Natural health product sales increase during COVID

PANDEMIC PANIC: “A lot of people were looking for products to deal with anxiety,” explains Andrew Celwyn, left, co-owner of Herbiary with his partner Maia Toll, right. Photo courtesy of Herbiary

Western North Carolina’s reputation as a wellness destination dates to the late 1800s, when the area was thought to be helpful to people with tuberculosis. In 1871, Dr. H. P. Gatchell, who opened the first sanitarium in the country in Kenilworth, called Asheville “the Switzerland of America” on account of its “pure” mountain air.

While tuberculosis is not the infectious disease on most people’s minds these days, Asheville is still known as a healing location and a place where herbal medicine and natural products have a firm footing.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted more people to focus on their health, and the city’s many natural products stores rose to the occasion. Mike Rogers of Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs in Asheville says his shop experienced an influx of customers looking to take charge of their health. His sales are up 25% since the beginning of the pandemic. (This echoes global trends resulting from the pandemic: A 2021 survey by McKinsey & Co. found 48.2% of Americans surveyed were prioritizing wellness more than they had two or three years prior.)

Xpress spoke with owners of several shops to find out what locals have been reaching for during the pandemic.

Something fishy

When customers want to boost their overall health, Rogers recommends they begin a regimen of high-potency multivitamins and fish oil.

Both fish oil and multivitamins can help meet nutritional needs that aren’t supplied by the standard American diet, which contains a lot of processed foods, he says. (The efficacy, safety and labeling of multivitamins and other dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.)

“Multivitamin [sales] have definitely increased because people were coming in looking to get healthy,” Rogers explains, estimating his store had at least a 30% increase in multivitamin sales since the beginning of the pandemic.

Rogers says he recommends fish oil to customers because it contains omega-3 fatty acids that many people aren’t getting from their food. “Foods we eat today are so processed, they don’t have the good oils in them anymore,” he says. Instead, he says, people consume an unhealthful amount of the omega-6 fatty acids found in corn and soybean products.

Anxious minds

It’s old news that anxiety and sleep disruptions have both been hallmarks of the pandemic.

“A lot of people were looking for products to deal with anxiety,” explains Andrew Celwyn, co-owner of Herbiary with his partner Maia Toll. Customers expressed an interest in CBD oil in the form of tinctures or extracts, he says, “but we also have some blends that people use for helping them relax and not feel so stressful.”

One blend includes nervines, such as skullcap, a type of mint, he explains. Skullcap is a native wildflower and a traditional Cherokee medicine. Kava kava root and blue vervain are two other herbal remedies that can be found in CBD blends, Celwyn says.

Rogers also saw an increase in customers seeking a cannabidiol calm. “We have sold a lot of the CBD oil,” he explains. “People have been coming in here for [products] for stress, sleep and anxiety like crazy.”

Sweet dreams

Sales for “everything for sleep” increased during the pandemic, Rogers says. Recommendations for anxiety or insomnia depend on a person’s health history, Rogers explains, and notes CBD is not the only option. He also recommends the herb ashwagandha, which has been used in ayurveda, India’s traditional medicine system.

Melatonin supplements also can be helpful for insomnia, Rogers tells Xpress. “Melatonin is good because it’s what your body normally produces [as a hormone] to put you to sleep,” he says. Melatonin can come in two dispersal methods: a time-release form or an immediate-release form.

The Mayo Clinic notes that melatonin can be beneficial as a sleep aid as it is nonhabit forming, unlike some pharmaceutical sleep aids. However, Mayo cited a number of possible drug interactions, including contraceptives, blood pressure drugs and anticoagulants.

Rogers notes that sleeping problems can increase with age because the body decreases its production of melatonin.

Immune boosters

Rogers, who is co-owner with Bill Cheek, says Nature’s Vitamins’ customers have always been interested in natural ways to boost their immune systems. (The two are ex-pharmacists who closed the pharmacy in their shop five years ago to focus on herbal medicine.) A popular product since early 2022 has been a dietary supplement OrthoMune, Rogers says, although the ingredients have been popular since mid-2021, when they sold the combination of its five vitamins and minerals separately.

NATURAL BOOSTSERS: Mike Rogers, left, and Bill Cheek, right, retired pharmacists and co-owners of Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs, say their customers have always been interested in natural ways to boost their immune systems. Photo courtesy of Rogers

OrthoMune contains zinc, quercetin, vitamins C and D and N-acetyl cysteine in one capsule. “A lot of people were coming in here to take [this combination] as a [COVID] preventative at a lower dose,” Rogers says. “And then if they felt symptoms coming on, they upped the dose on it.” (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend specific supplements for the prevention of COVID.)

Zinc is crucial for the immune system as well as the development of T-cells, a type of white blood cell that protects the body from infection, according to a fact sheet from the National Institutes of Health. Quercetin helps the body absorb zinc, Rogers explains. “Zinc has trouble getting into cells,” he says. “Quercetin is more permeable for the cell membrane — it pulls the zinc with it.”

Literature from OrthoMolecular Products, the manufacturer of OrthoMune, does not claim its supplement prevents or cures COVID. OrthoMolecular Products says its clinical applications are “broad spectrum support for health immune function,” “supports healthy respiratory function” and “maintains normal inflammatory balance.”

‘Short supply’

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Larry Shelton, pharmacist and owner of Shelton Pharmacy in Hendersonville, says customers did not commonly ask for N-acetyl cysteine.

N-acetyl cysteine helps with lung function, specifically to “liquify mucus,” Shelton explains. According to Healthline, N-acetyl cysteine “can relieve symptoms of respiratory conditions by acting as an antioxidant and expectorant, loosening mucus in your air passageways.”

Rogers and Shelton both say vitamin D was popular before the pandemic and then increased. “Definitely, vitamin D sales upticked because of the pandemic, and people starting reading and learning vitamin D helped their immune system,” Rogers says.

Shelton adds, “When the pandemic first started, we sold a lot of [vitamin D]. We still sell a fair amount but not nearly as much as when the pandemic was in full bloom.”

Although Shelton Pharmacy never sold out of vitamin D, he explains “we had short supply a time or two.” But, he continues, “a lot of companies make vitamin D, so we were able to have it on hand.”

Cheek at Nature’s Vitamins recalls how “a month into the pandemic, people were literally panicking” when stores ran out of zinc and vitamin C. But due to its previous history as a pharmacy, their shop had other supply chains, which he thinks brought in new customers. Customers “would call us almost as a last resort” looking for herbal medicine and vitamins. He assured them, ‘Yeah, we’ve got plenty here.'”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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