We all have joints. They help us move every day. But if you are like me, you do not pay much attention to them until they hurt. According to the Orthopaedic Institute’s A Beginner’s Guide to Joint Health, 7 out of 10 Americans over the age of 34 experience occasional joint stiffness, and 62% of people have concerns about their joint health.
In this article, we will explain some basics and provide 4 easy tips on how to improve joint health.
First, the basics.
What exactly is a joint? A joint is where two or more bones are joined together. Some joints are rigid, like the joints between the bones in your skull. Others are movable, like the joints in your knees, hips, and shoulders.
Many joints have cartilage on the ends of the bones where they come together. Cartilage is a strong and flexible tissue that is made up of water and matrix comprised of collagens, proteoglycans, and noncollagenous proteins. It helps your bones glide over each other. Cartilage can also protect bones by preventing them from rubbing against each other.
As we get older it is common for our joints to wear down. As they wear down, we may experience conditions like arthritis.
Arthritis is a term used often to refer to any disorder that affects the joints. You might think arthritis affects only older people, as the prevalence does increase with age. However, arthritis can affect people of all ages. In fact, 3 out of every 5 arthritis patients are younger than 65 years of age.
Types of Arthritis
There are three main types of arthritis that can affect the joints.
1. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. With osteoarthritis the surface cartilage in the joints breaks down and wears away, allowing the bones to rub together. This causes pain, swelling, and loss of motion in the joint. It can occur in any joint, but most commonly occurs in knees, hips, lower back and neck, small joints of the fingers and the bases of the thumb and big toe.
2. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, where the immune system attacks the tissues of the joints and causes inflammation. This inflammation results in pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints.
3. Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that is caused by a buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints. This build-up of uric acid can form needle-like crystals in a joint and cause sudden, sharp pain, tenderness, redness, warmth and swelling in the joint. Gout most commonly affects the big toe.
Tips for How to Improve Joint Health
Here are 4 easy tips on how to improve joint health and keep you doing all the things you love to do:
1. Be physically active every day.
Moving every single day is one of the most important things you can do to keep your joints healthy. As the saying goes, “use it or lose it”.
Being active every day keeps the muscles around the joints strong and working the way they should. If you are not currently active, start slowly, and aim for at least 10 minutes of moderately intense physical activity per day, 5 days a week. Your long-term goal should be to be active for 30 minutes most days of the week.
Try to be consistent with your exercise, rather than saving up the time and being a “weekend warrior”. Doing too much at one time may result in overdoing it, and can actually cause damage to your joints.
2. Eat a healthful diet.
Researchers are still studying the optimal diet for joint health and they have yet to identify one particular “best diet.” Eating a balanced diet that contains whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, lean meats, and plenty of vegetables and fruits, can help provide a variety of nutrients for overall good health.
Some experts recommend incorporating the following foods for joint health into your diet:
- Eat 3-4 ounces of omega-3-rich fish twice a week. Omega-3-rich fish sources include salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and herring.
- Aim to eat 9 or more servings of vegetables and fruits every day. The antioxidants in fruits and veggies can help maintain healthy joints. Broccoli, spinach, kale, oranges, cherries, blueberries and limes are all great choices! Remember the more colorful the vegetable or fruit, the more antioxidants it will contain.
- Drink a cup or two of green tea daily! Green tea contains a compound called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), and researchers at the University of Michigan found that EGCG may reduce inflammation and joint damage.
- Eat a small handful of nuts and seeds. Studies suggest that nuts and seeds contain phytoflavonoids that have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and may reduce the risk of development and progression of osteoarthritis.
- Choose whole grains. Whole grain breads, cereals, and pastas contain selenium, and studies suggest selenium levels can be low in some people with rheumatoid arthritis.
- Use olive oil, particularly extra virgin olive oil, to drizzle over salads or as an alternative to other cooking oils and butter. Research suggests that olive oil offers anti-inflammatory benefits and may help with joint health
- Drink water! Water is the key to well-lubricated joints. All cells in the body, from the brain to muscle to cartilage, function better when properly hydrated. One simple way to increase your water intake is to drink a tall glass of water every hour during the day.
3. Maintain a healthy weight.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, even being just 10 pounds overweight can put an extra 30 to 60 pounds of pressure on your joints! A modest weight loss (5–10% of your body weight), achieved by eating a healthful diet, and becoming more physically active, can improve your joint health by relieving pain and improving joint function.
4. Be supplement savvy.
Eating a healthful diet is good for us; however, there is research suggesting that certain supplements can support joint health by easing joint pain and stiffness, and may also contribute to cartilage repair. Consider adding the following supplements to your healthy daily routine.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays several important roles in our bodies. It helps us absorb calcium, which aids in the development and maintenance of strong bones. Without enough vitamin D, bones can become thin and brittle, raising the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
Research suggests that vitamin D deficiency is quite common among individuals with joint concerns such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. One study involving more than 29,000 women, concluded that a greater intake of vitamin D, from diet and/ or supplements, was associated with a lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
Another study found people with rheumatoid arthritis with adequate vitamin D blood levels had less difficulty in performing daily tasks when compared to individuals who were vitamin D deficient. Another study also found that participants with adequate vitamin D blood levels experience significantly less osteoarthritic knee pain compared with participants with deficient or insufficient vitamin D levels.
Currently, there is not complete agreement on the optimal daily dose of vitamin D. The current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) set by the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board is 600-800 IU per day, depending on age. The upper limit for daily intake is 4,000 IU. Vitamin D experts consider the RDA to be too low for most adults and recommend a higher intake.
The amount of vitamin D a person needs depends on several factors. Always speak to a healthcare provider to determine how much vitamin D you need.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin
Glucosamine is a sugar (glucose) that your body naturally produces. It is one of the building blocks for growth, repair, and maintenance of cartilage. Chondroitin also occurs naturally in the body and is part of a protein that gives cartilage its elasticity. Glucosamine and chondroitin both help cartilage absorb water and stay lubricated.
There are many research studies evaluating the potential benefit of glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health. The results of these studies have been mixed, however, several studies do suggest that people with osteoarthritis who take glucosamine and chondroitin may experience less pain and/or have improved physical function.
One study compared glucosamine and chondroitin with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. While researchers concluded NSAIDs work more quickly, this study suggested that, with regular use, glucosamine and chondroitin may also provide relief from pain and other osteoarthritis symptoms.
Additional research suggests that glucosamine and chondroitin supplementation may help to slow the loss of joint cartilage caused by osteoarthritis over the long term (2–3 years).
If you decide to try glucosamine and/or chondroitin supplements, do not take them together. Studies suggest that when glucosamine and chondroitin are taken at the same time, less glucosamine is absorbed by the body. Therefore, it is best to take glucosamine and chondroitin in separate doses. For example, take glucosamine in the morning and take chondroitin in the evening. Take both glucosamine and chondroitin with a meal for best absorption.
As for the dosage, studies that provided 1,500 mg of glucosamine sulfate in a single dose and 800 mg of chondroitin sulfate in one daily dose have shown positive effects.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that your body does not produce on its own. Therefore, you must consume them in food and or supplements. There are 3 types of omega-3s, but EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) have been the most studied. Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, tuna, trout, and mackerel contain EPA and DHA.
One study found a diet high in fish has been associated with a lower risk of certain joint conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Other studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce pain and joint swelling, as well as reduce the length of time people with arthritis experience morning stiffness. Studies have also shown that people with rheumatoid arthritis who took fish oil supplements were able to reduce their use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Healthy individuals who eat fatty fish more than twice a week may not need a daily supplement. For people who do not eat fish often, 500-1,000 mg of supplemental omega-3 fatty acids daily may be beneficial. For people with arthritis, 2 to 3 grams (2,000 – 3,000 mg) of EPA + DHA day seem to be most effective.
Turmeric is a bright yellow aromatic spice that comes from the root of the turmeric plant. It used in many East Indian and Asian recipes. Research has suggested that the active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, offers anti-inflammatory properties and may be beneficial to people with joint pain or arthritis. A study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine concluded taking 500 mg of turmeric extract three to four times daily worked just as well as ibuprofen for pain relief in people with knee osteoarthritis.
With any supplements, make sure you buy products from brands you trust. Look for an NSF or USP symbol on your products to be sure the dietary supplement has been tested and certified by an independent third party. Always speak to a healthcare provider to determine what supplements would be best for you.
Strong, flexible joints are essential for almost every single daily activity you do. Whether you are going for a walk, putting a book on a shelf, nodding your head yes, or standing up from a chair, you depend on your joints! Treat your joints well by eating a healthful diet, exercising daily, maintaining a healthy weight and by adding appropriate nutritional supplements to your daily routine!
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