Dr. Sarah Brewer November 01, 2017

There's an awful lot of supplements to choose form when it comes to joint health, but Healthspan's Medical Director Dr Sarah Brewer is here to give you the lowdown.

From middle-age onwards, most people notice their joints start to become creaky and aches and pains may set in due to osteoarthritis. It’s therefore not surprising that products which are designed to support joint health are among the most popular and widely taken supplements. Of these, glucosamine, chondroitin and omega-3 supplements top the list.

Glucosamine for joint health

Glucosamine is a substance needed by joints to repair cartilage and make the synovial fluid that cushions joints. Glucosamine acts as a biological signal to switch on the repair of joint tissues, and triggers the formation of joint building blocks. Researchers now know that glucosamine also has an anti-inflammatory action that suppresses the breakdown of cartilage.

The production of glucosamine in the body is a slow process, so it is often in short supply. As a result, many people find glucosamine supplements are beneficial for maintaining healthy joints.

A dose of 1500 mg glucosamine a day is the most widely recommended dose, and it is often combined with chondroitin in the same product.

Chondroitin for joint health

Chondroitin is needed to form ‘springy’ molecules that increase the strength and elasticity of cartilage, making it more resilient. Chondroitin also acts as a signal to inhibit the enzymes responsible for breaking down cartilage, and stimulates the synthesis of type II collagen.

As you get older, joint cells secrete less chondroitin and this has been linked with reduced cartilage quality and the start of degenerative osteoarthritic changes in ageing joints.

The usual dose for chondroitin is 1200mg per day.

Other supplements that go well with glucosamine and chondroitin

  • Calcium is needed for strong bones, which support joint cartilage
  • Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption and deposition in bones; low vitamin D intakes are associated with a higher risk of progressive osteoarthritis and the need for joint replacement surgery
  • Vitamin C is needed to produce joint collagen and may reduce the risk of cartilage loss in people with osteoarthritis.

Omega 3 for joint health

Omega-3s are a type of fatty acids of which the beneficial long-chain forms (EPA and DHA) are found in oily fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, sardines, pilchards and fresh (not tinned) tuna. Short-chain omega-3 (ALA) is also obtained from nuts, seeds and grass-fed wild game such as venison and buffalo. Some ALA can be converted on to EPA and DHA in the body. Vegetarian sources of omega-3 include flaxseed oil and marine algae extracts.

Having moved away from our ancestor’s caveman style diet, we now obtain few omega-3s in relation to their close cousins the omega-6s (found in sunflower, safflower and corn oils) which are abundant in modern, processed meals. Rather than obtaining a balanced intake of omega-6s and omega-3s, we now consume as much as tenfold more omega-6s than omega-3s. This is not ideal as omega-3s reduce inflammation, while excess omega-6s can promote inflammation.

Omega-3s are good for joints as their anti-inflammatory, pain-killing effect helps to reduce morning stiffness, swelling, the number of painful joints, and the long-term need for pain killers.

A wide variety of omega-3 supplements can improve joint health:

  • Fish oils extracted from the flesh of oily fish
  • Cod liver oil extracted from the liver of cod
  • Krill oil obtained from a shrimp-like marine crustacean
  • Green-lipped mussel extracts from molluscs that flourish off the coast of New Zealand.

If you have difficulty swallowing pills, try chewable fish oil capsules (designed for kids) or a liquid omega-3 fish oil flavoured with citrus oils. Vegetarian sources of omega-3 include flaxseed oil and marine algae extracts.

What dose omega-3 do you need?

The recommended minimum intake of the long-chain omega 3 fish oils (DHA and EPA) is 450mg per day.

The usual dose for fish oil supplements is 1g to 2 g per day – check labels, as this will vary depending on the source.

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