Waking up feeling like the Tin Man—back so stiff I can’t bend over to touch my toes and knees so achy they feel glued in place—has been my reality for nearly five years. It takes a good half hour before I can get up and move around as normal, and even longer until I feel like I’m oiled up enough—yanked and pulled and stretched out—to be a human being.
I have an autoimmune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis that causes super-duper stiff joints (commonly referred to as arthritis). I’m not alone—an estimated 54 million Americans live with daily joint pain or joint disease. That’s a lot of people feeling like me, all of us aching for some sort of respite from feeling creaky, cracky, and crooked.
Of course, successfully treating the various conditions that affect the joints is like finding your way out of a particularly tricky maze. I can’t say I’ve gotten out quite yet, but I’m closer than before.
I started by talking to a doctor and a nutritionist about medication and diet, but I’ve also had a lot of luck with vitamin and supplement use.
When I started really feeling the effects of joint pain and stiffness—before I was medicated and even during medication—I did a lot of research on vitamins and supplements. For one, you can never be too certain of what you’re putting in your body. And second, it’s good to have that autonomy and knowledge. (That said, just because the Internet’s endless stream of immediate information is available to you does not mean you know everything. Always check with your doc first before starting any supplementation!)
Here’s what I use to juice up my achy, break-y joints. I take each of the below once a day (except where otherwise noted) in the morning with my coffee and some fruit. Before supplementation, I was still doing much of the same: stretching, taking pain relief medication, and eating as well as I could. I can successfully report good news: I’ve noticed a significant increase in joint mobility and pain level after taking these supplements for about a year. Three cheers for knees that don’t pop and crunch with every jaunt up the stairs!
It might have a weird name, but SAM-e (or S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine), which is found naturally in the body and made by amino acids that we get through food, has been shown by studies to improve joint function and tenderness. It could help with joint discomfort, potentially reducing the pain you feel when you’re all locked up.
2. Cat’s Claw
I won’t lie—the oh-so-witchy name of this supplement is what caught my eye. But cat’s claw (this shouldn’t be mixed up with Devil’s Claw—which also aids joints but has a different set of benefits) has got some convincing science to back it up. First off, it may contribute to a reduction in joint discomfort, while also benefiting the immune system. Yes, please! A study showed that cat’s claw, when compared to a placebo, effectively worked to promote a reduction in pain, swelling, and tenderness of joints.
Golden lattes are incredibly popular and delicious, yes, but not without good reason. Turmeric—or more specifically the compound found in turmeric, curcumin—has been found to be effective in promoting relief from temporary joint discomfort. According to the Arthritis Foundation, turmeric has long been used by Chinese and Ayurvedic medicinal systems as a way to promote relief from pain caused by joint issues. In addition to taking one capsule of curcumin daily, I also frequently drink golden milk (made with turmeric powder and hemp milk or almond milk). Some experts say that taking curcumin with black pepper has been found to increase curcumin’s bioavailability (which is a fancier way of saying its “effectiveness”).
4. Fish oil
There’s something about fish oil that, for a lot of people, just seems gross. I get it. When you really think about it, it is kinda gross. However, I swear by it. Those little golden capsules, full of yellow-y joint-lubricating goodness, were one of the first supplements I took for my joints. And it helped. Bonus: Because fish oil is an omega-3, it’s also chock full of brain, gut, and skin benefits.
I never liked ginger. But when my rheumatologist suggested that it might actually work to nix the symptoms I was experiencing, I decided to give a go—at least in supplement form.
According to Arthritis Foundation, ginger has been shown to reduce joint pain when taken twice a day. I take one or two capsules of ginger root daily (depending on my pain level), and often drink ginger tea for additional supplement. The bonus? Ginger seriously helps to settle any stomach issues, so it’s a win-win. (This is especially the case for me, since my autoimmune disease, like many others, causes digestive problems.)
Boswellia is the newest addition to my supplementation ritual. Interestingly, Boswellia is a plant found in India, the Middle East, and Northern Africa—and it’s known for producing sweet-smelling frankincense. However, its root has also been found to be effective for joint related issues. According to study, there’s some strong evidence suggesting that it is good for inflammatory conditions, although more research is necessary.
Studies show that capsaicin (the active compound in cayenne pepper)) has a pain-reducing effect on discomfort caused by joint and muscle issues associated with physical activity or overuse. I swear by capsaicin gel. It’s got a tingly, cooling effect—which, for me, distracts from the deep throbbing pain of a stuck knee or tight upper back. Plus, it’s safe to use. Some people might not fall in love with its extreme hot-cold effect, but it does work to disguise the pain. If you’re not into that tingly feeling, you can also find capsaicin in cayenne capsule form.