MAY 2006 IN

Running With Glucosamine

My latest marathon was easier than the previous two, not because I worked harder, but because of something I ate. My secret weapon was a seashell concentrate that cost scarcely more than you would pay for seashells.

No Pain

In truth, glucosamine is hardly a secret among distance runners. Its remarkable ability to rebuild knees and other joints worn down by week after week of distance running is something runners have told me about, and it’s getting more attention now for its effects on arthritis. One study found it to be more effective than pain relievers in treating arthritis pain, even though glucosamine has no pain-blocking qualities. It appears that glucosamine provides the building blocks for cartilage, including the cartilage that pads joints to keep them working smoothly. Glucosamine is the same kind of complex combination of sugars that forms the structure of cartilage, so it makes sense that it could have this kind of nutritional effect.

In my case, I previously expected a marathon to be followed by days of limping around painfully as I recovered from the effort. A marathon with no joint pain at all was a revelation to me — and needless to say, a lot more fun.

Exactly how glucosamine has this effect is a mystery that scientists are trying to piece together. For example, no one has explained how glucosamine is digested. The traditional understanding of digestion suggests that it’s the wrong kind of molecule to be broken down in the digestive process. Yet the clinical results, like my own personal results, are hard to dismiss. Better still, glucosamine costs relatively little and has no known toxic effects, so anyone who is curious about it can try it to find out what it does.

Sugar as a Building Block

Glycosaminoglycans, the class of complex sugar molecules that includes glucosamine, are a fundamental part of the way the body works. They aren’t just involved in keeping the body moving smoothly. They also form coatings on some membranes that prevent some kinds of infections from sticking. They seem to be involved in mechanisms that prevent some breast cancer tumors from growing. And they doubtless have other roles around the body.

Glycosaminoglycans are formed from sugars, and learning about how this takes place has changed my picture of the value of sugar. I was taught that the body immediately converts all sugar to glucose and uses it to power muscle cells. But that couldn’t be the whole story — if that was all that happened, you could never grow cartilage, which is put together from a mix of sugars and can’t be formed from any one kind of sugar.

If sugar is one of the basic building blocks in the body, the same way that protein is, then the quality of the sugar you eat may actually be important. Studies on purified sugar, such as white sugar and high fructose corn syrup, have found it to be an irritant in the body that has a depressive effect on immune function. But the same may not be true of the mixed sugar naturally found in plants. This hasn’t been proved, but it seemed likely enough to prompt me to eat much less white sugar and replace it, when it makes culinary sense to do so, with unrefined cane sugar or fresh fruit.

Don’t Wait for the Hype

The hype surrounding a new way of doing things comes in proportion to the profit opportunity a company sees in it, so you shouldn’t expect much hullabaloo for a food concentrate that costs less than most runners spend on socks. Nevertheless, glucosamine is something that both distance runners and arthritis patients are talking about, and as word gets around, we’ll get a better idea of what glucosamine can and can’t do for joints.

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