Recent events have not only driven consumers to seek ways of staying healthy but pulled the mental health side of mind-body wellness to the forefront. The stress of having lives and routines (and incomes) disrupted, illnesses threatening or even invading the family, and social isolation has led to an unprecedented 40% of US adults reporting that they’re struggling with mental health problems.
These assaults on physical and mental health are compounding the toll already taken on an aging yet active population. According to multiple sources, sales of products with an immunity- boosting ingredient claim are likely to reach the highest level ever.
Interestingly, another fast-rising trend in better-for-you botanicals is that of ingredients targeting eye health. The “blue light” eye strain problem was already rampant before such things as viruses and wildfires had people spending more time than ever inside and in front of the computer and smart phone screens that have become notorious for helping cause headaches and eye problems.
These factors heavily influence which botanicals are key to new product launches for 2021. For example, according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s 2019 Survey on Dietary Supplements, prior to the COVID pandemic, only 27% of supplement users took an immunity supplement. As of the end of March 2020, immunity supplement sales had jumped by almost 200%, with an increase of 75% for individual-letter vitamin sales and 58% for herbal supplements, according to the marketing research firm IRI.
BOTANICALS FOR IMMUNITY
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) would hardly seem to belong in a list of newly popular or up-and-coming botanicals. Having experienced a boom in popularity a couple of decades ago when touted as a remedy for the common cold, its trendiness faded as research cast doubt on its efficacy. However, it remains one of the best known herbs for immunity, so it’s one to watch, as the past year revealed a 127% increase in sales.
Recent in vitro evidence showed that echinacea had an inhibitory effect on several known coronavirus strains, and a 2016 meta-analysis of research indicated it could help reduce the risk of persistent respiratory infections. It’s not yet been tested on COVID-19, at least partly due to concerns that echinacea could exacerbate the cytokine storm that is a hallmark of COVID-19. A review published last August of available research concluded that supplementation with extracts of the plant appear to help decrease certain pro-inflammatory cytokines that play a role in the progression of the cytokine storm. Moreover, other recent studies suggest echinacea might be able to help relieve the symptoms of acute respiratory infections and the common cold — if administered at the first sign of infection.
Another botanical traditionally used for immune health, elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is also having its day in the sun. When studies came out indicating it could be effective against respiratory infections and viruses and reduce symptoms thereof, sales shot up 368%, according to IRI. In fact, last April, elderberry was ranked as the No. 1 product sold in all health and household categories on Amazon — even above toilet paper and face masks!
According to a peer-reviewed scientific paper, “Seven recommendations to rescue the patients and reduce the mortality from COVID-19 infection: An immunological point of view,” published last July in Autoimmune Review, “the use of elderberry supplements should be considered at an early course of the disease."
In addition to the physical health concerns that arose last year and the various stresses of 2020, concomitant emotional strains have taken a considerable toll. This has driven many consumers to seek botanical solutions that can help ease some of the stress. While cannabinoid ingredients certainly have trended strongly, they still belong to a niche demographic.
Leading the “mainstream” botanicals in this category are so-called “adaptogens,” such as ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and rhodiola (Crassulaceae). Adaptogens are botanicals that can help the body and mind to adapt to stress, and many have been confirmed in scientific studies to reduce cortisol, the main stress hormone in the body. Ashwagandha sales were already on the rise before the COVID pandemic, but the ensuing intense concern for mental health led to a 50-75% increase in new products containing it. Sales of the ingredient are up three-fold.
Continue to expect high demand for the well-known and more scientifically backed adaptogens on the market. In addition, it won’t be long before lesser-known ones — such as schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), maca (Lepidium meyenii), and shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) — also find a prominent place, as each provides other benefits besides their adaptogenic action. For example, schisandra is said to improve cognitive health, maca may boost athletic performance, and shatavari traditionally has been used to raise libido.
Many other botanicals that are also GRAS have confirmed benefits for stress, anxiety, and sometimes the associated insomnia as well. In one clinical study, only supplementation with lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) for only two weeks has been found to reduce anxiety manifestations by 15-18% and sleeping difficulties by 42%. Lavender (Lavandula spica) also has a long history of use for alleviating stress and promoting relaxation, but high quality clinical studies show that it truly does have an anxiolytic effect.
In a systematic review of lavender essential oil across five studies, the Hamilton Anxiety Scale was found to be higher than (at 160 mg) or equal to (at 80 mg) the drug paroxetine. Although this form of lavender is not considered GRAS, there is some preclinical evidence that standard lavender extracts also produce an anxiety-reducing effect.
There are GRAS ingredients that are also considered “experiential” for stress, meaning one is able to feel a benefit soon after consumption. For example, oat extracts have had a long tradition of supporting the nervous system and curbing stress and anxiety. Now they are poised for use in a wide range of applications, as they have been confirmed in clinical studies not only to support mental health, but also to improve working memory, concentration, and alertness.
Matcha (green tea powder) has been a popular botanical ingredient in a flood of foods and beverages in the past decade. There are numerous clinical studies on matcha, showing that it can help increase a “calm-alert” state of mind.
Recently, ingredient technologists have made it easier to more precisely target the content of its active compound, L-theanine, creating extracts that are highly standardized to the amount of that bioactive. This makes it easier for formulators to incorporate into products targeting stress.
Another plant compound group expected to draw greater interest in the coming year is ellagitannins, found in pomegranates, walnuts, raspberries, and other berries and fruits. Research has shown that a metabolite of ellagic acids, urolithin-A, could help mitigate age-related muscle weakness and loss of mitochondrial function. Pomegranate, the original superfruit, could thus be poised for a sort of comeback that could see greater use of the fruit in beverages and other products.
FROM THE GUT
An area for future growth in supplements that target both mood and immunity will also involve gut health. It has become evident through emerging scientific understanding that the gut plays a crucial role not only in immunity, but also in one’s production of neurotransmitters and related mood states. Specific strains of probiotics have been shown to enhance mood.
For example, a study last fall examined the microbiomes of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and found significant alterations in their microbiomes compared with control subjects. Moreover, certain pathogenic microbiome strains were correlated with COVID severity, and an inverse correlation was made between disease severity and abundance of anti-inflammatory strains of probiotics. Although food and supplement claims are not permitted for addressing such conditions, it is clear that they are important to the underlying state of wellness by improving gut health.
Despite the huge negative impact that 2020 has had on the majority of consumers, perhaps the intersection of rising trends in mental wellness as well as our understandings of the importance of digestive and gut health will create opportunities for product and food development that will truly benefit public health during tough times as well as good.
Kerry Hughes, MS, principal for EthnoPharm, is an ethnobotanist, herbalist, and author with a 20-year record of success in natural product development. EthnoPharm specializes in innovative product formulation, education, and nexus-of-market opportunity identification. She can be reached at email@example.com.