On February 13, 2014 Cell Press released a study that indicated zinc may be the missing link that can help osteoarthritis patients. The study showed that tissue damage caused by osteoarthritis is actually caused by a molecular pathway that helps to regulate and respond to zinc levels within cartilage cells.

A protein called ZIP8 is responsible for transporting zinc inside of these cells which kickstarts a series of molecular events. This resulted in the destruction of cartilage tissue in mice used for their study. This discovery could lead to entirely new ways to treat osteoarthritis.

Prior to this study there was no evidence to link zinc supplements to osteoarthritis at all. Based on this new information, it is believed that depletion of zinc in the joints may lead to the degenerative nature of the disease.

In the natural progression of osteoarthritis, the cartilage begins to break down which causes rubbing of the bones. This leads to pain, swelling, stiffness, and other symptoms of osteoarthritis. While there have been a number of theories as to the physiological reasons why this occurs in some people, the exact process has remained a mystery. Researchers now know that the tissue destruction is caused by proteins known as matrix-degrading enzymes, which are naturally produced by cartilage cells, and that these enzymes require zinc to function. Because of this study, it is believed that zinc levels inside these cells may play a role in osteoarthritis.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is considered a wear-and-tear condition and symptoms are often, but not necessarily only, associated with aging. Osteoarthritis symptoms start slowly and become worse with time and continued use of the joints without treatment.

Some common symptoms of osteoarthritis include:

  • Pain: Affected joints will begin to hurt after activity.
  • Tenderness: If you apply light pressure to the affected joint, you may feel tenderness in the area.
  • Stiffness: After periods of inactivity, like waking up in the morning, your joints may feel stiff and it may be difficult to move naturally.
  • Loss of flexibility: You may not be able to move the affected joint with the full range of motion.
  • Grating sensation: As your bones rub together, you may be able to hear or feel the grating sensation when the joint is used.
  • Bone spurs: Extra growths of bone material that feel like hard lumps may begin to form around the affected joint.

Because osteoarthritis is often associated with the natural aging process, many people wait too long before consulting with a doctor about the pain. If pain or stiffness in your joints lasts longer that just a few weeks or is not alleviated with over-the-counter medication, you may need to make an appointment to discuss the condition with your doctor or a specialist.

Common treatments for osteoarthritis

Unfortunately, there is not currently a cure for osteoarthritis. This is why studies like those conducted by Cell Press are extremely important for decoding the causes and possible treatments for this condition.

However, many patients who live with osteoarthritis can get some relief from common treatments.

These include:

  • Exercise: Strengthening the muscles around the affected joints can help alleviate some of the pain caused by the condition.
  • Weight control: Patients who are overweight experience more stress on their joints. Eating a healthy diet to control weight can help provide relief especially in weight-bearing joints such as the knees and hips.
  • Rest: Because osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition, sometimes the best relief comes from resting the joints.
  • Medications: There are a number of drugs that can help patients handle the chronic pain of osteoarthritis. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be helpful for reducing the pain of flare-ups.
  • Alternative therapies: Acupuncture, physical therapy, chondroitin and glucosamine supplements, and yoga have all been helpful for some patients.
  • Surgery: As a last resort, some patients with extreme chronic pain caused by osteoarthritis may qualify for surgical procedures which can help alleviate symptoms.

With the new research that indicates zinc may play a part in the cause of osteoporosis, it may be helpful to begin adding zinc supplements to the daily routine of patients with the condition. Zinc can be found not only in supplements but also in several foods. Let’s look at a few ways to add zinc naturally to a healthy diet.

Foods rich in zinc

According to Fitday, there are four foods that are rich in zinc which can provide the right daily allowance of the mineral in a healthy diet. These include meat, nuts and seeds, cereal, and shellfish.

Individuals who eat meat as part of their normal diet may already be getting the necessary amount of zinc each day. Beef, lamb, and pork offer more zinc per serving but poultry also offers some of the mineral. However, it is important to pay attention to portion control in a meat-based diet since it can also increase fat and cholesterol intake.

For vegetarians or people who don’t like as much meat in their diet, the best alternatives are almonds, peanuts, pine nuts, cashews, and sunflower seeds. Pumpkin seeds, though, may be the zinc star of the seed world. Nuts and seeds also do not have the same risk of increased cholesterol.

Both fortified and whole grain cereals have zinc that can help you add more of this nutrient to your diet.

Finally, shellfish such as oysters, mussels, and shrimp are excellent sources of zinc. Just six oysters can provide almost seven times the recommended daily allowance of zinc. While occasional shellfish is a good addition of zinc to the diet, individuals also need to be concerned about getting too much of the mineral as well.

If you aren’t able to add the correct amount of zinc to your diet naturally, you may wish to include a zinc supplement in your daily vitamin routine.

This new research may lead to new potential treatments for osteoarthritis. Zinc supplements may prove helpful in the interim for patients looking to alleviate symptoms or prevent the condition.

Do you use zinc supplements? How has it affected the health of your joints?

Image by Jules Morgan via Flickr

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