The COVID-19 pandemic has not only had an adverse effect on physical health and livelihood, but the anxiety, disruption, and change in lifestyle that come with it pose a threat to mental health as well.
People are living with elevated stress levels and the never-ending waves of COVID-19 in most markets have resulted in prolonged stress in many individuals. Prolonged stress can take a toll on our bodies and cause serious consequences to our physical and mental health.
Health impacted by stress
Stress is a normal human reaction. When we experience it, our body’s built-in stress response, the fight or flight mechanism, produces a large amount of hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline which increase heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, muscle tension, and alertness.
These physical and mental changes are designed to help us face danger, and have been important since prehistoric times, especially in the fight for survival against predators. While some bodily functions increase, others slow down as the body concentrates its resources on blood flow, breathing, and alertness which affect our immune system, digestive system, and sleep due to the resultant heightened alertness.
The constant activation of these stress response systems will disrupt many body processes. Chronic stress can result in several health consequences: increased risk of psychiatric disorders, higher heart attack risk, higher blood pressure and risk of stroke, stomach and digestion problems resulting in peptic ulcers, IBS and GERD, muscle tension causing headaches and migraines, and suppressed immune system as cortisol acts as an immune-suppressant.
Sleep boosts immunity
Sleep is a universal need and is linked to many other physiological functions of the body. Findings show that prolonged sleep deficiency such as short sleep duration and sleep disturbance, can lead to chronic, systemic low-grade inflammation and is associated with various diseases like diabetes, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, neurodegeneration, as well as affecting mental health.
Various studies have also indicated the link between sleep and the immune system. One study showed that apparent loss of sleep increased the risk of infection in the airways, especially from viruses. Another study revealed that fewer than six hours of sleep per night was associated with a reduction of vaccine protection from the hepatitis B virus.
A condition called COVID-somnia emerged in 2020 as a result of the pandemic; referring to the increase in sleep disorders. In the US, an increase in prescriptions for sleep disorders was seen in 2020 compared to 2019. At the same time, food and supplement product launches promoting stress relief and sleep saw a significant increase.
Let’s take a deeper look at some of these aspects and explore how the food and beverage industry is helping to alleviate the stress of its consumers.
With a lack of avenues to relieve stress, many individuals are turning to foods, drinks, and dietary supplements to maintain holistic well-being covering the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of health. This presents an opportunity for foods, drinks, and dietary supplement brands to create and offer products that meet these emerging needs, and different formats, for regular consumption.
According to Mintel, 2020 saw significant growth in product launches positioned for stress relief and sleep improvement – an increase of 32 percent from the previous year. Several food and beverage ingredients have seen an increased presence in products promoting stress relief, relaxation, and sleep improvement.
Incorporating these ingredients into regular food and drink products can increase the reach of the products to a wider group of consumers who are not only looking at treating an existing condition but also those who are looking at holistically maintaining their health.
L-theanine is an amino acid found in tea with concentrations ranging from one to ten percent in tea leaves. Theanine has a chemical structure very similar to glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid in the body that helps transmit nerve impulses in the brain.
L-theanine may affect the levels of certain chemicals in the brain. These include serotonin and dopamine -which influence mood, sleep, emotion - and cortisol which affects the way the body reacts to stress. As such, L-theanine has the potential to be a nutraceutical ingredient for stress relief and sleep improvement. Studies have found that four weeks of administration of L-theanine in tablet form can be effective in improving stress-related symptoms in healthy adults.
GABA is a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA is considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter because it blocks, inhibits certain brain signals, and decreases activity in the nervous system.
When GABA attaches to a receptor in the brain, it produces a calming effect. Given the ubiquitous role of GABA as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, along with its widespread distribution, it is unsurprising that it has been implicated in a large range of behaviors (Olney, 1990). These include anxiety and stress regulation, circadian rhythm and sleep regulation, memory enhancement, mood, and even perception of pain. GABA is increasingly used in dietary supplements. In Japan, it is commonly incorporated into candies and chocolate confectionery.
With increasing interest in products promoting stress relief and sleep improvement, food and beverage manufacturers can take the opportunity to incorporate L-theanine or GABA into easily available forms such as ready-to-drink beverages, juices, or tea, rather than confining them to the supplement space.
There are already ready-to-consume drinks incorporating these ingredients which not only provide relaxation but a daily dose of vitamins on top. These beverages, such as fruit-infused tea, will appeal to a wider group of consumers who are seeking tasty yet functional products.
Food and mood have a long-standing connection. Consumers have always turned to food to boost their mood or to seek pleasurable experiences. This is an excellent opportunity to focus on evolving consumers’ favorite snakes, such as chocolates or cookies that incorporate mood-enhancing ingredients or a night-time dairy drinks with relaxation and sleep improvement properties.
Anne Tan is Senior Manager of Business Development for Food and Beverage Ingredients Asia Pacific, Performance Materials, based in Kuala Lumpur.