Today, we are in the midst of a mental wellness revolution, one that is arguably long overdue.
Once a taboo topic, mental health has been slowly shedding its stigma and becoming more talked-about in recent years. But the COVID-19 pandemic has opened the floodgates.
Now more than ever, people are sharing their experiences with mental illness—the highs, the lows and everything in between. They are also talking more freely about everyday stress, anxiety, sadness, mood fluctuations and sleep struggles, as well as the impact these states have on their physical health and overall quality of life. More consumers are investing the time and energy to learn about the myriad influencers of mental wellness, and they are making healthy choices to support it.
Yes, it may have taken a global pandemic to turbocharge this movement. But the fact that so many more people are now discussing mental health—openly, candidly, shamelessly—can only help to improve our collective well-being.
The pandemic's mental toll
Anxiety, depression, moodiness, sleeplessness and other mental health struggles are not new. But the COVID-19 crisis both exacerbated these issues and made them much more widespread. At the pandemic's onset in early 2020, millions—possibly billions—of people worldwide suddenly felt stressed, scared, isolated, bored, discouraged or even despaired. Then, as the situation dragged on, many continued to experience these emotions.
In 2020 alone, global prevalence of anxiety and depression skyrocketed 25%, according to the World Health Organization. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this should be "a wakeup call to all countries to pay more attention to mental health and do a better job of supporting their populations' mental health."
Natural products retailers nationwide have been on the front lines of the mental health crisis. They've observed a sharp uptick in consumers grappling with mental health challenges and turning to them for help. Retailers are steering their shoppers toward dietary supplements, foods, beverages and personal care products that promote mental wellness, whether through a targeted mechanism or simply by supplying clean nutrition.
"It pains me to see how much people are suffering with their anxieties, with their moods," says Syd Gaballo, a customer service clerk at Mother's Market, a small health food chain in Orange County, California. He adds that customer interest in products that address "mood, adrenals, stress and sleep—all of that has increased 100% since COVID started. We can't keep things on the shelf for long."
Brands have weathered a similar surge in demand. "Mental health, mood, anxiety and stress have definitely been more top of mind since COVID began, and sleep and mood support continues to be a trending category," says Amber Cerda, director of marketing at supplements company NOW. "We've seen an increase in sales and interest in these products, including adaptogens."
Even though the threat of the coronavirus has lessened, and some of the anxiety and depression of the pandemic's early days has waned, mental wellness concerns persist.
In fact, according to a June 2022 Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ) survey of more than 1,000 consumers, experiential conditions still top the list of health issues experienced regularly. Number one is stress, with 41% of respondents saying they grapple with this frequently, followed by anxiety and depression (37%), sleep issues or insomnia (37%) and fatigue or lack of energy (34%). Next comes weight management concerns (32%) and gut health concerns (25%), both intrinsically linked to mental health.
Perhaps the survey results aren't surprising. After all, mental health challenges aren't tied exclusively to COVID-19—far from it. But now that the conversation around them has been cracked wide open, consumers are increasingly prioritizing their mental well-being. They may be more apt to learn about the causes and conditions—and look for solutions to optimize calm, sleep, mood and more.
Retailer as educator
As trusted teachers and health guides, natural products retailers are uniquely positioned to support shoppers' mental wellness goals. They can tap into the rich education provided by supplement, food, beverage and personal care brands to help their customers understand the nuances of mental health and how best to bolster it.
For starters, while it may seem like mental health issues are all in the head, in reality, they are deeply intertwined with other parts of the body. For example, serotonin, the "feel good" hormone, is mostly made in the gut, meaning that a digestive disturbance could disturb mental state. Carrying extra pounds can also impact mood, as research shows depression is twice as prevalent among people with obesity as in those at a healthy weight.
Sleep is another big factor in mental wellness. Without regular, good-quality rest to rejuvenate the body and brain, people often feel sad, stressed, cloudy-headed or irritable. Nutrient intake and metabolism matter too. Many consumers don't get enough mood-influencing B vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, iron or omega-3 fatty acids in their diets, or they don't metabolize these nutrients well, leading to insufficiencies or deficiencies that can manifest mentally.
"We have to stop separating out our bodies into areas and start addressing our health as the whole body," says Charlotte Traas, a master herbalist who in October joined gummy supplements manufacturer TopGum Inc. as vice president of sales. "This includes our mental state and self-care habits."
On its face, the secret to improving mental health seems strikingly easy: get active, get outside, eat right, drink water, sleep, meditate—all scientifically shown to help. But of course, amidst today's go-go-go schedules, ceaseless stressors and predictable unpredictability, this simple formula can be maddeningly difficult to ace.
Natural products retailers can emphasize the importance of eating nutritious foods, staying hydrated and other healthy habits that impact mental health. They can also point shoppers to products that jive with their busy lifestyles, making it simple to get sufficient vitamin D or omega-3s, for instance, or to take a calming adaptogenic herb regularly.
There is an explosion of innovation all across the industry to help consumers achieve optimum mental well-being. From supplements that specifically target stress to mood-boosting RTD beverages, brain health-enhancing-foods and soothing self-care products, retailers can line their shelves with impactful natural solutions.
Supplemental support for mental well-being
Even before COVID-19, consumers were increasingly turning to supplements for mental wellness support. While these products are not intended to work like drugs and cannot claim to prevent or treat mental illness, they can certainly promote healthy minds, balanced moods and restful slumbers. Some do so by giving the body and brain extra support to function optimally, while others target specific symptoms of mental health conditions.
According to Nutrition Business Journal, the mood and mental health category has marked double-digit annual growth since 2018. Then when the pandemic hit, shoppers flocked to these products in droves. In 2020, sales of mood and mental health supplements skyrocketed 29.4%. They increased another 11.5% in 2021 and an estimated 6.6% last year. By 2025, NBJ predicts that this market will be 2.5 times larger than it was in 2017.
Much of the category's growth is driven by herbal supplements for mental health and mood. Notably, this does not include hemp CBD, sales of which have dropped precipitously. Rather, combination herbs are the big story here. Sales shot up 322.5% in 2020 and a still remarkable 43.2% in 2021, giving combination herbs nearly 20% market share. Though NBJ estimates more modest sales growth—8.2%—for 2022, this market is en route to being eight times bigger in 2025 than in 2019.
Single Ayurvedic herbs for mental health, including ashwagandha, rhodiola and other adaptogens, are also gaining momentum—and fast. Sales of these supplements have surged 86.9% since 2019. But even post-pandemic, NBJ expects more astronomical growth ahead. After stabilizing to 11.3% growth in 2021, Ayurvedic herb sales increased by an estimated 59.2% in 2022 and will likely hit 81.3% sales growth in 2023.
Adaptogens in particular have been a touchstone of the botanicals world for coming on a decade. These herbs help us adapt to situations and circumstances, including stress. But different adaptogens work differently with each person, so retailers should inform shoppers of the variability and help them find the best potential fits.
"You have to 'date' your herbs to find your love match," Traas says. "Some people might love holy basil; others may enjoy lemon balm—the balm that 'makes the heart merry and joyful,' according to some proverbs. Rhodiola is my personal favorite because it energizes me and helps me to adapt to stress while keeping up a high-performance level."
Click through the gallery for a sample of supplements that support mood and mental health.
Don't miss The State of Supplements session and panel discussion at 10 a.m. PT on Wednesday, March 8, in Grand Ballroom F at the Marriot. Start with coffee and networking before settling in for data-driven insights into the top trends and opportunities in the supplement industry.
Visit the Natural Products Expo West agenda for information about other supplements-related sessions that day. Conference Experience upgrade required.
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