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It’s great that there are medications. But sometimes healthy food can help just as much as medicine would. Pharmacologists and nutritionists should therefore work much more closely together, says researcher Saskia Braber of Utrecht University, Netherlands. She and her team studied the effects of some 200 nutrients such as vitamins and dietary fibers on our bodies. It turns out that a bowl of fresh chicken soup helps when you’re not feeling well after all.

“Fresh is always good,” laughs Saskia Braber. “Fresh food, little salt, lots of herbs and lots of fruit. That all contributes to good health. Let’s say, like the famous Mediterranean diet. All kinds of food components described in this study are also well represented in the Mediterranean diet, such as high-fiber foods, fish and fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Corona

But her research shows that you can also use nutrients medicinally to combat certain problems like an allergy or a disease in its early stages. For example, there is the positive effect of vitamin D in people who have the corona virus. The white blood cells that are supposed to attack hostile viruses have receptors on which vitamin D can anchor. When that happens, immune responses take place. The secretion of certain signaling substances is lowered and fewer inflammatory responses occur.

“And with COVID-19 in particular, you see that the entire immune system goes haywire, causing the body to produce all sorts of signaling substances and increasing inflammation. So vitamin D can be administered in that case as a medicine,” explains Braber. “It brings the immune system back into balance. We also see that vitamin D increases the growth of so-called ‘natural killer cells’. Severe COVID-19 patients in particular have far too few of these ‘natural killer cells’. So with vitamin D you can stimulate the growth of the very cells that you need to fight inflammation.”

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Encyclopedic listing

Together with her colleagues, Saskia Braber from the Utrecht University’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences analyzed 200 studies on what exactly is known about the healing power of various food components. For example, it is well known that vitamins have a positive effect on health. But in this study she methodically listed the nutrients, noting what exactly is known about how they work precisely and what immune response they can trigger.

“I looked at all the nutritional components that fit on an immune system receptor. These are vitamins, but also oligosaccharides – the sugar structures also found in breast milk- unsaturated fatty acids like Omega 3 and Omega 6, fiber and so on. These are all examples of food components that fit on the receptors of the immune system and can direct that very precisely.”

Saskia Braber. (c) Photo University of Utrecht

According to Braber, it is a bit too short-sighted to say that in certain cases it is better to take vitamin D than medication. “You have to be careful that this research doesn’t lead you to say, ‘Guys, we’re not going to take any more medication; we’re going to solve everything through nutrition.’ But it could be an approach to a certain disease in the early stages. For example, you’re developing an allergy. You suddenly have mild eczema or some intestinal symptoms. Then I think it’s better to pay very close attention to your diet for a few months first and see what that does.”

Combination

Braber sees particular benefit in a combination of the two. You could be prescribed a diet in combination with a medication for a certain condition. “In such a case, you could then take a little less of that medication than usual. So then with certain medications, you would also have fewer side effects.”

The Utrecht scientist compiled numerous tables for this research which can be used to ‘calculate’ which nutrients you can use medicinally, step by step. What disease is involved? What immune reaction do you see with it? How is the immune system out of balance? What cells play a role, what receptors are on those cells and what nutrients fit those receptors?

“So you can eventually come to the conclusion that this, this and this are good to eat. I am convinced that you can also use these insights curatively. I absolutely do not want to claim that you can solve cancer with healthy food. But it can certainly contribute to healing.”

Collaboration

According to Braber, it would be good if there were much closer cooperation in practice between the pharmaceutical industry and nutritionists. “For a long time, pharmacologists did not accept insights from nutrition research. They considered food to be a kind of confusing mishmash of substances that all have different effects. But we have now been able to isolate individual substances from that mash. You could also put those in a pill in the future.”

Nutrition certainly cannot replace all medication, Braber emphasizes. “The pharmacological world has come so far these days with medications that have so many different means of action. They can’t simply be replaced by food. But nutrition tailored to a particular disease certainly has a supporting and supplementary effect, and in combination with medication, has a positive effect on therapy.”

Cheese platter

And what does Saskia Braber like best on her plate? She laughs heartily. “I love food very much. I like a lot of things. Actually, I’m not allowed to say this because it’s not good at all. In fact, my favorite food is a cheese platter with a glass of wine. But that is really so bad! All that fat cheese and alcohol. But I do try to eat as naturally as possible. Lots of fish for sure. And fruit instead of sweets and most of all, everything must be fresh.”

The study Pharmacological Modulation of Immune Responses by Nutritional Components was published in the professional journal Pharmacological Reviews.

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About the author

Author profile picture Arnoud Cornelissen has for many years been writing about science and technology in, among others, various Dutch newspapers.