What is it?
Many complementary medicine approaches involve advice on diet, but in recent years nutrition has developed into a therapy in its own right.
By analysing a person’s diet and tailoring it to their individual needs – rectifying any vitamin, mineral and other nutrient imbalances – nutritional therapists seek to alleviate and treat common diseases and promote health.
History and theory
Diet has always been a part of medicine and healing, and is a feature of all traditional medicine systems. However, dietary and nutritional advice and therapy have become much more specific following scientific advances in the understanding of essential nutrients and their functions.
In the early part of the 20th century, biochemists began to isolate individual vitamins and minerals and determine their importance. Later research has focused on the role of amino acids, enzymes and friendly bacteria in healthy digestion, and antioxidants in slowing ageing and preventing cancer.
The body requires essential macro- and micronutrients in order to sustain life and health. The macronutrients are carbohydrates (sugars and starches), proteins (including amino acids), fats (including essential fatty acids) and fibre. The micronutrients are vitamins, minerals and trace elements. The body can’t manufacture these micronutrients itself, so they must be obtained from the diet.
Poor diet, increased intake of junk food, a decrease of nutrients in the soil, chemical farming methods, global pollution and high-stress lifestyles are all thought to play a part in nutritional deficiency, which is becoming increasingly common even in the developed world.
Individual needs for different nutrients have also been shown to vary widely. Careful dietary adjustment and/or nutritional supplementation can therefore have a huge impact on health.
What’s it good for?
Certain diseases appear to be linked to particular nutritional deficiencies. Replenishing these nutrients, through food or supplements, facilitates changes at a cellular level and helps to restore body function. For example, studies have shown that prostate problems may be linked to zinc deficiency, PMS may be affected by vitamin B6 deficiency and folic acid deficiency in pregnancy may contribute to birth defects such as spina bifida.
Nutritional therapy has been shown to be beneficial for many conditions, especially heart disease, arthritis, digestive complaints such as constipation or irritable bowel syndrome, gout, asthma, cancer and diabetes. It’s also used in the treatment of hyperactivity in children, chronic fatigue and obesity. Correct nutrition is crucial during pregnancy, too.
For a list of vitamins and minerals, how to use them and what they’re good for, take a look at the A to Z of vitamins and minerals.
Consulting a practitioner
Consultations often begin with a questionnaire analysing your diet and lifestyle. You may be asked to keep a food diary and take certain tests to determine levels of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, bowel function, levels of healthy bacteria in the gut and possible food intolerances.
These tests can take the form of hair, sweat and urine analysis or blood tests. The practitioner may also use electrical devices (such as the VEGA system) or muscle testing as used in applied kinesiology to detect food sensitivities. He or she may also carry out physical examinations – of your skin and nails, for example – to look for signs of deficiencies.
Treatment involves tailor-made diets usually eliminating specific foods and increasing the intake of others. Specific nutrients in the form of pills, capsules, powders and liquid tinctures may also be recommended.
To find a qualified practitioner, we suggest you contact one of the relevant organisations listed in Useful contacts.
* Certain nutrients, especially fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D and E, can be toxic when taken in large doses. Always follow your practitioner’s advice or the guidelines on supplement packaging.
* If you’re taking medication, always inform your doctor and practitioner before starting supplements in case they’re incompatible.
* Restricted diets should only be carried out under the careful supervision of an experienced practitioner.
* Extra care should be taken during pregnancy.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.