Nutrient Combining: An Ancient Practice, Now Backed by Science

Nutrient Combining: An Ancient Practice, Now Backed by Science

In the West, we have been conditioned to seek out the one prescription, vitamin, mineral, nutrient, or food that will solve or prevent a particular health concern. We can look to vitamin C for protecting sailors from scurvy, vitamin D to prevent rickets, and iron and B12 for anemias as just a few examples.

While these deficiencies are genuine, in nature these nutrients are never isolated in the foods we eat. Vitamin C in citrus fruits comes with numerous bioflavonoids. The vitamin D from the sun comes with UVA, UVB, infrared and the entire visual-light spectrum. Each of these have health benefits and synergy with the other frequencies of light. In nature we do not find a calcium tree, or an iron bush, or a magnesium berry. Every non-processed food source delivers a cascade of nutrients engineered over millions of years to provide the nutrients we need to thrive. This is called nutrient synergy and nutrient combining.

In 2021, the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board acknowledged that the current Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) does not consider the now-understood benefits of nutrient synergy. They admitted that they had made all their recommendations for each nutrient while those nutrients were studied in isolation. 

In Ayurveda, the concept of nutrient synergy was well understood, especially when creating some of the classic Ayurvedic formulas. Certain carrier agents called anupans were frequently used. In the West, we now know them as nutrient enhancers

In This Article

A Time-Tested Example: Turmeric and Black Pepper

Studies have shown that combining turmeric with black pepper in the same way curry does can enhance the absorption of the turmeric by a whopping 2,000%. This recipe for nutrient synergy has been used for thousands of years. To access these benefits of synergy, at LifeSpa, we combined 16 parts turmeric with 1 part black pepper in our Turmeric Plus formula. 

Understanding how to combine herbs to mimic nature’s intelligence is fundamental in formulating Ayurvedic herbs.

See also Turmeric + Black Pepper Outperforms Curcumin

Extracts vs Whole Herbs

In the West, scientists work to boost the potencies and absorption rates of herbs. They do this by extracting or concentrating only the active constituents (ingredients or chemical compounds) of a plant. One of the most famous examples is the use of curcumin, which is one of the 300 constituents found in whole turmeric root. Its absorption is boosted with an extract of black pepper called bioperine. While these combinations of extracted ingredients are more potent, they alter the natural bio-chemical blueprint of the plant, and they are sterile. 

In Ayurveda, it was understood that you do not want to change the natural balance of the plant by only using what is perceived to be the most therapeutic constituent. Research has suggested that plants in their natural state (when combined by someone with a knowledge of synergy) outperform extracts like curcumin again and again. The whole plant outperforms the extract, typically without side effects or the building of a tolerance, which can often happen with herbal extracts. 

In addition, we have to consider the sterile nature of extracts. New research has shown the importance of the plant microbiome when it comes to the plant’s potency and effectiveness. The relationship between the plant and its microbiome is called the holobiont

Plants have bacterial endophytes that act synergistically with the plant to boost immunity, growth rate, and much more. These plant bacteria share genes with the plant, and when we consume them, we glean the benefits of this botanical-microbial-genetic synergy. For example, as plants struggle to ward off invaders and adapt to climate extremes, genes between the plant and its microbiome are shared.  When we consume that plant in its natural, organic, non-sterile, and non-extracted state and benefit from its struggle, this is called xenohormesis.  Xenohormesis is when the boosted immunity of the plant is passed on to us—the consumers of the herb.

Herbal extracts surely have their place as tools to do certain jobs for the body. However, using the whole herb, as we do at LifeSpa,  aims to help the body restore its natural function and  balance. In addition, whole herb use can help avoid risk of becoming dependent  on a pill, powder or herbal extract.

Learn More about LifeSpa’s Whole Herb Line Here.

Synergistic Herbs and Bioenhancers

Ayurveda also described another aspect of nutrient synergy called yogavahi, which is when one nutrient not only helps the assimilation of certain nutrients but also makes them more biologically active. In Western science, one such example is the intake of vitamin D with Magnesium. The combination activates the vitamin D, making it more potent. 

Shilajit

In Ayurveda, this is most obvious with an herb called shilajit. Shilajit is a resin that exudes from the cracks of rocks in certain areas of the Himalayas. It is made of concentrated biomass that is rich in fulvic and humic acids. These acids act as bio-enhancers that boost your absorption of other nutrients consumed from your foods or other herbs. Shilajit is the only herb in the Indian Materia Medica that has been called a panacea. Beyond bio-enhancement, shilajit also has yogavahi properties where it activates other nutrients to be more potent in the body. In one study, shilajit was shown to boost the production of energy (ATP) from the mitochondria. When it was taken with a supplement called coenzymeQ10, shilajit boosted the body’s natural production of CoQ10 and significantly boosted the production of ATP, bringing it to higher levels than when the shilajit or CoQ10 were taken alone.

Ghee, Olive Oil, and Coconut Oil

Another classic Ayurvedic example of nutrient synergy is when healthy fats are consumed with other foods. The fats in ghee or olive oil have been researched for their ability to act as carriers of certain nutrients. In one study, researchers looked at combining these oils with foods rich in beneficial phytochemicals of beta-carotene or lycopene. They are found in foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes. The researchers found that the oils enhanced the bioavailability of the beneficial phytochemicals, with the olive oil  being more effective.

Let’s look at a 2023 study on ghee, olive oil, and margarine. Researchers evaluated their role as bioenhancers, and found that ghee and olive oil actually enhance lipid profiles, antioxidant status, and female hormonal functions, while margarine showed no such effect. Overall, as bioenhancers, these healthy fats like ghee, olive oil, and coconut oil can help with absorption of the nutrients in your food.. 

Iron and Vitamin C

Iron and vitamin C are another example of nutrient synergy. While the iron found in animal protein (known as heme iron) is readily available when ingested, the iron found in plants is much less bioavailable. In a randomized study, vitamin C was found to unlock the iron from certain plants while boosting the iron’s assimilation through the digestive tract. This suggests eating iron-rich foods with vitamin-C-rich foods will support a synergistic digestion of both nutrients. There are many plant-based sources of iron, but to get both iron and vitamin C in the same plant, consider spinach and broccoli.

Vitamins D and K2

Vitamin D plays an important role in carrying the calcium from the intestinal tract into the bloodstream. Without adequate levels of vitamin K2,  which carries the calcium to the bones, much of the body’s circulating calcium can build up in the arteries as calcium plaque. One of the highest sources of vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin K2 is fermented dairy. Traditionally, dairy products were consumed in a fermented or cultured form like cheese or yogurt. These cultured products allowed for a much longer shelf life than raw milk, particularly without refrigeration. Diets rich in dairy needed higher amounts of vitamin K2 to ensure all the excess calcium was being directed to the bones, rather than risk buildup of calcium in the arteries. This is just another example of nature’s nutrient synergy!

Vitamins B12, B6, and Folate

An observational study that looked at over 4,000 people over 30 years found that people with higher levels of vitamins B12, B6, and folate were significantly less likely to experience Metabolic Syndrome. This syndrome is a combination of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, and abdominal obesity. It’s important to get enough of these three vitamins. You can get all three in a large salad with beans or a meal of broiled salmon and green vegetables.

Boswellia and Turmeric

Both boswellia and turmeric  have been used for thousands of years to support healthy joint function. Both of these herbs have been shown to inhibit the 5-lipoxygenase enzyme pathway, which is  responsible for a significant amount of inflammation in the body. To enhance the absorption and bioavailability of these herbs, traditionally ginger and black pepper were used as bio-enhancers.

Conclusion

While science is only beginning to understand the concept of nutrient synergy, Ayurveda has perfected this art with thousands of years of trial and error. Here in the West, it is often suggested that since an extract is more potent, then it must be more effective for you. 

This is not true in Ayurveda and generally not true in Western medicine either. Ayurvedic practitioners understood that the effectiveness of an herbal formula was much more subtle than just its mere potency. It had to do with the soil it was grown in, the plant’s microbiome, and how the herbs were combined; even who, where, and when they were grown was an important consideration.

When you value the combined subtle properties of plants,they work with the body rather than overruling it. The body recognizes them as being in their natural state. Ten to one hundred times more potent herbal extracts are sterile and devoid of the microbiome which provides an essential synergy. Imagine if we took all the microbes out of your body. You would be completely different. The body could quickly become tolerant to them, so you may find yourself needing higher doses. Extracts also may be more likely to interact negatively with other foods or supplements, and there may be unwanted side effects. 

I suggest using these extracts as medicines that you take if needed, get better, and then wean off. Whole herbs, on the other hand, aim to support the body’s ability to heal itself. This creates self-sufficiency rather than a dependency on a particular herb or supplement.

See also How to Choose: Whole Herbs Vs Extracts

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Gratefully,
Dr. John

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