Consumers are actively trying to manage their stress in the face of economic and global instability. Herbal supplements may be an intervention they’re looking for.
There is no shortage of stressors that hurt our quality of life and impact our interpersonal relationships. Economic uncertainty is a big one. According to a survey from the American Psychological Association (APA), 83% of U.S. adults cite inflation as a source of stress, and 57% indicated that having enough money to pay for things in the present is their main source of financial stress.1 According to this same survey, 27% of adults say the stress they experience makes them unable to function. Of these, 46% of them are under the age of 35. Seventy-six percent have even said their stress has impacted their health, resulting in headache (38%), fatigue (35%), feeling nervous or anxious (34%), and/or feeling depressed or sad (33%).
A study published in 2020 found that rates of anxiety have been growing since 2008, particularly among younger people.2 According to the study, which uses data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the prevalence of anxiety increased from 5.12% in 2008 to 6.68% in 2018. For respondents between the ages of 18 and 25, the prevalence of anxiety rose from 7.97% to 14.66%, a more rapid increase compared to respondents 26-34 and 35-49 years old.
While serious mental health issues should be addressed by health professionals, many people do feel that changes in lifestyle and diet can have a positive impact on their mental health. According to the Healthy Minds Monthly poll from the American Psychiatric Association, 80% of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 said they felt very or somewhat knowledgeable about the relationship between diet and mental health.3 When asked whether they changed their diets, 66% said they drank more water, 50% said they were eating more fruits, 53% said they were eating more vegetables, 36% said they were avoiding processed food, 28% reduced alcohol consumption, and 25% said they were eating more whole grains. Another poll taken ahead of the start of 2023 found that people were making resolutions to make changes that positively impact their mental health.4 These included exercising more, meditating, taking a break from social media, and seeing a mental health professional.
Clearly, stress is having a negative impact on people’s lives, and they want to do something about it. While reducing stress in one’s life requires a variety of lifestyle interventions such as exercise and changing one’s diet, dietary supplements can be one way to address the stress in our lives. According to a recent survey of 3,192 U.S. adults from the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC), 74% of consumers report taking dietary supplements, and 92% agree that taking dietary supplements is essential for maintaining one’s health.5
When it comes to stress, botanicals offer a diverse range of ingredient solutions, and market research suggests that consumers are actively buying herbal supplements. According to HerbalGram’s Herb Market Report, citing data from Nutrition Business Journal, retail sales of herbal supplements totaled an estimated $12.350 billion, a 9.7% increase in total sales compared to the previous year.6 According to HerbalGram, this was the second strongest increase in sales growth behind a record-breaking 17.3% increase in 2020 from 2019.
The Herb Market Report states that the ingredient with the greatest amount of sales growth (225.9%) that year in the mainstream multioutlet channel was the herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera).6 Sales have slowed down in subsequent years, but the surge demonstrated a renewed interest in an established herb as awareness grows about its stress-support benefits.7 Ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogen. This class of ingredients is known to support the body’s ability to adapt to stressors, physical and psychological, making these ingredients popular for use in products across multiple categories, including sports nutrition and cognitive health.
Research has found that in both animal and human trials, ashwagandha has been able to significantly reduce biomarkers and symptoms of stress. One way the herb can impact stress is through attenuating the increase of glucocorticoids cortisol and corticosterone.8 These are the major stress hormones of humans and rodents, respectively, that are elevated during periods of stress and play. Ashwagandha may also mitigate stress through the modulation of the immune system. Animal models have shown that ashwagandha may stimulate the immune system and reduce inflammation, reducing immune and inflammatory biomarkers that were otherwise increased during stressful stimuli.8
Another promising adaptogenic herb that may offer support for stress and mood is bacopa (Bacopa monnieri). This herb may be better associated with cognitive health, but a growing body of evidence suggests it may benefit stress and mood as well. Based on data from SPINS from the 52 weeks ending October 30, 2022, bacopa is among the top-selling herbs in the cognitive health category in both the natural and mainstream multioutlet channels, growing in sales by 20% and 10.6%, respectively, compared to the previous year. Preclinical research shows that bacopa may have neuroprotective properties. For example, a rodent study found that in rats exposed to chronic and unpredictable stress conditions, the herb was associated with the upregulation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) as well as the receptor TrkB signaling pathway to activate cAMP response element-binding protein (CREB), resulting in neurogenesis and neuroprotection.9,10
A recent human study investigating the impacts of a branded bacopa extract found that in adults with self-reported poor sleep, those taking the extract reported improvements in emotional well-being based on a Short Form-36 Health Survey.11 While more research is required to understand the herb’s impact on stress, it’s promising that consumers are already buying bacopa as a way to support their brain health. They may therefore be receptive to using it to support stress as well, or perhaps even already experiencing those benefits.
Based on preclinical data and its use in traditional medicine, holy basil, also known as tulsi, has the potential to support a wide range of health outcomes, including metabolic health, cardiovascular health, as well as neurocognition.12 As an adaptogen, much of these benefits may have to do with the herb’s inhibition of inflammatory pathways. One double-blind, placebo-controlled study evaluated the herb’s impact on stress-related symptoms over the course of six weeks.13 Results showed that subjects taking a proprietary holy basil extract saw significant reductions in stress-related symptom scores for forgetfulness, sexual problems of recent origin, frequent feeling of exhaustion, and frequent sleep problems of recent origin. Total symptoms scores were also significantly reduced in subjects taking the extracts, with the experimental group experiencing a 39% improvement in controlling general stress compared to placebo.
A more recent study, also conducted in humans, found that supplementation with a different holy basil extract over eight weeks significantly reduced Perceived Stress Scale scores by 37%, Athens Insomnia Scale scores by 48%, as well as salivary cortisol levels and salivary alpha-amylase (sAA), compared to placebo.14 According to the researchers, the reduction in sAA and salivary cortisol may indicate that holy basil may have a “buffering effect” in response to acute stressors on the sympathoadrenal medullary system (SAM) and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, respectively.
The adaptogenic herb rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) has been gaining traction in the sports nutrition category, supporting physical endurance and recovery. That said, our minds require some endurance as well. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study found that supplementation with a proprietary rhodiola extract helped improve symptoms of stress-related fatigue.15 In the study, 60 subjects between the ages of 20 and 55 were given either the extract or placebo daily for 28 days. Results showed that compared to placebo, subjects taking the rhodiola extract saw significant improvements in fatigue, based on Pines’ Burnout Scale scores, and attention, based on indices of the Conners’ Computerized Continuous Performance Test II. Subjects taking the extract also saw significant changes in their cortisol response to awakening stressors compared to placebo.
A more recent open-label study saw similar results in subjects with burnout, justifying further research investigating the herb for this purpose.16 In that study, 118 subjects with comparable stress burdens such as caring for a handicapped or elderly family member with dementia, and suffering from burnout symptoms, were administered a daily dose of a branded rhodiola extract for 12 weeks. Results showed that subjects experienced a significant improvement in the Numerical Analogue Scales (NAS) of subjective stress symptoms, including anxiety, exhaustion, feeling of heteronomy, impairment of concentration, irritability, loss of zest for life, and somatic symptoms. The greatest improvements were in the first week but continued until 12 weeks. The most obvious changes were in exhaustion, impaired concentration, and somatic symptoms. All subscores of the Perceived Stress Questionnaire (PSQ) also significantly improved, with the greatest changes at 12 weeks for the subscores of lack of joy, tension, and fatigue. For Burnout Screening Scales (BOSS I and BOSS II), global scores and all subscales saw improvements at week 8 to week 12 for subjects taking the rhodiola extract.
One potential mechanism for the herb’s stress-support benefits is the activation of heat shock protein 70, which is a stress-sensor protein that inhibits the expression of the NO synthase II gene to reduce nitric oxide (NO) production. It also interacts with glucocorticoid receptors to affect levels of circulating cortisol.17 The researchers explain that preventing a stress-induced increase in NO, and the associated decrease in ATP production, can result in an increase of performance and endurance. Additionally, rhodiola may also interact with the HPA axis to limit the release of glucocorticoids.18
Another promising ingredient for stress support is saffron extract, produced from the dried stigma of Crocus sativus L., which is a perennial herb member of the Iris family.19 A recent randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, parallel group design study found that a proprietary saffron extract was able to reduce subclinical depressive symptoms and increase resilience to stressors. In the study, 56 healthy subjects between the ages of 18 and 54 were given either the saffron extract or placebo for eight weeks. Researchers assessed the extract’s effects on subjective anxiety, stress, and depressive feelings with a battery of questionnaires, as well as acute effects in response to laboratory-based psycho-social stressors.19
Results showed that subjects taking the saffron extract saw a significant reduction in Profile of Mood State-2 (POMS) Depressive subscales, but no significant difference was seen in the score for POMS Total Mood Disturbance. They also saw a significant improvement in the social relationships domain of the World Health Organization (WHO) Quality of Life survey. Compared to placebo, subjects taking the saffron extract also had higher social relationship scores 56 days post-supplementation. When it came to the response to acute stressors, subjects taking the saffron extract experienced no change in heart rate variability. This is significant because the placebo group experienced a reduction in heart rate variability, which is a sign of stress being experienced. For example, when the autonomic nervous system activates the fight or flight response, it increases heart rate, reducing heart rate variability.20
The researchers say that saffron may act on similar neurotransmitter systems as pharmacological treatments of depression, and the effects saffron has on heart rate variability in response to stressors may be attributed to activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (a part of the autonomic nervous system). The extract may also act on GABAergic systems, the researchers explained.19
Fact is, the world is a stressful place, and consumers are looking for ways to reduce their stress and improve their quality of life. They are already receptive to herbal supplements as a means to support a number of health outcomes, and stress is no different. The body of research on herbs and their ability to support stress is promising and continues to grow.