For many of us in the nutrition industry, the simple mention of the term “joint health” conjures up images of tried and true dietary supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin. Numerous research studies show their ability to help rebuild and repair joint cartilage to keep joints healthy and flexible.
What you might not be familiar with, however, is that having a healthy joint involves a great deal more than just healthy cartilage, because joints are actually complex systems involving bones, ligaments, tendons and blood vessels—and all of these structures need to be maintained in a state of healthy turnover (balance between buildup/breakdown) if we want to stay mobile and flexible as we age.
There seems to be a growing trend across the industry for joint-health products to address multiple aspects of optimal joint function, including providing direct cartilage building blocks (e.g., glucosamine), but also by providing antioxidant and circulation-enhancing phytonutrients, naturally balancing the body’s inflammatory process, and even stimulating the body’s “house-keeping” processes to enhance cleanup of cellular debris.
The market needs solutions for inflammation
Right now, there are approximately 30 million Americans with osteoporosis, 50 million with arthritis and well over 100 million who suffer a sports-related injury each year. Overall, about one-eighth of the U.S. population suffers from some variety of chronic pain—and about 80 percent of the adult population will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. Back pain stands as the third most-common reason for a visit to the doctor and the leading cause of activity limitation in adults under the age of 50.
As the U.S. population ages, the total number of people with disability or functional impairment related to their bones and joints is expected to skyrocket. At this writing, more than 70 percent of the elderly suffer from some form of osteoarthritis of the knee joint. Over the next 10-20 years, an estimated 250 million people will be affected by joint and bone issues and millions more will lose some degree of flexibility and mobility to other connective tissue ailments.
Sobering statistics to be sure, but when considered in light of the dramatic increase in active lifestyles and sports participation among older Americans (up nearly 60 percent since 1990), it is clear that many people are not quite ready to accept these “inevitable consequences of aging” as part of their future.
Here's what natural product formulators and marketers need to understand about inflammation for joint health.
Understanding inflammation's role in joint health
Keeping a normal balance of pain signals and inflammatory response is vital to good health and well being. When this balance becomes disrupted we experience more inflammation, increased pain, less flexibility and reduced mobility.
When we have too much inflammation, this process that is supposed to be protecting us actually causes more and more damage. For example, an overactive inflammatory response is known to stimulate bone breakdown (leading to osteoporosis) and interfere with cartilage repair (leading to a worsening of arthritis).
Inflammation is also involved in emotional balance and brain function, so when our bodies experience too much inflammation, we simply don’t feel happy and we feel mentally exhausted.
The term “connective tissue” describes a wide range of tissues in the body that collectively have an “extracellular matrix” that serves to support and protect organs. There are four basic types of connective tissue:
Found mostly in joints (between bones), this tissue is made up of an extracellular matrix composed primarily of the tough, fibrous protein called collagen. Cartilage tissue is formed and maintained by specialized cells called chondrocytes. Inflammation within the joint space can accelerate the destruction of cartilage tissue and destroy healthy chondrocytes.
This vital tissue structure contains specialized bone-building cells called osteoblasts and bone-destroying cells called osteoclasts embedded in a mineralized extracellular matrix (collagen filled in with calcium, magnesium, boron, silicon and other minerals). Bone obviously functions to provide support for the entire body, but when inflammation becomes chronic, bone tissue breaks down faster (due to increased osteoclast activity) and bone building and bone strength suffer (because osteoblast function is inhibited). Too much inflammation eventually leads to osteoporosis.
Fibrous connective tissue
This is the “catch-all” term that we apply to connective tissues such as ligaments, tendons, a portion of the muscles, and the fascia—a dense connective tissue covering the muscles that becomes chronically inflamed in fibromyalgia. These fibrous connective tissues help us get from point A to point B but when they become inflamed, even the most basic of activities becomes a painful ordeal.
The blood and circulatory system
These connective tissues transport nutrients, oxygen, hormones, and numerous good and bad substances throughout the body. Its extracellular matrix is the blood plasma and blood vessels with its main cellular component being the red blood cells and white blood cells as well as the fibroblasts that make up the structure of the vessels.
Even though you might not think of your blood as becoming “inflamed,” keep in mind that inflammation in one part of the body (the knee joint, for example) can travel via the blood to other parts of the body. Thus the chronic inflammation of arthritis in your joint cartilage can lead to faster bone breakdown (inflammation in the bones), increased feelings of stiffness (inflammation in the fascia), a higher incidence of heart disease (inflammation in the blood vessels), an increased rate of depression (inflammation in the brain), etc.
The list goes on and on with inflammation affecting each and every body system. See 10 top ingredients for bone and joint health for formulation ideas.
Shawn Talbott holds a MS in Exercise Science, a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry, and is the author of 10 books, including The Secret of Vigor (Hunter House, 2011). He regularly punishes his own joints by running ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons.