Ask The Nutrition Nerd: What supplements can I use to help my joints?

by Denis Faye | June 25, 2013

Michael over on my Facebook page just asked a great question. I figured I’d answer here, so that my wit and wisdom could be documented for all of internet eternity.

Michael: I have many friends that practice jiu jitsu and they supplement their diets with plain gelatin as a cheap form of a collagen supp. Can you shed any light on this?

Thanks, Michael. I have an answer for ya, but I’m not keen to argue with a bunch of Kung Fu Louies. So as long as you promise to go all Bruce LeRoy on their asses should they come after me, I’ll answer your question.

Joint support–which is the primary reason to mess with collagen supplementation–is something I know a fair bit about, for two reasons. 1. I’m a super smart about nutrition. 2. I’m super stupid about self-care so, having abused my knees for 40 years, I’m paying the price.

I assume that your friends are doing that because gelatin contains collagen, so theoretically, it’ll go to their joints and help repair damaged collagen. I have yet to see any data on the effectiveness of this practice, but it doesn’t hurt. And, as you point out, it’s cheap. Personally, I’d never do it because I don’t eat cow and gelatin is made from ground up beef bones.

I do, however, eat shellfish, which is why I have no problem taking glucosamine sulphate, which is harvested from crustacean shells or synthetically created in a lab.

Glucosamine is also an amino sugar that occurs naturally in the human body. (No, Michael, glucosamine supplements aren’t made from people. That’s Soylent Green. Stop interrupting me.) You’ll find it surrounding joints, where it feeds proteoglycans–a part protein/part carb, jelly-like goop that gives joints strength and resiliency. I’m guessing that if someone did lab work on The Blob, it would have been made of proteoglycans.

By the way, proteoglycans have a strong sulfur component, which means two things. First, the sulphate part of glucosamine sulphate helps with absorbency. Second, The Blob probably smelled like rotten eggs.

The research regarding the benefits of glucosamine is all over the map. Even the mainstream media doesn’t know what to think. Wikipedia gives it a drubbing, but WebMD seems to like it. I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal evidence in its favor. The research seems to indicate that it does at least something and, while it’s not as cheap as gelatin, it ain’t pricey either. Sol Orwell, editor at one of my favorite supplement watchdogs, Examine.com, sums it up nicely (albeit cynically):

If you increase a car’s efficiency from 40mpg to 42mpg, you can accurately say that its efficiency has improved. But is it really notable? That is the crux of glucosamine – it helps with osteoarthritis, but not by much. So if you go in knowing that, you should be okay.

On a side note, a lot of companies add chondroitin to their glucosamine sups. The science isn’t really there for chondroitin but, like gelatin, it’s harmless and it doesn’t really influence the cost of the sup, so why not throw it in, I guess.

If you’re having joint issues and you want to experiment with glucosamine, I’m all for it. I’m halfway through a 12-week trial and I think it’s helping my knees. However, if you’re just interested in managing healthy joints as part of your active lifestyle (or you’re just getting old and looking out for yourself, which can happen sometimes), I’d recommend two other things.

First, you should stretch. Every night, I do a series of hamstring, calf, and quad stretches. It’s the ultimate pain relief for my knees. Many of us fit-types suffer from a tight something–and a tight something will inevitably pull on a joint somewhere, putting it under unnecessary stress. Yoga is also a great practice for joints. It not only promotes flexibility, but it strengthens stabilizer muscles–little muscles in your joints that keep them in place.

Second, I suggest Omega-3 supplementation–particularly fish oil if you consume seafood. Hard activity hammers your joints. Hammering causes inflammation. To some degree, this is a good thing because inflammation surrounds and protects a joint, allowing it to heal. But when you push too hard–as I’m prone to do–you can create an inflammatory cycle that needs breaking. Omega-3s are a great, natural anti-inflammatory without all the scary side effects of NSAIDs. (And if you have fish burps from Omega-3s, just store them in the freezer. I don’t know why that helps, but it does.)

Wow. I didn’t expect to blather on like that. I hope it helps!

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7 thoughts on “Ask The Nutrition Nerd: What supplements can I use to help my joints?

  1. Jay Garbarino

    I know you are doing a self-trail on glucosamine, but I was curious your thoughts on Supplementing hyaluronic acid. I use to do it before the Ultimate Reset. With nutritional changes we have made since then I finished my supply months ago. being mostly plant-based eating for the past 9-months I have started to get some elbow pain. Last week I upped my Avocado intake and been fairly consistent adding flax seeds ( I grind) to meals. It may be helping, ala Omega 3.
    I may start back on the hyaluronic acid. It costs more than the glucosamine.

    1. Denis Faye

      Deuce –

      I’ve never used it, but if it’s DHA, that’s a preferable form of Omega-3, so that’s cool. Although if you’re not getting the results you want and you’re not vegetarian, you might wan to consider krill or anchovy so you get both DHA and EPA.

    1. Denis Faye

      Jay –

      Hmmm… considering I work for a nutrition company myself, I live in a glass house when it comes to throwing down on guys like the author of that article, but I’m going to anyway. He doesn’t refer to any research and if you go to his website, the first thing you see is an ad for the hyaluronic acid he sells.

      To be honest, I didn’t know much about it, but I can’t really find any positive science on it, even at PubMed–particularly when administered orally. That said, it might be worth a try. It’s not all that expensive. Glucosamine has such a stronger track record (albeit not an awesome one) that includes experts not trying to sell it, so I’d probably start there. If that didn’t work, give it a go. I’m curious to see your results.

    2. Jay Garbarino

      You know it is your honesty I love.
      the previous info I read was not that article, and not scientific either. after you ask for my why, I found this and it sound like some of the same information I had read … again no studies.
      So Speaking of the nutrition company, without smacking any others, what are your thoughts on their Joint formula even their Omega-3 for that matter?
      You can message me off the record (except for the NSA), I am one of you 600+ friends on FB.
      Plan to spend less and try some Glucosamine again along with the Flax which did seem to help.


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