What Is Glucosamine?

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Glucosamine is a compound produced naturally by the body. As a key element of the formation of cartilage, glucosamine is crucial to the development and maintenance of the body's joints. Glucosamine is also a widely used dietary supplement, with a variety of health benefits ascribed to it, some with scientific backing and others for which the safety and efficacy of glucosamine has yet to be proven.

Glucosamine in the Body

Glucosamine is an amino sugar that is produced by the body naturally. Amino sugars differ from other body sugars in that they do not provide energy to the body, but contribute to the structure of body tissue. Glucosamine is an essential building block in manufacturing and repairing the cartilage that makes up the body's joints. However, the aging process can affect the body's ability to manufacture this vital compound, leading to the deterioration of the body's weight bearing joints. For this reason, glucosamine supplements have become big business, as glucosamine is not readily available from primary food sources.

Glucosamine Supplements

Glucosamine is available in a variety of forms as a dietary supplement, most commonly in tablets, capsules, powders or as a liquid. Many of these supplements are derived from animal tissue, such as the exoskeletons of a variety of shellfish, but some are made from corn. While glucosamine is said to have health benefits in a number of areas, it is labeled as a food supplement by the FDA, therefore meaning glucosamine is not regulated as a drug, nor has the agency approved it for medicinal use in humans.

As Support for Joint Health

Glucosamine is very often advertised as a supplement that is beneficial to joint health, believed to aid the body in building and repairing cartilage, as well as relieving pain and inflammation. Glucosamine preparations made for joint health often combine glucosamine with other supplements, such as chondroitin. Research done on its effectiveness for this purpose has yielded conflicting results.

Glucosamine and Osteoarthritis

Glucosamine is commonly used in the treatment of osteoarthritis, and in this area, there is some solid scientific support for its effectiveness. According to the Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial, or GAIT, done under the direction of the National Institute of Heath, glucosamine and chondroitin, given in combination, proved effective in treating moderate to severe knee pain due to osteoarthritis, showing better results than common non-steroid pain relievers.

Possible Side Effects and Cautions

While glucosamine supplements are generally well tolerated by those who use them, there are some possible side effects. People who are allergic to shellfish may have reason to be concerned about the use of glucosamine, as many commercial supplements are derived directly from shellfish and crustaceans. Side effects like nausea, heartburn, diarrhea, vomiting and headache are possible. In rare cases, products that combine glucosamine and chondroitin have been linked to temporary elevations of blood pressure, and the safety of use by women who are pregnant or nursing has not been proven. As with any supplement, it is wise to seek the advice of a health care professional before using glucosamine.

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