Nutraceuticals: the natural high-performance drugs
September 20, 2011 | By:

In the future, says Daniela Soave, we’ll take our medicines from food and plants. And with these three nutrient groups, obtained from plants, we'll be less likely to get ill in the first place

Kiwi fruit vines-620 Victoria on Flickr CC

Fruit of the future: kiwis are one of the plants that contain PPQ, an antioxidant that helps heart and brain health

I was talking to a doctor friend the other day and during the course of our conversation she said that the most effective way to enjoy a long and healthy life is to maintain your immune system. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If we help our fighter cells to remain in top condition we can ward off all sorts of bugs and viruses.

But she wasn’t just talking about those external invaders: she was referring to disease from within. With every advance in medicine, the odds of reaching our century and beyond increase, but so too does the risk of chronic disease.

So, by helping our immune systems to remain robust, we’re reducing the chance of conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and other maladies.

We all know about diet and exercise and a sensible alcohol intake, even if we don’t always follow what we know to be good advice. But there are also three important nutrients or nutrient-groups you might not have heard of that have a central role.

1 PQQ: an antioxidant that protects against degenerative diseases

The first is mitochondria, which play an essential part in keeping organs healthy and youthful. These come from cellular power plants such as green peppers, parsley and kiwi fruit, all of which have an abundance of something called pyrroloquinolone quinone (PQQ for short), a potent antioxidant that protects your brain and heart.

Over time, damage to DNA can advance the ageing process and degenerative diseases. If you eat foods that are rich in PQQs, you’ll protect your mitochondria and may increase them. This protects you against neurological damage and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Research shows that fresh food rather than synthesised pills are the best way to absorb mitochondria, so stock up on salmon, sardines, tuna and miso, soybean paste and tofu.

2 Phytonutrients: plant chemicals that protect against cell damage

Plants also give us phytonutrients. These are non-nutritive plant chemicals that contain disease-preventing agents and are extracted from the plant’s immune system then turned into nutritional supplements or medicinal bio-identical hormones. They help guard against diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and cancer, helping to prevent cell damage and decreasing cholesterol levels.

For instance, Dioscorea, which the Mexican yam contains, has valuable pythochemicals that are almost identical in molecular structure to the body’s natural hormones (see our article on bio-identical hormones). This means they can be used to treat symptoms of menopause, andropause and other hormonal imbalances.

One of the most important groups of phytochemicals is the phytosterols, or phytohormones. These are plant-based sterols that can modulate the human endocrine system. DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) is perhaps the most important human sterol as it regulates other hormones such as oestrogen, testosterone, progesterone and corticosterone. DHEA can slow the ageing process and perhaps even reverse conditions such as heart disease, osteoporosis, obesity and memory loss.

The notable thing about DHEA is that its presence in the body can be affected by such stress hormones as adrenaline and cortisol. When we are stressed and our bodies produce those hormones, our DHEA levels decline, making us more susceptible to cancer, heart trouble and other degenerative diseases. You don’t have to be a scientist to realise that, when you are constantly stressed, you are much more open to disease.

To maintain our DHEA levels and ward off those conditions, we need to learn how to recognise stress and deal with it. But topping up our DHEA levels by taking a nutritional supplement or by being prescribed a medicinal form might also be another way to keep our defences strong.

3 Glyconutrients: plant carbohydrates that help our cells function

Finally, the most significant discovery in the last century, in terms of our immune system, has to be glyconutrients. Put simply, these are plant carbohydrates that are essential to bodily function because they help cellular communication and function. Without them, we’d be stuffed.

The code by which our bodies know which cells to destroy and which to protect, or which food components to absorb into the bloodstream and which to ignore, would be jumbled and incomplete.

There are eight plant carbohydrates, or monosaccharides, which are essential to bodily function. In the modern diet, as many as six of these monosaccharides are often missing.

Fresh fruit and vegetables today contain fewer glyconutrients because they are often grown in nutrient-deficient soil or have been stored for weeks before they reach our kitchens. This means we are not getting the nutrients we need. Instead, we can supplement these missing glyconutrients either in powder or capsule form.

Every one of our 600 trillion cells needs glyconutrients. Healthy cells mean healthy tissue, healthy organs and healthy bodies. As the medical profession increases its understanding of glyconutrients their use will increase, helping to prevent infections and diseases and slow down the ageing process.

Perhaps even more importantly, these nutraceuticals will change the way the medical profession approaches disease and illness. Currently, Western medicine looks for evidence of disease, and then tries to cure or alleviate it with pharmaceuticals.

As we live longer and auto-immune and chronic diseases become more common, it makes more sense to move towards preventative healthcare, using therapies that address the root cause of disease, rather than waiting for degenerative conditions to develop.