Brain-boosting nootropics and body-supporting adaptogens are making their way onto cocktail menus – but will drinking them help you feel refreshed after the work Christmas party? Kerry Law investigates.
Imagine enjoying a cocktail-fuelled night out that not only left you sharp and focused at work the next day but also completely hangover-free. The answer, some believe, may lie in functional or ‘smart’ cocktails.
These are drinks that may sound like your regular cocktail menu fare, but include special ingredients – nootropics to boost brain function and adaptogens to help the body deal with stress. Not only is it claimed that they can improve our mood, focus and memory, but some believe they can even mimic that ‘feel good’ tipsy feeling.
And with all those antioxidant-rich ingredients, could even alcoholic versions help us avoid the dreaded hangover?
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What are nootropics and adaptogens?
Broadly speaking, natural nootropics are botanical ingredients such as lion’s mane mushroom or the amino acid L-theanine (found in tea leaves), which affect the brain – with studies finding that they can sharpen our memory and focus, enhancing mood or boosting creativity (hence the ‘smart’ moniker).
Adaptogens are plant-based substances that affect the body, most notably in helping to reduce stress. But some are said to also strengthen immunity, boost energy and balance hormone levels. Several of these naturally occurring substances can be both nootropic and adaptogenic, and many have been used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries.
You may have heard the term ‘functional mushroom’ (there’s quite a ’shroom boom going on right now) – this can refer to mushrooms that are nootropic, adaptogenic or both: lion’s mane, cordyceps and shiitake, for example. Just don’t get them confused with psychoactive mushrooms – those trippy magic mushrooms are something else altogether.
The ready-mixed functional drinks market is booming, driven in part by a growing sober-curious movement and includes brands such as Sentia, Three Spirits and Bella Hadid’s Kin Euphorics – all drinks containing nootropics and adaptogens that promise a ‘third way’ between drunk and sober, a buzz without the booze.
Will a night on the smart mocktails help you feel switched on the next day? And if you fancy a splash of gin or rum in your drink, will you also be hangover-free the morning after?
Putting smart cocktails to the test: are they all they’re cracked up to be?
No one ‘likes’ a hangover, but in between caring for small children, working and generally existing, I almost fear them. So much so, that I stick to a ‘two drinks only’ rule when socialising – that first drink is great, the second is nice, but the third, fourth or fifth offer rapidly diminishing returns, so aren’t really for me anymore.
But would a drink with added nootropics and adaptogens deliver all the benefits with none of the awful side effects? As a public service, I conducted some wholly unscientific research at Sweeties Bar at The Standard to find out (you’re welcome).
The mixologists at this hangout have devised a whole menu dedicated to nootropic and adaptogenic cocktails, both alcoholic and booze-free. Their signature drink, the Pick Me Up (described as the love child of an old fashioned and an espresso martini), contains a blend of eight functional mushrooms including reishi, chaga, lion’s mane and cordyceps, alongside a dash of coffee, caramel and vodka.
Other cocktails and mocktails contain functional ingredients that wouldn’t look out of place on any fancy drinks menu, such as green tea, turmeric, coconut, rosemary, spirulina, olive oil and seaweed.
My friend and I sipped our way through a Pick Me Up – it was rather lovely thanks to the caramel and cocoa and was (thankfully) devoid of a strong mushroom flavour. Aside from the antioxidant and fibre-rich ’shrooms, I was getting an extra nootropic boost from the caffeine.
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Love & Happiness was like biting into a fresh apple with added nootropic green tea and olive oil, which has been found to reduce anxiety and improve memory. Shocking Blue didn’t look particularly healthy, but it featured blue spirulina, which contains the plant-based protein phycocyanin, believed to have anti-inflammatory and brain-protecting powers.
Gold Dust Woman blended winter squash and passion fruit with turmeric – a spice with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which is also believed to help improve memory and overall cognitive function (although research on its nootropic properties is currently limited).
All of these drinks tasted amazing. It turns out that mushrooms and seaweed are welcome in my glass. Mood-wise, it could have been the company, the venue or the addition of tequila, vodka and gin (we swerved the mocktails), but we felt particularly bright and sparky. I’m not sure if I could have completed a sudoku in record time, but I certainly felt sharp with a clarity of thought that you don’t tend to experience through a thin veil of booze.
As for the morning after… well, we didn’t drink that much (I’m still too scared of hangovers), but interestingly, I didn’t feel that low-level nausea you tend to get after consuming different drinks of multiple ingredients, and I slept well (disturbed sleep is common after drinking alcohol).
What do the experts say about functional cocktails?
It seems one night on the nootropics won’t necessarily mean you’ll wake up super-productive the next day. Sara Southgate, naturopath and herbalist for Core Clinics, believes in the power of these special plants but maintains it’s how you drink them that matters.
She claims that: “Lion’s mane can noticeably improve brain function, and rosemary can create alertness… but the thing with nootropics is that it takes time and regular consumption at the right dose. Similarly, adaptogens are powerfully effective but need to be taken over a period of weeks, even months, not in just a single dose.
“A nice way to consume therapeutic mushrooms or herbs is in combination with beetroot juice, which improves circulation, hence delivering the therapeutic nutrients further and faster around the body,” she adds.
As for helping us avoid the dreaded hangover, the evidence remains sketchy.
Southgate explains that some functional mushrooms have the ability to improve both adrenal and liver function. Cordyceps has been proven to protect the liver from damage and the mushroom antrodia camphorate has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries to help reduce hangovers. “It’s not going to happen in a single dose though. Natural medicine works with the body and takes time,” she says.
Alex Glover, senior nutritionist at Holland & Barrett, explains that while there is some evidence that consumption of vitamin B3 and zinc (both nootropics) may reduce the severity of a hangover, more research is needed.
“The amount of alcohol consumed, food and water intake, and sleep duration are all important factors that may influence the risk of hangover severity. Essentially, any drink containing alcohol is highly likely to impair cognitive function and ability due to the way in which alcohol is metabolised, and no known ingredient will moderate this effect,” he warns. We all know it deep down – the best way to avoid a hangover is to avoid alcohol.
The experts cautioned that you should consult your GP before taking any nootropic or adaptogen on a regular basis, especially if you are pregnant or take prescribed medicine.
How to make your own smart cocktail
For a DIY version of the Pick Me Up, try this martini from Jack Sotti and Todd Austin, the award-winning mixologists at Sweeties.
Lion’s Mane Espresso Martini
• 50ml brown butter-infused vodka*
• 25ml lion’s mane coffee syrup**
• 25ml fresh espresso
•*For the brown butter-infused vodka, put 100g of melted unsalted butter into a mason jar and combine with 700ml of vodka while the butter is still hot. Shake vigorously and store in the freezer for three hours. Then strain through a coffee filter.
•**Make the coffee syrup by brewing 500g of lion’s mane mushroom coffee (widely available online) with 250g of caster sugar until dissolved. (This can be stored for up to a week in the fridge.)
•Put 50ml of the infused vodka, 25ml of espresso and 25ml of the coffee syrup in a shaker with ice and mix hard.
•Strain into a chilled coupette glass and serve.
•For an alcohol-free version, this works just as well without the brown butter vodka.
Images: Anton Rodriguez
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