The Hidden Benefits of Glucosamine

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Do you take glucosamine supplements to reduce joint pain and stiffness? You’re not alone if you do. According to a 2007 survey, nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults take glucosamine to prevent or treat pain from osteoarthritis, back pain and other conditions.

The evidence to support the use of glucosamine for joint pain is thin, but a large new study in The BMJ suggests regular use of the supplement can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Researchers at Tulane University analyzed 7 years of extensive health data for almost half a million adults aged 40 to 69 enrolled in the UK Biobank study. Those who regularly took glucosamine were about 15% less likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke.

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Glucosamine occurs naturally in the fluid around joints and plays an importantly role in building cartilage. Glucosamine is extracted from shellfish and is often combined in supplements with chondroitin, a similar substance that is also found in joints.

People who took glucosamine in the BMJ study were more likely to be women, older, more physically active, have healthier diets and take other supplements.

Over the course of seven years, 2.2% of those who did not use glucosamine had a heart attack or stroke, compared to 2.0% of people who did use glucosamine. People who used glucosamine were also less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke, 0.5% vs. 0.7% of those who didn’t use the supplement.

The difference doesn’t appear to be significant, but when adjusted for risk and other factors, it means that glucosamine users had a 22% lower risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.

For smokers, the benefits of regular glucosamine use were even greater. They had 37% less risk of having coronary heart disease compared to smokers who didn’t use the supplements.

Researchers didn’t establish the reason why glucosamine lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), but they believe the supplements help reduce inflammation – one of the main factors involved in the development of heart disease, as well as chronic pain.

“Several potential mechanisms could explain the observed protective relation between glucosamine use and CVD diseases. In the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) study, regular use of glucosamine was associated with a statistically significant reduction in C reactive protein concentrations, which is a marker for systemic inflammation,” researchers reported. “Other mechanisms might also be involved, and future investigations are needed to explore the functional roles of glucosamine in cardiovascular health.”

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) downplayed the study findings, pointing out the cardiovascular benefits of glucosamine are “quite small.”

“If you want to reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, it would be much better to concentrate on living a healthy lifestyle, rather than paying for glucosamine supplements,” the NHS said.

Supplements Often Tainted by Hidden Drugs

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Hundreds of dietary supplements – including some marketed to relieve joint and muscle pain – are tainted with pharmaceutical drugs, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open.  

Researchers with the California Department of Public Health looked at 746 supplements that the Food and Drug Administration found to be adulterated from 2007 to 2016. About half of the supplements remained on the market, even after the FDA found they contained potentially harmful drugs.

"The FDA didn't even bother to recall more than half of the potentially hazardous supplements," Pieter Cohen, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor told NPR. "How could it be that our premier public health agency spends the time and money to detect these hidden ingredients and then doesn't take the next obvious step, which is to ensure that they are removed from the marketplace?"

Over half of American adults take dietary supplements that contain minerals, vitamins, herbs, fish oil and other “natural” substances.  Most of the adulterated supplements were marketed for sexual enhancement, weight loss or muscle building.

Of the 14 supplements that were promoted as treatments for arthritis, muscle and joint pain, osteoporosis or other painful conditions, half contained diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and five contained dexamethasone, a steroid used to treat inflammation.

One supplement promoted as a treatment for arthritis – Pro ArthMax -- was found to contain four different NSAIDs, as well as a muscle relaxant and a non-narcotic pain reliever that was never approved for use in the United States. The manufacturer of Pro ArthMax voluntarily recalled the supplement in 2014 after being warned by the FDA.   

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Cohen chided the agency for relying on voluntary recalls to get tainted supplements off the market and accused the FDA of “dereliction of duty” in a JAMA commentary. He called on Congress to change the federal law that exempts the $35 billion dollar supplement industry from pre-market safety and clinical studies that are required for pharmaceutical drugs.   

“More than FDA action will be required to ensure that all adulterated supplements are effectively and swiftly removed from the market,” Cohen wrote. “The process that the FDA is required to follow to remove supplements from the marketplace (is) cumbersome and time-consuming; nevertheless, the agency’s failure to aggressively use all available tools to remove pharmaceutically adulterated supplements from commerce leaves consumers’ health at risk.”

Dietary supplements that are tainted with hidden drugs may interact with other medications and raise the risk of adverse events, particularly when consumers already may be using NSAID-containing products.  

Is Vitamin D Making Me Feel Better?

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

This is the story of how I have turned into the crazy lady constantly telling everyone I meet to get their vitamin D level tested.

The thing about the vitamin D is that it could either be the cure I’ve been searching for, or have absolutely nothing to do with why I’ve been feeling better since about July. Either way though, I am feeling better these days.

Back in May, I went to visit a local weight loss clinic to try and lose some of the 60 lbs. I’ve gained since getting sick. While I was there they ran some routine blood work. And it turns out my vitamin D was low. Not like, “Oh, it’s just a little low, you should probably take a supplement” low.

My level was 6 ng/ml. It was literally the lowest the doctor at the weight loss clinic had ever seen.

To put it in perspective, the Vitamin D Council says it’s best to be between 40-80 ng/ml, while the University of Wisconsin recommends being between 30-80 ng/ml.

I had tested low before, like 19 ng/ml, but it was years before I suddenly woke up feeling like someone was stabbing me in the ribs. And I honestly don’t remember the doctor at the time impressing on me that it was any sort of an issue. I just figured it was like needing an oil change every 3,000 miles. Sure that’s the ideal, but your car isn’t going to just shut off if you wait until 5,000 miles.

So I told my primary care doctor about the results, and he and the weight loss doctor decided to put me on prescription-strength 50,000 IU vitamin D for three months, followed by a daily dose of 4,000 IU after that.

When I got home from my appointment, I looked through all my medical records — from Loyola University, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Wisconsin-Madison — and realized that not once had anyone thought to test my vitamin D.

I have literally had more than 35 blood tests, a handful of urine tests, and a more imaging than is probably healthy, but none of them were for vitamin D!

It turns out vitamin D is pretty important though, and has been shown to have direct links to chronic pain. It’s also not actually a vitamin, so much as a hormone. There’s all sorts of research on how low vitamin D can cause chronic pain, even specifically rib pain, which is what I have.

A recent study in The Pain Physician journal shows that, "Vitamin D, a hormone precursor essential for maintaining homeostasis of the musculoskeletal system, has long been proposed as an associated factor in CWP (chronic widespread pain). The most severe type of hypovitaminosis D, osteomalacia, features generalized body pain, especially in the shoulder, rib cage, and lumbar and pelvic regions."

And another study from the American Academy of of Pain Medicine showed that, “The prevalence and clinical correlates identified in this pilot study provide the basis for the assertion that vitamin D inadequacy may represent an under-recognized source of nociception and impaired neuromuscular functioning among patients with chronic pain.”

In other words, if low levels aren’t the cause, not having enough vitamin D can make chronic pain more severe. And, low Vitamin D can also make pain medications less effective.

According to an article on the Mayo Clinic website, “patients who required narcotic pain medication, and who also had inadequate levels of vitamin D, were taking much higher doses of pain medication — nearly twice as much — as those who had adequate levels.”

So I was cautiously optimistic that getting my vitamin D levels back up could at the very least make my pain medications more effective.

But for the first few months, I didn’t really feel much different. I only told a few people about the vitamin D because constantly talking about possible cures is exhausting — everyone wants it to work so much, and then when it doesn’t you feel like you have personally failed at something.

So I only told my mom, my boyfriend at the time, and my best friend. My then-boyfriend was hoping for a miracle by day two. But alas, nothing. My best friend was hoping for a miracle by month two. But alas, nothing. And my mom, who I live with, wasn’t really putting her hope in it all. She had seen too many things not work.

But then, in July, I started noticing things. Like little things. Like I could go for a walk and not die afterward. And then, in August, I cleaned the freaking bathroom! Seriously, I did the floors, washed the mirrors and scrubbed the tub, all without ending up in the hospital!! And by September, I was even able to make the four-hour round trip trek to work without having to spend the entire next day recovering.

Slowly, but surely, I have started feeling better. I mean, I’m not cured. And I’m not holding my breath that I ever will be. I’m also completely aware of the fact that I could backslide at any moment.

And, I still take morphine on a daily basis, for now anyway. But I have literally gone off almost all my other meds, including the sleeping pill amitriptyline and the nerve pain medication Cymbalta. As for the hydrocodone, I’m down to like one or two pills a week at the most. And sometimes, I can go the whole week without taking any at all — which is pretty much a miracle of God if there ever was one.

There’s also been some weight loss. I honestly never went back to the weight loss clinic because they wanted to put me on a weight loss drug, and over the last couple years I’ve come to a place where I just don’t want to be on any drugs unless I have to.

Even so though, feeling better has meant that I’ve been able to walk three to five miles about six days a week all summer, and I’m excited to report that since May I’ve lost 30 pounds! WHAT?

I had a visit with my amazing doctor last week, and we talked about whether or not the vitamin D deserved any credit for my newfound ability to shower almost every single day.

When I showed him that I had a whole bottle of hydrocodone left over — I honestly used to run out of the drug a week early each month — he literally said, “Congratulations!”

He tested my vitamin D, and I’m happy to report that I’m now at 35 ng/mL — a much healthier level than six. As my doctor remarked on the top of the lab results, “Your vitamin D level looks good. You can safely keep taking your current dose of vitamin D supplements.”

When we talked about it during the appointment, he told me that the vitamin D could be part of why I’m feeling better, or it could be that the nerve that they think was causing the pain had shifted somehow. Or it could be something else all together. Maybe it’s the placebo effect, or maybe it’s all those Taco Bell Cheesy Gordita Crunches I eat every other day that have something magical in them.

So yeah, I don’t know if the vitamin D is the reason I’m feeling better or how long-term this could be, but honestly, I don’t care. I’m just happy that I can clean the bathroom again.

Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching "Burn Notice" episodes on Netflix and Snicker's Bites. She has had intercostal neuralgia since February 2013.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.