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Condition - The way to healthy joints - our guide to keeping you moving!

By Cathy Robinson BSc DipNutMed MBANT

Physical activity brings with it enormous health benefits, but an active lifestyle can constantly put pressure on our joints. A staggering 30% of us suffer from back pain while, according to Arthritis Research UK, over eight million people in the UK, or over 6% of the population, are affected by osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis in the UK. 

Osteoarthritis is often described as “wear and tear” arthritis and is associated with chronic deterioration to the joint cartilage; the tough, slippery and flexible material that covers the ends of our bones in order to cushion, reduce friction and enable smooth movement of our joints. The cartilage can gradually become thin, stiff and inelastic, resulting in bone rubbing against bone. The resulting loss of shock absorption can lead to reduced mobility of the joint, along with inflammation, stiffness and pain.

As any sportsperson will tell you, joints are often accidentally damaged through spraining or over-use. Cartilage contains no blood vessels, so it heals and repairs itself slowly when damaged. 

Whatever the underlying reason for joint problems, it is undeniable that they can interfere with our quality of life and overall health. Joint pain can seriously impede our activity, leading to weight gain, low mood and sleeplessness.

Glucosamineis a substance known as an amino sugar which, simply put, means a type of monosaccharide or simple sugar attached to an amine group. Glucosamine is naturally produced in our bodies, but its production slows with age. Glucosamine is needed to produce substances called glycosaminoglycans, which are the building blocks for proteogylcans, major components of joint cartilage, where they provide both strength and elasticity. These substances also may have a role in the formation and repair of cartilage. Glycosaminoglycans attract water and this assists in their cushioning function, keeping the joints well lubricated.

Supplementing glucosamine may help to manage and reduce pain and improve the physical function of joints in osteoarthritis. Glucosamine is available in different forms, including glucosamine sulphate and glucosamine hydrochloride. Glucosamine hydrochloride is purer and contains proportionally more glucosamine than glucosamine sulphate. Studies have shown that at least 1,500mg of glucosamine per day should be taken for best results. Glucosamine is best taken for at least three months in order to evaluate its benefits. 

A new study from Germany suggests that a combination of glucosamine and omega 3 fatty acids may be even more effective in supporting our joints.  Omega 3 fatty acids are found in the oil of cold-water fish, such as mackerel, salmon and sardines. Omega 3 fats play a role in reducing inflammation and so may be useful in cases of inflammation associated with arthritis and other joint-related diseases.

Apart from cartilage, joints are composed of synovial fluid, ligaments and tendons. The protein collagenis concentrated within the joint and research suggests that supplementing collagen in a well-absorbed form may help the repair and formation of joint cartilage. In fact, one study showed that, following collagen supplementation, participants reported a 33% reduction in arthritis symptoms.

Mud baths containing sulphur are one of the oldest forms of treatment for joint pains.Sulphur may help to strengthen the tissues that make up the joint.  Examination of healthy and arthritic cartilage has revealed that arthritic cartilage is around 30% lower in sulphur than healthy tissue. MSM (methyl-sulphonyl-methane) is a naturally occurring compound found in vegetables, especially broccoli, and garlic, meat, beans and eggs. It may help to maintain the permeability of cells and support healthy, flexible joints and muscles. MSM can also be applied to tired and sore muscles and joints as a muscle balm or cream.

Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a plant in the sesame family native to South Africa. It was discovered in the 18thCentury by European explorers and is widely used as a traditional herbal remedy. The fruit of the plant is said to resemble a claw, hence its name. The active ingredients in devil's claw root are substances known as iridoid glycosides. In Europe, it is commonly used for the relief of backache, rheumatic or muscular pain, as well as general muscle and joint aches and pains. 

Vitamin C is a cofactor in the synthesis of collagen, proteoglycans and the connective tissue that makes up joints. Vitamin C also has powerful antioxidant and immune-supporting effects.

Another herb, which has been traditionally used in connection with joint health, is ginger. The rhizome or underground stemcontains active constituents that have been shown to be particularly effective in inflammatory joint diseases like osteoarthritis. It appears that ginger is able to inhibit certain enzymes that play a role in the promotion of inflammation and pain.

If you are prone to joint pain, it makes sense to ensure that your diet isn’t a contributory factor. Some people with joint pain appear to be sensitive to vegetables in the nightshade family – namely potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and aubergine. This family of vegetables contain substances called alkaloids, which, in certain people, may trigger an increase in joint pain. Whilst it is not a good idea to remove these vegetables from the diet unless you are sensitive, if you do suffer from joint pain it may be worth cutting them out for a short period, in order to establish if there is a link.

Joint pain is an inflammatory condition, so it makes sense to avoid too much red meat and sugary and processed foods which are pro-inflammatory, while increasing intake of green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, which may be anti-inflammatory. A green smoothie can be a great addition to the diet. Use a blend of fruits, such as mango, pear and banana with leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale or romaine lettuce and a scoop of hemp protein powder. Apart from being delicious, a green smoothie is packed with alkalising nutrients, as well as beneficial vitamins and minerals. 

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