Herbal Nutraceuticals

Words: Dr Vasantha Lakshmi MUTNURI  

Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine, emphasises on the importance of food, its benefits in the maintenance of health, and also its usage as medicine, or therapeutics. Ayurveda has also described many dietary supplements in various contexts, e.g., dinacharya [daily regimen] and ritucharya [seasonal regimen].

The modern nutraceutical industry dates to the 1980s, in Japan, but its roots can be traced to Ayurveda. One of the synonyms of treatment in Ayurveda is pathya, which is defined as “Wholesome food taken at the right time and quantity that can help to recover from disease condition, either alone, or with other medications.’

Pathya ahara is diet which has beneficial effects in the body and mind of an individual without causing any untoward effect. Food and the methods of consumption are explained by Ayurveda beautifully to prevent, treat and also cure disease. According to Vaidya Lolambara Raju, “One should eat food not only for sharira poshana [nutrition], or dhatu poshana, but also to be ojovantha [stay fit immunologically].” Also, the same author has stated, that, “If a person eating balanced food with rational he will not be affected with diseases, needing no medicines.’ Likewise, “When a person gets disease and uses medicines without following dietary protocol [pathya], the existing disease may not get cured.’

Diet and lifestyle reflect on the properties of dosha. They are unsuitable to dhatu in their properties and may cause morbidity in srotamsi [channels of transport and transformation]. The acceptance of this fact adds value to the very existence of the concept of ‘nutraceuticals’ — or, any product derived from food sources with extra health benefits in addition to the basic nutritional value found in foods. The ideal supplementation of natural foods, antioxidants, milk, dairy products, citrus fruits, vitamins, minerals and cereals forms the essence of Ayurveda with respect to the concept of nutraceuticals. The concept of using plant-based extracts, or herbal nutraceuticals, overlaps with plant-based food and medicinal lifestyles of Ayurveda.

This also clearly defines the various secondary metabolites, such as phenols, tannins, flavonoids, saponins, terpenoids, steroids and alkaloids present in the chloroform leaf extract of Phyllanthus niruri, Emblica officinalis and Psoralea corylifolia.

Herbal Nutraceuticals

The food derived from plant origin which is of nutritive and medicinal value forms herbal nutraceuticals. They can be classified into the following —

Dietary Fibre

Dietary fibre is a plant material which by virtue is not hydrolysed by enzymes secreted by the digestive tract, but digested by the microflora in the gut. They include non-starch polysaccharides, e.g., cellulose, hemicellulose, gums, pectins, and lignin. Foods which are rich in soluble fibre include fruits, oats, barley and beans. These are chemically carbohydrate polymers. Ayurveda examples in this context are triphala and dietary fruits. Fruits such as apple and banana have 2.0g/100gm and 1.9g/100gm of fibre. Boiled carrots and baked beans have much more dietary fibre by weight. The dietary fibre, owing to their properties of bulking and viscosity, retard gastric emptying. Soluble fibre lowers serum low density lipoproteins [LDL] cholesterol, improve glucose tolerance and enhance insulin receptor binding.

In this context, amalaki [amla] is reported to be effective in raktapitta and prameha. It is also a superior vrshya with rasayana qualities. Amalaki controls tridoshas in the body by reducing vata dosha, owing to its amla taste, controlling pitta dosha by virtue of its madhura taste and sheeta quality, and reducing kapha dosha through its rooksha nature and kashay taste. Amla [Phyllanthus emblica] is highly nutritious; it is an important dietary source for amino acids and minerals. The plant also contains phenolic compounds, tannins, phyllemblic acid, phyllemblin, rutin, and emblicol. For medicinal purposes, the fruit has especially been used in Ayurveda as a potent rasayana. The immunity boosting capability [being a rich source of ascorbic acid: vitamin C] and cancer prevention are additional benefits of this herbal product. Excess of dietary fibre may reduce the absorption of vitamins, minerals, proteins and may cause diarrhoea.

Probiotics

This is defined as live microbial food supplement, which when administered in adequate quantity beneficially affects the host by improving their intestinal microbial balance [e.g., lactobacilli]. They transform the toxic flora of large intestine into a host-friendly colony of bacillus. There is evidence that probiotics decrease the risk of systemic conditions, such as allergy, asthma, cancer and other infections viz., urinary tract. Taking probiotics will aid in digestion by breaking down cellulose and other indigestible substances. They also promote the synthesis of calcium, absorption of vitamins, and minerals which boost certain specific and non-specific host defence mechanisms.

Examples of probiotics in Ayurveda are takra [butter milk], which possess qualities like laghu [ease of digestion], kashaya [amla/sour/astringent], deepana [improves digestion strength], and kaphavatajit [balances kapha and vata, shopha]. This is indicated in inflammatory conditions, udara [ascites], arsha  [haemorrhoids], grahani [malabsorption], mutradosha, mutragraha [urinary tract infection], aruchi [dysuria], anorexia, pleeha [splenomegaly], gulma [abdominal distention], ghritavyapat [indigestion caused by excess consumption of ghee], gara visha [chronic intoxication] and pandu [anaemia].

Prebiotics

They are dietary ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively altering the composition, or metabolism, of the gut microbiota. The prebiotic consumption generally promotes the lactobacillus and bifido bacterial growth in the gut. They are also found in beans, peas, chicory root, banana, and tomato. The health benefits of prebiotics include improved lactose tolerance, anti-tumour properties, neutralisation of toxins and stimulation of intestinal immune system, relieve constipation, lower blood lipids and blood cholesterol levels. Inulin and selenium are examples of prebiotics. Inulin suppresses pathogenic bacteria, increases calcium bioavailability and reduces the risk of colon cancer. It may be derived from banana, raspberry, avocado, blueberries, garlic and onions, asparagus root, cabbage and almonds. Ayurveda example of inulin is garlic [Allium sativum] which relieves worm infestation, has implications in neuralgia, skin diseases, paralysis, constipation, abdominal tumours and in improving vigour. Ayurvedic texts mention that the usage of garlic leads to the purification of mercury owing to ingredients/ alkaloids like quercetin, allixin and a group of organosulphur compounds. Additionally, garlic is reported to have anti-diabetic, anthelminthic, virucidal, antioxidant and anti-bacterial activities.

Selenium

Selenium is an essential trace element that removes reactive oxygen species and regulates thyroid metabolism. Food sources, such as Brazil nuts, eggs, chicken, cow milk, sunflower seed, brown rice, spinach, groundnuts have this element. Ayurveda example of selenium is milk, which is used for purification procedures of herbal and mineral drugs to remove their toxins. Cow’s milk is reported to have properties like enlivening, rejuvenating, anti-aging, brain tonic, improved intelligence, improved strength/immunity, improved lactation, laxative, promotion of movement of liquids in the channels, boosting of semen, re-joining broken tissues, for colicky pain, urinary bladder disorders, haemorrhoids, bleeding disorders, genital disorders and debility.

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids [PUFA]

They are ‘essential fatty acids,’ as they are crucial to the body’s function. They aid in reduction of LDL [bad cholesterol] and, thus, cardiovascular disease [CVD]. Examples: omega-3, omega-6 fatty acids. Plant food sources are flaxseeds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil. Ayurveda example of PUFA is Linum usitatissimun [Atasi-flaxseeds]. The use of flaxseeds may be done externally and internally in treating high cholesterol, obesity, arthritis, high blood pressure [HBP], wounds, abscesses, pneumonia, atherosclerosis, backache, constipation, piles, fistula, cough, pleurisy, gonorrhoea, gout and rheumatism]. Flaxseeds are considered as balya [health and immunity booster] and medhya [brain booster], as they contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The use of this dietary supplement is known to prevent epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, hypertension, and bipolar disorders.

Antioxidants

The role of antioxidants in slowing the aging process, reducing the risk of cancer, and CVD is well established. The well-known examples of antioxidants are vitamin C, E, and carotenoids. Vitamin C [ascorbic acid] by its virtue donates hydrogen atom to lipid radicals, quenches singlet oxygen radical and removes molecular oxygen, thereby acting as a scavenger of free radicals. This is majorly implicated in cell repair, wound healing and cancer. Vitamin C has an essential role in maintaining and stimulating the immune system, by which overall well-being can be achieved. Ayurveda examples of antioxidants are the hrudyadashemani drugs [cf. Acharya Charaka]. As already mentioned, the Indian gooseberry [Emblica officinalis], the richest source of vitamin C, is useful for anti-aging, rejuvenation, improved voice and reduced burning sensation. In Ayurveda, it’s a part of treatment for CVD, bleeding disorders, diabetes, urinary tract disorders, and liver disorders. Vitamin C has considerable anti-viral properties, according to recent evidence.

Polyphenols

They are a large group of phytochemicals made to protect themselves from photosynthetic stress and derived reactive oxygen species. The important examples are flavonols, flavones, flavon-3 oils, flavanones and anthocyanins. Dietary polyphenols have implications in neuron cellular processes [gene expression, apoptosis, platelet aggregation, intercellular signalling], apart from anti-carcinogenic and anti-atherogenic implications. Polyphenols have a major role in preventing diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases. The herbal sources are cloves, peppermint, spinach, blueberries, red onion, olives, green tea [Camellia sinensis]. Ayurveda example of polyphenols is pippali [Piper longum], which is a unique spice indicated for spleen-related disorders. The other therapeutic properties of pippali are anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-cancer, ‘anti-Parkinsonism,’ anti-stress, anti-epileptic, antihyperglycaemic, hepato-protective, anti-hyperlipidemia, antiplatelet, immunomodulatory, anti-arthritic, anti-ulcer, anti-asthmatic, and anthelmintic.

Spices

They are esoteric food adjuvants used for thousands of years to enhance the sensory quality of the foods and stimulate our appetite. Their antioxidative, chemoprotective, anti-mutagenic, anti-inflammatory, immune modulatory effects on cells are discussed in literature. Their action on gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, respiratory, metabolic, neural, and reproduction is also well documented. The Ayurveda spice of interest is Elettaria cardamomum. It is used in treating dysuria, urinary retention, piles, haemorrhoids, asthma, cough, cold, chronic respiratory disorders, tuberculosis, cardiac and congenital heart disorders, anorexia, neuralgia, constipation, paralysis, pain, burning sensation, and bloating.

Conclusion

There is a huge role of herbal nutraceuticals in health and disease. The Ayurveda concept of medicinal foods coincides with the existing implications of nutraceuticals. The identification of dietary foods with specific benefits in right proportions is ideal in disease curative settings. Sarvam dravyam pancha bhoutikam, which translates to rational use of these foods, will make us healthy and immunologically fit. There is a huge shift in diet, lifestyle and health practices owing to rapid modernisation. Adapting to healthy practices, starting from our daily diet, may curb early mortality and morbidity from non-communicable lifestyle diseases.

Dr VASANTHA LAKSHMI MUTNURI, BAMS, MD [Ayurveda], is Assistant Professor, Department of Dravyaguna, Dr BRKR Government Ayurveda College, Hyderabad, India. This article [Ayurveda Implications of Nutraceuticals: Understanding Roles in Preventive Medicine], was first published in Journal of Ayurvedic and Herbal Medicine, July-September 2022; 8[3]: 192-196, under a Creative Commons Attribution [CC BY 4.0] License.

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