What Are Nutraceuticals?

an assortment of pills, vitamins, fruits, nuts, garlic and cardamom

georgept2 / Getty Images

A wholesome diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables along with the right combination of macronutrients is vital for optimum health. Although, in some cases, we don't always get enough of these major nutrients. Not getting enough nutrients can lead to oxidative stress which can then lead to other health issues.

Research in nutrition is constantly developing with new discoveries and innovative technologies. One such advancement that bridges the gap between nutrition and medicine is nutraceuticals.

This article discusses what nutraceuticals are, the role they play in the overall health of the body, and how you can incorporate them into your diet.

What Are Nutraceuticals?

Nutraceuticals are products derived from food sources that provide both nutrition and medicinal benefits. Nutraceuticals are also known by the following terms:

  • Functional foods
  • Medical foods
  • Designer foods
  • Phytochemicals
  • Nutritional supplements

These products include dietary supplements, diets, herbal products, genetically engineered foods, and vitamins. They contain a high concentration of bioactive compounds, derived from a natural source and have physiological benefits and aid in the prevention and treatment of disease.

Nutraceuticals even include everyday foods like pre- and probiotics, fortified cereals, processed foods, and beverages.

Essentially, a nutraceutical is a substance that has a physiological benefit or provides protection from chronic disease. Unfortunately, the definition of nutraceuticals varies from country to country depending on how they are categorized and regulated. At the moment there is no clear internationally accepted definition of a nutraceutical.

Nutraceuticals can improve health, delay the aging process, prevent chronic diseases, increase life expectancy, or support the structure and functioning of the body. They are also used in the prevention and treatment of mental health issues and disorders.

History

The term “nutraceutical” was coined in 1989 by Stephen DeFelice who was the founder and chairperson of the Foundation for Innovation in Medicine located in Cranford, New Jersey. DeFelice defined a nutraceutical as a: “Food, or parts of a food, that provide medical or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease."

The idea of using food for both nutrition and medicinal purposes has been ingrained in many ancient cultures. In fact, the concept of nutraceuticals is nearly 3,000 years old! It began to catch on when Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, recognized the relationship between food and health.

Traditionally, the people of India and China consume various natural foods that are considered to be medicinal. Countries like Germany, France, and England were the first to consider one's diet more important than both exercise and hereditary factors in people's attempt to achieve good health.

Today, nutraceuticals have evolved from their traditional background to a highly scientific field where the efficacy and safety of the products are backed by evidence, new research, and developing technologies.

How Nutraceuticals Work

A healthy diet contributes to your health by providing the nutrients your body needs to repair itself, grow, and function well. When your diet does not supply enough of these essential nutrients and vitamins, nutraceuticals can act as a supplement.

Nutrients, Metabolism, and Nutraceuticals

Nutrients are the chemical elements that make up food. Nutrients like proteins, carbohydrates, and fats provide energy while other nutrients like vitamins, water, electrolytes, and minerals are needed for a healthy metabolism.

Metabolism is a process that involves all chemical reactions that take place in the body to convert the food we eat into energy, which is then used to synthesize compounds needed by all cells of the body. Metabolism maintains the living state of all cells and organs.

The pathways of metabolism depend on the nutrients the process breaks down. If all the nutrients are present in the right amount, our body, including all the organs and systems, function well. This means that your body can heal or repair properly and quickly.

But if you don't have enough nutrients, then your body takes longer to repair or you might deal with harmful complications. When this happens, nutraceuticals can provide extra nutrients needed for optimum metabolic reaction and for your body to function properly.

Types

Nutraceuticals are broadly classified based on their function, food source, and bioactive components. Most of them fall under two general categories: dietary supplements and functional food.

Dietary Supplements

Dietary supplements are those products that contain concentrated bioactive nutrients from a food source processed into a suitable dosage form. These supplements can contain one or more of the following: amino acids, vitamins, herbs or other botanicals, minerals, important metabolites, and certain enzymes.

Dietary supplements are available in tablets, capsules, powders, and liquids, gummies, energy bars, and any other suitable forms. 

Nutraceuticals that fall under the umbrella of dietary supplements not only supplement diet but also promote health and prevent disease.

Functional Foods

Functional foods are any food or food ingredient that provides a health benefit other than basic nutrition.

The foods under this category include whole foods and fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods that can improve health when consumed regularly as part of a varied diet. Functional food looks like food and is available as pasta, cereal, whole grains, yogurt, snacks, and more.

Functional foods can be:

  • Traditional Functional Food: These are nutrient-rich natural foods that deliver health benefits other than basic nutrition, such as omega-3 fatty acids in salmon and lycopene in tomatoes. 
  • Non-Traditional Functional Food: These are artificial foods prepared by adding bioactive components to help enhance health and well-being. Examples include fortified nutraceuticals such as juice with added calcium, cereal fortified with iron, flour with added folic acid. Modified functional foods can also include recombinant nutraceuticals, which are energy-producing foods such as bread, yogurt, cheese, and vinegar produced via biotechnology techniques.

Benefits

Over the past few years, nutraceuticals have become very popular. They're being used an alternative or supplemental treatment along with pharmaceuticals to help prevent and treat a wide range of diseases.

They have attracted considerable interest because of their potential nutritional values, safety, affordability, and multiple therapeutic effects and are often seen as an attractive option to conventional treatments.

Nutraceuticals can play an important role in the body’s various biological processes, which help prevent various diseases and improve overall health and well-being.

Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Disease

Nutraceuticals play an important role in preventing the onset of chronic diseases and reduce the complications involved. Evidence suggests they are used in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and inflammatory-based diseases.

Improve Eye Health

Patients with eye disorders and conditions like age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and visual disorders can benefit from certain nutraceuticals.

Nutraceuticals like lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin C, and vitamin E reduce the risk of cataracts. Essential fatty acids like omega-3s are important for visual development and retinal function.

Improve Immune Function

Immune booster nutraceuticals like green tea, blueberries, amino acids, and vitamin D are found to be useful in improving and strengthening immune health and thus help to prevent disease. 

Herbs and plant extracts like echinacea and astragalus help in the development and regenerations of stem cells. The anti-inflammatory effects of garlic can enhance the functioning of the immune system.

Improve Gut Health

Many nutraceuticals like prebiotics, probiotics, flavonoids, aloe vera, resveratrol, and omega-3 and omega-6 acids can restore and stimulate the growth of good bacteria and reduce the effect of harmful bacteria in the gut.

Nutraceuticals are shown to influence inflammation pathways and play an important role in reinforcing the body’s natural gut defense mechanisms.

Support Reproductive Health

Many nutraceuticals play an important role in male and female reproductive health. Nutraceuticals help with male infertility and dysfunction, and prevent damage to sperm. Certain nutraceuticals can influence hormones and are also used to improve fertility, preconception, pregnancy outcomes in women, and provide support during menstruation.

Treat Inflammation

Nutraceuticals are showing promising results in the prevention and treatment of inflammation due to the presence of phytochemicals. They can reduce oxidative stress in chronic inflammatory diseases like asthma, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.

Enhance Sports Medicine

Nutraceuticals are useful in sports medicine as they help athletes improve their performance and reduce oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction, which occurs because of heavy exercise.

Particularly, mitochondria-targeted nutraceuticals (MTNs) such as resveratrol and quercetin, have been shown to have antioxidant effects at a molecular level, which improves mitochondrial bioenergetics and leads to better exercise performance and recovery.

Prolong Life

Nutraceuticals provide preventative care to the body, which increases life expectancy as it reduces the risk of many diseases and helps the body recover quickly.

Certain nutraceuticals like those present in citrus fruits and soybeans help renew healthier cells and improve gene expression. Some nutraceuticals can slow the aging process and thus promote longevity.

Improve Mental Health 

Research shows that nutrients and nutraceuticals play an important role in the prevention, management, and treatment of mental health disorders and psychological functioning.

Certain nutrients and nutraceutical compounds including omega-3, vitamins B and D, magnesium, iron, zinc, curcumin, lycopene, and b-carotene are showing promising results in improving mood, stress, anxiety, depression, and cognitive functioning.

Nutraceuticals with antioxidant properties help prevent neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Other Uses of Nutraceuticals

Here's a look at other benefits of nutraceuticals:

  • Improve overall health
  • Increase energy
  • Improve sleep 
  • Regulate bodily functions
  • Enhance skincare
  • Improve mental clarity
  • Reduce cravings

Adverse Effects

Compared to pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals are potentially safe and can improve health naturally. However, certain nutraceuticals can have side effects such as allergic reactions caused by interactions with other nutraceuticals or therapeutic drugs.

A few nutraceuticals can also cause toxicity. In addition, many people tend not to disclose nutraceutical use to their physicians, which can result in adverse drug-supplement reactions.

Nutraceuticals have a powerful effect on your body, and that’s why it’s important to consume only the recommended amounts of nutraceuticals. It is also important to talk to your health professional about your symptoms and nutraceutical use.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nasri H, Baradaran A, Shirzad H, Rafieian-Kopaei M. New concepts in nutraceuticals as alternative for pharmaceuticals. Int J Prev Med. 2014;5(12):1487-1499.

  2. Cencic A, Chingwaru W. The role of functional foods, nutraceuticals, and food supplements in intestinal health. Nutrients. 2010;2(6):611-625.

  3. Nwosu OK, Ubaoji KI. Nutraceuticals: history, classification and market demand. In: Egbuna C, Dable Tupas G, eds. Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. Springer International Publishing; 2020:13-22.

  4. Nwosu OK, Ubaoji KI. Nutraceuticals: history, classification and market demand. In: Egbuna C, Dable Tupas G, eds. Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. Springer International Publishing; 2020:13-22.

  5. Golla U. Emergence of nutraceuticals as the alternative medications for pharmaceuticals. IJCAM. 2018;11(3).

  6. Nasri H, Baradaran A, Shirzad H, Rafieian-Kopaei M. New concepts in nutraceuticals as alternative for pharmaceuticals. Int J Prev Med. 2014;5(12):1487-1499.

  7. Hogg R, Chakravarthy U. Age-related eye disease study(Areds). In: Nutrition and the Eye. Elsevier; 2006:205-210.

  8. Querques G, Forte R, Souied EH. Retina and omega-3. J Nutr Metab. 2011;2011:748361. doi:10.1155/2011/748361

  9. Arreola R, Quintero-Fabián S, López-Roa RI, et al. Immunomodulation and anti-inflammatory effects of garlic compounds. Journal of Immunology Research. 2015;2015:1-13.

  10. Catinean A, Neag MA, Muntean DM, Bocsan IC, Buzoianu AD. An overview on the interplay between nutraceuticals and gut microbiota. PeerJ. 2018;6:e4465.

  11. Ahmadi S, Bashiri R, Ghadiri-Anari A, Nadjarzadeh A. Antioxidant supplements and semen parameters: An evidence based review. Int J Reprod Biomed. 2016;14(12):729-736.

  12. Inan S. The potential role of nutraceuticals in inflammation and oxidative stress. In: Chávarri Hueda M, ed. Nutraceuticals - Past, Present and Future. IntechOpen; 2020.

  13. Stefania D, Domenico T. Nutraceutical: their role in improving sports performance. Sports Science. 2020;13:7-12.

  14. Ostojic SM. Mitochondria-targeted nutraceuticals in sports medicine: a new perspective. Research in Sports Medicine. 2017;25(1):91-100.

  15. Pavlović I, Khateb S, Milisav I, Mahajna J. Nutraceuticals for promoting longevity. CNT. 2020;1(1):18-32.

  16. Marx W, Moseley G, Berk M, Jacka F. Nutritional psychiatry: the present state of the evidence. Proc Nutr Soc. 2017;76(4):427-436.

  17. Singh RK. Nutraceuticals in reproductive and developmental disorders. In: Nutraceuticals. Elsevier; 2016:123-134.

  18. Ronis MJJ, Pedersen KB, Watt J. Adverse effects of nutraceuticals and dietary supplements. Annu Rev Pharmacol Toxicol. 2018;58:583-601.