Osteoarthritis refers to the breakdown of cartilage pads, sometimes called articular cartilage, that provide a cushion at joints and prevent bone from rubbing against bone. When these cartilage pads become too thin or disappear, bone-on-bone movement causes pain and further joint damage. Osteoarthritis most commonly occurs in knee joints, but it can also develop in the elbows, hip, and back. The disease affects an estimated 27 million Americans.
Everyone will experience at least some age-related breakdown of articular cartilage and other tissues, but it can be exacerbated by injury and inflammation. Nutrients form the building blocks of cartilage, so poor eating habits are a risk factor.
Medical treatments focus on pain relief and surgery to replace knee joints. Some of the prescription pain-relieving drugs can increase the risk of heart disease.
Strive for a diet with quality protein, particularly cold-water fish, and a lot of different types of vegetables. In some people, sensitivity to nightshade plants, including tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, pimentos, and eggplant, can exacerbate the pain.
Several supplements can lower the risk of, and reduce pain from, osteoarthritis. They don’t work as fast as drugs, but they are far safer.
Glucosamine & Chondroitin. Both glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin sulfate are building blocks of cartilage, and dozens of studies have found that supplements of one or both can reduce osteoarthritic pain. In some European studies, glucosamine actually led to an increase in joint cartilage. Another European study found that people who had taken glucosamine for one to three years were half as likely to need knee-replacement surgery. A Canadian study found that the “sulfate” part of the molecule might be more important than the glucosamine. Supplements did not increase glucosamine levels in the blood, but did boost sulfate. Take: Approximately 1,500 mg of glucosamine and 1,200 mg of chondroitin daily.
MSM. This supplement is one-third sulfur, a mineral needed for the production of collagen, which in turn is required for cartilage. Several studies have found that MSM supplements can lead to reduction in osteoarthritic knee pain. Take: 1,000 mg daily, increasing slowly to 1,500–2,000 mg. MSM can be combined with glucosamine and chondroitin.
SAMe. Pronounced “sammy,” SAMe is technically known as S-adenosylmethionine. It plays a key role in fundamental chemical reactions, called methylation, in the body. Six controlled human studies have found that it works as well as prescription drugs and better than placebos in reducing osteoarthritis pain. Take: 400–1,200 mg daily.
Vitamin B3. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, William Kaufman, MD, reported that more than 600 of his patients with osteoarthritis benefited from taking the niacinamide (nonflushing) form of vitamin B3. Dosages ranged from 900–4,000 mg daily, depending on the severity of the patients’ osteoarthritis; benefits became noticeable after three to four weeks. Take: 1,000 mg daily; slowly increase the amount to 4,000 mg daily if needed.
Vitamin C. This essential nutrient is needed for the body to make collagen and cartilage, so some glucosamine and chondroitin supplements contain it. In a U.S. Navy study, such a combination (along with manganese) led to less osteoarthritic pain. Meanwhile, Danish researchers found that taking 1,000 mg of vitamin C daily for two weeks led to less osteoarthritic pain of the hip and knees. In some instances, a severe lack of vitamin C can lead to arthritic-like joints. The disease is not a true form of arthritis but is instead related to blood seeping from weak blood vessels into the joints. Take: 1,000–3,000 mg daily.
Pycnogenol. This extract of French maritime pine bark contains more than 40 antioxidants. Researchers gave either 150 mg of Pycnogenol or placebos daily for three months to 100 people with osteoarthritis. People taking Pycnogenol were able to walk longer distances and had less foot edema compared with those taking placebos. In a separate study of 156 people, 100 mg of Pycnogenol daily also led to improvements. Take: 150 mg or more daily.
ASU. The acronym is for the awkward “avocado/soybean unsaponifiables” name, which refers to anti-inflammatory oils extracted from those foods. Several human studies have found that ASU benefits people with osteoarthritis. Take: 300 mg daily.
In contrast to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is considered an autoimmune disease, meaning the body’s immune cells attack joints and surrounding tissues. It causes pain and, over many years, joints may become stiff and deformed. People with rheumatoid arthritis tend to have low levels of vitamin D, so supplements of this nutrient may help. Considerable research points to the benefits of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which the body can convert to anti-inflammatory prostaglandin E3. Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester, found that 1.4 to 2.8 grams daily of GLA significantly reduced symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Adding up to 5,500 mg of fish oil might increase the benefits.
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Jack Challem, aka “The Nutrition Reporter,” is the best-selling author of more than 20 books on health and nutrition, including The Inflammation Syndrome and Feed Your Genes Right. He is also a fine-art photographer. Visit him on the Web at nutritionreporter.com and jackchallem.com/photography.