Monday, April 16, 2012

Nano-encapsulated supplements. Ballyhoo or miracle drug?

When humble supplements meet ultra cool nano-technology.

I'm going to continue where I left off in my previous post: With the question:
Does nano-encapsulation improve the effect of multi-vitamin multi-mineral supplements?
When I was confronted with this question my immediate reaction was: What is wrong with old-fashioned natural delivery of vitamins, from eating fruit, and vegetables, and, yeah, eggs and meat and drinking milk, all of which are the natural carriers of vitamins and more? Is this "nano-whatever" just a cool gimmick of an industry pushing a market, which "suffers" from only moderate growth? I admit it, I have a bias.  A bias for evidence. 
And as a health scientist I also have to admit that nano-encapsulation appeared, until now, only on the very fringes of the radar screen with which I observe the thousands of studies published each year on the subject of preventable, lifestyle-dependent chronic diseases. Literally thousands! Now go to PubMed, where the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health collect and archive all of those millions of studies and papers written on anything related to biomedicine and search for the combination of the terms "nano-encapsulation" and "vitamin" and you will find the stupendous number of ...
10 papers. None of them related to the oral administration of vitamins. That settled my initial fear, that my radar might have had a blind spot. The drawback was, I can't argue the case, for or against the usefulness of nano-encapsulation, based on published evidence. That leaves me no choice than to do what we scientists are supposed to do: to come up with testable hypotheses on subjects of which we have no, or not enough, knowledge. Which is why my answer to Björn's question will admittedly, be a highly subjective one. But then, there is no clear-cut answer anywhere else to get. Beware of the types who claim to have that answer!
Now let's get the technicalities out of the way first. What does nanoencapsulation mean? It simply means to coat one substance with another at sizes ranging from 1 to 1000 nm. The purpose of doing that is to
·       deliver a drug to a specific tissue or site in an organism, where the drug is then released
·       slow down or time the release of a drug. Which is a good way of delivering Insulin via a nasal spray, a very new technique, which has shown some promise in reducing food intake in overweight women.
·       adding certain micro-nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, to foods without altering the foods' textures or tastes, and to prevent degradation of the otherwise volatile micro-nutrient
·       increase the shelf-life of vitamins
·       increase the bioavailability of anti-oxidants and to prevent unwanted reactions with other food items.
There are lots of other uses in the food and cosmetics industry, but they do not concern us here.
What we want to know is, whether a nano-encapsulated vitamin supplement does its job any different from, and possibly better than, a supplement that is not so encapsulated. 
Now when you take in vitamins, with your food or with supplements, these vitamins need to travel from the mouth through your esophagus and stomach to the small intestine where they will be absorbed through the intestine's membrane. Water-soluble vitamins are typically transported via some sort of a carrier, with the exception of vitamin B12, for which specific receptors do that job. Fat-soluble vitamins require the presence of the same enzymes which fat itself requires for being absorbed. All this happens in the small intestine, the one into which the stomach empties its content. These processes are complex but well researched and known in great detail. Now, just for laughs, let's look at what the geniuses at one of the nano-encapsulation supplement producers have to say about the point where nano-encapsulated vitamins meet the small intestine.
And I quote from here (http://livethesource.com/index.php/products/dailymultivitamin):
"livethesource® nanotechnology creates a particle size small enough to be efficiently absorbed, yet not so small as to be counterproductively absorbed by the body. We use all natural plant lipids as the basis of our nano encapsulation material. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The food grade material not only is absorbed and recognized as a safe substance, but also delivers its payload in a quick, safe and efficient manner."
"small enough to be efficiently absorbed" - as opposed to what? In the intestine water-soluble vitamins are transported molecule by molecule across the intestinal barrier and fat soluble vitamins are integrated into the micelles, which are small enough to pass through this barrier. That's what happens to the vitamins in your food. No nanoencapsulation required here. I also fail to understand what could possibly be a counterproductive absorption. Either vitamins are absorbed, or they are not, but counterproductive absorption is an oxymoron.
What really throws me off is the "natural plant lipids" which form the "basis of our nanoencapsulation material". If water-soluble vitamins are encased in lipids (another term for fat, or fatty acids) they are not available for transport as these vitamins' carriers and receptors will not recognize them. If the nanocapsules, thanks to their fat-soluble exterior, are integrated wholly into the micelles, which transport fat and fat-soluble vitamins, then the water soluble vitamins end up in the blood in a different pathway. If the nanocapsules are dissolved in the intestine prior to their absorption, then what difference does nanoencapsulation make to the absorption process. And with "difference" I mean the difference to naturally delivered vitamins of an apple or an egg yolk which you eat.
The rest of this quote is, like most of their page, a lot of ballyhoo.
Now it's time to return to our initial question: Does nano-encapsulation improve the effect of multi-vitamin multi-mineral supplements? You probably have guessed my answer: If I had to form a hypothesis, it would be something along the line of "nano-encapsulation in itself is not expected to improve a supplement based delivery of vitamins. The potential benefit of nanoencapsulating vitamins in supplements is the potentially longer shelf life of so encapsulated products."
But this longer shelf life benefits exclusively the manufacturer, not you, the consumer. Encapsulation or not, you'll only buy a bottle of vitamin pills which you can consume before it's use-by date. Don't you?
Now that you have read my point of view on vitamin supplementation (my yesterday's post) and on nano-encapsulation of supplements, I need to tell you why my arguments may not apply to you, personally. This is an issue which plagues medicine and public health, and it is hardly recognized or being talked about. This issue is at the heart of personalized medicine and personalized prevention. Stay tuned, because I will tell you in my next post, why you should be skeptical of the interpretation of the results of any study, regardless of who interprets the results. Whether it's me or anybody else.
Stay tuned.
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