Over the past decade or so, glucosamine and then chondroitin have become widely promoted for “joint health” by many supplement manufacturers. Today we look at what these supplements are and some of the evidence behind their use.
What are glucosamine and chondroitin?
Glucosamine is a compound found naturally in the body. It’s needed to produce a special molecule called glycosaminoglycan which forms and repairs body tissues, particularly cartilage.
Chondroitin is a significant component of cartilage which gives joints their strength and elasticity for absorbing shock. It also absorbs fluid into nearby connective tissue and helps in the construction of new cartilage.
Do we need glucosamine and chondroitin supplements?
Articular cartilage lines all of our moving joints, cushioning bones and providing for their fluid motion. This cartilage is quite tough but also very thin – about 1/8 of an inch. As a result even small defects can make articular cartilage vulnerable to wear and tear. This degeneration of cartilage is called osteoarthritis and is very common in older adults, typically in the joints of the knees, hips and hands.
As we age, glucosamine production slows. This in turn slows the repair of damaged cartilage. Supplementing with glucosamine reintroduces this vital compound to the body.
Many studies have shown that glucosamine is effective in treating osteoarthritis. One impressive three year study of patients with knee osteoarthritis treated with 1500mg of glucosamine sulfate per day experienced a significant reduction in pain and stiffness. X-rays of the same individuals after 3 years found no further narrowing of joint spaces while those taking a placebo did.
Studies of the use of chondroitin show mixed results, but the most promising studies show chondroitin taken with glucosamine can magnify the positive effects of glucosamine supplementation, reducing pain and inflammation from osteoarthritis.
An interesting side note to glucosamine and chondroitin they can take weeks to begin having a noticeable effect on pain and stiffness, but continue to provide relief up to 3 months after treatment is stopped. They are much safer than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) commonly taken for osteoarthritis. Taking glucosamine and chondroitin can lessen dependence on NSAIDs.
Who should not use glucosamine and chondroitin?
Most glucosamine in commercial supplements are derived chitin, a substance harvested from the actual shells of shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster). Those with shellfish allergies should use glucosamine supplements from non-shellfish sources.
Glucosamine and chondroitin supplements are not recommended for pregnant or nursing women or for children as they have not been studied for safety in these groups. Speak with your doctor before taking chondroitin if you are taking any blood thinning medication as chondroitin can enhance the effects of blood thinners. Of course, you should always talk to your doctor before taking any supplements if you are taking prescribed drugs.
Glucosamine and chondroitin have some detractors, but most studies find them benign at worst and tremendously helpful to osteoarthritis sufferers at best. Glucosamine and chondroitin may not work for everyone but is well worth considering as a natural healing option when dealing with joint pain or stiffness.