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Ecdysterone repairs cartilage in joints

Ecdysterone, a steroid found in spinach-type plants, helps joint cartilage to grow. Endocrinologists at the University of Goettingen, Germany, reached this conclusion from experiments they did with rats. Bodybuilders are familiar with the muscle-growth effects of ecdysterone supplements but according to the Germans, ecdysterone may also help strengthen joints and bones.

The researchers are studying dietary changes that can help women maintain strength and health after the menopause. The decline in sex hormones in post-menopausal women reduces mass and strength in muscles and bones. There may also be a relationship between reduced estradiol production and arthritis. Because animal studies have shown that ecdysteroid compounds have anabolic effects, the Germans did tests on female rats whose hormone producing ovaries had been removed. The Germans wanted to know whether ecdysterone protected the rats’ bones and joints. They were not disappointed.

The Germans’ experiments lasted three months. One group of rats received food that had 3 g/kg ecdysterone added to it. They ate about 17 g food daily, meaning they consumed about 53 mg ecdysterone per day. Another group of lab rats were given food with synthetic estradiol added to it, giving a daily dose of about 132 micrograms estradiol.

At the end of the three months the Germans examined the rats’ knee joints. They saw that the cartilage in the rats that had been given ecdysterone had grown. Where bones are in contact with each other, in a joint, they are covered with a layer of cartilage. Ecdysterone thickens this layer.

Estradiol worked even better. The researchers checked whether ecdysterone had an estrogenic effect: it didn’t. Referring to the literature, the Germans suggest that ecdysterone works through the Retinoid-X-Receptor [RXR].

Bones grow in length through growth plates located near the end of bones. Estradiol makes the plates smaller and thinner; ecdysterone makes them larger and thicker.

Bones are only partly composed of hard cells, the compact area. The inside of bones is made of soft trabecular tissue, which is where red blood cells are manufactured. Ecdysterone also causes this softer tissue to grow faster.

Endurance athletes sometimes use ecdysterone because it enhances the production of red blood cells. The Germans’ study goes some way to explaining how ecdysterone can have this effect.

The researchers conclude that ecdysterone has “beneficial effects in bones of ovariectomized rats”. They regard these effects as meriting further research. But they warn that “more detailed investigations will be needed” to find out how ecdysterone works, before trials can be done on humans.

Phytomedicine. 2010 Apr; 17 (5): 350-355.

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