Product Reviews from a Scientific Perspective

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Glucosamine Worthless?

Does glucosamine work? How does glucosamine work?
Glucosamine has been used recently to treat arthritis. The idea is that since glucosamine makes up a large part of your cartilage, you can restore the natural health of your cartilage, which protects your bones from grinding against each other. But if you knew basic biochemistry and digestion, you'd think twice.

Glucosamine is comprised of two things - a glucose, and an amino acid (hence glucos-amine). 
Really, it's not that hard for your body to make. The NH2 is the amine part. The rest is glucose.

Glucose is everywhere in your blood. It's what your body gets from food to give you energy. There's no shortage of that there, unless you're starving or a diabetic.

Amine is everywhere throughout your entire body. It is what makes up all your amino acids, which entirely comprise your cell proteins. Enzymes, neurotransmitters, receptors, pretty much anything that your cell makes that directly does something is made up of amino acids. 

So there's no shortage of glucose, and no shortage of amines. Your body can get these easily through food, and can break them down from larger molecules. In fact, that's the only way your body survives. If your body can't do that well, you're dying.

In addition, when you digest food or drugs, your body is pretty good at breaking down a lot of it into its
simplest units. That's how your digestive system can absorb it. After all, it can't just absorb chunk of meat. It needs to get tiny enough to slip through into your blood from your intestine walls. So a lot of the glucosamine is going to be broken down before it reaches your bones and cartilage.  

So why does anybody need glucosamine? Clearly your body is capable of putting two and two together to make four. If your body couldn't put together two of the most basic molecules of your body together into one (which it does all the time), you'd be in pretty bad health right now. And you'd probably need to ingest a lot of this stuff in order for it to really work.


Experimental evidence shows very mixed results. Many show that there's no difference between taking a placebo and taking glucosamine, which means that the people who are told that they are taking glucosamine will have the same effects as those who are really taking glucosamine. Most scientific reviews (which are papers that not only look at one experiment, but a whole bunch of them and connects the dots among them) say that there is no benefit.

Furthermore, there is some report that consistently overdosing could result in damage to pancreatic cells, suggests this paper, which could result in diabetes. Considering the temptation that many people fall into where they add more if it doesn't work so far, this could be dangerous.

So the potential looks pretty dim. No strong evidence either way, and a danger of overdosing. Also, you're basically putting into your body something you get in massive amounts everyday - your body just needs to put them together.

But if I were suffering from massive arthritis, or osteoarthritis, would I refrain from taking this stuff? Honestly, probably not. If I were in enough pain, I'm pretty sure I'd try it anyway, on the off-chance it works. Besides, placebo effects still work anyway. If I feel better, what does it matter what it's made out of anyway? Just check with your doctor to make sure you're not taking so much of it that you're basically poisoning yourself.

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