Chondroitin is made by the body and is a vital part of cartilage, the tissue that cushions joints, but ageing and injury can cause the amount produced to decline. That’s why supplements made from animal or fish cartilage can be useful.
Several studies have suggested chondroitin supplements may be an effective treatment for osteoarthritis (OA) – the most common type of arthritis which occurs when cartilage wears away and causes friction between the bones, resulting in joint pain, swelling and stiffness.
Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘Chondroitin – usually taken alongside glucosamine – is a supplement whose anti-inflammatory effects help to reduce joint pain by stimulating the regeneration of cartilage and the production of collagen and synovial fluid. Some people with OA say they need fewer painkillers when they take chondroitin.’
What does chondroitin do?
Chondroitin forms part of the proteoglycan molecules that provide springiness and resilience; it boosts proteoglycan production and inhibits protease enzymes. Some studies suggest chondroitin reduces the activity of enzymes that break down cartilage and has an anti-inflammatory effect.
Around 8.75 million people in the UK see their GP for treatment for OA and a third of people aged 45 and over are affected.
It can affect all joints but the weight-bearing hips and knees are the most common places to experience the symptoms of pain, swelling and stiffness.
There’s now solid evidence to show that chondroitin is an effective treatment for OA. A 2013 review of high quality studies concluded that chondroitin sulphate was an effective and safe treatment option for OA and had a beneficial effect on pain and joint function.
Another review of 54 studies involving 16,000 OA sufferers in 2015, concluded using chondroitin and glucosamine together for knee OA had a comparable effect to using celecoxib, a powerful non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).
Using chondroitin and glucosamine supplements may therefore be considered as a safe alternative to using NSAIDs, particularly for those who can’t tolerate the gastric side effects of the drugs.
Getting chondroitin from your diet
There are no major dietary sources of chondroitin sulphate (although it is found in meat gristle, you are unlikely to be eating a substantial amount of this on a day-to-day basis), so supplements could help.
Taking chondroitin with a glucosamine supplement can help improve its effectiveness.
Chondroitin is well-tolerated and any side-effects tend to be mild and rare. Those that do occur can include stomach upsets, headaches, intestinal gas, leg swelling, diarrhoea and rashes.
If you take anticoagulants, chondroitin might increase your risk of bleeding, so always check with your doctor. Chondroitin may also make breathing worse in people who suffer from asthma. The effects of chondroitin on pregnant and breastfeeding women have not been studied and it is therefore best avoided in these instances.
If you are vegetarian, choose chondroitin sulphate supplements made from algae instead of animal or fish sources.
There is no established upper safe daily limit for chondroitin. Most trials have used a daily dose of 1,200mg taken as three 400mg tablets.It is also available in one 1,200mg tablet dose.