From a nutritional perspective, synergism is the way certain nutrients within a food are interlinked and work together as a team. The fact that iron is absorbed better in the presence of vitamin C is a very simple example of synergism, but if I pick up my Nutrition Bible, the synergistic nutrients listed for iron are Vit B2, B12, citrate, copper, clic acid, histidine, lysine, molybdenum, and selenium.
In this, one of my favourite textbooks by Henry Osieki, Henry describes synergistic nutrients as those who “work together in particular metabolic pathways as well as cofactors that activate the nutrient in question.” He says that “supplementing a synergistic combination of nutrients with the nutrient in question will result in better health outcomes at (a)lower dose of the star nutrient for a condition.”
He points out the dosages and ratios between each nutrient are important, and that supplying synergistic nutrients at high doses “can be antagonistic to the nutrient that is being supported.” A really good example of this is the calcium-magneisum relationship. The two definitely work together as a team when they are combined in the correct ratio’s. For example, a little bit of little bit of calcium added to magnesium can make the magnesium ‘work better’, but too much calcium will actually hinder the work of magnesium.
I think this explains fairly clearly why the complexity of nutrient relationships, with their unique, interconnecting ratio requirements, is an art best left to whole foods and herbs, because I seriously doubt it can be replicated in a chemistry lab (when creating supplements) with any kind of precision or accuracy. We have been co-evolving with plants since the beginning of our time as a species, with both plants and humans modelling themselves off of one another. We fit together, with plants providing many keys for unlocking the biochemical functions in our human bodies, but in an infinitely detailed manner that could not be mapped with our best computers.
Another of my favourite writers on the topic of synergy is Lisa Ganora, with her book Herbal Constituents. As a fellow herbalist, Lisa describe synergy is a word used to describe the following:
- The action of many herbs working harmoniously together as a whole, within a blended tincture.
- The combined action of many constituents/ingredients within a herb working together.
It’s this concept of synergy which makes certain constituents safe within the context of the whole herb (or food), even when considered poisonous in their isolated form. It also explains why a single constituent can be present in such small amounts that they would be useless if used medicinally in their isolated form, but when interlinked with other constituents which lend it power and give it a boost, this same quantity of constituent suddenly becomes all powerful.
Lisa distinguishes between true synergy and additive effects by saying that in synergy “two of more phytochemicals work together in a way that their effect is beyond what one would predict from simply adding the activity of the individual compounds.” By comparison, a simple additive effect (called potentiating synergy) occurs when two constituents with a similar action make each other stronger. For example, a phytochemical with an anti-inflammatory strength rating of 2 is added to a different phytochemical with an anti-inflammatory strength rating of 3. In potentiating or additive synergy, 2 + 3 = 5. But in true synergy 2 + 3 is more likely to equal 30, or 80.
Which is precisely why you can’t draw strong conclusions about the action of a food or herb from it’s individual components. The constituents give you hints, but the overall character of the food/herb could only be known by observing what happens when a large group of people consume more of a particular herb/food over time. Frankly, you don’t get many studies like this, because there’s no money in it. The people who pay for most medical research are pharmaceutical companies who are looking for the next magic bullet they are market as a drug or supplement. You can’t patent whole foods, because they public already own them.
Now let me describe the different kinds of synergy, again from Lisa’a brilliant textbook:
- Potentiating, additive or positive synergy (discussed above). Did you know for example that St Johns Wort, contains at least 5 different constituents that contribute to its activity as an anti-depressant? On their own, each one might not do much, but put them together and you have some more powerful action.
- Attenuating, antagonising, inhibiting or negative synergy. The example of too much calcium limiting the action of magnesium is an example. Another is the B12 analogues that block the receptor sites in cells that have been designed for real B12. They have a very similar chemical shape to real B12, but they don’t trigger all the wonderful healing actions in the body that B12 does. When the B12 “posers” (as one of my Irish cousins would put it) lock into the receptor sites, our real B12 can’t log in, and we become deficient.
- Stabilising or protective synergy. In this category, “one or more constituents protect others from changes such as chemical degradation, polymerisation, or metabolism in the body.” Antioxidant compounds are the perfect example! I was just talking about this with someone the other day, the way antioxidants in whole foods can protect the healthy fat content in these foods from being oxidised and going rancid. No such luck when you isolate and concentrate those fats (e.g. refined oils). You end up having to add preservatives and stabilisers artificially.
- Phytochemical vs physiological synergy. Constituents sorted into above three categories can also be classified as having photochemical or physiological synergy. Phytochemical synergy occurs between constituents and can be observed in a lab. By comparison, physiological synergy occurs within living systems (rather than a test tube, which often referred to as an in vitro study), With this kind of synergy, the interactions are occurring between the plant constituents and parts of the human body itself. The story I told you earlier about B12 is an example of this kind of synergy (i.e. competitive inhibition).
The Nutrient Bible, 8th edition, Henry Osieki
Herbal Constituents, Lisa Ganora