyer in NYC. I had gotten onto the corporate track out of college, basically because everyone else was doing it and it seemed like a good way to make money (so not a particularly well considered decision), and I very quickly fell into the caffeine and crash cycle and a highly inflammatory lifestyle where just getting the never-ending work done was the priority. I was so busy that I didn’t even realize how burned out and depressed I was until my dad’s diagnosis. But it was so heartbreaking to see, that it completely shifted my motivation from meeting the expectations of people around me to doing everything I could to avoid dementia myself and find a better way of living that I could actually enjoy.
I quit my job and went back home to Thailand to start healing myself and learning about the brain. The way I did this was via herbal medicine and meditation, which are two of the pillars of Thai Traditional Medicine, training at several herbal clinics and doing intensive silent meditation retreats. The more I applied what I was learning in terms of these mind herbs and mind practices, the better my brain starting working, whereas before I constantly felt foggy, down and had zero energy. It began falling into place for me when I kept seeing in the research that these things that were helping me function better at [age] 29 are also shown fight cognitive decline.
I started thinking about everyone I knew in NY that was medicating and trying to optimize their performance with Adderall or Ritalin and then Xanax or Ambien to rev down, versus this alternative experience that I was now having, and I realized that this was such a better way to meet all the demands of life, while actually improving our brain health. Adderall is an amphetamine, so of course it fires up productivity, but to maintain that same rush over time it requires more and more, and there is evidence that it overstimulates the brain in people who don’t actually have ADHD, which you can see in some of the side effects.
Herbs are a much more sustainable way to reach that flow state—the herbs in the Antara Brain Foods have been used for thousands of years to feel awake and focused, but they also actually heal you, help to detox and oxygenate the brain, buffer the neurotoxic effects of stress, and help you grow new brain cells.
It was a very personal journey of healing and dealing with my dad’s diagnosis, that I was compelled to develop into the Antara platform, not only because I experienced how effective these herbal therapies and consciousness therapies are, but also because I see the need for it every day, especially in NYC.
How does inflammation negatively impact our brain function? Why is that significant?
The immune cells of the brain are called microglial cells, and like immune cells elsewhere in the body, when they get activated by inflammatory signals, they don’t just attack the hostile agent—they cause collateral damage to surrounding tissue. Our immune systems were designed to become activated and to create inflammatory responses in the way that we use Tide markers for stains, not in the way of having a full wash cycle that’s running all the time. But unfortunately for a lot of us, that is what is happening.
In the brain what this means is that the glial cells kill nerve cells in their immediate neighborhood, block the regenerative process that would form new nerve cells in their place, and make the connections between nerve cells rigid, instead of plastic. That’s significant because nerve cell death and a loss of neuroplasticity lead ultimately to cognitive decline. In the shorter term, these factors are also linked to depression—it makes sense that we see the hippocampi, or memory centers, of Alzheimer’s patients shrink, but you also see the same atrophy in clinically depressed patients.
The other dynamic that inflammation creates in the brain is disrupting the supply of neurotransmitters like serotonin. Normally nerve cells make serotonin from a raw material called tryptophan. But the inflammatory hormones released by activated microglial cells can instruct nerve cells to use this same material to make other end products, like kynurenine. This is bad in two ways—first, there is less serotonin now, so sleep, appetite and mood will change, and secondly, kynurenine and many of the other alternative molecules that are produced instead of serotonin are toxic and actually poison nerve cells.
Your line is targeted at both short and long-term brain health. Explain to us which ingredients work on each, and why they’re key to optimal brain function.
Short and long-term brain health are integrally linked. When you’re not able to sustain attention and operate in flow state, it’s not only annoying and inefficient, but you’re also missing an opportunity to increase your neuroplasticity and direct the creation of neural networks in your brain. And as explained above, inflammation from things like chronic stress, poor diet, etc. has detrimental effects both now and later (e.g. think about your brain function after a night of heavy drinking—that is the effect of brain inflammation). So both products are relevant to short and long-term brain health by working on factors like attention span, stress response and inflammation. The key hero ingredients in each are below.
- Curcumin: The ultimate anti-inflammatory. Amrita curcumin was developed by UCLA neuroscientists specifically for optimal brain absorption, it is 285 times more bioavailable than standard curcumin and shown to be absorbed into the brain within three hours of taking it. Clinical studies have also found that if you supplement with this curcumin regularly, you will keep therapeutic levels of curcumin circulating in your brain (and body), which is a powerful defense against the aging effects of neuroinflammation.
- Bacopa monnieri and gotu kola: This pair is a traditional Ayurvedic preparation used to boost brain development. The way it does that is by increasing the production of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), a hormone that acts like Miracle Grow in the brain by encouraging the growth of new brain cells and connections between them. These herbs work together with Lion’s Mane mushroom, which helps your brain release Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) and also strengthens connections between neurons.
- Ginkgo: Ginkgo is a well-known brain and circulatory herb that even has drug status for cognitive issues in some countries such as Germany. One of its key actions is increasing peripheral and micro circulation, which is critical to brain health, since your blood contains all the oxygen and nutrients your neurons need to survive and grow. This is why it has such strong therapeutic effect not only in Alzheimer’s dementia but also for vascular dementia (the second most common type, caused by low blood flow to the brain).
- Rhodiola rosea: As an adaptogen, rhodiola restores the normal sensitivity of your cortisol receptors, so you can avoid that over-the-edge burnout feeling. But it is also a nootropic that directly promotes focus by increasing serotonin levels in the brain (this effect also makes it useful for depressive symptoms).
- Mucuna pruriens: Mucuna is known as the ‘dopamine bean’ because it’s one of the most concentrated natural sources of L-DOPA, the precursor to dopamine which is your ‘reward & motivation’ neurotransmitter. The L-DOPA in mucuna is highly bioavailable and converts to dopamine very quickly, so most people will notice an immediate boost in mood, focus and mental energy.
- Ginseng: Ginseng is the master revitalizing plant of TCM. As a nootropic, it increases acetylcholine in the brain, which is critical for mental processing speed and accuracy. The ginseng in Dharana is clinically proven to improve cognitive performance. Importantly, it’s also American ginseng rather than Panax ginseng, which has a less heating quality on the overall system and therefore is more appropriate for regular use.
Your line seems to merge some Eastern and Western medicine ideas. Talk to us about how you integrated those to formulate your two products.
In traditional Eastern medicine, the treatment of symptoms is considered secondary to their prevention, which is very different to how healthcare is set up in West where it’s customary to wait until you have a problem or diagnosis before addressing it. The emphasis on prevention and maintaining balance so you actually avert problems is so relevant to dementia, which we now know begins to develop in the brain decades before any symptoms manifest. Many of us don’t realize the connection between brain problems we may be having now, like brain fog and depression, and possible more serious issues down the line, but it’s very real. That’s why I ended up not just developing a quick-fix nootropic, but two products that work together to improve your mental performance today and at the same time optimize for the future.
The other concept that I thought about a lot when conceptualizing Antara was the mind-body connection. Eastern medicine has always known that what’s happening in the mind affects the physical, but science has ‘proven’ now that sustained stress and negative emotion cause measurable inflammatory changes in the body and brain. That’s why Dharana is formulated with nootropics that work to fire up concentration and mental energy in the moment, but that also act as adaptogens to gradually even out the stress response.
It’s also why meditation training will be an important part of the Antara offering over time. In Asia, meditation is practiced not just as a way to optimize as it’s often described in the West but also as a way to prevent cognitive decline. It works so well with the herbs to increase focus and mood, reduce inflammation, and repattern the brain for less stress reactivity—by training your attention, you can actually change the physical structure of your brain.
Do you have plans to expand the line, or just focus on these two formulas?
I do already have a formula for immune support, but what I’m focused on ahead of that is expanding and formalizing the consciousness coaching aspect of Antara. Mind health and wellness generally aren’t just about products; taking herbs or anything alone without incorporating things like meditation isn’t enough to improve your life in a way that will last. So Antara retreats are more likely to be next than another product.
What do you do to combat anxiety in your life?
An hour of meditation every morning is my number one tool to keep the big picture in mind and be grateful for it. It sets a calm tone for the day where I’m aware that whatever happens, however annoying or stressful it may be, it’s part of the flow of life and that I can deal with it.
Sleep is also key for me. Without six to eight hours of sleep every night, that cup of anxiety overflows much more quickly than it would otherwise. Together with meditation, it also helps me think more creatively and strategically so anxiety-provoking situations seem less like overwhelming problems and more like puzzles that could be interesting to solve.
If it’s the middle of the workday, taking a two-minute break to look at something beautiful. I have orchids and crystals everywhere in my office so I can just look up and get absorbed into the natural beauty. It takes me out of my ruminating, ‘chatty’ mind so I can recharge for whatever I’m doing. Aesthetic beauty especially natural beauty is transportive and we need that inspiration in our lives.
All these things, it comes down to regeneration. We’re built to balance regeneration and stimulation. With the pace of modern life so stressful, rest and recovery can seem like a luxury, but actually they just become more necessary the more we take on. If I’m in the middle of a sprint with multiple deadlines or a situation like that, I rely on Dharana to help me meet those heightened demands in the moment.
Stress actually impairs thinking and I’m already not a person who works better under pressure, so I’ll take two servings on days like this. It keeps my brain sharp and working quickly while controlling my anxiety and cortisol levels. Anytime I’m anxious, I also switch away from coffee to matcha, tulsi and lemon balm tea, which are traditional nervine tonics and give the fuel without making me jittery.
If you could wave a wand and change one thing about the world today, what would it be?
I would create a means for everyone to have ready access to nature. A lot of us think about nature now as a place to visit, but really it’s our home and the environment that allowed our brains to evolve into the amazing powerhouse of potential that we each have. Research has shown that kids that grow up in industrialized countries without much contact with nature have levels of sensory sensitivity and conscious awareness up to 30 percent lower than kids that grow up in more ‘primitive’ natural settings. They’re less aware than these ‘less fortunate’ children of what’s taking place among the people around them, what’s being said to and asked of them, and the general sights, smells and touches of daily life.
What neuroscientists are finding is that if you’re in a high intensity stimulus environment from birth, you have a higher gating level as to what input is collected and sent up to your conscious awareness for processing—in other words, sensory information below a certain level of intensity doesn’t register into your conscious perception, which has big implications for [emotional quotient], among other things. And because our adult brains are plastic as well, the stimulus-heavy environment we operate in has similar effects on us. It’s accelerated reward cycles so sustained attention and delayed gratification become harder—you can see it with so many people affected by things like ADHD, depression, anxiety and OCD.
As of right now, our brains just haven’t kept pace with the changes in our environment. We can’t put the tech genie back in the bottle, but what we can do is enhance our consciousness and elevate our brains so we can manage this new world. This is why I’m so passionate about meditation, the original way to enhance cognition, and the other key way is mindful contact with nature. Information coming from the natural world is much richer than linear information coming from a screen, but it’s also more subtle—when we resensitize to that, relearn how to register that information, we rehabilitate our brains and we’re also getting that hit of natural beauty that reminds us that life is bigger than our to-do lists.
Want more women to watch? Discover how this woman overcame domestic abuse to start a clothing line, and how this woman took her own struggle with postpartum anxiety to create a CBD line.
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