Patricia Carswell is a health and fitness writer. She has written for all of the major newspapers and a wide variety of fitness publications, and is writer of the award-winning blog, Girl on the River.
Glucosamine is an amino sugar produced naturally in the body, playing an important role in building and repairing cartilage — the connective tissue that cushions the joints — and is found in the fluid around the joints.
There are only a few edible sources where we can get glucosamine. For example, it’s found in the shells of crustaceans such as shrimp, lobster, and crab, but unless you are prepared to grind these up and mix them into your food, you’re unlikely to have them in your diet. It also occurs in cartilage, so you will find it in some offcuts of various meats; the rather unappetising and indigestible bits such as ears, snout, and joint tissue, however.
As a supplement, glucosamine is commonly associated with the symptomatic treatment of osteoarthritis, and can play an important role in supporting athletes in different disciplines.
How does glucosamine help?
Osteoarthritis is a painful condition in which the cartilage has worn down in a joint and the bones rub against each other — it’s the most common joint disease and normally associated with people generally over the age of 50. However, repeated stress in the joints can lead to osteoarthritis in sports men and women people as early as their twenties.
Osteoarthritis is usually treated with anti-inflammatory medication such as NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and pain relief. However, various studies have shown glucosamine to have an anti-inflammatory effect and to improve the symptoms — usually the pain but also in a couple of instances the joint space loss, too — of osteoarthritis as an alternative to NSAIDs.
There is also some evidence that it may help improve the range of motion in an injured joint, however current science at play regarding this is relatively insubstantial. Regardless, the evidence is clear that glucosamine has been shown to help manage general joint wellbeing overall. So, how can we implement it into a training plan?
Glucosamine and weight loss
Although in the past glucosamine was sometimes included in weight loss pills, research does not support glucosamine as a weight loss aid in itself. Some tests on animals have suggested that it could increase insulin resistance, but these findings have not been born out in tests on humans. Its positive effects on joint health may, of course, allow people to continue to exercise where they might not otherwise, and to that extent can it contribute — indirectly — to weight loss.
Glucosamine and strength training
The good news is that, done properly, lifting appropriate weights with correct form should not do any damage to your joints, and should not wear out your joints or speed up joint degradation. In fact, strength training has even been used successfully as an effective treatment for osteoarthritis.
If your form slips, though — or is poor in the first place — then you place your joints at risk of injury and degeneration through an increase in stress on the joints that are helping to support the weight. It’s also worth noting that you’re more likely to suffer joint degeneration in joints that have been injured before. So if you’ve had a joint injury, lifting weights that put them under strain might make them worse.
Unless you can say that your joints are injury-free, that your form is flawless, and you’re never tempted to lift more than you should, you can’t assume your joints won’t be at any increased risk of degradation. Glucosamine, therefore, can be a useful supplement to support your joint health if you are doing regular strength training — to help prevent osteoarthritis and maintain your joints in a healthy condition.
Glucosamine and endurance training
If your training programme involves an endurance regime, the effect on your joints depends on the type of sport. Any high impact sport, such as running, can significantly increase the risk of joint injury and subsequent joint degeneration due to the impact on your knees.
Glucosamine has a good track record here, though. A 2012 review of trials on glucosamine found that glucosamine supplements slowed the progression of joint space narrowing, and delayed the need for a joint replacement for up to five years after discontinuing supplements.
Although, just because your sport is low impact doesn’t mean you’re not immune to joint problems. Cyclists and rowers alike often report problems with their knees because of the repetitive nature of the sport. In one study, however, the biomarker of collagen loss in cyclists and footballers was reduced with glucosamine supplementation.
Football, rugby, and other agility sports
Participating in sports that subject your joints to high levels of impact and twisting (known in the fitness world as torsional loading) may increase your risk of joint injury and subsequent joint degeneration — again through the stress you place on your knees.
Rugby, football, tennis, squash, and basketball are all particularly hard on your joints as they involve both impact and twisting; significantly increasing your risk of developing osteoarthritis as a result. As we know now that glucosamine can have a positive effect on this condition in both prevention and management, it could be a useful part of your training regime.
How should I take glucosamine?
Although the dose commonly used in the studies shown is often 2,000-3,000 mg/day, the usual dose of glucosamine is a total of 1,500 mg/ day. It’s also often paired with chondroitin, a component of cartilage which helps it retain water and associated with reducing joint pain. It can be taken at any time of day, though many people prefer to take it with meals. There’s no need to build up from a smaller dose, too. Remember though that glucosamine has only been shown to help manage joint conditions such as osteoarthritis — it should not be seen as a direct cure.
I’m allergic to shellfish, can I take glucosamine supplements?
Some glucosamine products are made from the shells of shrimp, lobsters, or crabs. People with shellfish allergies are often allergic to the meat rather than the shell of shellfish, and there are no reports of allergic reactions to glucosamine supplements in people with shellfish allergies, but caution is advised. If you are at all concerned, check the label of the supplement you are thinking of taking — some glucosamine supplements, such as Healthspan Elite Joint Physio Glucosamine are certified as being free from shellfish allergens.
For any more information on how you can help manage training injuries or improve your joint health, head on over to our Elite hub for expert advice.