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Nitsa Citrine

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Sun Potion and the Magical Thinking of ‘Transformational Foods’

Their herbs and fungi are moving from California cool to mainstream staples

Picture the prototypical young Southern California couple, and you’ve probably pictured Scott Linde and Nitsa Citrine. He has a lean, tanned frame, a scruffy beard, and chin-length, sun-bleached hair like a surfer’s. She has a round face, wild blond hair, wide blue eyes, a wholesome flush to her cheeks, and a name like Nitsa Citrine. They live together in Santa Barbara, surrounded (Instagram tells us) by greenery and sunshine and good interior design, nourished by plant-based meals and a steady stream of "potions" brewed from the many medicinal plants that they are in the business of selling, under the name Sun Potion.

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On the website and the packaging, Linde and Citrine describe Sun Potion’s products as "transformational foods." They are mostly powdered plants and fungi, sold in small jars and meant to be added in small doses to a wholesome drink or mixed into food. All have roots in ancient herbal medicine traditions — Chinese, Japanese, Daoist, and Ayurvedic mostly — and promise to improve the way your body feels and functions.

Image: Nitsa Citrine

Some will "soothe the nervous system" and "refine the senses," others will "tonify the immune system," or "promote creativity and stamina." Some are grown organically in India or the States, others are picked from the wild ("wildcrafted," as they say in the world of naturopathy) in China, and all are carefully vetted by Linde as "best quality" – not only does he like to know each producer personally, he also has them independently tested for purity and quality multiple times during bottling. One (Polyrachis Ant) is made from ants. Another (Cordyceps) is a parasitic mushroom that grows out of caterpillars. Others (Reishi, Chlorella) maybe sound a little more familiar. Most cost around $50 for a few ounces.

But anyone who spends time roaming the growing world of holistic lifestyle blogs probably already knows this, because Sun Potion makes regular appearances on some of the big ones: Well + Good, The Local Rose, Free + Native, and The Chalkboard Mag. It’s sold at some of the natural food and wellness destinations where health-conscious celebrities and other beautiful people flock: Erewhon Market in California, Dimes in New York, and CAP Beauty, which has championed Sun Potion products since its inception as an online store.

Image: Nitsa Citrine

That’s a lot of success for a business that, five years ago, was little more than a passion project for a guy at the end of a five-year period during which he "chose not to work." That’s also a lot of success for a set of products that just a few years ago only traditional medicine practitioners or out-there New Age types were likely to seek out. Though Sun Potion certainly isn’t the only new business of its kind (Moon Juice, a pillar of Southern California’s elite wellness scene, also springs to mind), it’s riding high on the crest of a wave of mainstream interest in "high vibe" herbal tonics and medicinal mushrooms.

Linde and Citrine both speak in the gentle, gracious tone you might expect from someone who writes "In Joy!" instead of "Enjoy!" at the end of every product description. Both are kind and enthusiastic, and though Linde in particular can talk at length about tonic herbs and their benefits, the enthusiasm isn’t overbearing. It’s the difference between marching out to convert people and recognizing the people who are ready to be converted. They talk about Sun Potion as a social mission, not a business, and mention often that they have "no business background." But judging by the brand’s explosive growth, they have more knowhow than they realize or say. Though the road to Sun Potion was paved with ashrams, Rolfing, and permaculture, it’s also been fortified by good design, social media savvy, and maybe a bit of lucky timing.

Linde says he liked "watching how they affected or nourished latent potentials in all of us."

Linde grew up not in California but in Minnesota, on a lake just south of St. Paul. There, as he puts it, he lived a "really mainstream, Velveeta mac ‘n’ cheese, and TV kind of life in the Midwest." He was an athletic, outdoorsy kid, so "immersed in endurance sports" that he ended up on the U.S. triathlon team at age 19. Then as a twenty-something he landed in LA, where he worked in real estate, selling very expensive houses to very rich people.

"I was living in the middle of the most congested part of LA," Linde says, "going to work every day, doing money things. I learned a lot, but I certainly wasn’t happy." Then he had a car accident. "I wasn’t hurt, but my whole nervous system was so scrambled I couldn’t get out of LA fast enough."

Deciding he needed to be outside, Linde headed to Oregon to do some mountain biking. From there he somehow found his way to an ashram in Santa Cruz, where he stayed for six months on a work exchange. Then it was on to another ashram in Ojai, another work exchange digging ditches in return for room, board, and study. There he studied with traditional Daoist and Ayurvedic teachers, learned Rolfing (a sort of alternative medicine in the form of massage and body manipulation), and "got really into essential oils." These in turn led him to tonic herbs. Linde says he liked "watching how they affected or nourished latent potentials in all of us," and believes he was particularly primed to notice their effects because of the years he spent triathlon training, acutely aware of what his body felt and needed.

Image: Nitsa Citrine

Linde became obsessed with hunting down high quality herbs in their pure form. This was tricky because the few growers and importers out there mostly sold their products by the pallet to companies that would blend different herbs and encapsulate them, to be sold as pills. "I was this guy who was calling them saying, ‘Please, can you save me a kilo to experience for myself?’" But dogged pursuit led Linde to friendship with some of the most likeminded suppliers. "After enough times of asking," he explains, "I found these people who share our current sentiment: that we work for the herbs."

After nearly five years living in the mountains of Ojai, voluntarily unemployed, Linde decided to move to Santa Barbara. Weeks before moving, he was struck with an idea. "There was enough movement and commerce and people there," he says, "that I realized I could be an avenue for these plants." He already had the supplier connections, and he knew he wanted to "be helpful, to have a mission." Within two weeks of arriving, he had herbs "in a jar with a label, being sold in a store."

Asked to explain his company’s explosive growth, Linde veers into a tangled and fervent discussion of that logo.

"Some years went by before I realized it was a business," Linde says, but in the meantime he met Citrine, who came to him to stock up on Chlorella and Spirulina, two types of algae long coveted in the superfood universe for being high in protein and other nutrients. "I was probably one of the first and best Sun Potion customers," she says. "We struck up a friendship, and then we became lovers. Then we were together and we moved in." Citrine grew up in exactly the sort of household Sun Potion catered to. Her dad practices traditional Chinese medicine and runs a juice bar in Big Sur.

But Citrine stayed out of the business until Linde, finally ready to bring Sun Potion out of its infancy, ran into design trouble. He wanted to create a new label, but made no progress trying to work with a designer. So Citrine, who is a photographer and studied film in school, stepped in to help. She designed the current label, which is not modern, exactly — it comes closer to looking like a flyer for a 70s folk concert — but is appealingly straightforward. Colored gold with black lettering, it looks particularly elegant wrapped around Sun Potion’s cobalt blue glass jars. The whole package might be more at home in a luxury beauty shop than in the vitamin aisle, but carries a glint of nondenominational mysticism in the logo Citrine and Linde chose: an Egyptian winged sun disk, two serpents winding up out of the center.

That’s the short version, but what it comes down to is this: Linde thinks the packaging is important. He thinks it conveys a message of power and reverence. Sun Potion jars are covetable. "People will come home and create like a food altar with their jars," Linde says. "Even if you’re going to present something traditional and wonderful, there has to be something beautiful and stylish about the presentation."Even Linde, as deeply as he believes in the power and appeal of his products, points to that design as a key to Sun Potion’s success. Asked to explain his company’s explosive growth, Linde veers into a tangled and fervent discussion of that logo. The outstretched condor wings represent "transfiguring the body from density into light," while the serpents are "the feminine embodiment of the divine." The symbol is one found in many ancient cultures besides Egyptian, and Linde believes its meaning is therefore something that "part of our nature understands, even if the mind does not."

Image: Stephen and Tracy McCarty

Of course, another big part of Sun Potion’s success is the surging interest in natural beauty and wellness, and not just in the parts of California where it’s had a comfortable presence for years. This kind of interest, carried on the wings of Goop and a thousand other holistic lifestyle blogs, has been growing noticeably for years. It, along with certain popular diets, has introduced us to the concept of "superfoods" and brought on the rampant spread of juice cleanses, acai bowls, chia pudding, matcha lattes. In some ways, Sun Potion’s tonic herbs seem more out there than any of those things. Preparing them is a little more complicated than buying a bottle of juice, and drinking them may not always be as pleasant as spooning up an acai bowl. But remember that chia pudding is goo made out of seeds that get a slimy coating when wet.

And Sun Potion does make some entry-level products: Prash, a slightly bitter caramel-like blend of honey, ghee, and eight different herbs, and Anandamide, five different herbs mixed with spices, rose petals, and raw cocoa powder to make something appealingly close to hot chocolate mix. From chia and matcha to these blends is not such a leap. As Linde sees it, "Five years ago I used to tell everyone that one day we’d turn around and see the mainstream flowing all around us. Now I think that’s really happening."

Citrine credits the internet for their entrance into the mainstream. "It’s this infinite source of information people can tap into," she marvels, "We’re able to connect and share information so much more easily now that it’s this whole world opening up." And not only are people learning about the herbs Sun Potion carries, but better yet, "If someone is feeling really great, they share it with other people."

Image: Nitsa Citrine

Which is to say, social media means a lot. Sun Potion has never done any advertising but Citrine (who also redesigned the website) is big on Instagram. Sun Potion has nearly 18,000 followers, and its own hashtag: #apotionaday. "A lot of other people have started to use it, making all these awesome potions," Citrine says. Not only does the hashtag encourage people to Instagram their Sun Potion, it also works as a self-generating resource for the new and the curious. Anyone stumped on what to do with their new jar of He Shou Wu or Reishi can just scan through the photos and be inspired by others’ concoctions.

Kerrilynn Pamer, the co-founder of CAP Beauty and an avid Sun Potion user herself, also points to social media as the key to the company’s success (and her own). She’s seen Sun Potion rise from obscurity to one of her best-selling superfood products — mostly through word of mouth. "I don’t know what our businesses would do without social media," she says.

"I don’t know what our businesses would do without social media," she says.

A crucial part of growing on word of mouth alone is having products that people really believe in. So do Sun Potion’s herbs really work? Impossible to say for sure, but plenty swear by them, including Pamer, who says they made her feel so good she stopped drinking coffee. If it were just "snake oil," she insists, people wouldn’t keep buying Sun Potion. Notions of adaptogens (herbs believed to increase the body’s ability to handle various stresses) mixed with concepts of qi (the life force) and yin and yang from traditional Chinese Medicine might ignite skepticism in many, but if you believe that coffee boosts energy and quinine treats malaria, you have to admit to the power of plants. And the fact that a plant has been used in traditional medicine for centuries is not to be taken lightly. The scientists who are studying all of these plants certainly don’t take it lightly.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has a pretty good rundown of what we do and don’t know about most of these herbs, but a lot of them seem to be good for the immune system (probably). Dr. Mikhail Kogan, the medical director of George Washington University’s Center for Integrative Medicine, thinks there’s "good evidence" that mushrooms like reishi and cordyceps, by strengthening the immune system, at least help fight cancer. He prescribes a tailor-made cocktail of mushrooms to patients on a daily basis, and says, "We do see clinical improvement," though "It’s subtle, not curative." At the very least, he adds, "a big thing is that it helps a person tolerate chemo," since, while assaulting cancer cells, chemotherapy also assaults the immune system.

"You really do see pretty subtle changes, but those become more dramatic over time."

As with other things of this nature, maybe Sun Potion works best when you believe it will. Some people say they feel an immediate difference, but you’re not necessarily supposed to. More than once Linde emphasizes that they are meant to be taken "a little every day, over a lifetime." They are meant to balance the body, make it stronger in subtle ways. Pamer admits, "you really do see pretty subtle changes, but those become more dramatic over time."

Dr. Kogan, who custom formulates herbal tinctures for patients with all kinds of chronic illnesses or simple fatigue, also cautions that taking these herbs in a way that will really be effective is more complicated than simply swallowing a multivitamin. "If you have a general product," he explains, "you have no idea if it’s right for your constitution." What works wonders for one person may not work at all for another, or might be "dramatically enhanced by something else." Kogan believes it requires a medical practitioner to really settle on the herb or herbs that will actually make a difference. And he cautions that, while the herbs should be "safer than any medication, even Tylenol," (just beware cheap sources that could be contaminated with mercury or lead), they could just be a waste of money without the right guidance.

But money may be little object to the fans of Sun Potion. And, having stirred Prash into my tea and Ashitaba into my juice for only about two weeks now, I can’t claim any dramatic changes, but can attest to the appeal. The Prash tastes sweet and mysterious, the Ashitaba tastes grassy and healthful, and just the ritual of drinking them is comforting. Were they the reason I ran so long that one time, or the thing that made both a cold sore and a cold disappear in record time? Not sure. But just the practice of doing something for yourself every day can make you start to feel good.

Image: Nitsa Citrine

And here’s another piece of that theory: the appeal of Sun Potion is magic. A potion, by definition, is a magical brew, a thing that when sipped will change your body in a wondrous, maybe inexplicable way. It sounds much more fun, glamorous even, to concoct healing potions from different herbs than it does to take a daily supplement. Sun Potion isn’t the only one to realize this, either. Moon Juice, a pillar of Southern California’s elite wellness scene, sells many of the same tonic herbs that Sun Potion does. Most popular is the shop’s line of "dusts": Beauty Dust, Sex Dust, Spirit Dust, etc. These blends of multiple herbs, their labels adorned with twinkling stars, promise magic in the form of fairy dust (which, as the fine print tells us, is to be used to make a potion). In that form it’s much easier to believe in, and much easier to incorporate into one’s glowing holistic lifestyle image, than a tea made out of root powder and ground-up caterpillar colonizing mushrooms.

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