Functional foods and dietary supplements, both alone and in combination with pharmaceutical drugs, can “reduce health risk factors and risk of disease,” according to researchers at Utrecht University Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, The Netherlands, in a paper published last week in The European Journal of Pharmacology.

The researchers pointed out opportunities with functional foods and supplements as add-ons to drug therapy—among them the benefit of phytosterols with statin drugs for cardiovascular conditions, calcium with hormone replacement therapy for minimization of osteoporosis, or omega-3s DHA and EPA with anti-hypertensive drugs to reduce blood pressure.

“Persons who consistently use the food products may be able to lower the dose of medicine needed to control risk factors,” the researchers wrote. “Since side effects of drugs are often correlated to higher doses, lowering the dose of the drug may consequently lead to less drug-associated side effects.”

After the mad cow disease epidemic in the late 1990s, Europe’s food safety took precedence over access to dietary ingredients, and especially health claims surrounding functional foods and beverages.

With this as a backdrop certainly in Europe’s regulatory scheme, and also in academia, the European researchers spent much of the paper pointing out potential adverse interactions that dietary supplements can have on the action of pharmaceutical drugs. Yet they completely overlooked the much larger issue of pharmaceutical drugs depleting nutrients in the body.

It should be noted that this is hardly a European conceit. Researchers around the world, like Western allopathic physicians, tend to see health solutions as being solved by pharmaceuticals, with no mind paid to the health effect that could possibly exist with the foods and nutrients people consume.

The primary example includes statin drugs, which deplete the body of coenzyme Q-10, so that patients enjoy lower cholesterol levels but die more quickly of a heart attack. Other notable examples include antibiotics and probiotics, or contraceptives on B vitamins and minerals.

Functional Ingredients asked the research team about why drug-induced nutrient depletions were absent from their paper.  Thanks to Todd Runestad for this article.

“You suggest correctly that functional foods or dietary supplements may be capable of reducing drug-associated side effects by restoring depleted compounds. An example is the musculoskeletal complaints associated with statin therapy, which might be related to a statin-induced coenzyme Q10 deficiency,” said researcher Simone Eussen.

“Although there are ample studies that showed that statins reduce plasma Q10, there are only two studies with contrasting results that investigated the influence of supplementing Q10 on muscle pains. We concluded that data is insufficient to recommend Q10 to patients on statin therapy. This will probably also be the case for the other examples you mention.”

So while the researchers did manage to mention the benefits for human health with dietary supplements and supplement-style ingredients in foods—which hardly happens enough, anywhere in the world, especially for an institution focused on pharmaceutical sciences—it is clear there is still a lot of ground to be made up. Academia and the physician channels need to get away away from the pharma bias and open to the idea of nutrition’s fundamental role in optimizing human health.

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