Nutraceuticals - Going Beyond Contemporary Therapeutics

Published on 18 Jan, 2023

Nutraceuticals are isolated from foods and sold in medicinal form. They provide physiological benefits and protection against chronic diseases. With the rise in health awareness and focus on fitness, concepts like nutraceuticals are gaining prominence. Research aims to make nutraceuticals more accessible.

The growing trend among people to adopt a positive and holistic approach toward health, diet, fitness, and disease prevention has led to the rise of nutraceuticals. It aims to merge “traditional” wisdom on healthy diets with the scientific exploration of nutrition.

The modern generation wants to take control of their health and are open to ideas such as using of functional nutrients as supplements to an individual’s diet.

Additionally, nutraceuticals can help reduce expensive disease treatments currently prevalent in modern medicine.

What are Nutraceuticals?

The term "nutraceuticals" is a portmanteau of "nutrition" and "pharmaceuticals." This term was coined in 1989 by Stephen DeFelice, who set up the "Foundation of Innovation in Medicine."

In simple terms, nutraceutical is a substance that is food or part of food and provides medical or health benefits, including aiding in prevention and possible treatment of diseases.

It comprises the following three segments.

  • Functional foods: These provide the required amounts of vitamins, fats, proteins, carbohydrates, etc., to promote good health.
  • Dietary supplements: Intended to supplement elements of the regular diet. One can consume these foods in pill, capsule, powder, or liquid forms.
  • Herbal/natural products: Include ingredients sourced from plant and animal origin. 

Within this space, the product categories include:

  • Isolated nutrients
  • Dietary supplements (vitamins, amino acids, minerals, etc.)
  • Special diets
  • Genetically engineered special-purpose (designer) foods
  • Phytochemicals (flavonoids, polyphenols, tannins, etc.)

Benefits of Nutraceuticals

According to the WHO, there is substantial evidence showing a strong linkage between an individual’s dietary habits and chronic ailments such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, obesity, cancer, etc.

Incorporation of nutraceuticals may help promote better physical health, reduce the incidence of chronic illness, increase life expectancy, and delay ageing.

Researchers found that nutraceuticals have an edge over pharmaceuticals in certain areas. In addition to several therapeutic effects that improve a person’s overall medical condition, they involve little or no harmful side effects and are more affordable and readily available. 

Areas of Application

The growing number of applications of nutraceuticals as alternatives to conventional modern medicine include the following:

  • Cardiovascular Disease Management : According to a report by the American Heart Association, cardiovascular diseases account for 30% of global mortalities. Poor lifestyles, environmental factors, and unhealthy diets are reported as primary causes. With the addition of nutraceuticals in the diet, chances of cardiovascular diseases are reduced, and their progression can be monitored.
  • Neurodegenerative Disease Management : Current pharmacological formulations for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, are plagued with side effects, including sleepiness, mood swings, and confusion. Nutraceuticals may provide a safe and easy alternative to help manage these conditions better. Furthermore, in preliminary studies, nutraceuticals showed great promise in regulating brain physiology. It regulates signaling pathways and reduces neuroinflammation and vascular dementia. The treatment could include essential oils from aromatic plants, such as lavender, sandalwood, and eucalyptus, that act as mood enhancers and antidepressants.
  • Cancer Management : Environmental factors, oxidative stress, and redox signaling lead to genesis and metastasis of cancer. Oxidative damage causes permanent DNA changes, leading to oncogenic transformation. Nutraceuticals, mainly phytochemicals, have proven effective in treating animal cancer. They regulate signaling pathways and molecules that control tumorigenicity. Additionally, the use of nutraceuticals helps avoid severe side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy commonly used in cancer treatment. Nutraceuticals rich in antioxidants have anticarcinogenic properties and slow down cell proliferation.

Technological Advancements

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics are being used to personalize nutrition in the diet based on an individual’s specific needs. Sports tech and nutritional science are coming together to discover new business opportunities through the development of nutritional supplements for performance enhancement.

Research is progressing in other areas, including technologies for bioavailability enhancement (increasing the absorption of the active therapeutic ingredient when taken orally) and nano and liquid encapsulation.

The future of nutraceuticals is expected to be powered by the following.

  • Synthetic biology: Science that involves redesigning organisms for valuable purposes by engineering them to have new abilities.
  • 3D printing: The construction of a 3D object from a computer-aided design or digital 3D model.
  • Nutrigenetics: Science of the effect of genetic variation on dietary response and the role of nutrients and bioactive food compounds in gene expression 

Final Thoughts

Nutraceuticals hold immense potential in their nutritional and therapeutic effects. Ginseng, echinacea, green tea, glucosamine, omega-3, lutein, cod liver oil, and folic acid are some well-known nutraceuticals. Most of these have multiple preventive and therapeutic effects.

Research aims to find accessible and practically viable ways of integrating nutraceuticals into our daily diets to benefit from their prophylactic and curative benefits for better human health.