Common Supplement Linked to Cancer

Health Alert 12

There is recent evidence linking chondroitin sulfate – a popular arthritis supplement — and prostate cancer.

I’m writing today to clarify the issue.

The thinking for taking chondroitin for arthritis goes something like this. When you have arthritis your joints get inflamed. The inflammation damages the cartilage in your joints. When the cartilage (normally smooth) is roughed up by inflammation, friction is caused and pain ensues. Chondroitin is a basic building block of cartilage. So maybe taking it will help your body to repair the damaged cartilage.

This line of reasoning seems to make sense. But in medicine, we need more than a line of reasoning. It makes sense to start with a reasonable proposition. But then you need evidence. More on the evidence for chondroitin in arthritis later. But first, the problem with chondroitin.

* The Link *

The problem with chondroitin was articulated in the July 2002 issue of Health Science International. In an article titled “Natural Doesn’t Always Mean Harmless: Arthritis Supplement Could Lead to the Spread of Prostate Cancer” cancer specialist Charles E. Myers Jr. reports that (1) chondroitin is often found in prostatic tumors and that (2) when tissue levels of chondroitin are high the likelihood of prostate cancer spreading is greater.

One study in particular followed men who had their prostate glands removed due to cancer. The level of chondroitin sulfate was measured in the tissues around the prostate for 5 years. In the group with low chondroitin levels, the reoccurrence of cancer was low at 14%. What happened if the tissue chondroitin was high? The cancer returned in 47 % of those men. Cancer Research 1999 May 15; 59 (10): 2324-8)

Another study published in the Journal of Urology reported elevated levels of chondroitin in the tissues of not only prostate cancer but also in men with benign swelling of the prostate or BPH.

None of this proves that taking chondroitin sulfate supplements will give you cancer. It is however, suspicious.

* Safe Alternatives for Damaged Joints*

I have never been a proponent of chondroitin supplements because I have not been able to find substantial evidence that chondroitin is effective in eliminating arthritic symptoms. Since there are other safer and more effective alternatives to chondroitin, I recommend you do not take it.

Alternatives I DO recommend include glucosamine and MSM.

Glucosamine is a natural component of cartilage. I have read several studies that demonstrate its value in reducing symptoms of arthritis. Glucosamine is often paired with chondroitin in supplement form. But, there is no evidence that glucosamine with chondroitin works any better than glucosamine alone.

Patients at the Integrative Medical Clinic at the University of Arizona have reported success against arthritic pain by taking glucosamine — regardless of whether or not it was paired with chondroitin! (Dr. Andrew Weil’s Self Healing, August 1999)

Two recommendations:

(1) Take 500mg of glucosamine twice a day (with food, as a few of my patients have reported stomach upset if they took it on an empty stomach.)

(2) Take one gram (1000 mg) of MSM (methyl sulfonyl methane) daily – also with food.

MSM is a naturally occurring sulfur compound found in very small amounts in vegetables, fruits, fish and meats. Research indicates that sulfur is required to repair injured cartilage.

A double-blinded study at the UCLA School of Medicine found that arthritic patients who were given MSM for 6 weeks had an 82% reduction in pain. And further, in contrast to chondroitin, MSM seems to reduce the risks of some types of cancers in laboratory animals.

I have seen dramatic reductions in arthritic symptoms with MSM. In fact, it is our first choice at the wellness center.

Al Sears, MD