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Joint Health and Vegan Diets

Guest blog by Aurelija Meskaite - vegan nutritional therapist specialising in plant-based diets and a health food enthusiast,

Chances are, if you're in your twenties or thirties, joint health doesn't even hit the top 100 of your priorities. However, most people in their forties or fifties start experiencing some joint issues, and it doesn't happen overnight. Nature needs us to succeed and thrive until we produce offspring, so for a while our bodies forgive our poor lifestyle choices, the lack of nutrients and the excess of toxic compounds and function relatively well. However, after a certain age the body can't take as much as it used to, wear and tear kicks in, and we start noticing the effects - spine problems, achy joints, flexibility issues and other health complaints.

Very often joint damage is caused by inflammation, more precisely, chronic systemic inflammation in our bodies. Generally, a short-term inflammatory response is healthy: it allows the immune system to fight invaders and lets damaged tissues heal. However, sometimes it just doesn't switch off, and if it becomes chronic, it stresses and damages the body. Most chronic illnesses (such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and arthritis) are attributed to this silent, often symptomless, ongoing inflammation that can be caused and contributed to by a variety of factors.

The good news for vegans is that generally a vegan diet is very anti-inflammatory! Meat, dairy and eggs are high in one omega-6 fat - arachidonic acid (AA) - as well saturated fat, animal protein and other compounds which encourage inflammatory processes in the body. Avoiding them could help people suffering from inflammatory conditions but inflammation is not limited to animal products only.

Dietary sources of anti-inflammatory EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids are mostly animal-based (usually fish) but it's not a problem as we make them ourselves from plant-based omega-3 fat (ALA). However, our body uses the same enzymes for omega-3 and omega-6 conversion, so consuming too much omega-6 might impair your omega-3 conversion rate and increase AA levels. Ideally, dietary omega-6 to omega-3 ratio should be 1:1 to 4:1.

So the first measure to reduce inflammation in the body is to reduce omega-6-rich oil consumption - including sunflower, safflower, soya, corn and other pro-inflammatory fats such as dubious ‘vegetable oil’, palm oil, hydrogenated fat, margarines and spreads. Most of these oils will already be damaged if they were heat-pressed and refined, while additional frying increases the harm even more and causes dangerous trans-fats to form.

The healthiest oils to use are flax and hemp but they should be kept in a dark bottle in the fridge and never cooked with, to preserve the precious fatty acids. Cold pressed olive and rapeseed oils can also be used but not for high heat cooking. Eating plenty of flax, hemp, chia seeds and walnuts as well as green leafy vegetables and beans will ensure sufficient omega-3 intake - whole foods are always best.

Let's not forget that processed foods containing sugar, white flour and additives are just as inflammatory, even worse if sugar is combined with ‘bad’ fats (in fried foods, doughnuts, chocolate bars, pastries, cakes, frostings etc). Not only they don't give us the nutrients we need to heal and repair our connective tissue, they contribute to weight gain, tooth decay, they negatively alter our appetite and taste buds, cause imbalance in our blood sugar, put strain on the liver and increase the risks of multiple illnesses (possibly related to their inflammatory effects).

Actually, anything that causes stress to the body will have a pro-inflammatory effect: a stressful job and lifestyle, smoking, lack of sleep, dehydration, stimulants, alcohol, consuming foods that we are sensitive to, nutrient deficiencies, toxins, lack or excess of physical exercise, being overweight... Therefore stress reduction and forming healthy habits are very important.

Gentle exercise is a good stress management technique: swimming, cycling and walking are easier on the joints than running and high-intensity workouts, especially if you carry a bit of extra weight (however, a vegan diet usually means you'll be much lighter than most people your age!). Exercise also helps improve blood circulation that carries nutrients to necessary tissues in the body (e.g. cartilage has very poor blood supply so you want to ensure good circulation in the few blood vessels that are there).

And what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like? Most whole plant foods are anti-inflammatory, such as vegetables, especially dark green leafy ones, onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric (and most spices and herbs), fruit, such as pineapple, papaya, different berries, cherries, grapes; also seaweed, pulses and whole grains. You should make sure you drink plenty of water and other healthy liquids such as green and white tea, herbal teas and veggie juices.

Connective tissues such as cartilage, bones, tendons and ligaments are primarily made of protein. Even though recommended amounts of protein are generally met if we eat enough food, we're all different! Some of us, especially elderly and those physically active, might need just a little bit more. You should aim for around 0.8-1g of protein per every kg of your ideal body weight. Also, getting enough vitamins C and K, calcium, magnesium, zinc and manganese is very important for bone and joint health, and eating a healthy and varied diet will help reach the recommended intake.

If you already have joint problems and feel that you need that little bit of extra support, look into natural supplements. Vitamin D is extremely important for general health but also to control inflammation, and most people in northern latitudes don't get enough of it from sunshine. There are now many vegan versions of vitamin D3 available (e.g. Viridian, Terra Nova, Cytoplan, Nature's Plus, Nature's Aid, Vitashine, Veganicity). And there are also many algae-based omega-3 oil supplements for those wanting vegan EPA and DHA (e.g. Opti3, Nuique, Cytoplan, Viridian, Biocare, Veganicity).

Probably the best-known supplement for joint health is glucosamine. It's the main constituent of cartilage and synovial fluid that nourishes and lubricates the joints, so supplementing it may help with joint stiffness and pain. Glucosamine sulphate is not vegan but glucosamine hydrochloride is. Generally, glucosamine is quite inexpensive but it might take 6-12 weeks to notice its effect. Very often glucosamine supplements also have added chondroitin which is made of shellfish, so beware. There is a new product containing ‘phytodroitin’ available on the market (by Vegetology), however, there isn't much research done on it (yet). MSM (sulphur containing compound) might have its use for joint health too and is often added to glucosamine formulas as sulphur is necessary for connective tissue repair. 

Hyaluronic acid is another essential substance in synovial fluid and other connective tissues such as skin. Although the body usually produces sufficient amounts, if you feel that your joints are suffering and your skin has lost some elasticity and is less hydrated, it might be worth looking into. Be aware that hyaluronic acid supplements are not always vegan (vegan versions by Viridian, Nature's Aid, Jarrow Formulas, Syno-Vital, Veganicity).

If you're starting to notice joint issues but not sure what supplement to choose there are many joint formulas available. Supplements containing collagen, cartilage, eggshell membrane or serrapeptase are not vegan, so make sure you check the ingredients. One of my favourite vegan formulas for joint health is Terranova Glucosamine, Boswellia & MSM Complex as it contains good amounts of necessary nutrients and anti-inflammatory compounds, including turmeric, ginger and boswellia (Ayurvedic herb extract), as well as no fillers or binders in their capsules. Other similar supplements (though without glucosamine and MSM) are Pukka Turmeric Active and Viridian High Potency Curcumin Complex.

However, before taking any supplements or changing your diet please speak with your GP or other qualified healthcare practitioner.