What are nutraceuticals and how do they work?

Dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals can help maintain and improve your health. Nutraceuticals, or products with both nutritional and medicinal purposes, are another tool you can use, experts say.

In partnership with Enerex, a nutraceuticals company in Vancouver, we look at what nutraceuticals are, how they work and how to use them.

What are nutraceuticals and how do they work?

Nutraceuticals are products that contain a high concentration of a particular substance derived from a natural source, such as a food or plant.

According to Dr. Nishi Dhawan, MD, co-founder of Westcoast Women’s Clinic in Vancouver, this naturally derived substance is “concentrated in a way that has a physiological response in the body, usually to help prevent disease, or help with chronic disease or improving health.”

While nutraceuticals’ active ingredients work on their own, they are often combined with others to make them more effective, Dhawan says.

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“What happens is when you combine certain compounds together, they seem to have a synergistic response. For example, if you have a few different herbs that work on the estrogen receptors, as well as vitamins or minerals that help the whole estrogen pathway, then you get a synergistic response from that one nutraceutical. You’re not isolating one product to help one system.

“It’s more about looking at how nutraceuticals are working toward getting the body into an optimal state or into homeostasis — trying to actually get the body to regulate itself.”

What are nutraceuticals used for?

Nutraceuticals can be used for “managing a health condition, preventing a medical condition from developing or maintaining a healthy state in the body,” says Dr. Leila Sahabi, a naturopathic doctor in North Vancouver, B.C.

“Nutraceuticals work through various pathways in the body, and either provide a replacement for something that the body doesn’t produce on its own or add the necessary component for a cellular pathway to enhance its function,” she explains.

Glucosamine, for example, is a nutraceutical with a combination of glucose and an amino acid, which can play a role in cartilage formation and repair, and may help protect joints and tendons from injury. This means it can be used for everyday concerns like joint pain or stiffness when exercising, Sahabi says.

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Can nutraceuticals prevent disease?

Nutraceuticals can also help prevent and treat chronic diseases, Sahabi says.

She points to NAC (n-acetylcysteine) as a nutraceutical that has gained popularity in recent years because of its supportive effect on the liver and the immune system.

“NAC is a precursor to glutathione, which is one of our body’s most effective antioxidants,” she says. “NAC — which is made from cysteine, an amino acid naturally found in many foods — can have potential benefits for the liver in individuals who take long-term oral medications or short-term but high-dose painkillers.”

Omega-3 fatty acids are another nutraceutical that can be used for prevention. Dhawan says they can “decrease inflammation in the body and have good effects on depression, Alzheimer’s disease and inflammatory disorders,” but adds that doses have to be adjusted for different conditions.

Certain nutraceuticals may be able to slow the aging process, according to Dhawan. “One of the key things in many of the nutraceuticals is they help reduce oxidative stress, a function that ages the body, either through antioxidants or by lowering inflammation properties,” she explains. “We find that there’s less damage to cells, and that’s where they’re being used in the prevention of disease as well as in aging.”

What’s the difference between nutraceuticals and dietary supplements?

Under Canadian regulations, nutraceuticals are classified as a type of dietary supplement.

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This means they can be “purchased over the counter, as well as come recommended by naturopathic doctors, nutritionists and acupuncturists,” Sahabi says.

What’s the difference between a nutraceutical and a pharmaceutical?

Pharmaceuticals are regulated as drugs in Canada, may be patented and sometimes require prescriptions.

Dhawan cautions that while nutraceuticals might not be as strong as prescription pharmaceuticals, using them together can have unintended effects.

“Nutraceuticals can be taken off the shelves, but if people don’t know the potency or what they’re doing and they’re on additional medications, that can sometimes have a dangerous effect,” she says. “Nutraceuticals have powerful effects — and that’s why they work. But they also have an effect on the body, so you have to know what they’re doing.”

To learn more about nutraceuticals and how to use them, visit Enerex.

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