The Differences of Nutraceutical and Dietary Supplements for Joints

Nutraceuticals for osteoarthritis
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Many products are marketed as being beneficial for arthritis and joint health. Some are dietary supplements, while others are classified as functional foods (a food product consumed as part of the daily diet that may offer benefit beyond nutrition), or nutraceuticals.

Unlike prescription medications, dietary supplements, functional foods, and nutraceuticals are not regulated by the FDA.

What Is a Nutraceutical?

A nutraceutical is a food or food component that claims to have health benefits, including treatment and prevention of disease. In 1989, Stephen DeFelice, M.D., derived the term "nutraceutical" from "nutrition" and "pharmaceutical." Basically, it's used as a marketing term.

What Is a Dietary Supplement?

Glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM are popular dietary supplements that are touted as beneficial for joint health.

As defined by Congress in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which became law in 1994, a dietary supplement is a product (other than tobacco) that is intended to supplement the diet; contains one or more dietary ingredients (vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and other substances); is intended to be taken orally; and is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.

How Nutraceuticals Differ From Dietary Supplements

Nutraceuticals do more than just supplement the diet. They, as was pointed out, help with disease prevention and treatment. Theoretically, the appeal of nutraceuticals has to do with accomplishing treatment goals without side effects.

Using glucosamine as an example, by promoting joint health, it would seem by definition that it is more of a nutraceutical than a dietary supplement. Are we essentially splitting hairs over terminology? Apparently so.

According to Arthritis Research and Therapy, "The term nutraceutical has no regulatory definition and is not recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which uses instead the term 'dietary supplements'. Some functional ingredients are sold as nutraceuticals in some countries but as drugs (that is, requiring a medical prescription) in others."

The Merck Manual states, "The most commonly used alternative therapy is dietary supplements, which include medicinal herbs and nutraceuticals." This is an example of how nutraceuticals and dietary supplements often are lumped together.

Dietary Supplementation in People With Arthritis

Researchers analyzed survey results from over 4,600 study participants involved with the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. More than 62 percent of adults reported that they take at least one dietary supplement.

Among people with arthritis, supplement use was most prevalent among those 50 years old and older, non-Hispanic white people, and those with more education, as well as people who had health insurance. Glucosamine with or without chondroitin was the most commonly used supplement for joint health related to arthritis.

While traditional treatment for osteoarthritis typically involves the use of anti-inflammatory medications, analgesic medications, surgery, as well as focusing on healthy body weight and regular physical activity, the nutritional and dietary interventions are an increasingly popular complementary approach—especially among those who prefer non-pharmacologic treatment options.

Nutraceuticals seem to play a role in processes which affect articular cartilage. In osteoarthritis, the structural integrity of cartilage is impaired. Nutraceuticals may play a role in the balance of anabolic (build up) and catabolic (break down) signals in joints.

Types of Nutraceuticals Used for Osteoartritis

Some of the nutraceuticals used for osteoarthritis include:

  • Fish oil
  • GAGs (glucosamine sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, and hyaluronic acid)
  • Olive oil
  • Methionine
  • Undenatured Type II Collagen
  • Various botanical extracts

A Word From Verywell

As a consumer, here's what you need to know: In the United States, you will see reference to dietary supplements. That term is essentially interchangeable with the term nutraceutical. Always consult with your doctor before trying any product labeled either as a dietary supplement or nutraceutical. Because of their popularity, doctors must be ready to answer your questions about potential side effects, as well as expected benefits.

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