Nutraceuticals… here they come!

Nutraceuticals… here they come!

Prof Errol Morrison and Dr Andrew Wheatley

Sunday, January 24, 2021

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The politician atop his soapbox declared…”Sugar is ailing, banana is peeling, tourism is fickle and bauxite is recuperating. What we need is a treatment for them all, and I have the panacea! What we need is a new industry that is anchored in the grass roots' culture and can generate jobs and wealth!”.

The one ready remedy that Jamaica has to offer its ailing nutraceuticals…one of the fastest growing markets worldwide.

And why so…what is this nutraceutical?

Nutraceuticals are products that can improve health. As we all know most drugs used in sickness have their origins in cultural knowledge, beliefs, and practices. A plant that is used to treat an illness in folk culture when studied may indeed show proof of efficacy. If carefully investigated and separated out and purified to the point of having a single effective component which is tested, tried and proven to be reliable and safe to treat an illness, is what is called a pharmaceutical (drug) and the whole process of preparation is rigorously monitored and regulated within the pharmaceutical industry.

On route to the purified state, there will be extracts with mixtures of several components and these extracts may also demonstrate reliable outcomes in treating the illness. The extract often will benefit from synergistic interactions amongst its components and result in an enhanced effect. This extract is what is called a nutraceutical, because quite often it is obtained from the nutrients in food and drink.

There is the story of the 18th-century English physician, Dr Withering, who practised in Birmingham and became famous for his discovery of digitalis, a modern-day drug used in heart disease. Withering was also a botanist and folktale explains that it was one of his patients suffering from dropsy (heart failure complicated by gross swelling of the body) and whom he had given up as incurable, that Withering met him one day strolling along the street in fair health. On enquiry into what had happened, the patient explained that he was using a concoction from a herbalist gypsy woman, Mrs Hutton, living in the neighbouring district of Shropshire. Withering would visit this woman to find out what really was in the concoction. It would take him nine years to separate the ingredients and identify the foxglove plant as the main source of efficacy in treating the heart condition. From the foxglove he isolated digitalis, available today as the drug digoxin or lanoxin.

Digoxin is the pharmaceutical drug. The concoction was the nutraceutical.

There are many more stories like this where medical practice has drawn information from the cultural practices of the people who have used the various potions, extracts and mixtures in treating sickness. This is part of the cultural science which has failed to be more readily embraced especially in modern times when technology has resorted to synthesising new products. It is of note, however, that big pharmaceutical companies are known to have their scouts moving amongst the people and learning their knowledge, beliefs and practices so that in the scientific laboratories these products are tested, refined and defined and with some luck a useful preparation might result.

Indeed, it is suggested that of every 10,000 such starts, it takes over 10 years and US$10 billion to achieve one success story….hence the costliness of some drug preparations.

Jamaica has been declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) to have over 80 indigenous plants that show potential nutraceutical efficacy.

Whilst we focus on plant extracts, let us not forget extracts such as fish oils and honey from animals, as well as there are healing properties to be obtained from our minerals (limestone) and spas, which have been demonstrated to have curative influence as a result of the water content of sulphur, calcium, phosphate, low radioactivity et al… hence in the Jamaican context, we have defined our nutraceutical industry to embrace all of these categories; and we are in the process of proposing mechanisms to identify, monitor and regulate these natural health products.

In developing the industry, much attention has to be paid to quality assurance from 'seed to sale', sustainability in reliable production, proper marketing and needless to say…adequate start-up funding.

The culture of the people reveals it all, hence the need to return to our roots and what's in store.

We have world famous ginger, coffee, cocoa, cannabis & limestone.

The topical question in the sports arena is…”upon what doth these Jamaicans feed, that they've acquired such tremendous speed?”

We believe that an important contribution to this world-class phenomenon lies in the diet of our youth and the staple foods such as yams, sweet potatoes (sweet yams), bananas, other fruits and minerals from the soil.

The people use almost on a daily basis turmeric, aloe vera, guinea hen weed, cerrasie, moringa, etc. They gather plants, based on generations of accumulated knowledge, and prepare concoctions for treating various illnesses. For too long we have frowned upon these practices and denigrated them as 'bush medicine'. These practices are the beginnings of many a pharmaceutical product; but long before this end point the extracts, now called nutraceuticals, were and continue to be in use.

It is guesstimated that over 60 per cent of persons seeking health care in health centres and doctors' offices are using these nutraceuticals and 90 per cent of these persons will not volunteer this information, because of the adverse opinions cultivated over the centuries… hence the whole nutraceutical industry is underassessed but is believed to be far in excess of the pharmaceutical industry.

Official figures from the world market are — pharmaceutical industry US$1.1 trillion; nutraceutical industry US$600 billion. How can Jamaica position itself for a share of this market?

It is that knowledge of the massive business potential that is driving governments worldwide to review the nutraceutical and pharmaceutical properties of cannabis, and Jamaica, historically acknowledged as the grower of the finest quality, has to secure a place in the research and development leading to marketable products.

Let us not forget the immense market of traditional Chinese medicines and the ayurvedic medicine in India. Incorporating these with the nutraceuticals will far outshine the pharmaceutical industry.

It is therefore sound advice that we take heed of Desiderata's advocacy to 'listen to the dull and the ignorant, as they too have their story'. There is an urgent need to bring into the health care fold those unregistered practitioners who offer some aspect of healing, no matter how rudimentary or unendorsed; and expose them to some basic truths in health. In that atmosphere of mutual respect, a number of individuals can be won over to guide those who seek help into the corridors of best practice based on data and scientific evidence.

Professor Errol Morrison, OJ, MD, PhD, FRCP (UK) is Director General of the National Commission on Science and Technology; Dr Andrew Wheatley, PhD, is a Member of Parliament and Research Biochemist.

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