Good health depends on many factors. Whatever your fitness goals may be, they’re easier to achieve with healthy joints and cartilage. But joints can be stubborn, especially as you age. What steps can you take to improve joint health? And are there any particular foods good for joints and cartilage?
The Different Types Of Cartilage In The Body (And What They Do)
There are several kinds of cartilage in the body:
- Hyaline cartilage (also known as articular cartilage)
- Elastic cartilage (the kind found in the outer ear and nose)
- Fibro cartilage (also known as fibrous cartilage), found in the pads and discs between joints and vertebrae
A thin layer of hyaline cartilage coats the bony surfaces of joints to cushion them from impact. Between those bones are the strong collagen layers of fibro cartilage. Fibro cartilage provides substantial cushioning. It also allows the joint to move smoothly and easily.1
A membrane called the synovium covers the cartilage in joints. This produces synovial fluid, which lubricates joints as they move.2 Synovial fluid reduces friction in the joint, which in turn helps protect against wear and tear.3
Why Is Cartilage So Essential To Joint Health As You Age?
When you’re younger, you tend to take your cartilage for granted. You can jump and run all day long, and never know what it is to experience sore knees or hips. It’s easy to think it’ll be that way forever.
Sadly, it won’t. As you age, cartilage begins to degenerate. There are several reasons why this happens.
- The older you get, the less collagen your body produces.4
- Cartilage itself is avascular – it has no blood vessels. This means that the blood can’t carry necessary nutrients to repair the tissue.
- Cartilage becomes less and less hydrated as you age. As a result, the once-flexible cartilage can calcify, becoming more bonelike. This increases friction on the actual bones of the joint.5
- Increased wear and tear. Many people gain weight as they age, which can put more stress on the joint. This can more quickly erode joint cartilage.6
- Synovial lining can degrade.7
Once the cartilage has deteriorated, bone can begin to rub against bone. This can cause pain and stiffness in the surrounding tissues. Increased friction and inflammation can create a vicious cycle that can lead to osteoarthritis, which is the most common form of arthritis.8
Nutrients That Are Good For Your Joints (And Where To Find Them)
There are steps you can take right now that may help aid joint health. Several nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, may help your cartilage stay stronger as you age. They include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K
- Glucosamine and chondroitin
These bioactive compounds are present in many healthy whole foods. You just have to know where to get them. Let’s take a look at each.
You’ve probably used vitamin C to ward off the common cold. But it’s possible that vitamin C may also help ease the symptoms of joint pain. At least one study has linked vitamin C to a reduced incidence of bone marrow lesions.9
Vitamin C also plays a key role in collagen synthesis. Too little of it can weaken the cartilage in joints.10 It may be even more important to keep up your vitamin C intake as you age.11
You can add more vitamin C to your diet with fresh fruits and vegetables, including:
- Green and red peppers12,13
Stronger muscles create more space in your joints, which reduces stress on your bones.14 Musculoskeletal strength diminishes as you age, so it’s important to exercise the muscles around your joints. It’s also important that you feed them the proper nutrients.
Combined with exercise, vitamin D plays a vital role in maintaining muscle strength. It’s also essential for overall bone health. Calcium is necessary to maintain healthy bones, but your body can’t absorb calcium without adequate vitamin D.15
Vitamin D may also play a role in preserving cartilage in the sensitive knee joint.16 It is abundant in many animal and plant-based foods, including:
- Milk fortified with vitamin D17,18
We hear a lot about vitamins C and D in everyday life, but vitamin K is just as important in maintaining joint health. It plays a key role in cartilage metabolism. And studies have linked vitamin K deficiencies to the onset of osteoarthritis.19
Green leafy vegetables are rich in vitamin K, including:
- Collard greens
Many green leafy vegetables are also high in vitamin C.21 By adding them to your diet, you’ll be getting two vitamins that are essential for joint health.
Free radicals can create oxidative stress in the connective tissue around your joints.22 Antioxidants like quercetin, which is plentiful in apples and onions, may help inhibit the effects of those free radicals. Studies have shown that quercetin may help manage the synovial issues that can lead to rheumatoid arthritis.23
It’s never a bad idea to add a little spice to your meal. Spices add more than flavor; they can provide specific health benefits as well. Curcumin, an antioxidant found in turmeric, may aid in the management of joint pain.24 Studies show it may reduce oxidative stress on joint areas in the body.25
Whenever possible, try combining turmeric with freshly ground black pepper. Freshly ground black pepper contains piperine, which also belongs to the family of potent antioxidants. Piperine is a bioactive compound that may significantly increase the bioavailability of curcumin (by up to a staggering 2,000%).26,27,28
Studies show that magnesium deficiency can lead to a narrowing of joint spaces. This, in turn, can increase the risk of osteoarthritis in some people.29 Broccoli, already rich in vitamins C and K, is also a great source of magnesium. Other high-magnesium foods include:
- Nuts and legumes
- Sweet corn
- Brown rice30
Glucosamine And Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin are in a family of nutrients known as chondroprotectives. Clinical studies have shown that chondroprotectives play an important role in joint health.
They also aid cartilage metabolism and may even stimulate cartilage regeneration when possible. They may also act as antioxidants, reducing the effect of free radicals in the body.31
Glucosamine is an essential component of the synovial fluid that surrounds the joint. Chondroprotectives may also inhibit inflammation, helping you maintain joint mobility as you age.32
Though glucosamine and chondroitin are often synthesized from the shells of shellfish, they aren’t readily available in the foods we eat. But they are available in many joint supplements.33
To Preserve And Maintain Joint Health, Cut Down On These Foods (Or Avoid Them Altogether)
You’ve probably heard that you should stay away from foods high in saturated fats and trans fats. You may also know that sugar and refined carbohydrates, like white rice and white flour, are high-glycemic foods. That means they can have adverse effects on cardiovascular health.34
There’s one more reason to stay away from them. They may all exacerbate issues that can contribute to joint pain.35,36,37
The Many Benefits Of A Joint-Healthy Diet
Many of the foods good for joints and cartilage are also low-energy-density foods.38 This means that they may help to keep weight gain at bay as you age. And a manageable weight means less stress on the joints.
Whether you’re trying to manage existing joint pain or taking preventative measures, your diet can go a long way in helping you achieve your goals. And there’s a huge variety of foods to choose from, so no matter what your tastes, you’ll be able to find foods that not only taste great, but support the health of your joints. As always, make sure to get your doctor’s approval before making any changes to your diet.
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