In 1989, the founder of the Foundation of Innovation in Medicine, Stephen DeFelice, coined the term “nutraceutical.” It was a concept that combined the goodness of healthy nutrition with the disease-fighting power of pharmaceuticals. Over 25 years later, the concept is gaining ground as patients and healthy citizens alike look for safer and more effective ways to take charge over their own health.
What Are Nutraceuticals?
Take a stroll down the supplements aisle of your local grocery store. Every bottle lined up on those shelves, whether in a pill, capsule, or tablet form, is a nutraceutical. Head over to the produce section; every fruit and vegetable there also is considered a nutraceutical, in the strictest sense of the word. Even the Italian seasonings you sprinkle over your pasta, as well as the vitamins and minerals added to the enriched flour in your bread, are nutraceuticals.
Nutraceuticals can be classified in different ways, but there are three basic categories:
- Functional food, which includes medicinal foods
- Vitamin and mineral supplements
- Herbal supplements
Humans need food to survive; it's how our physiology works. When you eat a fresh green salad, for example, your body uses the calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium found in the lettuce and other greens. You also gain essential vitamins, such as vitamins E and A and several B vitamins. On top of all that, your salad greens give you an abundance of phytochemicals that help to ward off bacteria, fight infection, aid in digestion, and prevent cancer, among other things.
In a way, food is medicine. You use it to keep your body healthy, to gain energy, to prevent disorders, and even to treat them – often without even realizing it. When you choose to saute your vegetables in olive oil instead of butter because olive oil is better for your heart, you are using your food as preventative medicine. Medicinal foods, such as some herbal teas, provide the same benefits.
(Note: Functional food and medicinal foods are sometimes considered separate categories of nutraceuticals, but for this article they will both be referred to as functional food.)
Vitamin And Mineral Supplements
While it is tempting to lump vitamins and minerals in the same category as herbal supplements, they in fact work quite differently. Vitamins and minerals are specifically designed to address a deficiency. The body had everything it needed to remain healthy, and now it doesn't – what is missing?
Disorders that are not caused by bacteria or viruses, including degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's, chronic diseases like atherosclerosis, and possibly even some cancers, could be due in part to deficiencies of certain vitamins or minerals. More studies are needed to confirm which deficiencies cause which disorders, but the evidence shows that vitamin and mineral supplementation can be effective for treating certain conditions.
While vitamin and mineral supplements are readily metabolized by the body to address a specific deficiency, herbal supplements work more like conventional pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceutical drugs, from your standard antibiotics to mind-altering Schedule II narcotics, are synthesized versions of herbal extracts. Scientists take the chemical compounds found in plants (and some animals) and create synthetic versions of those compounds and then name them, patent them, and charge a fortune for them.
Herbal supplements, on the other hand, include those compounds in their natural state, rather than a man-made version of them. They work in essentially the same way, but because they are extracted straight from the plant, the integrity of the molecular structure of these compounds remains intact, and there are fewer side effects as a result.
Nutraceuticals Vs Pharmaceuticals: What's The Difference?
A common belief is that pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals are radically different. The truth, however, is more complex: functional foods and vitamin/mineral supplements work with your body's metabolic processes, while herbal supplements and pharmaceuticals both effect changes within your body's metabolic processes, while overriding these processes.
Working With Metabolism
The chemical compounds within food and medicinal herbs as they are found in nature are absorbed through your body's digestive system, make their way into your bloodstream, and are delivered from there to the various parts of your body that need them. These phytochemicals work with the vitamins and minerals that you consume to keep you healthy.
One of the biggest reasons that doctors and scientists are hesitant to think of functional food as a form of medicine is that it is so difficult to determine exactly how much of what kind of food you need to address a specific problem, and almost impossible to precisely measure the effects. Because your body only absorbs and uses a percentage of the medicinal chemicals in your food, and their absorption depends in some measure on the vitamins and minerals you consume, doctors are hesitant to do any more than recommend foods for general health.
The case is more clear cut with vitamin and mineral supplements. Like functional foods, these supplements are absorbed through the digestive system, then delivered throughout your body via the bloodstream. While even these supplements interact with nutrients in your body to some degree, they contain higher concentrations of the vitamins and minerals found in your food, and can more quickly resolve a nutrient deficiency. A patient suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, can supplement his diet with the B vitamin inositol, as studies suggest that OCD is related to a deficiency in this vitamin.
So what does all this have to do with metabolism? Food metabolism is the process by which the fats and carbohydrates from your food are converted into energy, protein becomes new cells, and the biologically unavailable components are broken down so they can safely leave your body. Functional foods and vitamin/mineral supplements are mostly metabolized in the liver, which is responsible for recognizing toxins and safely removing them before sending the nutrients into your bloodstream. This process happens smoothly and with minimal negative effect on your liver.
Operating Outside Metabolism
When you take a pharmaceutical or an herbal supplement, it passes through the liver before entering the bloodstream, just like the nutrients from your food. However, because these substances contain only medicinal chemical compounds and none of the accompanying nutrients that would be found in food, your body has difficulty knowing how to metabolize them or where to send the chemical compounds. When they end up in the wrong areas, adverse reactions (side effects) occur.
As lab-synthesized molecules, your body can't quite sort out the useful medicinal parts of a pharmaceutical drug from the inactive ingredients that were added to speed up absorption, increase bioavailability of the compound, or create a time-release effect. It treats the entire drug as a poison, so pharmacologists often have to add ingredients that will override the body's attempt to get rid of the drug.
In essence, these drugs affect the metabolic process, namely by wreaking havoc on your liver, without abiding by the rules that would normally cause your liver to prevent any part of the drug from entering your bloodstream.
Herbal supplements aren't viewed by your body as entirely foreign toxic substances, but they still work outside the normal metabolic process because they don't include any nutrients that aid in their digestion and absorption. And while the chances of side effects with herbal supplements are much lower, as your body is more capable of recognizing the natural compounds and sending them to the right places, your liver may still treat some of these compounds as toxins that it is unable to process.
Who Should Use Nutraceuticals?
Functional foods should be the first line of defense for the prevention and even treatment of numerous diseases. Everything from cardiovascular disorders to diabetes to influenza can be effectively treated with a healthy diet, or a healthy diet in tandem with proper supplementation.
While a diet that consists largely of functional food is essential for your health, other nutraceuticals can be taken by the right people for specific conditions:
Such as raw, fresh garlic, onion, and ginger; herbal teas; medicinal honeys; probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and mushrooms; and fermented foods like kefir, kombucha, and saurkraut, are safe for most healthy people as a method of prevention. They can also be safe for the treatment of some conditions in people who don't have any chronic disorders, and they are among the safest options for normally healthy children as well.
Supplemental Vitamins And Minerals:
Should be used to address deficiencies. They can be used for prevention in certain cases, such as the use of folic acid during pregnancy or vitamin D for those at risk of developing osteoporosis; but keep in mind that too much of a vitamin can prevent the absorption of other vital nutrients from your diet, so make sure you research the vitamin you plan on using to fully understand its uses and effects.
Contain some of the same chemical compounds that the herbs themselves contain; however, they lack some of the compounds and nutrients that make them safely digestible by the body, and supplements contain much higher concentrations of the compounds that are present. You can experience drug interactions with any pharmaceuticals you may be on, interactions with other nutraceutical supplements you are taking, or problems with any chronic conditions you might have. Herbal supplements can be a safer alternative to pharmaceutical drugs, and are just as effective when you use high-quality brands, but they should be used under the supervision of a naturopathic doctor.
Common Nutraceuticals And Their Uses
Currently in the United States, federal regulation of nutraceuticals is extremely low. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expects manufacturers of vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements to truthfully label their products, and include a disclaimer that the FDA has not approved the prevention or treatment of any medical condition with supplements. The consequences, if enough people complain about problems that could be related to mislabeling, are mild.
There is almost no enforcement of the honest labeling requirement, which means that many supplement brands are dishonestly stuffed with fillers like wheat, rice, or soy. This has led to a mainstream belief that herbal supplements are ineffective or harmless. They are neither, and this theory could lead people to use them without considering the possible drug interactions or the consequences of over-using them. When they are used with care, nutraceuticals are safe and effective.
Some of the most commonly used nutraceutical medicines include:
- Vitamin B complex for anxiety disorders
- St. John's Wort for depression
- Turmeric and/or ginger for circulation
- Omega-3 fatty acids for cardiovascular health
- Valerian root for insomnia and depression
- Echinacea for immune health
- Calcium and vitamin D for bone health
- Milk thistle for liver support
Functional foods can also be used for the treatment and prevention of common health concerns:
- Oats and fish for heart health
- Nuts and seeds for heart health
- Fermented foods, such as miso, tempeh, yogurt, and cheese, for digestive health
- Greens and beans for fiber
- Ginger ale and chicken broth for colds and stomach viruses
- Local honey for seasonal allergies
- Kombucha for detoxification and cancer prevention
Make sure to do your research before trying a natural remedy, and if possible, consult a naturopathic doctor or herbalist to make sure that you are making the safest choice possible for your health.
The Power Of Natural Healing With Nutraceuticals
Unfortunately, neither the FDA nor major pharmaceutical companies are willing to fund the research needed to improve our understanding of nutraceuticals. Many of these popular natural remedies are based on thousands of years of anecdotal evidence, yet consumers are still told that there is no scientific evidence to prove their effectiveness, largely because there is a lack of scientific research in this area. But as we strive to gain more control over our own health, more organizations are working to unlock the potential of nutraceuticals through quality scientific research. The power of natural healing is making a comeback in healthcare – and in the lives of millions of informed consumers across the world.