The future of stress management and natural ingredients, from adaptogens to psychobiotics

October 14, 2020
Judy Blatman

Volume 23, Issue 8

Unprecedented stress levels give dietary supplements the opportunity to reach consumers with substantiated natural ingredients.

From the pandemic to politics and from hurricanes to wildfires, people all over the country, and for that matter throughout the world, are holding their collective breath for things to turn right side up again. For American families, the economy is questionable, children are underfoot, and in many parts of the country known stress-relievers like yoga classes are happening virtually and massage therapy requires latex gloves and face masks.

If Chandler Bing were here today, he’d want to know: “Could we be any more stressed?”

But seriously, although imagining how a fictional character from one of our favorite ’90s sitcoms might react to today’s situation might be a little funny, the truth is stress normally is no laughing matter—and in today’s environment especially, it is something to be avoided like the plague.

Stress impacts our bodies, our moods, and our behaviors. Signs and symptoms are intertwined, and the effect, like with the chicken and the egg, is cyclical. For example, stress can cause a lack of sleep, but lack of sleep can lead to stress. Stress can suppress our immune system, and a weak immune system can lead to increased stress.

In short, stress that is not managed may result in devastating health crises.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that people are earnestly seeking ways to reduce stress, relieve stress, and manage stress—more so now than ever. Nor is it surprising that many Americans are turning to dietary supplements for help.

What the Market Research Says

The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC) funded a COVID-19–focused consumer survey, fielded this summer by Ipsos, and found 43% of dietary supplement users surveyed have changed their supplement routines since the start of the pandemic.1 More specifically, the survey discovered that among those who altered their regimens due to COVID-19, 91% reported increasing their supplement intake through adding new supplements (46%), taking the same supplements more regularly (25%), and/or increasing dose(s) (22%).

What’s more, when the CRN/Ipsos survey asked the reasons why supplement users increased their supplement intake during the COVID-19 pandemic, a good percentage cited reasons relevant to stress management: 57% (overall immune health), 22% (mental health—e.g., anxiety, depression, stress management), and 17% (sleep support).

The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI; Harleysville, PA) also had encouraging news for the supplement industry. In an industry-wide June webcast, NMI’s Senior Vice President Steve French presented some of his company’s findings about how our current situation is impacting us.

Based on the NMI research2, French reported that between mid-March and mid-May, 49% of Millennials, 39% of GenX, 37% of iGen, and 26% of Boomers agreed with the statement “I am more anxious than I used to be.”

French views this as a challenge to potentially be turned into an opportunity for the dietary supplement industry. He told the webcast participants that based on NMI’s research, two in 10 people have started taking vitamins or supplements as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, with 60% of those people being women and 47% Millennials.

The reality of this opportunity is not lost on the industry or ingredient suppliers, nor is the need to handle it responsibly.

Responsibility First

In releasing CRN’s survey, Luke Huber, ND, MBA, the association’s vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, reminded the industry and consumers that “supplements may not claim to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19.”

And back in April, four dietary supplement industry trade associations—the American Herbal Products Association (Silver Spring, MD), the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (Washington, DC), CRN, and the United Natural Products Alliance (Salt Lake City, UT)—joined forces on an advisory commending FDA’s efforts to protect consumers by calling out marketers making illegal and unsubstantiated drug claims related to COVID-19.3 The trade associations urged dietary supplement marketers and retailers to refrain from stocking, selling, and promoting any supplements claiming to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19.

While the four leading trade associations were quick to point out that dietary supplements shouldn’t be sold as a specific panacea for the coronavirus, the advisory also acknowledged that research supports the use of certain dietary supplements to maintain healthy immune system responses.

Searching for Stress Relief

Dietary supplements may also help consumers deal with stress.

According to Ohad Cohen, CEO, Gadot Biochemicals (Haifa Bay, Israel), “Especially today, people are facing a lot of stress in various areas of their life, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and tired.” (Gadot has a line of magnesium products, including Gado-Go, a magnesium citrate the company says is believed to reduce stress, and a new chewable zinc citrate for immune resistance during high-stress situations and everyday maintenance.)

The supplements industry is finding new ways to reach stress-ridden consumers. Whether it’s to relieve boredom, educate themselves, or just get in some alone time, stressed-out, pandemic-sheltered Americans are increasingly turning to their computers and mobile devices. Online shopping is way up as are Google searches, particularly those researching anxiety symptoms.4,5

“Keep in mind that millions of people are trapped at home and are online. Delivering excellent information will boost the fortunes of some companies, while failure to do so will potentially erode the market shares of others,” says Kartikeya Baldwa, CEO, Ixoreal Biomed (Hyderabad, India). Baldwa advises that “in general, people are now more aware of the need to protect themselves. This is a direct result of concerns about COVID-19.”

Smart supplement brands are embracing the opportunity to educate and gather new consumers during a time when shoppers are increasingly interested in natural ways to support their health. Companies that specialize in stress-relief supplement solutions, for instance, are building bigger portfolios and marketing outreach to connect with consumers on the ingredients generating the most buzz today.

The Allure of Adaptogens

Says Baldwa, “We continue to see great interest in the adaptogenic herbs, including ashwagandha, Rhodiola rosea, schisandra, eleuthero, Panax ginseng, and a few others.” Baldwa credits this interest to “the well-known and scientifically supported stress-mitigating effects of these botanicals, plus their capacity to enhance energy, endurance, and stamina.”

Ixoreal’s clear focus is on one branded ingredient: KSM-66 ashwagandha root extract. In general, Baldwa says he has seen a steep surge in popularity of ashwagandha, especially during the pandemic. He reports that sales of his company’s ingredient “have increased by four times now compared to what it was prior to coronavirus.” He adds, “We know from various studies that ashwagandha also enhances immune function, so multiple purposes are served at once.”

Ixoreal is not the only company to see an increased interest in adaptogens.

“Consumers are looking for products that aid in stress relief, improved sleep, and increased energy due to the extra stressors caused by the pandemic,” says Bruce Brown, president, Natreon. His company’s portfolio of adaptogens, including Sensoril ashwagandha, supports a variety of health benefits, such as managing and reducing stress and “support of a healthy immune response, which indirectly may support a healthy stress response during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Brown notes that Natreon continues to see increased demand for natural products to address the stress brought on by the pandemic—including natural products for sleep. As he points out, “stress and sleep deprivation go hand in hand, so as supplements that reduce everyday stress are on the rise, so are supplements for sleep. Furthermore, sleep is necessary to maintain immune health.”

One slice of the consumer market that shouldn’t be forgotten as the coronavirus rages is athletes. While many amateur and weekend athletes aren’t heading to the gym these days, Brown maintains it’s especially important for athletes to stay fit, physically and mentally, during these times.

He suggests a botanical solution, such as ashwagandha, is a great option to help athletes complete their workouts by enhancing mental stamina, reducing fatigue, and increasing strength while helping protect the body against stress.

Exploring the Gut-Brain Axis

Lucie Lingrand, product manager, Lallemand Health Solutions (Mirabel, Canada), attests to the importance of sharing good ingredient science. In her role, she is responsible for marketing the gut-brain axis health segment at her company.

This past June, Lallemand relaunched its Probio’Stick brand, taking its existing formula (a combination of Lactobacillus helveticus Rosell-52 and Bifidobacterium longum Rosell-175) and renaming it Cerebiome. According to the press release, Cerebiome “helps alleviate the physical and psychological symptoms of stress and feelings of anxiety.”

The idea of using probiotics to improve psychological wellbeing through the gut-brain axis first came to light around 1910. But it wasn’t until the 21st century that the idea was tested in preclinical studies, according to Lingrand.

“The rise of the psychobiotics market is driven by a growing understanding of the brain-gut axis among both the scientific community and consumers. Over the last five years, there was a clear acceleration in sales and market diversification,” says Lingrand. “This trend is partly due to an increase in published research, which in turn brings a better understanding of the mechanism of action conferring health effects.”

Lingrand advises that, according to a survey conducted by FMCG Gurus of 25,000 people across 25 countries (conducted in 2018 and 2019), respondents who purchased probiotics (47% of those surveyed) showed a good understanding of the numerous positive effects that probiotics can have on their wellbeing. While 51% of those probiotics purchasers named “to aid the digestive system” as their main reason for purchasing/using probiotics, Lingrand was encouraged that 19% recognized the reduction of stress as one of the reasons to use probiotics.

Additional findings from FMCG Gurus demonstrate that 17% of Europeans versus 8% of Americans buy probiotics to reduce stress, notes Lingrand. She believes that as Americans increasingly take advantage of access to free educational and scientific information available online and through digital, they will catch up to the European mindset of consuming probiotic supplements to balance their mood.

FrieslandCampina Ingredients (Amersfoort, The Netherlands) is another company with high hopes for the science supporting psychobiotics. In late 2017, the company began working with Kathrin Cohen Kadosh, PhD, at the University of Surrey (UK), to support research on how the consumption of galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), a prebiotic, could reduce anxiety in otherwise healthy young women.

Cohen Kadosh was hoping to establish if GOS could reduce anxiety in humans, and whether this effect would be noticeable at both the behavioral and microbiome level. Building on the positive results from animal studies that indicated this approach could work, the research team conducted a four-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in 64 females in late adolescence. The participants were randomized to take the company’s branded ingredient Biotis GOS versus placebo. According to FrieslandCampina Ingredients, this clinical trial is the first of its kind in humans to combine a dietary intervention, comprehensive psychological assessments, brain-imaging techniques, and microbiome sampling.

The study is currently under review for publication, but the company says the topline results are promising, demonstrating that the GOS intervention reduced self-reported anxiety levels in participants and also improved the processing of emotional content in a behavioral task. Further, it found a significant increase in beneficial Bifidobacterium in the gut of the intervention group, a result which shows that four weeks of GOS intake were sufficient to adjust the gut microbiome.

André Groeneveld, discovery manager, early life nutrition, FrieslandCampina Ingredients, says “psychobiotics is an emerging field with much research currently being conducted.” He believes this important study on humans will serve as the foundation for future intervention research and help move forward interest in psychobiotics, from the research community and ultimately consumers, on the gut-brain axis connection.

Using this research as a first step, FrieslandCampina Ingredients plans to next study GOS and its effects on anxiety and emotional wellbeing in pregnancy, as pregnant women are more prone to stress and anxiety, which can have a negative impact on the healthy development of the fetus.

The Path Forward

“As we witnessed with the Great Recession of 2008, the dietary supplement industry proved to be recession-proof. Fast-forward twelve years to the COVID-19 era and we see that the industry is not only pandemic-proof, but showing signs of acceleration,” says French. “Given that much of the growth has been driven by younger age cohorts, this fares well for the continued development of a category that aligns with the self-care revolution. In fact, COVID-19 has accelerated new product usage rates, new consumer adoption patterns, and new product formats—the key will be to focus on retaining the new users and maintaining compliance among all users.”

Baldwa sees a way to do that. He says, “If manufacturers are smart, they will take this time not only to innovate new stress-relieving formulas but will also build greater scientific equity. If they do so, that will help to curb a post COVID-19 drop in sales.”

Like French, Cohen is hopeful that post-pandemic, the industry will continue to thrive. “Unfortunately, even after the world’s health pandemic is behind us,” he says, “people will continue to have stress in their lives.”

Hopefully just not as much.

What manufacturers do during the pandemic may impact how consumers view dietary supplement products once the pandemic passes. In this case, Baldwa warns that if companies cut corners for the purpose of profiteering, “then we will fail the market.”

However, he, too, has hope for the future. “If manufacturers use high-quality, clinically proven ingredients in clinically proven efficacious amounts, customers will learn to further rely on the natural products realm to meet many of their healthcare needs.”

References

  1. Council for Responsible Nutrition press release. “Dietary Supplement Usage Up Dramatically During Pandemic, New Ipsos-CRN Survey Shows.” Published August 20, 2020.
  2. Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) presentation at Council for Responsible Nutrition/Natural Products Insider webcast, “COVID-19 and Supplement Sales Update: Examining Market Data and Attitudes as Consumers Continue Their Wellness Journeys.” Presented on June 10, 2020. NMI data—All rights reserved.
  3. Press release. “Supplement Industry Associations Applaud FDA Actions to Protect Consumers from Fraudulent Products Related to Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).” Published April 6, 2020.
  4. Meyer S. “Understanding the COVID-19 Effect on Online Shopping Behavior.” BigCommerce blog post.
  5. Ayers JW et al. “Internet searches for acute anxiety during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.” JAMA Network. Published August 24, 2020.
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