Skip main navigation


What are Nutraceuticals?
WOLF MARX: Nutraceuticals are essentially individual compounds or nutrients that are delivered in a capsule, a liquid, a powder. And the reason why we’re interested in looking at these specific nutrients is because we now know that certain nutrients interact with certain pathways that are involved in mental illness. And so if we can provide these certain nutrients to people with these mental health problems, that might help resolve some of the symptoms that they’re experiencing.
If you walk into a chemist or you look online or through social media, you’ll note there’s a whole host of different nutrients that are being marketed to us as dietary supplements and powders and pills and these sorts of things. And so I guess the first question is, well, which one of these actually work? And so we’ve recently conducted a review that actually was designed to answer that exact question. So we looked at the highest quality of evidence. These are studies that ran randomised controlled trials. And we looked at all the nutraceuticals that are published in the literature at this moment across all sorts of mental health disorders.
What we found was that fish oil– so omega-3 fatty acids– had the strongest level of evidence. And this was particularly for people with diagnosed clinical depression and when fish oil was delivered as an adjunctive treatment. And by that, I mean combined with their common antidepressant medications as opposed to delivered just by itself. There was other nutrients, things like zinc methyl folate, which is a more bioactive form of folic acid, and vitamin D that also had some promising levels of evidence. But when you move away from these nutrients and particularly in other mental health disorders, the level of evidence gets quite a lot lower.
And so while we have some strong evidence for fish oil providing some benefit to people with clinical depression, other nutraceuticals, particularly in other common mental disorders like schizophrenia or anxiety disorders, the level of evidence just isn’t quite that yet.
Most of the research right now has looked at the role of nutraceuticals in people with clinical diagnoses of mental health disorders. When we move away from that to trying to prevent mental health disorders or the onset of mental health disorders, the evidence just hasn’t really been evolved at this point. And so while we have some relatively high confidence in nutraceuticals for resolving symptoms in people who already have a diagnosis of a mental disorder, in the general population– and by that I mean people that don’t require certain nutritional concerns or have nutritional deficiencies– the answer right now is that, no, we don’t need nutraceuticals to prevent. Instead, our highest level of evidence is really around diet.
And that’s where we have our recommendations right now. So consuming a nutrient dense, minimally processed dietary pattern that allows you to consume all these sorts of nutrients is our best bet at the moment.
So when we look at the evidence for nutraceuticals in the prevention of cognitive decline, there are a number of different nutraceuticals that have been trialled, so things like B vitamins, particularly folic acid and vitamin B12. There’s also herbal preparations, things like ginkgo biloba, omega-3 fatty acids, and polyphenols or poly phenol-rich foods, so things like your green tea, red wine, extra virgin olive oil. These are all very promising interventions. But currently, the evidence just isn’t there. So we don’t have that long-term evidence in people that are at risk of cognitive decline at the moment. And again, similar to preventing common mental disorders, your best bet is to go with a nutrient dense diet instead.

Current research shows that some nutraceutical and dietary supplements could help manage mental health.

Nutraceuticals are usually defined as foods or food components with the functional capacity to prevent or treat disorders.

Dietary supplements are products that contain dietary ingredients such as herbs, vitamins, minerals or other consumable components that are intended to complement a dietary intake.

Some nutraceuticals may provide a beneficial addition in the treatment of mental health disorders, particularly depression. However, these should not be viewed as substitutes in place of a good quality diet.

For those learners who are interested in learning more about nutraceuticals and their role in treatment on mental health disorders, in-depth and discipline-specific courses will soon be available.

Your task

Watch the interview with Dr Wolfgang Marx, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow and head of Nutraceutical stream at the Food & Mood Centre.

Were you aware of the recommendations discussed in the video?

What are your thoughts on the role nutraceuticals in mental health?

Discuss your thoughts with your peers in the comments.

This article is from the free online

Food and Mood: Improving Mental Health Through Diet and Nutrition

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education