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How traditional herbs can benefit the modern mind

Adaptogenic herbs_2.jpg
Dr Holly Johnson discusses emerging research in this field, and how to identify product innovation opportunities in this emerging category.

Holly Johnson .jpgConsumers are increased aware that high stress levels, interrupted sleep, and decreased mental focus can have a significant negative impact on their quality of life. In addition to lifestyle changes, many are turning to botanical products to boost their mental health and wellbeing. Dr Holly Johnson is chief science officer of the American Herbal Products Association. AHPA’s mission is to promote the responsible and sustainable commerce of herbal products, and to ensure that consumers have informed access to a wide variety of safe herbal goods.

Q: As we look at the mental health category, you've coined a phrase: ‘brainy botanicals.'. Could you explain a little about what you mean by this phrase – what are we talking about here?  

A. I like to think that what I’ve been calling ‘brainy botanicals’ falls into three broad categories, especially when we are talking about product formulations and market trends. There are those that provide support for mental focus and clarity; those that support sleep; and those that address stress. There will certainly be some overlap, and certain botanicals may fall into more than one of those areas, but all are related to mental wellbeing and cognitive health.  

Q. Could you tell us a little about some of the recent scientific advances and discoveries that have been in this field, in terms of the positive influence some adaptogens can have on our mental health?   

A. Both acute and long-term exposure to various stressors can lead to decreased physical and mental performance, as well as stress-related illnesses associated with mental health including anxiety, depression, and memory impairment, among others. Adaptogens were originally defined as enhancing the ‘state of non-specific resistance’ in stress. This means increased adaptability and resilience for living organisms when exposed to stressful conditions. This was a desired effect originally researched with the hope that these types of substances could lead to increased working capacity and cognitive performance, especially for workers in jobs with high exposure to fatigue and stress, such as pilots or surgeons or soldiers, regardless of the nature of the stressor. Several of these adaptogenic botanicals - including ginseng, eluthero, rhodiola, schizandra, ashwagandha, and several species of fungi - have been shown to have effects on the neuroendocrine–immune system, as well as a variety of therapeutic endpoints related to mental health and maintaining overall homeostasis. 

Q. What recent research has been carried out into the health benefits of specific botanicals that merits highlighting?  

A. There is certainly abundant historical and ongoing research in this field. This includes both human clinical and animal trials that are examining the antidepressant and anxiolytic effects of various adaptogens. There is also ongoing research into measuring specific biomarkers related to health benefits such as changes in serum cortisol levels.  

Q. What advice would you give to manufacturers looking to include botanicals in their formulations; what should they bear in mind when selecting ingredients?  

The key to success for companies looking to expand their botanical products offerings in the dietary supplement and natural products space is to build long-term committed relationships with botanical suppliers. They should also look to maintain strong supplier and ingredient qualification programmes when creating sourcing partnerships and onboarding new ingredients.  Supply chain issues, availability and volume, as well as sustainability concerns are also paramount. As far as formulation, manufacturers should have a close look at the available data and how experimental trials were designed in terms of clinical endpoints that may support the type of label claims desired for a given product.

Q. How do you see this category evolving over the next few years, in terms of more manufacturers getting on board, consumer perceptions changing, new scientific discoveries etc.?  

A. The public health crisis that began in 2020 led to many of us being impacted by changes to our home and working life. This often led to high stress levels, interrupted sleep, and decreased mental focus. Market growth trends for these so-called brainy botanicals, including adaptogens, which are associated with support for those conditions, and with general resilience and mental wellbeing, have continued and rapidly accelerated. I think products related to mental health and wellbeing will continue to be popular with consumers, and will be increasingly integrated into daily self-care routines throughout the year, not just during times of stress or for example occasional sleep disruption while travelling.

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