We’re up to our crow’s feet in get-young-fast claims, so it’s hard to drum up enthusiasm when another one comes along. But every once in a while, a product shows up with some science behind its claims. This may be the case with hyaluronic acid. Also known as glycosaminoglycan, this naturally occurring lubricating fluid may help fight wrinkles—for real—and soothe your achy joints to boot.
In the body, hyaluronic acid is a major component of connective tissues found in the skin, cartilage, joints, and eyes. Hyaluronic acid’s primary function in the body is to lubricate joints; it’s also a natural support structure of the dermis. In the skin, hyaluronic acid fills the space between collagen and elastin fibers, delivering nutrients, hydrating skin by trapping water, and acting as a cushioning agent.
“Unfortunately, levels of this critical nutrient decline greatly with age,” says Nicholas Perricone, MD, a clinical dermatologist and author of The Perricone Promise: Look Younger, Live Longer in Three Easy Steps. “By the time we reach 50 years of age, our bodies are producing about 50 percent less hyaluronic acid than they did in youth. This decline is a major contributing factor to joint ailments, such as arthritis, as well as wrinkled, sagging skin.”
Hyaluronic acid has been used and approved for years for various medical procedures. Forms of hyaluronic acid are used as a lubricating fluid during eye surgery, and hyaluronic acid injections are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat osteoarthritis. More recently, the FDA approved hyaluronic acid (Restylane) for cosmetic applications; injected in gel form, it acts as a filler to remove wrinkles.
Encouraged by these medical applications, manufacturers began to introduce this seemingly miraculous substance, primarily as a treatment for joints and aging skin.
The roots of hyaluronic acid
The hyaluronic acid story got a big boost in November 2000, when ABC News’s Connie Chung reported on Yuzuri Hara, a Japanese village about two hours outside of Tokyo. According to the story, says Perricone, the villagers have a reputation for extraordinary longevity, and many of them live well into their 90s. Not only do they live longer, said the ABC News story, they also stay healthy, and are rarely plagued by health woes that are common to Americans, such as arthritis and heart disease. Interestingly, their skin appears smooth and supple, in spite of their common habits of frequent sun exposure and cigarette smoking.
Local doctors attribute the villager’s youthfulness to their diet, which consists primarily of starchy tubers, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, imoji (a potato root), and konyako (a gelatinous concoction made from root vegetables). “The doctors believe these starches improve the body’s natural generation of hyaluronic acid,” says Perricone.
So compelling was the villagers’ youthfulness that pharmaceutical and research companies in Japan began developing a supplemental form of hyaluronic acid, he says.
As a supplement. Hyaluronic acid is said to relieve joint pain and symptoms of arthritis. The theory is that as we age, the body produces less hyaluronic acid, which lubricates the cartilage between joints. As a result, joints become stiff, and movement is awkward and painful. Hyaluronic acid supplements are said to restore lost hyaluronic acid to the body, cushioning joints and easing movement.
Hyaluronic acid may be sold as a single ingredient in capsules or as a liquid or powder. It may also appear in combination with other ingredients, mainly MSM and vitamin C, or as an ingredient in joint care supplements. Some manufacturers extend their claims to include relief from a broad variety of ailments, ranging from improved sleep to enhanced sexual energy and stabilized emotions. It’s intriguing but unlikely, says Harold Lancer, MD, board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If you take hyaluronic acid as a supplement, your stomach acid would simply destroy it,” he says. While no clinical trials demonstrate the effectiveness of oral hyaluronic acid, says Lancer, topical hyaluronic acid preparations show great promise.
As a topical. Hyaluronic acid helps smooth and hydrate wrinkled skin, by drawing water into the skin and causing a temporary swelling that puffs out fine lines, says Kenneth Beer, MD, board-certified cosmetic dermatologist, professor at the University of Miami, and author of Palm Beach Perfect Skin.
Topical hyaluronic acid is most commonly found in face and eye lotions, creams, and serums; it’s often combined with vitamin C to increase absorption of this powerful antioxidant into the skin. Hyaluronic acid is also used in topical lotions and ointments for arthritis and joint pain, often in the company of MSM, buckthorn, and other botanicals. The effect is temporary, lasting only a few days, warns Beer—but that’s good enough for most of us.
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