Feed Your Joints
The common misconception of arthritis is that your tired ol’ knees or hands or hips just
wear away with age. Not true! Arthritic joints actually starve for nutrients and healthy living,
including sensible supplementation, can give them the nourishment they need.
If arthritis doesn’t seem quite as inevitable as death and taxes, it certainly gives that famous pair a run for their money. Do you know anyone much over the age of 45 or so who doesn’t ache somewhere? How long does it take you to work out all the kinks when you first wake up? No wonder arthritis is the most common joint disorder in the world.
But it only seems as if we’re all doomed to creak with age. “When you look at many peoples around the world who follow a more traditional lifestyle, they don’t have any arthritis in their bodies at all,” says herbalist and naturopathic physician Eugene Zampheron, cofounder of the University of Bridgeport’s College of Naturopathic Medicine in Connecticut and coauthor (with Ellen Kamhi, RN, HNC) of Arthritis: Reverse Underlying Causes of Arthritis With Clinically Proven Alternative Therapies (Celestial Books). “The only times they get arthritis is if they sustain injuries to the bone that provides blood to the joint.”
To understand why modern folk are so arthritis-prone, let’s look at the anatomy. Free-moving joints, such as knees and knuckles, consist of the ends of the adjoining bones padded by cartilage, a tough, smooth, slippery substance that keeps the bones from grinding together. This cartilage—and everything else within the joint—is covered by the synovial membrane, which produces a nourishing, lubricating fluid. The whole thing is surrounded by tendons, ligaments and muscles that provide support and movement. (The joints between the spinal vertebrae consist of cartilage pads, allowing for more protection but less flexibility.)
Something this complicated can easily go awry, and in fact there are more than 100 different varieties of arthritis. But the mother of all arthritic disorders is osteoarthritis (OA). “Cartilage is composed of water, collagen, which is a structural protein, and glycoseaminoglucans (GAG), which acts as a cushion between the bones,” Zampheron explains. “In arthritis, this structure begins to erode and the body tries to immobilize the joint with calcium by building bridges between the bones as the process continues.” End result: stiffness, pain and decreased range of motion. (In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the second most common type, the immune system goes haywire and attacks joint tissues; the ultimate outcome—cartilage destruction—is the same.)
OA is commonly thought of as a “wear ’n tear” disease, in which joints just naturally grind down over time. Actually, the main culprit isn’t overwork but undernutrition. “Cartilage is like a sponge,” Zampheron says. “When you squeeze it waste products go out; when you release, it opens up and nutrients rush in from the synovial fluid.” If anything—tight muscles and tendons, biomechanical faults such as flat feet—interferes with this push-pull process, arthritis ensues. “In OA there’s a lot of enzymatic damage to the joint—the cartilage, which has a poor blood supply, actually starves for lack of nutrition,” he continues. “And if OA is happening in one joint, you can bet it is happening in the other 200 or so joints in your body.”
A lack of nutrition causes OA, so it makes sense that supplying those missing nutrients is the key to preventing or slowing this disease. As Zampheron and Kamhi put it: “Changing the way you eat will change the way you feel.”
The authors recommend building your dietary base on whole grains and raw or steamed organic vegetables. (An exception is the nightshade family—eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, white potatoes. Many arthritis sufferers have found relief by avoiding these foods, a connection that is under scientific scrutiny.) Enjoy plenty of cold-water fish, such as trout, cod or salmon, but eat meat and poultry—always organic—sparingly. Use herbs, sea salt and lemon juice as seasonings (no table salt, mustard or mayo). Fruit and natural raw nuts make healthy snacks.
One of the biggest dietary changes Zampheron and Kamhi urge is in the type of fats you consume. Hydrogenated and saturated fats are out; minimally processed unsaturated fats—including flax, sesame, walnut and hemp—are in. These oils, along with those found in cold-water fish, provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids (which can also be taken in supplement form). They have found from experience that “merely eliminating inappropriate fats from the diet can produce immediate benefits for arthritis sufferers.” Meanwhile, “research shows that fish oils can block the activity of arachidonic acid, which otherwise produces inflammation.”
Loading up on needed nutrients is great, but without exercise all that good stuff can’t get to the cartilage. Part of the problem lies in the pain that exercise can cause; many people simply give up because it hurts too much to move. This leads to a downward spiral of pain—less motion—more pain that eventually aggravates the underlying disease.
Pushing through pain requires a twofold approach. First, it’s important to adjust your activities to your discomfort level; for example, if you jog start going for long walks instead. (Some people find Pilates, which emphasizes stretching and central-body strength, to be helpful.) Second, there are natural ways to ease that throbbing ache. “Topical botanicals that can be rubbed into the joints help, such as capsaicin from cayenne pepper, menthol from peppermint and natural salicate from wintergreen,” Zampheron says. “Internally, my favorite is high-potency white willow bark standardized to 240 mg of salicin; in some studies it was shown to be as effective as Vioxx without the side effects.” Pycnogenol®, an extract taken from pine bark, has also been found to reduce pain and inflammation in people with OA. Zampheron also recommends the amino acid phenylalanine, which he says increases levels of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and makes acupuncture’s pain-relieving effects last two to three times as long. (Don’t take phenylalanine if you have the metabolic disorder PKU; since this nutrient is stimulating, avoid using it late at night.)
Supplemental Side Dishes
The effects of an anti-arthritis diet can be enhanced by the use of joint-friendly supplements. Glucosamine, the best-known joint aid, “is one of the fundamental building blocks of GAG [the cushioning part of cartilage],” Zampheron says. “The glucosamine molecule is so small that it can get through the gut wall and be incorporated into the cartilage.” Glucosamine’s effectiveness has been supported by studies in such conventional medical publications as the Journal of the American Medical Association. Chondroitin is another vital GAG component.
A sulfur-containing substance called MSM helps relieve pain and inflammation—and more. “By increasing the amount of bioavailable sulfur you can support the building of chondroitin sulfate,” says Zampheron. “MSM also improves the liver’s capacity to detoxify free radicals, so in essence it also has very powerful antioxidant properties.” That’s vital because free radicals erode collagen; Zampheron compares the situation to a gel-based shoe insert—“there’s the plastic [collagen] that holds the gel, and there’s the gel [GAG] itself.” He recommends superoxide dismutase (SOD), the body’s own antioxidant now available in supplemental form, to protect collagen but adds: “You want to take a full range of antioxidants [such as vitamins C and E] because they work in unison.” Zampheron also employs two herbs that strengthen collagen: standardized gotu kola (Centella asiatica) and hawthorn (Crataegus). Gibberillin, a substance found in sea plants, helps reduce inflammation.
Certain bodily enzymes attack the joints; healthy enzymatic reactions depend on various minerals including “boron, deficiencies of which can actually create OA, and manganese, which is involved in many different enzymes,” according to Zampheron. Joints also appear to need adequate supplies of selenium. Scientists aren’t quite sure why, but they have noted a link between selenium deficiency and increased OA risk (American College of Rheumatology, 2005 meeting). SierraSil® is a naturally occurring mineral composite that helps battle cartilage erosion.
The latest arthritis research subject: vitamin D. “In all degenerative diseases the body tends to move into a catabolic or breakdown state,” explains Zampheron. The sunshine vitamin “acts as an emergency brake on arthritis by stopping expression of catabolic agents within the body.”
Arthritis isn’t inevitable. Give your joints the nutrients they need—and they’ll reward you with years of trouble-free movement.