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Beyond Flu Season

Phase 2

For people of all ages, immune health is more than a seasonal category.

From the young child who gets a cold at daycare, to the business professional who doesn’t have time to stay at home with the flu, the immune health category is important for people of all ages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that Americans get approximately one billion colds each year, while influenza affects approximately 60 million Americans annually.

The immune system is a network of cells, organs and tissues that unite to protect the body from any pathogens that try to invade the body. And while it works hard to do its job during the winter months, the immune system functions far beyond just helping a person from catching a cold or coming down with the flu, as it also functions to shield the body for a number of other issues including allergies and autoimmune diseases.

Further, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that at least 80 human diseases are caused primarily or secondarily by an autoimmune response (new diseases are frequently being added to the list). NIH also estimates that five to eight percent of Americans have an autoimmune disorder, while according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, autoimmune disorders affect more than 23. 5 million Americans and are a leading cause of death and disability.

Because of these, and among other reasons, the immune health category is booming. “Supplements for the support of the immune system are the largest segment of the herbal market in health food stores,” said John Holladay, product management director for Gaia Herbs in North Carolina. “Last year, this category was one of the largest growth areas, increasing around 25 percent. Since it represents the largest segment of the market, immune support stands to benefit the most new people to turn to herbal supplements for health support.” 

“The market is strong but changing,” added Stuart H. Garber, DC, PhD, president of California-based Dr. Garber’s Natural Solutions. “People are looking for products that will actually help strengthen their immune systems for the long run, not merely address their current symptoms.” 

A “Seasonless” Category 

A strong immune system is key to good overall health. And as the market grows, with the help of TV health experts such as Dr. Oz, as well as consumers taking the initiative to do their own research, many are beginning to understand the importance of maintaining a healthy immune system year-round. Unfortunately, today that seems to be a difficult task for some, as many Americans have poor eating habits and don’t get enough sleep or exercise.

“There are a few customers who make immune health a part of their basic supplement program because they understand how much immune health affects overall health every day, not just when someone has the sniffles,” said Ramona Billingslea, marketing manager for Betsy’s Health Foods, which has two locations in Houston, TX. “Often, the customer comes in with a specific concern without realizing that immune health support may actually be beneficial for him/her. More recently, with shows like Dr. Oz and commercials about probiotics in the mainstream that talk more specifically about immunity and the body, customers are beginning to show more interest in their aspect of their health.” 

“Managing immune health is important year-round,” added Steve Fink, business and marketing manager for North Carolina-based Ajinomoto North America, Inc. “Athletes who train extensively are often prone to immune suppression. Therefore, athletes need to bolster their immune systems as much as possible to prevent illness due to over-training. In addition, travelers often are exposed to airborne germs, so maintaining a healthy immune system year-round is crucial.” 

And it is not just athletes and frequent travelers who have to worry about their immune systems throughout the year. According to Dan Lifton, CEO of New York-based, Quality of Life Labs, while the majority of consumers still associate immunity with the seasonal cold, more people now understand the importance of immunity in the prevention of chronic conditions. “As an example, media coverage of immunotherapy as a new ground-breaking direction in oncology is driving the message that strengthening one’s immunity can bring significant benefits to your overall health,” he explained. “Public awareness of the limitations of the flu vaccine has also been increasingly consistently, driving consumers to either complement the flu shot or replace it altogether. We believe that this has helped spur growth in the category.” 

Further, many do not realize how intertwined the immune system is with the rest of the body. In fact, a significant part of the immune system is located in the body’s digestive tract. Probiotics are gaining traction in the immune support category because this information is getting out to the public. For example, TV personality Erin Andrews can be seen in TruBiotics commercials explaining how probiotics can benefit immune health.

“There is now extensive data on the growth of the probiotics category and some of that has definitely been fueled by growing demand in immunity,” said Lifton. “While digestive health benefits has been most widely touted by probiotics suppliers, a growing number of products are positioned for immunity as well. Since 80 percent of immune cells reside in the gut, the link makes sense and can be easily explained to consumers. We have seen significant growth for our flagship product Probiopure and many of our customers are taking it in combination with Kinoko Gold AHCC.” 

“Although the public typically links probiotics to digestive health, they are becoming educated about the role they play beyond simple digestion,” added Jay Levy, director of sales for Californiabased Wakunaga of America Co. Ltd. “Well-publicized studies show that probiotics strengthen the intestinal barrier and stimulate the body’s production of immune cells. According to a recent study1 specific probiotic strains enhance nonspecific cellular immune response characterized by activation of macrophages, natural killer (NK) cells, antigen-specific cytotoxic T-lymphocytes, and the release of various cytokines in strain-specific and dosedependent manner.” 

A recent study found that the specific probiotic strains in Wakunaga’s Kyo- Dophilus could trigger a beneficial shift in the bacterial composition of the gut. This shift can, in turn, bolster immunity in older adults. The study, which was a randomized, double-blind, placebocontrolled human trial, was conducted by researchers from the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at the University of Florida. It was presented at the 2014 Experimental Biology Meeting held in San Diego, CA, Levy noted.

And in addition to being connected to the gut, only now are Americans are beginning to truly understand how much sleep and stress affect the immune system. According to Donna Noonan, president of New Jerseybased Mushroom Wisdom Inc., a 2006 study by the American Psychological Association declared that stressed does in fact negatively impact the immune system. “The medical community educated patients (consumers) that uncontrolled stress in life directly impacts the immune system,” she said. “This is a key link that retailers may make the most of—merchandise stress and immune supplements as compatible. The healthier one’s immune system is functioning, the better his/her body may deal with stressors and vise versa.”

Sleep is also an important factor when it comes to immune health. According to Garber, a number of studies have shown that one of the biggest causes of a lowered immune system is not getting enough restful sleep, which is one of the most common problems around the world. “My best-selling product is my Sleep formula and this will be an important part of anyone’s immune support regimen,” he said. “Another all to common issue that has also been shown to depress the immune system is depression. That is why we also promote our Depression formula as an immune support product.” 

Dr. Garber’s also offers EnviroDefense. According to Garber, EnviroDefense acts as a neuro-endocrine modulator to stimulate the immune system and is particularly helpful for any kind of allergyrelated condition.

Immune Boosters 

The first step to keeping the immune system in tip-top shape all year is to make lifestyle changes such as eating a balanced diet, getting the proper amount of exercise and maintaining stress, dietary supplementation can help support proper immune function.

“There are two types of healthy immune function: innate and adaptive. Innate immunity is the kind you are born with. It’s your body’s first, general response to all immune stressors,” explained Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, director of category management for New Yorkbased Twinlab Corporation. “Adaptive immunity is the kind you acquire over time through exposure to the environment. It’s your body’s learned response to specific immune stressors. Twinlab’s new and improved Immunity Booster™ was formulated with clinically tested ingredients that help to support both your innate and adaptive defenses.* 

Twinlab’s Immunity Booster contains antioxidants zinc, which affects multiple aspects of the immune system, from the barrier of the skin to cellular function; selenium, which helps provide antioxidant protection against free radicals; and vitamin C, which helps support the function of immune cells.* In addition, the company added the clinically-tested amount of 250 mg of Wellmune WGP®, a unique beta-glucan that supports a healthy upper respiratory tract and promotes well-being during stress,* as well as Echinacea purpurea, which was shown in clinical research to enhance immune support.* 

While zinc, vitamins C, D and E, as well as astragalus and echinacea have been category leaders for some time because of their abilities to help support a healthy immune system, market growth has allowed for research to prove that a number of other vitamins and herbs can also benefit the immune system. “Many vitamins traditionally associated with immune health—for example, vitamin C—have many other non-immune related benefits that contribute to overall health, which in turn feeds back into a healthy immune system,” said Paul Marcellino, president of Oklahoma-based Dead Sea Moringa. “Moringa, including our Dead Sea Moringa, has been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels, provide antioxidants that relieve stress, increase endurance, promote healthy vision and aid in improving mental clarity and alertness.” 

According to Marcellino, Moringa is considered by many to be the most nutrient rich plant food source found on earth, naturally containing 90 nutrients, including 12 vitamins and minerals, 46 antioxidants, 18 amino acids, including a high concentration of all nine essential amino acids, and 36 anti-inflammatory compounds. The company is currently working on a new line of products in powder form that can be sprinkled on salads or added to other foods.

Wakunaga’s Moducare and ModucareCF provide a proprietary blend of sterols and sterolins which, in a clinically proven ratio of 100:1, restore, strengthen, and balance the immune system, Levy said. “Moducare is the only scientifically tested plant sterol/sterolin supplement proven to be effective in immune modulation. ModucareCF combines the sterols and sterolins in Moducare with immunestimulating herbs and nutrients such as Kyolic Aged Garlic Extract, vitamin C, zinc, astragalus, echinacea and a potent mushroom complex,” he continued. “These ingredients provide formidable antioxidant protection and immune support. Some of these nutrients have also been shown to reduce upper respiratory symptoms such as a stuffy nose and sore throat.” 

Gaia Herbs offers a number of immune support products including one of the company’s top-sellers, Organic Black Elderberry Syrup. “The comment we hear most often about this syrup is that it’s obviously highly concentrated, with a teaspoon holding the juice equivalent of 14,5000 mg of berries,” Holladay said. “It includes acerola cherry extract as well, which is a nice whole food source of vitamin C.” 

In addition, Gaia Herbs recently began using a supercritical extract of Echinacea in its Quick Defense® Liquid Phyto-Caps®. The company found this very clean extraction method could get the high levels of the herbal constituents it wanted.

Ajinomoto’s immune support product, AjiPure® Glutamimmune™ offers the world’s purest L-Glutamine available on the global market. Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body, and according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, clinical studies show that glutamine supplements have help strengthen the immune system and reduce infection.

Glutamimmune helps to fuel the body’s immune system and supports intestinal health.* Although the human body can manufacture L-Glutamine, it is often considered an essential amino acid during periods of elevated stress and critical illness,* the company stated. “Under stress or critical illness, the human body cannot synthesize enough L-Glutamine to satisfy the needs of the rapidly proliferating cells of the immune system, particularly the immune cells found in the gut area such as intestines and kidneys,* said Fink. “Consequently, in situations of stress, heavy exercise, viral or bacterial infections, the concentration of Lglutamine in the blood diminishes.* Glutamimmune helps to replenish this vital L-Glutamine concentration.*” 

Medicinal mushrooms are also known for the positive effect they can have on the immune system. Mushrooms, in particular reishi and maitake, are very high in beta glucans, a derivative that can help boost a weak immune system. “Maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa) is a sought-after culinary mushroom that also is nutritious. Maitake is known to promote a healthy immune system,” explained Noonan. “Researchers discovered a unique beta-glucan they called D-fraction and its potent immune-support ability. Initial research focused on its ability to encourage the production and activity of a variety of immune cells.” 

Mushroom Wisdom’s Maitake Dfraction is available in standard strength (liquid and capsules) and PRO, 4X strength (liquid and easy to swallow tablets). PRO 4X is four times the potency of the standard. In addition, Maitake D-Fraction is added to each of the company’s Super Mushroom supplements, such as Coriolus, Royal Agaricus, Chaga, Meshima, among others.

Quality of Life Labs’ Kinoko Gold AHCC is a fermented extract of hybridized medicinal mushroom mycelia (roots). AHCC is one of the world’s most researched specialty immune supplements, supported by more 20 human clinical studies. AHCC has been shown to maintain optimal NK cell activity,* enhance cytokine production,* promote optimal T-cell activity,* promote optimal macrophage activity,* and increase the activity and the number of dendritic cells.* 


When it comes to immune health products, there are a plethora of different types of delivery methods. While retailer Billingslea noted that its seems that capsules are still the delivery method of choice, children and others who cannot swallow pills are looking to other delivery methods such as liquids and powders.

“Convenience is important. Even though consumers know that they need to take an immune-specific supplement on a regular basis to glean its long-term benefits, it must fit easily into their busy lives. A one-daily formula or a dosage that requires one to two pills or capsules will be considerably more attractive than one requiring multiple pills and multiple doses throughout the day,” said Wakunaga’s Levy, who added that both stick powders and lozenges are convenient and useful delivery systems.

Gaia Herbs recently launched an immune support energy shot. Herbal Energy Plus Immune Support is a 99.9 percent caffeine- free energy shot with herbs such as astragalus and black elderberry to help promote a healthy immune response. “When people lack energy and vitality, their immune systems can be challenged, so the combination of supporting healthy energy levels and the immune system were the perfect fit,” noted Holladay.

Quality of Life Labs launched “Kinoko To Go” AHCC as a water-soluble powder in stick packs. With seven stick packs per box in a shipper, the company designed it to be an item that can be sold at Point of Sale (POS) with a ready-to-go POS display.

And when it comes to what to stock and where to place immune support products in your store, it may be wise to cross-promote items in multiple sections of the store such as placing a stress-support item in the immune health aisle. “Think outside the box, that is, think about products that support the body in its ability to maintain a healthy immune system (such as sleep and mood issues) and not just products that look to address symptoms of the immune-related illness after the fact,” Garber said.

“We believe in raising awareness of supporting your immune system now and not just when a consumer begins to ‘feel ill,’” concluded Dead Sea Moringa’s Marcellino. “We are all about prevention versus treatment.”

* This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.


1 Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2014;54(7):938-56.

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