Nutraceuticals: can food-in-a-pill really cure common illnesses?

fresh-garlicGinseng, garlic, and glucosamine are extracts from common foods that have come to be known as “nutraceuticals” and can supposedly be used to prevent or relieve some illnesses that are all too common.

The medical definition of a nutraceutical is any foodstuff – either food that has been fortified or developed as a dietary supplement – that is considered to provide medical or health benefits on top of its basic nutritional value. Nutraceuticals are also sometimes referred to as functional food.

In many countries nutraceuticals, minerals and vitamins come in the category of natural health products, but health professionals are aware that nutraceuticals can produce medicinal effects that go beyond basic nutrition.

While it’s obviously convenient to be able to take a pill with a particular food’s health benefits, being “natural” doesn’t always equate to being harmless. Natural substances can become very complicated when they are processed. And because the final products can vary greatly from brand to brand it’s tough for a health care professional to recommend how much and how often to take a particular nutraceutical.

It’s early days for a lot of nutraceutical research and what is being discovered is that while certain types may be good for one person, they can adverse effects in others, and the advice from health professionals is it’s good to talk to your doctor about possible interactions with other medicines and potential side effects.

I wanted to put some of the most popular under the microscope and this is what I found:


Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is present in beef, dairy products, poultry and eggs. It’s a fatty acid that is usually bought as either a tablet or a capsule.


The claim is that it encourages weight loss by reducing body fat and halting weight gain.


One analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition back in 2007 found that CLA did lead to very modest fat reduction  – of about 0.2 lbs a week – when compared to a placebo group. In a year taking CLA could lead to someone losing more than 10 lbs in a year.

However, some studies have uncovered impaired blood vessel function and increased blood inflammation markers.

One 2008 study, published in the Journal of Lipid Research,  discovered accumulations of fat in the liver, which can have a part to play in insulin resistance and diabetes.


So while CLA may encourage a small amount of weight loss, it’s no substitute for cutting down food intake and increasing exercise.



Dehydrated or aged garlic can be bought as a pill, oil or powder.


Cholesterol and blood pressure can be reduced.


It has long been believed that garlic has the power to reduce cholesterol, but one 2007 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which gave a garlic supplement, raw garlic or a placebo to 192 people diagnosed with moderately high cholesterol levels over six months, found that everyone’s cholesterol levels stayed exactly the same.

When it comes to blood pressure, an investigation reported in BMC Cardiovascular Disorders (2008) discovered that people with high blood pressure who took a garlic supplement saw an average of 8.4 mm Hg reduction in their systolic pressure and a 7.3 mm Hg reduction in diastolic pressure, which is not dissimilar to the levels that can be achieved with medication designed to reduce blood pressure.

Garlic thins the blood, so for anyone taking blood-thinning medication or approaching an operation, it would be sensible to seek medical advice. It has also been found that garlic pills can reduce the birth control pill effectiveness as well as medicine prescribed to treat HIV.


If garlic pills are able to lower cholesterol it is by a very modest amount and the pills should be taken with other medications like statins and changes in exercise and diet. For them to have effects on blood pressure the daily dose needs to be between around 600 and 900mg.



Ginseng comes from drying the root of the plant that shares its name. There are two types:  Asian (Panax ginseng) & North American (Panax quinqu- folium) and they are generally sold as capsules.


Ginseng is supposed to reduce blood sugar levels.


University of Toronto researchers found in 2008 that participants who had their type 2 diabetes well under control and ingested a ginseng supplement over a 12-weeks period did report improved blood glucose levels, compared to their fellow diabetics who took just a placebo.

Diabetics and people who use blood thinners are advised to talk to their doctor before starting to take ginseng, especially as different brands have different effects


Diabetics who are able to control their blood sugar levels with diet and medication and diet can consider adding ginseng 1gm three times a day as part of their meal-covering regime.



Glucosamine is an amino sugar – derived from the outer shells of lobsters, crabs and shrimps (chitin) – that is a constituent of the cartilage that protects joints. It is most commonly is sold as a capsule or tablet.


Glucosamine relieves stiffness and pain and slows progression in cases of osteoarthritis.


Research has found that people with moderate to severe pain enjoyed increased pain relief taking a glucosamine supplement over a six month period but people with only mild pain barely noticed a difference. This large study was revealed in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2006. These results were supported by another 25 studies between 1980 and 2004, published by The Cochrane Library.


Try glucosamine for about three months and stick with it if you think it’s benefitting you. Otherwise, save your money.