Joint pain is an interesting animal. Everyone has it at some point. For many people, it’s only an occasional problem — easily taken care of by a single aspirin or some Ben Gay (or by some Essential Relief™ for that matter). For others, though, it’s a chronic problem, reducing them to a lifetime of dependency on high doses of NSAIDS or prescription drugs.
Over the years, before they were all the rage, Jon Barron recommended Glucosamine and Chondroitin sulfate. He also recommended CMO (cetyl myristoleate), MSM, Fish oil, Boswellia, and Proteolytic Enzymes, and others since the causes of joint pain and cartilage destruction are varied and no solution works for everyone. We are going to talk about another alternative for those who still suffer from joint issues. It is called Avocado Soy Unsaponifiables, or ASU, and it helps repair and rebuild damaged cartilage in the weight bearing joints.
In order to understand what ASUs are (apologies to Arizona State University) and how they work, we need to make a minor detour and talk about aggrecan. In fact, this discussion should help tie together some of the supplements that you may already be familiar with. (Please note that although the following discussion is actually quite technical and you may not be able to understand all of the details, you should be able to follow the gist of it and understand what it means to you.)
Aggrecan is the acronym for a small bio-chemical molecule called, oxymoronically, the large aggregating chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan. Specifically, an aggrecan molecule consists of a protein backbone, which is attached to up to 150 chondroitin sulfate chains and 60 keratan sulfate chains. Aggrecan is abundant in the human body and represents up to 10% of the dry weight of cartilage — keeping in mind that’s quite substantial since articular cartilage (the cartilage found at the end of long bones) contains up to 75% water. As many as 100 of these aggrecan monomers will then interact with hyaluronic acid molecules to form a single massive chain called an aggregate, which is a key component of joint cartilage.
Aggrecan plays a crucial role in the functioning of articular cartilage (the cartilage found in joints), primarily working to maintain high levels of hydration in the cartilage — thereby keeping the cartilage healthy and functional. As a side note, it is the presence in aggrecan of large numbers of chondroitin sulfate chains that is primarily responsible for the osmotic pressure that results in articular cartilage being 75% water.
When at rest, such as sitting down and watching TV, the osmotic swelling in the articular cartilage is at a maximum. However, when walking or standing, the weight of the body is transferred to the articular cartilage found at the ends of the long bones. At this point, your weight compresses the cartilage, literally squeezing water out of it. This continues until the osmotic swelling generates a force equal to the compressive force on the cartilage generated by your weight. When you sit down again (reducing the load), the compressive force is removed, and the cartilage once again swells to its full extent. The more aggrecan present, the better able your body is to perform this function. Note: the reason people supplement with chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine sulfate is actually to increase aggrecan levels. They are components of aggrecan, and it is aggrecan that lies at the core of cartilage health. But as it turns out, there may be a more efficient way to increase aggrecan levels.
But for now, just understand that maintaining high levels of aggrecan is essential for optimizing joint health. (As a side note, aggrecan plays a major role in brain and spinal cord development and function too.)
A French Discovery on Osteoarthritis
Several years ago, researchers from the University Hospital in Liege, Belgium reported in the August 2003 issue of The Journal of Rheumatology that a phytosterol/sterolin extract concentrated from the oils found tightly bound to food for joint health, like avocado and soybean fibers, could significantly boost production of aggrecan, thereby helping slow down and even repair some of the damage caused by osteoarthritis — in as little as nine days.
It should be noted that although eating avocado and soybean oil separately does indeed enhance aggrecan production (somewhat); it is only these special compounds found in ASU extract (made up of one-third avocado unsaponifiable and two-thirds soybean unsaponifiables) that restore aggrecan synthesis blocked by the inflammation-causing compound interleukin-1-beta. In addition, ASUs also reduce levels of several other inflammatory factors such as MMP-3 production. In other words, ASU is not the same as avocado and soy oil. It is specially extracted from the fiber of avocados and soy. The problem is that before extraction, the ASUs are so tightly bound to the fiber, that they are mostly unusable by the human body.
ASU has been sold in Europe in a purified form for several years now as a prescription drug. As such, it has a number of studies supporting its effectiveness. For example, in a double-blind trial, 260 individuals with arthritis of the knee were given either a placebo or purified ASU at 300 or 600 mg daily. The results over 3 months showed that use of ASU significantly improved arthritis symptoms when compared to a placebo.
What It Means for Arthritis
If you’ve tried Chondroitin sulfate, Glucosamine sulfate, MSM, CMO, whatever, and none of them have worked for you, then avocado unsaponifiable or ASUs or offer an exciting alternative.