When food is more than food: Nutraceuticals

Using food as medicine isn’t a new idea, but this is 21st Century America, where there’s nothing like a fancy name to get people excited about something. Nutraceuticals are big business here, and for many good reasons, although they come with a few caveats, too.

The word nutraceuticals is a blend of nutrition and pharmaceuticals, and it really just means food, food elements, or botanical products that are good for you — that offer disease-fighting or other health benefits.

If you’re eating tomatoes or drinking tea, you’re consuming nutraceuticals. And if you’re taking calcium or folic acid, you’re consuming nutraceuticals. The term is a wide net that catches a lot of what women consume without even thinking about it. That’s fine, but where things start to get misleading is when supplements are marketed as having disease-fighting properties.

Because nutraceuticals are considered by the FDA to be food, they are not regulated as other medications, which means that claims on pill bottles probably aren’t backed up by the same research that goes into prescription and over-the-counter medications.

I think nutraceuticals show a lot of potential for improving women’s health. But I also think you need to proceed with caution when it comes to adding supplements to your daily regimen. For example, many women take the botanical St. John’s Wort for depression. No problem there, unless they also take oral contraceptives. St. John’s Wort makes birth control pills ineffective. Another botanical derivative, ephedrine, showed up in a lot of weight-loss pills before it was linked to stroke and heart attack.

So natural doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have unwanted side effects. And the message on the bottles you pick up doesn’t necessarily reflect what the supplement itself can do for your health.

Here’s a rundown of FDA-backed claims — compounds and the diseases or conditions that they are thought to fight:

•    Potassium: high blood pressure and stroke
•    Plant sterol and plant esters: coronary heart disease
•    Soy protein: heart disease
•    Calcium: osteoporosis
•    Fiber-containing grain products, fruits, vegetables: cancer
•    Folic acid: neural-tube birth defects
•    Dietary sugar alcohol (sugar replacers): tooth decay

Because you can’t necessarily get complete safety and effectiveness information from labels, and because some supplements come with side effects or problematic drug interactions, it’s important that you consult your primary care provider before you add supplements to your diet. In the meantime, though, I say go for it with the fruits and vegetables. Those suckers have proven cancer-fighting potential with no downsides.

If you have a question about nutraceuticals, you’re welcome to contact me. And you can always call 317-338-4-HER to talk to a nurse about this or any other health concern.

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