Nutritional Supplements vs. Drugs

Difference Between Nutritional Supplements And Drugs

Nutritional or dietary supplements are products intended to bolster a person’s health by adding a component believed to be inadequately supplied by diet. These products may be vitamins, minerals, herbs or other plant-derived preparations, amino acids, or substances such as enzymes or organ tissues. Nutritional supplements can be found in a wide variety of forms, including tablets, capsules, “softgels,” “gelcaps,” liquids, or powders to be mixed with water. They are easy to find and can be purchased by anyone of any age in grocery stores, pharmacies, and health-food stores, through catalogs, and over the Internet.

People who take these supplements believe that they are getting exceptional health benefits, such as stronger bones, improved memory, superior athletic performance, or a reduced risk of developing certain chronic diseases. Nutritional supplements became extremely popular starting in the late 1980s, and by 1998 more than 40% of Americans spent nearly $14 billion a year purchasing a wide variety of such products.

Unlike drugs and food additives, nutritional supplements are loosely regulated and do not require the approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they can be sold. There are no standards for potency or dosage, nor do the products need to be proved safe and effective.

DRUGS

Drug, in its broadest sense, any substance other than food that, by virtue of its chemical makeup, affects living organisms. Understanding the nature of a drug requires knowledge of its pharmacodynamics, that is, how the drug produces its biological effects, and pharmacokinetics, the factors that influence the amount of drug present in the body at any given time after it has been administered. The study of drugs is encompassed under the field known as pharmacology, which in more general terms is the study of xenobiotics, or all chemical compounds, including drugs, foreign to a living organism.

The action of a drug is always mediated by a naturally occurring process of the body; that is, a drug either mimics, stimulates, or antagonizes a normally occurring biological function to produce its effect. The alteration brought about by the drug may be one that returns a function to normal operating levels or causes the function to reach abnormal levels. Drugs may also act to prevent changes in the body that would otherwise be caused by other outside factors, such as a disease or some foreign compound. Drugs do not, however, confer any new function on a living cell or organism. That is, drugs produce quantitative, not qualitative, changes.

Thus the effect of a drug can be recognized, measured, and expressed only in terms of an alteration of some known function that maintains the existence of the living organism. For example, in the 1970s it was discovered that the major defect in Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder, was a decrease of an endogenous compound known as dopamine in certain areas of the brain. Given this knowledge, researchers were able to alleviate symptoms with the drug levodopa, which the body converts into dopamine.

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