The Difference Between a Drug and a Nutrient

What is the Difference Between a Drug and a Nutrient?
Have you ever wondered what the difference between a drug and a nutrient is?  They are very different!  Although many practitioners and patients consider them interchangeable when it comes to their effects on the body, there are fundamental metabolic processes that show that they could not be further from each other in how they can affect your body, and your health.

Understanding how our body works on a cellular level
Before we begin to answer this question, we must understand some basic fundamentals:  All chemical reactions in the body are catalyzed by enzymes, every single one, and an enzyme is simply “stuff that makes other stuff happen in the body”. Within our physiology, there are two categories of enzymes:  Digestive enzymes, and metabolic enzymes.  For this discussion we will focus mostly on metabolic enzymes since this is where “the action” is taking place for all drugs and nutrients. Our metabolic enzymes run every single process in the body.  They make and degrade neurotransmitters which affect our mood, keep us young looking, allow for the expression or suppression of genes, make hormones, grow our hair, allow our brain to form thoughts, they do it all.  Both natural and conventional healthcare practitioners seek to understand and influence metabolic enzymes, but in different ways.  The difference is a drug is a metabolic enzyme inhibitor, while a nutrient is a metabolic enzyme activator.

Why enzymes are a key to good health
Enzymes work like a lock and key mechanism.  When you insert the right key into a lock, the lock opens.  In this analogy, the lock represents an enzyme acted upon by a nutrient, which is the key.  The open lock is now “activated” and can be used for its intended purpose.  Now imagine having a different key that can fit into the same lock, but when you insert this key it doesn’t unlock it.  As a matter of fact, it doesn’t do anything but occupy the keyhole space.  Not only does this key prevent the lock from opening, it blocks any other keys from entering the keyhole.  This is how a drug works.

Drugs occupy a space on an enzyme preventing it from being activated.  Drugs shutdown, suppress, and turn off functions in the body by blocking enzymes from working; while a nutrient activates, expresses, and turns on bodily functions like the key that opened the lock.  Both drugs and nutrients act upon metabolic enzymes.  There are a few exceptions to this rule as there are a small handful of drugs which are enzymatic preparations.  Notably streptokinase and urokinase, which are protease (protein digesting) enzymes used in hospitals as clot busting drugs for people who suffer heart attack or stroke.  Hormone replacement therapy is another exception.  Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are not enzymatic inhibitors as they indiscriminately attack and destroy cells in the body.  But, in the most common application, today’s drugs are largely enzymatic inhibitors.

Examples Of Medications / Drugs Blocking Metabolic Enzymes
These are a few examples of drugs suppressing bodily processes.

  • NSAIDS, (Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Fenoprofen, Naproxen) block the COX enzyme which produces prostaglandins—a pain mediating molecule in the body.
  • Statin drugs (Crestor, Lipitor) block the HMG CoA Reductase enzyme found in the liver which produces cholesterol.
  • Blood thinners (Warfarin) blocks an enzyme in the liver, Vitamin K epoxide reductase (VKOR) which helps to clot blood, therefore making it difficult for your blood to clot, thereby thins the blood.
  • Anti-viral medications (Acyclovir, Valtrex) block enzymes which allow a virus to reproduce, thereby limiting its reproduction ability but does NOT kill a virus, only your immune system can do that.
  • Antibiotics (Penicillin, Vancomycin) inhibit enzymes which maintain the integrity of bacteria’s outer cell wall.  When the cell wall is destroyed, the bacterium break apart and essentially dies. Successful outcomes with antibiotics still require a healthy immune system to win over any infection.

Examples OF Nutrients Activating Our Metabolic Enzymes
These are also called “co-factors” or “co-enzymes,” and they are needed to make our body work properly.

  • Vitamin C- activates enzymes which helps form collagen as well as enhance the lethal granules in immune system cells that destroy pathogens.
  • Vitamin B12- activates the enzyme in the bone marrow which triggers the release of red blood cells into circulation; this release increases oxygen and energy in our body.
  • Calcium- activates enzymes involved with nerve impulse transmission, blood clotting, and muscle contraction.
  • DHA- is an essential fatty acid that is used to form brain and nervous tissue.
  • Arginine- is an amino acid derived from proteins which activates an enzyme called Nitric Oxide Synthase (NOS).  This enzyme can dilate blood vessels and decrease blood pressure.

How We Get Side Effects from Drugs
There is more to this story, both enzymatic activators (nutrients) and enzymatic inhibitors (drugs) don’t just fit with one enzyme; they fit with many enzymes in the body.  This is good for nutrients, but bad for drugs.  This is why we get “side effects” with all drugs, and multiple benefits with one nutrient.  One drug will block both the intended enzyme along with numerous other enzymes because they fit together, like a key that fits with many locks.

For example, statin drugs block the enzyme that produces cholesterol by the liver, thereby lowering cholesterol.  Because other metabolic enzymes are blocked as well, we additionally experience weakness, joint pain, insomnia, rashes, muscle pain, headaches, other infections, sinusitis, chest pain and peripheral edema, in addition to the cholesterol lowering effects.  All of the enzymes which control these functions are blocked as well, therefore they don’t work properly.

Conversely, a nutrient doesn’t activate one enzyme, it activates many enzymes.  Magnesium is a nutrient which is known to activate several hundred different enzymes; this is why nutrients are so important.  All nutrients activate many different enzymes, and are the reason why we need a variety of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and other goodies to sustain those life giving metabolic enzymes which run everything in the body.

Nutrients are the “chemical intelligence” that your body needs to be healthy.  Enzymes operate in cascades, which mean once an enzyme is activated by a nutrient, that enzyme seeks out other enzymes to activate and so on.

While there  times when the benefits of using a drug may outweigh the risks, it is important to note that no drug has ever cured anyone of any disease, only the immune system can do that. More importantly, a medication cannot correct the condition which allowed the health problem to present itself in the first place.  This highlights a philosophical difference between functional medicine versus a conventional approach to health.  Functional medicine works with the body to seek out the underlying cause of the health problem or deficiency, and then nudge it in the appropriate direction. 

Fixing your health problems means making a choice
You have a choice when it comes to fixing health problems in the body.  Do you want to force your physiology to behave a certain way by using an enzymatic inhibitor (drug) and deal with harmful side effects, or have someone help you identify the underlying deficient physiology and help it work better with a nutrient in order to increase your vitality and well being?

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