As we age, joint pain and stiffness become much more common, unfortunately. If you discuss this with your doctor, you'll probably be told that this is just a normal part of getting older and that pain medication is your best bet—but that’s not always true.
The fact is, your joints and the surrounding cartilage need to be “fed” and nourished in order remain healthy and pain free.
Cartilage Is Unique
To achieve the best results, it’s important to understand certain unique aspects of cartilage that makes it different from other body structures and tissues.
- All joint cartilage is avascular. The cartilage in your joints is located inside a joint capsule. While the capsule receives a blood supply, the cartilage inside doesn’t. Arteries and veins would not only interfere with the sliding movement of cartilage on cartilage, it would also compromise the ability of joint cartilage to act as a shock absorber for the joint. Joint cartilage must rely on the synovial fluid within the capsule that bathes it.
- Joint cartilage is an alymphatic tissue. Unlike other tissues, it isn’t connected to the lymphatic system. Lymph tissue embedded within joint cartilage would impair movement and reduce its rubberlike resiliency.
- Joint cartilage is aneural. Joint cartilage doesn’t have nerve cells within it. The joint capsule surrounding the cartilage is highly enervated, which gives us the ability to always know the position of our limbs and control movement. But the cartilage itself doesn’t contain nerves, so it doesn’t directly sense pressure, pain, temperature, and other sensations.
Despite all this, joint cartilage is still living tissue. It consists of living cells that have nutritional needs and require the removal of waste material, just like all other living cells in the body. Feeding joint cartilage properly and keeping it healthy is necessary if you want to remain active, mobile, and pain free. And who doesn't?!
The Diffusion Process
Since joint cartilage lacks a blood supply, it receives its nutrition and removes its waste material by the process of diffusion.
To understand this diffusion process, I like to visualize the cartilage surfaces in a joint as little sponges.These sponges are enclosed in a capsule filled with liquid (synovial fluid).
As you begin to move a joint, part of the sponge is compressed and fluid is forced out. Then, as the joint is moved back, the sponge expands and sucks the fluid back in. This alternating pattern of compression moves the nourishing synovial fluid in and out of the cartilage, and at the same time helps get rid of cellular waste.
Are Corticosteroid Shots the Answer?
Corticosteroid injections are promoted as a way to help improve quality of life and make it easier to perform daily activities. Corticosteroids are chemical compounds similar to the compound cortisol that the body naturally produces to help quell inflammation. Your body obviously has a regulatory system to help dictate when cortisol is released. However, corticosteroid injections are a way of treating the symptoms and not the underlying cause.
To be fair, for people in pain, these injections seem like a miracle. Oftentimes the pain seems to completely reside within an hour or two. And that’s the rub.
Pain is the body’s way of signaling that something is wrong. In the case of arthritic joints, the joint cartilage surfaces have been damaged and it’s likely that the body has tried to repair or strengthen the area by forming calcium deposits around the joint surface (calcium spurs). Over time, these deposits begin to limit range of motion. When the joint is even slightly overused, these areas become inflamed and painful, causing further restriction of use.
Corticosteroid shots don’t address the underlying cause of pain or provide any way for the joint to repair or rebuild itself. Instead, the pain goes away and you're left with the impression that all is well. You may not feel the damage occurring because there’s no pain, but you continue to damage the joint even more since you can do so without any discomfort.
Corticosteroid shots are at best a quick fix. The key is to address the underlying cause of the problem and then provide the body with the right nutrients, diet, and movement that allows it to heal itself.
What Substances Nourish the Joints?
Based on the fact that joint cartilage relies on movement and alternating compression, it should come as no surprise that movement (such as range of motion exercise) is essential for healthy joint cartilage.
But exactly what nutrients does joint cartilage need? And, more importantly, what is the most economical and efficient way to supply those nutrients? Here are the nutrients, foods, and other components necessary to feed and keep joint cartilage healthy.
Drinking enough clean water every day is essential to joint cartilage health. Articular (joint) cartilage in young children consists of about 85 percent water. With age, that amount drops to 70–75 percent and doesn’t change much as we get older.
Hyaluronic acid benefits for joints are huge. Hyaluronic acid is a compound that increases the viscosity (thickness) of the synovial fluid that bathes cartilage inside a joint capsule. Although it does provide a small degree of lubrication between joint cartilage surfaces, its primary function is to thicken the synovial fluid to help with shock absorption and provide a source of compounds needed for cartilage repair and nourishment.
While you can buy hyaluronic acid supplements, there are several food sources that contain hyaluronic acid or can increase levels:
- Bone broth. Preparing broths from the bones and joints of cattle, chickens, and fish, and incorporating them into your diet each day, can have a tremendous beneficial effect on your joints. (See recipe below.)
- Eggs. The membrane that separates the white from the shell is composed mostly of protein, plus hyaluronic acid, glucosamine, and chondroitin.
- Organ meats; particularly liver, heart, and beef tongue
- Root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, jicama, and lotus roots
- Fruits such as bananas and those that are rich in vitamin C, as they are good sources of hyaluronic acid as well
- Dark red fruits and vegetables like cherries, strawberries, red grapes, beets, and red peppers
- Olives; both green and black varieties
Collagen for joint health is critical. Collagen is the primary protein in connective tissue. It forms the matrix of joint cartilage. It also happens to be one item that is severely lacking in most people's diets today.
There are two cheap and easy ways to feed your joints and connective tissues with collagen: bone broth and gelatin (sold as a dry powder).
There is a connection between magnesium and joint health. Research has found a link between low levels of magnesium and higher rates of arthritis-related pain and discomfort. Robust magnesium intake also helps to boost the production of hyaluronic acid.
Foods rich in magnesium include leafy and green vegetables (spinach, mustard and collard greens, peas, broccoli), corn, tofu, nuts and seeds, oatmeal, avocados, and fruits.
Manganese is a mineral that is often overlooked when it comes to joint cartilage. Manganese is a co-factor of enzymes that are required for the formation of proteoglycans, which are necessary healthy joint cartilage.
It’s important to note that phosphoric acid, a major component in soda, disrupts the absorption of manganese and over time leads to bone and cartilage destruction.
Many foods rich in magnesium also happen to be excellent sources of manganese, including leafyand green vegetables, raw pineapple, nuts, long-grain brown rice, beans, sweet potato, and green and black tea.
The mineral sulfur helps maintain the structural strength of joint cartilage. Arthritic joint cartilage has been shown to contain about one-third of the sulfur content of healthy cartilage. Research shows that older people may not be getting sufficient sulfur though diet, which increases risk of joint deterioration.
Beneficial sulfur-containing foods that help feed joint cartilage include egg yolks, onions, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables (Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, bok choy, cress, mustard greens, horseradish, turnips, and rutabagas).
Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) are carbohydrate molecules that contain sulfur. They help thicken the synovial fluid in joint cartilage. Hyaluronic acid is a type of GAG, but it is unusual in that it doesn’t have a sulfur component.
GAGs are necessary for healthy joint cartilage and for lubrication and shock absorption. Common GAGs include chondroitin sulfate, heparin, heparan sulfate, and keratan sulfate.
Since GAGs are compounds found in joint cartilage and bones, the best source is bone broth. GAGs are released when bones, cartilage, and connective tissues are broken down during the cooking process.
Feeding Your Joints Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated
Providing your joints and cartilage these nutrients and compounds isn’t all that difficult, if you incorporate a few supplements and specific foods into your diet.
Here's what I personally do...
Every day I add a couple of tablespoons of powdered gelatin to my morning protein shake. I also take a multivitamin/mineral supplement that contains magnesium and manganese, and a daily joint formula that contains, among other things, egg shell membrane. And of course, I make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day and avoid soda.
But, in my personal opinion, the easiest and cheapest way to nourish your joints is to regularly consume bone broth. You can find high-quality bone broths at health food stores, but I recommend you make your own because it is so inexpensive and easy to do:
- Bones from fish, poultry, beef, lamb, or pork (raw or cooked, and they may still contain remnants of meat and skin)
- Leftover eggshells, if you have them
- Apple cider vinegar, red or white wine vinegar, or lemon juice
- Vegetables such as onions, celery, carrots, and garlic (optional)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Cover the bones (and vegetables, if using) with water in a pot. For every quart of water used, add 2 tablespoons of vinegar of choice OR lemon juice. Gently stir and let it sit on a cool surface for 30 minutes. Then bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cover. Simmer while covered, 4–6 hours for fish bones, 6–8 hours for poultry, 12–18 hours for other bones.
Strain the liquid through a colander and consume it immediately either by sipping as a tea or soup. The broth can be stored in the refrigerator for about 5 days, or frozen for several months. Never cook or reheat the broth in the microwave, as certain amino acids may convert into forms that can be toxic to the body when microwaved.