Hyaluronic Acid: The Molecule of Youth

This is part of our ongoing The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging spotlight. Each day, we will be posting some of the great information that’s packed into our book, The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging.

Today’s topic:
Hyaluronic Acid – The Molecule of Youth

Relatively new as a dietary supplement ingredient, hyaluronic acid has now been available for more than ten years. However, it has been used much longer than that as an injectable for supporting joint structure. Of course, the nutrient is indigenous to our bodies and present in connective tissues, nerves, brain tissue, and the skin. Hyaluronic acid is a complex molecule made up of two special sugars, N-acetyl-glucosamine and glucuronic acid. Hyaluronic acid disaccharides are produced and secreted in nearby tissue by cells in joint cartilage, synovial membranes, the cornea of the eye, tear ducts and skin. Wherever hyaluronic acid occurs it plays vital roles in maintaining the hydration and lubrication of that tissue.

Joints, Cartilage, Mobility and Nutrition

The cartilage tissue that covers the contact surfaces of joints is made up of mats of interwoven strings of special sugars and proteins. The electrical charges on these mats makes them very attractive to water molecules (water is highly charged – that’s why it conducts electricity so well). Cartilage is spongy because its sugars attract water, which makes the mats swell. When the swollen tissue is squeezed, it absorbs the shock by releasing water into the joint space. Remove the pressure and the water streams back in, restoring the size and shape of the fully hydrated tissue.

Because they are subject to so much wear and tear, the mats are replaced regularly – each one lasts a little under a month in a young adult. In order to maintain balance, an old mat must be removed before a new one can replace it. Once our joints stop growing, they have to adjust their replenishment/replacement cycle in order to stabilize the amount of cartilage covering their contact surfaces. As we age, our cartilage becomes less and less able to adjust and this replenishment cycle goes out of balance. The result is that the mats begin dissolving earlier and earlier. In addition, new replacements are not made quickly enough. As the insertion of new mats falls behind the rate of removal of old mats, joint surfaces can normally become thinner as a result of the aging process and more susceptible to mechanical breakdown from normal everyday activity. Replenishing the joints with the nutrition they need to stay healthy becomes absolutely critical.

The Wear and Tear on Our Joints

You don’t need to be unhealthy or be diagnosed with a medical condition to experience joint discomfort – just continue doing what you always do and eventually one of your joints will get cranky from the effects of normal wear and tear. Or perhaps you over-exert yourself during a sports activity or day-hike and feel it in your knees later that night. That didn’t use to happen. However, now you’re getting older. Things change with age. Whatever the case, this usually signals the need for extra care and supportive measures to maintain healthy joints – joints whose nutrients are not replenished or replaced on a regular basis eventually may not be able to catch up and function as well as they used to. Welcome to the process of normal aging.

There are two ways to help your joints last as long as possible – exercise and nutrition. Becoming more active helps maintain healthier joints as activity stimulates the renewal of connective tissue, bone and cartilage. Two recently published human studies have confirmed the roles of physical activity in joint health. One of these studies showed that if you don’t use your joints, their cartilage covering tends to thin out on its own.1 A second study showed that moderate exercise increases the thickness of joint cartilage and improves joint performance.2 Active individuals have active (well-functioning) joints.

Just as important is to remember to nourish your joints. Joints are known to benefit from regular “feedings” (through eating well and through dietary supplementation) with fish oils, glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and hyaluronic acid. You can think of hyaluronic acid as the cement that holds things together. Hyaluronic acid thus supports the normal structure of joint tissue. Feed your joints hyaluronic acid and they will reward you.

Next Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging topic:
Hyaluronic Acid and Joint Mobility

1. Eckstein F, Lemberger B, Gratzke C, Hudelmaier M, Glaser C, Englmeier KH, Reiser M. In vivo cartilage deformation after different types of activity and its dependence on physical training status. Ann Rheum Dis 2005;64:291-295.
2. Roos EM, Dahlberg L. Positive effects of moderate exercise on glycosaminoglycan content in knee cartilage: A four-month, randomized, controlled trial in patients at risk of osteoarthritis. Arthritis Rheum 2005;52:3507-3514.

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