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He/she/they: Does gender matter when it comes to mood supplements?

With or without data to back up gender-differentiation claims, marketing mood supplements to women is a smart business strategy. Learn why.

Robyn Lawrence

November 28, 2023

7 Min Read
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While shopping for a supplement to help him out of a stress-induced low mood, certified performance nutrition specialist George Young was struck by how many of the labels were geared specifically toward men or women. “This got me thinking,” he says. “Does my gender really determine the effect of supplements on my mood?”

Young, who has been working in the health and fitness field for more than 40 years, decided it didn’t. He chose a supplement aimed at women based on its ingredient list and found it effectively reduced his stress without side effects. “While it’s true that men and women have different biochemical and hormonal structures, the difference isn’t always as clear-cut as the market makes it out to be,” Young says. “The efficacy of mood supplements is not strictly limited by gender, but more by their composition and individual body chemistry.”

Whether Young is right about that or not, supplement companies have been moving toward tailoring mood enhancers to specific genders—primarily women—in recent years. From The Honest Company’s Daily Mood Balance with rhodiola and phosphatidylcholine to Winged Women’s Wellness’ Happy Her gummies with lion’s mane and saffron, women-oriented mood enhancers are becoming a staple on supplement shelves. Mood supplements for men—who are less likely to be diagnosed with mood disorders and less inclined to consider complementary and alternative therapies—are harder to come by. Whether this is based on smart marketing strategy or science is a subject of some debate.

Related:Supplement brands ignore women at their own peril

“Gender identity in supplementation is one of the dumbest ways to segment somebody, in my professional opinion,” says personalized nutrition expert Ashley Koff, founder and CEO of The Better Nutrition Program. “If we look at genetics, I see men and women all the time who are much more similar based on how their neurotransmitters work than if I were to separate them out by gender. At a genetic level, it just isn’t a significant factor.”

Scientific evidence showing that mood supplements have gender-specific effects is scarce, but the few studies that have been conducted suggest there may be some, says Krutika Nanavati, a registered dietician and medical advisor for ClinicSpots, a platform that connects medical facilities and doctors in India with patients worldwide. “For example, animal research has shown that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation had a greater effect on male rats’ anxious behavior than female ones. Other research suggests that women may respond better to B vitamins than men in terms of their relationship to depressive symptoms,” she says.

Related:Supplement trends: 7 growing categories, ingredients worth watching

The Androgyny Hypothesis

Women are nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression, according to Mayo Clinic, but experts suggest this may have as much—or even more—to do with social and behavior factors than physiological ones.

In 2021, a meta-analytic review published in the Journal of Affective Disorders evaluated associations of depression with multiple gender-role dimensions and found that androgynous individuals reported the lowest level of depression compared with masculine, feminine and undifferentiated trait groups. The study concluded that androgyny might be the most ideal gender role when it comes to protecting people from depression.

“The theory in this paper is that there’s something called the Androgyny Hypothesis, where androgynous individuals are freer from gendered social norms, so they can be more flexible in the kind of coping mechanism they apply when they’re under situations of stress or change,” says Karen Hecht, scientific affairs manager for astaxanthin producer AstaReal. “You can have greater resilience if you have more resources and coping mechanisms to choose from—whether they’re masculine or feminine approaches—so my main takeaway from this is, what if we took that approach from a marketing perspective and tried not to make things so gendered?”

Positioning mood-stabilizing ingredients in a way that caters to both men and women might “help to improve resilience in the population and improve public health,” Hecht adds.

Hormones matter

Without a doubt, the connection between hormonal imbalances and mood disorders has been a key factor in the development and marketing of mood supplements for women.

“Hormones are a major factor in mood fluctuations for many women, particularly during menstruation, pregnancy, the postpartum period and menopause,” says Trisha VanDusseldrop, director of clinical research for Bonafide Health, which sells supplements for menopausal women. She’s quick to point out, however, that psychosocial elements, including personal relationships and work environments, are also pivotal in shaping women’s moods and mental well-being. “It’s a complex interplay of physiological and environmental factors that dictate mood variations.”

“When we talk about a women’s formula, there are a few different levels to that,” says Timothy Mount, co-founder of Winged Women’s Wellness. “The first is, we know that women’s physiology is different, with progesterone, especially, but also with levels of estrogen. Men have some estrogen, but at lower levels, and it’s more balanced with other things like testosterone.”

Winged formulations are made from ingredients such as black cohosh, shatavari and vitex, which have been used throughout history to help balance estrogen and progesterone levels as they fluctuate through women’s monthly cycles and life stages—hormonal imbalances that can lead to neurotransmitter issues, which Mount says “can really affect mood more than for men.”

Studies suggest—though haven’t yet proven—that cyclical changes in estrogen and progesterone can disrupt the function of brain chemicals that control mood, including serotonin and dopamine. This is the key to formulating mood supplements geared toward women.

“Men might have more stable hormones throughout the month, whereas women’s just naturally rise and fall, and that can affect mood on a day-to-day or hourly basis,” Mount says. “Then there are things like the release of an egg, where you might have a very short spike in one hormone or the other that men just simply don’t experience.”

As more women take leadership roles in the supplements industry, Hecht says, more attention is naturally being paid to how women’s hormonal fluctuations—especially during menopause—affect mood. But, she adds, “I think there’s a lot of attention paid to hormonal changes as men age, as well, specifically related to testosterone.”

Marketing matters most

Another valid reason for focusing on mood supplements for women is that it’s simply a smart business decision. Women are not only more likely to recognize and report mood disorders—a recent study found that 70% of females say they experience stress regularly, for example—but they’re also more open to alternative therapies, including supplements.

“Women are more about balance and have a greater awareness and motivation for seeking natural solutions to help them with their mental health and mood, whereas men tend to focus more on performance measures,” Hecht says.

Mount concurs, saying, “There is more natural awareness within women to understand the emotional side of things and understand that maybe they can get some support and help.”

Women, who historically have had more negative experiences with conventional medicine, are more likely to turn to alternative therapies and even perceive it as empowering because it allows them more personal control over their health and health care, according to “Hidden in Plain Sight: Exploring Men’s Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine,” published in The Journal of Men’s Studies in 2018.

This quite valid perception that women will be more receptive is a motivating factor in brands’ rush toward female-oriented mood supplements—but nutritionists warn that the major difference may lie in marketing rather than the products themselves. “In some cases, gender-targeted supplements may not differ significantly in their formulations but may have different packaging or branding, leading consumers to perceive them as tailored to their gender,” says nutritionist Mary Sabat, founder of BodyDesignsbyMary.com.

Claims that supplements affect genders differently are often based on anecdotal evidence and limited scientific studies, says holistic nutritionist Vanessa Vitali, founder of Boulder Functional Nutrition. “Without well-designed clinical trials that include diverse gender groups, it’s challenging to draw meaningful conclusions about differential effects.”

Hecht agrees. “We’re lacking in data to understand, from a physiological perspective, how to approach this and what might be more appropriate for men and women and at what dosage,” she says. “I think some of that data is there, but the focus has been on marketing and positioning and consumer behavior because that’s the data that’s readily available.”

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This article originally appeared in NBJ's Mood, Brain and Sleep Issue. For more insights into the supplement market, subscribe to Nutrition Business Journal.

About the Author(s)

Robyn Lawrence

Senior Editor, New Hope Network

The author of four books, Robyn Lawrence has written in the natural lifestyle, food and wellness space since she helped launch Natural Home magazine in 1999. She was Natural Home’s editor-in-chief for 11 years and has been an editor for several national magazines, including Mother Earth News and Herb Companion. As senior editor for NBJ, she writes articles and contributes to report content.  

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