Herb your enthusiasm: Supplement sales surge as consumers seek natural immunity boosts

Tom Stewart, owner of Truckee Meadow Herbs, straightens the products on the shelves of his retail store on Wells Avenue in Reno.

Tom Stewart, owner of Truckee Meadow Herbs, straightens the products on the shelves of his retail store on Wells Avenue in Reno. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW

Tom Stewart, owner of Truckee Meadow Herbs in Reno, is trying to help a customer locate a bottle of the supplement chromium.

“Normally, it sits there,” Stewart says, crouching and tracing his finger to an area of the shelf.

His finger stops, pointing to an empty space on the shelf.

“So many things just aren’t coming in that I order,” he says. “Hopefully this order will be in this week. But, the way things are going, they’re just not showing up. I’ll call you as soon as it does.”

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in late April and Stewart just had an interaction with a customer that exemplifies the business impacts he’s faced during the coronavirus pandemic: Demand is up, but supply is down.

“It happens all the time,” Stewart says, referring to a product not being in stock. “The worst thing you can have is a customer and no product. It’s usually easier to get the product than it is to get a customer.”

Still, Stewart said the number of customers Truckee Meadow Herbs, which sells a variety of natural medicinal herbs and supplements, has served over the last year has surged. The demand even started to rise before the pandemic shut down the state in mid-March 2020. In fact, Stewart said his business “almost doubled” in the first quarter of 2020 compared to Q1 in 2019.

“People were anticipating that things would shut down,” said Stewart, a registered herbalist who opened Truckee Meadow Herbs in Reno in 1982. “They were trying to build their immune system. They were trying to get things that would help them prevent going to the doctor because they were afraid to have to go into the doctor or into the hospital.”

Tom Stewart says the pandemic has driven more customers to his store in search for supplements and herbs to build their immune systems. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW


Stewart said the products that have been flying off his shelves the fastest are those used to boost the immune system — from common supplements like Vitamin C and Vitamin D to medicinal plants like astragalus root and elderberry.

But, as aforementioned, many of his suppliers are so swamped that all sorts of products are either delayed getting to his shelves or not showing up at all.

It’s a hard pill to swallow for retailers like Truckee Meadow Herbs.

“I’ve got suppliers that used to come in three days now taking three weeks,” he said. “And that really messes me up. It’s actually extra work because I have to order the same product again. So, I’m constantly hunting and ordering the same product over and over.”

During the two months Stewart had to shut his doors early in the pandemic, before the supply chain was crimped, he transformed his shop into a micro distribution center. Along with two other employees, he boxed and shipped out mail orders he continued to get from customers, old and new.

“I kept getting so many calls and people asking to be able to get their products, so I started doing mail orders,” Stewart said. “So, I was super busy even though I was shut down. And then I started doing curbside. And then I’ve been back open to the public for about 10 months now and it’s still just as busy.”


It’s not just Northern Nevadans who are turning to natural herbs and supplements to treat their body and mind amid the pandemic. It was already a growing trend across the U.S., but COVID-19 punched the shift to supplements and food as medicine into overdrive.

Just ask NOW Foods, a manufacturer of more than 1,500 natural health products, including foods and supplements. Based in Chicago, the company expanded to Sparks in 2003.

“When COVID hit, NOW’s sales demand accelerated daily and was roughly triple what was normal for us,” Jim Emme, CEO of NOW Foods, said in an email to the NNBW. “Immune supplements such as Vitamin C, zinc, and elderberry were selling 10 to 50 times their normal volume.”

“There’s really been a shift in how consumers think about wellness, making it more personalized and preventative — of course, motivated by the pandemic.”

Jim Emme


Moreover, Emme said the “media focus” on immune support products “played a major role” in driving sales for NOW. And even though millions of Americans have now been vaccinated against COVID-19, the company has not seen demand drop off.

“We’re still seeing higher than normal demand for many products, supplements, specifically,” he said.

All told, NOW’s supplement sales in the first quarter of 2021 were 30-40% above the pre-COVID months of January and February in 2020, Emme said. Sales this past March, he noted, mirrored their numbers in March 2020.

In response to the sales growth, NOW is “working around the clock” to increase its supply, said Emme, noting that the company’s production is up about 40% from last year. It’s still not enough to meet the demand.

“We’re still seeing lower than normal fill rates,” he said. “We hope to see much improvement over the next few months.”

Especially since Emme and Stewart don’t see the accelerated shift to supplements slowing anytime soon.

Emme, for one, feels the added stress of the pandemic will propel even more consumers to natural products.

“Demand for supplements that support stress relief — adaptogens, magnesium, etc. — brain health and cognitive function will see a steady uptick,” he said.


Another plant-based product commonly used to treat stress and anxiety is cannabidiol, better known as CBD, derived from the cannabis plant.

And like herbs and supplements, CBD has jumped in popularity during the pandemic, growing in usage by 49% from spring 2019 through fall 2020, according to the NPD Group.

Sean Devlin


Sean Devlin, a Reno doctor and co-founder of Lig & Ceptor, a nutraceutical company that uses CBD as the backbone of its medicine formulas, said the company tried to get ahead of potential supply chain snags by stockpiling on raw materials before the virus hit the states.

The company, which Devlin said sources its CBD locally, currently has five products, including formulas that treat anxiety, pain and viral infections, as well as those that aid sleep and focus.

Reno-based doctor Ann Barnet and Incline Village-based doctor Laning Andrews co-founded the company with Devlin.

“Our main goal was to try to create a natural blend of products that could basically help people segue off of pharmaceuticals, which come with a lot of side effects,” Devlin said. “Our goal was to reduce the side-effect profile and actually provide what we call a side-benefit profile, where people would be taking things that were also adding oxidants, anti-inflammatory and adaptogenic.

“So, it was a way for us to sort of create solutions to problems without causing more problems.”

Devlin said the company, which has been in development since spring 2019 but didn’t officially launch until earlier this year, was especially focused on getting the ingredients for its “viral” formula when COVID-19 began to spread globally.

“By March, April and May (2020), we were filling a need for people,” said Devlin, noting Lig & Ceptor started selling wholesale to vendors last spring. “We had a lot of positive feedback on it. A lot of people who had caught COVID had taken our supplements and actually cleared the virus very quickly, so we were happy to see that from a clinical standpoint.”

A licensed physician in California, Colorado, Washington and Nevada, Devlin said clinics across North America — from Nevada to Delaware to Puerto Rico — have started carrying Lig & Ceptor’s products.

Devlin said perhaps the biggest industry trend he’s noticed during the pandemic is more and more people are educating themselves on natural remedies and seeking out alternatives to pharmaceuticals.

“There’s just a big fear of the healthcare industry, and there’s unfortunately a lot of misinformation out there about what physicians or healthcare providers can or can’t do for COVID,” he said. “A lot of folks think, ‘All you can do is give me oxygen? All you can do is put me on a ventilator? All you can do is give me fluids?’

“So, people are looking for other alternatives,” he continued. “And there is a lot of data on the role elderberry, the role turkey tail (mushrooms), the role that CBD plays in quenching the cytokine storm, which is ultimately what leads to a patient’s death.”


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