Top Supplements for Cartilage
When joints are mentioned, many of us think of the simple mechanism of muscles contracting to move bones. There’s more to joints than just those two elements though, and everything needs to be considered when trying to keep them healthy. One of the most important components is a material called cartilage, which you may have heard of.
Keeping cartilage strong and healthy can lead to smoother joints, but how do we go about achieving that? We have a list of some of the top supplements for the cartilage around your body. If you’re having joint issues then this may be the first step to finding some relief.
What is Cartilage?
First of all we need to examine what exactly cartilage is. It’s a soft but flexible tissue mainly found in the joints, but also in other areas like the ear and nose (feeling them gives you a good idea of how firm but pliable it is). Although it is quite resistant to damage, any that is suffered tends to recover slowly as cartilage doesn’t have a dedicated blood flow like the skin or bones do.
One of the defining characteristics of the tissue is that it’s a low-friction material, especially the type of cartilage found in joints. As you can imagine, this property means that it plays an important role in the joints, keeping movements smooth and protecting the bones from grinding against one another. A breakdown of cartilage is a major factor in osteoarthritis, where this grinding causes pain and swelling. Cartilage also acts as a shock absorber, taking some of the weight in places like our knees, ankles and hips while walking.
When cartilage becomes too damaged or worn down, the next step is usually joint replacement operations, classically seen with hip replacements in older individuals. Ideally, we need to take as good care of our joints as possible while we’re young, to attempt to avoid a procedure like this. There are some supplements that can contribute to good joint help, specifically keeping the cartilage healthy by offering it the required nutrients.
It’s one of the most popular supplements on the market; glucosamine is what’s known as an amino sugar, a tiny building block used by the body. Specifically, as you might’ve guessed, it’s used in the joints. It’s a precursor to another set of chemicals called glycosaminoglycans, and these are used heavily in cartilage. The thinking is that supplementing with glucosamine will increase the rate the cartilage will recover, or even aid in its regeneration. But is this true?
The general consensus at the moment is that glucosamine can support the joints those with cases of osteoarthritis. There’s some evidence to suggest that it can protect remaining cartilage in the joints while encouraging its recovery. Evidence also exists that says a daily dose of glucosamine can help with the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis too – note that many of the studies into its effectiveness focused on osteoarthritis of the knees.
One thing that’s been noted about glucosamine is that it offers different levels of relief for different people – what works for someone else may not work as well for you. Luckily, glucosamine supplements are extremely safe, so taking them over a long-term period won’t have any major side effects. The advice is to try them for a few months and carefully observe for any improvements in the joints, stopping if you don’t feel the benefit.
This is another chemical found in the joints, being an important component in cartilage and connective tissue. Chondroitin is a long chain of sugars that’s been cited as the reason for cartilage’s cushioning properties. When levels drop – often with old age – it can make certain activities much more painful to perform; the cushioning effect is greatly missed in the knee and hip joints. High levels of chondroitin also help joints retain water, an often-overlooked part of joint health that we’ll dig into later.
Although they can be taken separately, glucosamine and chondroitin are frequently paired up, especially in supplements. With glucosamine providing some of the base components to chondroitin’s chemical make-up, they’re the perfect partners to stave off or perhaps even heal cartilage damage. Once again, it makes products that contain this duo of ingredients some of the first reached for by osteoarthritis sufferers.
The combination seems to have positive effects on joints, particularly in those with more severe forms of osteoarthritis. Many health organisations around the world recognise glucosamine and chondroitin as having scientifically beneficial effects on joint health. Multiple studies have found the combination effective on osteoarthritis of the knees, especially when taken over a long term period (a 2010 study found it to be as effective as prescription anti-inflammatories after a two-year period). By itself, chondroitin can still be effective (one piece of research showed a significant improvement in arthritic hand joints) and is extremely safe to add to your diet.
The first thing that probably springs to mind when you think ‘collagen’ is beauty and healthy skin. This isn’t unwarranted, as collagen is an important protein in many connective tissues around the body, including the kind that keeps the skin wrinkle-free. With it being one of the most prevalent proteins in the body, many types are utilised in organs, muscles and, of course, in cartilage.
Collagen is predominantly found in articular cartilage – the kind found covering the ends of bones to smoothen joint movement. Studies have found that loss of collagen is one of the first steps in osteoarthritis, and can be very difficult to replace once it’s degraded. This makes it even more important to look after it while it’s still healthy; prevention is better than painful joints and potential operations.
The science surrounding collagen supplements for joints is optimistic. What’s additionally interesting is that it could also help younger adults with painful joints. A 2017 study looked at athletes with knee pain during training, and whether a 12-week course of collagen could ease it. The results showed collagen reduced pain during activity compared to a placebo. There’s also support for its use against osteoarthritis, although further research is needed to clarify how collagen works and who could benefit from it the most.
An oft-forgotten supplement, water is extremely important to cartilage and our joints. Around 80% of articular cartilage is made of water, so make sure you stay hydrated throughout the day. The typical advice is to aim to drink around 2 litres of water a day, which may seem like a lot to older individuals. As we age our sense of thirst becomes dampened, making us more prone to dehydration, so stay conscious of how much – or how little – you’ve drunk. You may feel less pain and stiffness after building a healthy water-drinking habit.
Our joints are sorely missed when we start to lose them; it’s important that we do what we can to prevent their degradation. It’s difficult to simply rest joints, considering how often we use them (especially those found in our legs) so we need to take care of them in other ways. Supplements are a tool at our disposal to assist in this, especially in old age, when a lot of the chemicals needed for joint health start to drop. Our list of top supplements may help you support them, whether they’re arthritic or just a little creaky.
As always, please consult a doctor if you have any concerns or if you’re on any medication that may be interrupted by supplements.