Joint Health Depends on Healthy Mitochondria

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

June 6, 2022

Joint Health Depends on Healthy Mitochondria
Joint health and comfort are influenced by many things. For decades, glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM sulfur have been popular nutrients to fend off the effects of creaky, aging joints. Many individuals have substantially benefited from these joint support nutrients. There is more to the story for joint health and nutritional support. At the forefront of cartilage health is the underlying vitality of mitochondria inside cartilage cells.

In 2015, I brought this cutting-edge concept to you in the article Mitochondria and Osteoarthritis: An Exciting New Frontier. Since that time, significant research has proven that mitochondrial vitality and dietary antioxidants are critical for supporting healthy cartilage cells and joint health. Mitochondria are the powerhouse for cellular energy production, stress tolerance, and much more throughout your body. Mitochondria vitality directly impacts cartilage cell integrity and durability and are critical for cartilage, joint and spine health.

Inside cartilage cells, mitochondria are exclusively relied on for their energetic mechanisms, as cartilage lacks blood vessels, nerves, and lymphatic movement like other body parts have. Mitochondria provide energy to cartilage cells for their development, repair, survival, and support energy mechanics of type II collagen production. They play important bioactive roles with cellular calcium ion balance, affect signals with clean up and removal of dead cells, oxidative stress levels, and much more within cartilage cells.

The goal for aging well with joint and overall health is to keep your mitochondria protected, supported, and energized. Many factors in life challenge the health and functionality of your mitochondria.

Mitochondria and Reactive Oxygen Species

Mitochondria naturally release small amounts of free radicals called reactive oxygen species (ROS) with daily activities. ROS are toxic in high amounts and are released in response to factors like trauma, obesity, elevated blood sugar, high fat/high sugar diets, alcohol use, toxins and environmental chemicals, adverse drug side effects, inactivity, immune challenges and more. Your body readily counteracts ROS with antioxidants and tissue repair mechanisms that maintain homeostasis.

ROS oxidative stress affects tissues throughout your body including cartilage cells and the mitochondria inside. These toxic free radicals damage mitochondrial shape and function, which in turn stresses cartilage cells, causing them to breakdown. To impede this destructive process, ROS free radical activity must be quenched by antioxidants in mitochondria and joints.

Mitochondria Require Antioxidants to Quench ROS Activity

Plentiful antioxidant stores in cartilage cells are vital in keeping mitochondrial health and functionality intact. When antioxidant stores decline in mitochondria and joints, it leads to swelling within the mitochondria, increases ROS free radical production and pro-inflammatory compounds, and breaks down mitochondrial function and structure.

This is followed by apoptosis, or cell death, of cartilage cells, along with decreased type II collagen secretion within the joints. Research shows that high amounts of free radicals accelerate the breakdown and death of mitochondria and cartilage cells.

Does Age Matter?

With healthy joints and mitochondria, walking on concrete, hiking, playing basketball, or running up and down stairs doesn’t provoke soreness or limit mobility. As cumulative repair deficits and mitochondrial breakdowns occur from excess stress and/or lack of activity with insufficient antioxidant protection over time, it becomes harder to do these activities. This cumulative degrading of mitochondria causes age-related degenerative changes in the knees, hips, spine, shoulders, and other joints.

Young athletes are not immune to joint challenges. Oxidative stress also occurs in adolescents and young adults who participate in intense training and competitive schedules. High levels of ROS are generated and affect mitochondria vitality and cartilage cells.

In addition, traumatic injuries, like ligament tears, change joint mechanics and stability. This accelerates ROS destructive tendencies. Antioxidants must be abundantly present to quench ROS and protect mitochondria. If antioxidants are lacking, mitochondria become stressed with subsequent cartilage cells injury and breakdown, even in young adults.

Key Antioxidants for Mitochondria and Cartilage Cells

Numerous antioxidants are used by your mitochondria throughout your entire body. Progressive research on mitochondria and cartilage cells identifies key antioxidants for quenching ROS. These include hyaluronic acid, chondroitin, glucosamine, boswellia, curcumin, ginger, quercetin, and other important compounds that you might not think of. Here are some special mentions.

Hyaluronic Acid

Cartilage cells supported with hyaluronic acid were found to have healthier mitochondria. Study showed hyaluronic acid benefited mitochondria repair capacity, preserved energy mechanisms, had less oxidative stress and cell death. Hyaluronic acid use “demonstrated enhanced chondrocyte (cartilage cells) survival and improved mitochondrial function” during oxidative stress conditions.

Hyaluronic acid also buffers against oxidative stress in joint synovial fluid caused by mitochondrial distress. Additional information may be found in the article Hyaluronic Acid Prized for Skin, Joints, Dental and Body Repair.


Curcumin, which is from the spice turmeric, provides strong antioxidant activities for mitochondrial function and protection of its structure. It quenches and lowers the level of reactive oxygen species (ROS) inside cells. This provides protection of mitochondria from injury, supports the natural production of collagen, and protects cartilage cells from wear and tear breakdown.

NAC and Selenium

N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) and selenium-dependent enzymes and antioxidant systems also help protect against ROS free radical activity in mitochondria and cartilage cells. A lack of these antioxidants accelerates aging of cartilage cells.


Glutathione, your body’s master antioxidant system, is found throughout your body and is well known for its immune, brain, and detoxification support. It is also found in cartilage cells. Glutathione provides stress resistance and tissue resilience against the oxidative stress in cartilage cells and mitochondria. As tissue levels of glutathione declines, the risk increases for cartilage breakdown.

Recent research shows that knee cartilage cells with abundant glutathione levels withstood weight-bearing or load-induced oxidative stress better than cells that lacked glutathione. Age and poor diet are primary reasons for a decline of glutathione in cartilage cells, synovial fluids and joints. The Journal of Clinical Orthopedics and Trauma September 2020 also showed that use of NAC and glutathione together improves joint comfort and function.

Exercise Is Essential

Exercise is essential for mitochondrial vitality and the birth of new mitochondria. Exercise has been proven time and again to be critical for joint health management and age-related decline. In using exercise as a tool for health, compliance and frequency with aerobic and strength-training exercise are critical. Choose activities that you enjoy.

In a review study published in the May 2022 Frontiers in Aging NeuroScience, experts recommend 30-60 minutes of exercise with moderate intensity per day for joint health. Your heart rate should reach120-150 beats/minute during exercise.

Be diligent about sticking to an exercise program as improvements in pain management were found to be obtained only after 8-11 weeks of consistent exercise. To offset loss of muscle from aging that affects joint breakdown, 12 weeks of exercise is the minimum recommendation to regain strength. Don’t stop after that. Keep going to maintain and improve upon your hard work. Unfortunately, a short stroll around the block does not achieve the same benefits, but is better than no exercise. Check with your health care professional on an exercise program if you have significant health concerns.
A healthy exercise response and tolerance depends upon your antioxidant intake.

Joint replacement surgeries and regenerative medicine are booming businesses today and is not just for seniors anymore. Individuals in their 50s and 60s have and even younger are seeking help for aging joints. What has changed?

This age group grew up with the increasing popularity of white bread, white sugar, and fast-food chains that are now the norm, rather than a whole foods diet grown in the community or back yard.

Modernization also led to less physical activity in daily chores and work. Furthermore, budget cuts in schools led to reduction or removal of phy-ed and sports for many that helped build healthy habits and interests.

Lack of activity and poor nutritional intake are the two most important contributors to mitochondrial decay, joint deterioration, and fast aging. You can change these factors. Certainly, intense activity or trauma with unmet nutritional needs also hastens aging joints.

As you reflect on your own joint health, also think about how many of today’s youth face unprecedented health challenges. Too many kids today consume a diet of fast foods, high carb, junk food void of fresh fruits and vegetables. Combine this with endless hours of sitting with video games and television. How about the dedicated athlete who spends hours each day with practice and events, but eats a limited diet?

Epidemic levels of poor blood sugar management and obesity are already present in elementary age children. Will they require joint replacement surgery in their 20s and 30s?

As you work to get your creaky joints working better, teach the children in your life how to make healthy choices with diet and lifestyle. Add support for yourself such as Joint All or Hyaluronic Acid with Repair Plus, and Bone & Joint Helper for general cartilage support. Add Glutathione Ultra and other antioxidants with a whole foods diet for mitochondrial support.

Ask anyone who has had joint replacement surgery, the replacements are never as good as the original parts you were given. How you support your body today impacts your future.

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