"I'm not going to let getting older slow me down; I bike-commute, ski, and play soccer. I absolutely plan to stay active for life."
—Werner Ide, 41, Olympia, Washington
My husband and I walk a few miles to our local coffee shop every weekend—even though our knees creak and pop a bit more with each passing year. Certainly we're not the only ones marking time deep down in our bones; perhaps for you it's an achy knee after a bike ride, a nagging hip after lunchtime basketball, or even a touch of stiffness getting out of bed in the morning. But with luck, smart living, and a handful of natural remedies, you'll be able to keep soreness and joint degeneration at bay for years to come.
Eating fish or taking fish-oil supplements enables people with rheumatoid arthritis to reduce or even eliminate nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (Arthritis Research and Therapy, 2006, vol. 8, no. 1). Although 1,500 mg of omega-3s per day is a good standard dose, arthritis sufferers need upward of 3 grams daily for anti-inflammatory effects to kick in, says Paul Ratte, ND, of Woodbury, Minnesota. Or try cod-liver oil. "It's more of a food source, and by taking it by the spoonful it's more cost-effective than capsules," he says.
Check out cherries
New research recommends tart cherry juice "for those aching pains postexercise or after a long day," says Declan Connolly, PhD, director of the University of Vermont's human performance laboratory. He recorded data from participants who drank 12 ounces of tart cherry juice or a placebo twice daily. "Our research has shown [that the juice] reduces muscle soreness and pain and speeds up recovery from a strenuous exercise bout." He attributes this effect to anthocyanins, compounds in the juice that help inhibit inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes (British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006, vol. 40, no. 8).
In addition to providing good fats that reduce joint inflammation, nuts contain bone-protecting minerals, including calcium, magnesium, and potassium, that help fend off bone density loss (British Journal of Nutrition, 2006, vol. 96 Suppl 2)."Because nuts are so full of great nutrients, by substituting nuts for other less nutritious snack foods you may maximize the benefits to bones and joints. By the way, the skins contain a lot of the nutrients, so it's a good idea to eat them, too," says Sara Kurlandsky, PhD, of Syracuse University in New York. Walnuts are a great choice because they contain omega-3s, but all nuts have bone and joint benefits. Aim for a handful a few times a week.
Herbs & supplements
Glucosamine and chondroitin get (and deserve) the lion's share of acclaim for joint health. They actually rebuild ailing joint cartilage by helping the body make a spongy material to hold water within joints, providing a springy resiliency. Look for a combined product that provides 1,500 mg glucosamine and 1,200 mg chondroitin daily; check the label for quality testing by a third party, such as the United States Pharmacopeia (www.usp.org) or NSF (www.nsf.org).
Check pain with sulfur
Joints need the mineral sulfur to keep connective tissues strong and stable. You'll get plenty through the supplement methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), shown to ease joint inflammation and prevent cartilage breakdown. Recently, when a group of boomers with osteoarthritis of the knee took either 3 grams MSM or a placebo twice daily for three months, the MSM group experienced significant pain relief and improved use of knee joints (Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 2006, vol. 14, no. 3). A smaller amount, say 2 grams a day, might be enough to relieve joint pain, although it's safe to increase it to 3 to 6 grams if necessary. Only a few people at this intake level report problems, such as diarrhea, headache, and skin rash.
Boost calcium absorption
Vitamin D, which the body creates through sun exposure, is underappreciated for its crucial role in preventing osteoporosis. "Vitamin D is necessary for the efficient absorption of calcium, the principal bone mineral," explains Robert P. Heaney, MD, a bone-mineral specialist and professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. "Therefore, if you're going to get enough calcium in your body and keep it there, you have to have enough vitamin D." Heeding well-known concerns about staying out of the sun, 65 percent to 85 percent of American adults are walking around with a vitamin D shortfall, Heaney says. He advocates supplements of 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day.
Mind your magnesium
Getting too little of this mineral interferes with proper calcium metabolism and the hormones that regulate calcium, making usable calcium less available to the body. As a supplement, 250 mg magnesium is a safe, beneficial amount.
Work it out
Whether it's going to the gym or sweating to workout tapes at home, regular exercise pays big dividends for bone health by building and maintaining density. Joints benefit, too. Unique because they don't have a blood supply for nourishment and waste disposal, joints absolutely need movement every day. When you exercise, the body makes more synovial fluid—the clear, sticky substance that lubricates joints—and this wonderful stuff brings in oxygen and other nutrients while clearing out waste products. If you already have osteoarthritis, try bicycling, swimming, or water aerobics, exercises that serve the joints while being partial- or non-weight-bearing and therefore less likely to trigger pain.
Needle aches away
Acupuncture has been put to the test in numerous studies (either comparing acupuncture with no treatment or with "sham" needle sites) and found to reduce pain and improve quality of life for patients who have osteoarthritis of the knee, hip, or other joints (Arthritis and Rheumatism, 2006, vol. 54, no. 11; Acupuncture in Medicine, 2006, vol. 24 Suppl). "Acupuncture may also provide a means of avoiding the unsettling side effects often associated with long-term use of prescription drugs," says Mark McKenzie, LAc, dean of the Minnesota College of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
Oregon-based freelancer Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH, is working on the revised edition of The Green Tea Book (Penguin Group, 2008).