The concept of health has constantly changed over time, to get to assume, today, a much broader meaning that closely associates a condition of absence of pathologies to a state of “global” well-being of the person.
Today we are all more aware of how health does not consist in the simple absence of disease but depends on a number of factors inherent in the totality of our lives.
In recent years it has been increasingly highlighted how the external environment and, above all, nutrition are able to influence our health and consequently our well-being.
Health is built first of all at the table, based on the food we eat.
Food is not just a means of livelihood. Food is increasingly healthy and a powerful means at our disposal, to safeguard the body to maintain a state of well-being.
The importance and close link of the binomial “nutrition and good health” is also underlined by the World Health Organization (WHO) which considers adequate nutrition and health fundamental human rights.
Eating therefore not only serves to replenish energy and structural reserves but also serves to influence the general regulatory systems of the organism (nervous, immune, endocrine system), including DNA, as epigenetics has shown.
According to epigenetics it is not true that we are predestined, monolithic in our being, victims of chance. We are the co-creators of what we are, definitely active protagonists; the destiny written in the DNA of each individual is no longer inevitable, but can be influenced by more or less correct lifestyles. And the changes can be passed on to subsequent generations.
In the wake of these studies, in recent years, new disciplines have been born that combine science and nutrition and use the most modern methodologies and instruments to identify food molecules that can reduce the risk of the onset of diseases and to characterize their mechanisms of action: nutraceuticals is one of these.
Nutrition therefore plays a decisive role in our well-being.
Let’s try to deepen this topic starting from the concept of health as it has changed over the years to get to understand why nutrition is so important thanks to the contributions of epigenetics and nutraceuticals, to get to confirm what, which for millennia, now, affirms Chinese dietetics.
Concept of “health” in history
For millennia the disease has been considered a magical-religious phenomenon.
In ancient Greece, with Hippocrates, medicine was based on observation. Subsequently, conceptions of health and disease remained “unscientific” until the last few centuries.
In its early days, scientific medicine (late eighteenth century), reflected a bio-medical model.
Coinciding with the birth of industrial society, the bio-medical model dealt more with disease than with the health and working and living conditions of the population.
In the twentieth century an exasperated specialism developed, whereby the individual even identified himself with only one “part”, “an organ”, thus denying the individual as a person.
A historic turning point came in 1948 with the definition, by the WHO, of health as “a state of physical, mental and social well-being and not only as the absence of disease or infirmity”.
This concept has allowed the abandonment of the “medicalist” interpretation of well-being.
The concept of global health that is gradually taking shape, therefore brings with it a conception of the person as a psychophysical unit, interacting with the surrounding environment, which is the prerequisite for “a promotion and education to health” and to a “medicine of the person” in its totality.
It was once believed that our genetic heritage was rigidly established from the moment of conception and that nothing could change it over the years. Recently, research has shown that gene expression can be influenced by environmental stimuli such as nutrition, stress and emotions.
The DNA we have inherited maintains its sequence, but factors such as nutrition and the substances we produce as a result of emotions and stress, determine the expression of the gene we have inherited and the consequent possible manifestation of pathologies.
The factors that influence gene expression change every day based on what we eat, the supplements we take, smoking habits, exposure to toxins, exercise or stress.
These epigenetic signals largely belong to us in terms of choices. Nutrition is probably the most impactful signal. If we think about a life of about 80 years, a person ends up eating 30-40 tons of food.
We imagine that that food is not just calories but signs of genetic transformation, which, if they are wrong, guide the body-mind towards disease.
We are “badly” designed to understand the long-term consequences of our short-term choices. This is one of the limitations of the human being who, calibrated to seek survival, does not now think about the damage it will do to himself and the environment in the long term.
In this perspective, food also has the ability to regulate or dysregulate epigenetic signals depending on the choices that each one makes.
Food represents not only a supply of energy and macronutrients, but also a phenomenal supply of biochemical signals, which can be devastating if these signals are contrary to the needs of the cells, or, conversely, can be protective if the biochemical signals are the correct ones.
If “we are what we eat”, as Feuerbach said, nutrition plays a decisive role in our well-being. Often, however, we do not “know what we eat” and the quality of our life is affected, with serious consequences for the body.
This is where Nutraceutical comes in.
Nutraceuticals is the branch of medicine, which studies the beneficial and curative action of food on human health.
Nutraceuticals, etymologically derives from the fusion of the terms “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical”, to indicate the discipline that investigates all the components or active ingredients of foods, with positive effects on health and for the prevention and treatment of diseases.
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The role of Nutraceuticals therefore becomes decisive for those who want to know in detail what happens in the body when you eat, what principles are activated and with what real consequences on health.
“Let food be your medicine and let your medicine be food.” This is a statement of 2500 years ago, of Hippocrates (Greek physician father of medicine).
The nutraceutical product, or food supplement, has a double soul: both that of the food and the drug.
Nutrition, today is again considered, as in ancient times, a form of therapy and represents one of the aspects of greatest importance for the achievement and maintenance of a good state of health.
In medicine, today, we cannot ignore the importance of the role played by food in the determinism of health conditions and disease states.
Nutraceutical products are food derivatives to which, in addition to the basic nutritional value, one or more additional benefits are attributed.
Let’s analyze the two main categories: Dietary Supplements and Functional Foods.
1. Dietary supplements. These are real food supplements.
In Italy, food supplements are those “food products intended to supplement the common diet and which constitute a concentrated source of nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, or other substances having a nutritional or physiological effect, in particular, but not exclusively (amino acids, essential fatty acids, fiber and extracts of vegetable origin), both monocompound and multi-compound, in pre-dosed forms”.
2. Functional foods. They are foods “designed” to allow consumers to introduce foods rich in useful molecules (however close to the natural state) rather than supplements manufactured in liquid or capsule form etc. Among the foods with functional characteristics, in addition to yogurt, there are, above all, fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants.
Leutin, for example, which is useful for eyesight, we find it in spinach, cabbage, broccoli and eggs. Curcumin in curry and yellow pigment of saffron. In legumes we have isoflavones. Brewer’s yeast contains amino acids, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals and vitamins.