Strong Bones, Healthy Body
Aside from measuring kids’ growth spurts on the wall, people tend to forget about bone health—until a debilitating injury or other damage to the skeletal system. Most of us think of bones as relatively static and unchanging, when in fact they are dynamic, regenerative organs with their own metabolic processes critical to overall health.
As we age, our bodies gradually lose the ability to restore bone tissue. Bones lose mineral density, become brittle, and can be easily broken—that’s why osteoporosis is such a growing concern. For people with advanced osteoporosis, a minor bump could lead to hospitalization and even permanent disability. Decreased bone mineral density can negatively impact other areas of health as well.
More than 44 million Americans are estimated to have some degree of osteoporosis. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, a woman’s risk of a broken hip due to osteoporosis is as great as getting breast cancer. But while the condition is often associated with women, particularly after menopause, around 25 percent of men over 50 also suffer from weak bones. Osteoporosis is now showing up in younger populations as well, a telltale sign of the lifestyle risks prevalent in today’s world.
Though osteoporosis is on the rise, it’s important to note that the condition isn’t an inevitable part of aging. Some influences—like genetics—we cannot control, but there are measures we can take to improve bone health and preserve our freedom of mobility. In the process we also improve our overall health, reducing the risks of other chronic conditions.
Throughout our lives bones are constantly being built up by cells called osteoblasts and broken down by cells called osteoclasts in a complex process of bone metabolism and regeneration. As we age, however, the breakdown begins to exceed the buildup and we lose bone density.
This disproportionate relationship between bone building and breakdown particularly affects women during and after menopause. As estrogen declines, bone breakdown increases. Family history of osteoporosis, low body weight, nutritional deficiency, depression, pharmaceutical drugs, and smoking can also speed up the process of bone breakdown. Other risk factors include overindulging in alcohol, caffeine, and processed foods. Even eating too much protein can be bad for bones, so we need to be careful with our diets.
OSTEOPOROSIS DRUGS: SHORT-SIGHTED “SOLUTIONS”
With osteoporosis on the rise, pharmaceutical companies are making a fortune selling a class of drugs called bisphosphonates. Known by trade names like Boniva and Actonel, these drugs inhibit the bone breakdown that causes osteoporosis. They seem to work well, but only for a time.
The complications appear to arise after three to five years. Long-term users have experienced thigh fractures and other related problems, the most severe being necrotizing osteitis of the jaw, meaning inflammation and bone tissue death in the jawbone. The Food and Drug Administration has responded by requesting stronger warning labels.
This is a common problem for pharmaceuticals. We believe that they work and are relatively safe by relying on data collected from short-term clinical trials. But what happens to patients after they’ve been using a drug for five, 10, or even 20 years? Eventually we find out—the hard way. Most importantly, there are better, more natural, approaches for osteoporosis.
One of the biggest factors in bone health is exercise, because inactivity also leads to bone loss. Think of bones as you would muscles—they need to be stressed to grow. In particular, regular weight-bearing exercises can help increase bone density and protect against osteoporosis in the long run. That’s because bone cells—called osteocytes—can detect strain levels and signal the need for more bone growth wherever strain is increased.
Regular exercise also heightens coordination and balance, which can help prevent falls. A number of studies have shown that people who exercise regularly over time have higher bone density. In addition to resistance and weights, other great activities are yoga, t’ai chi, hiking, dancing, swimming, and cycling.
CALCIUM AND MAGNESIUM
As kids we were told that calcium builds strong bones. The same is true throughout life, as not getting enough calcium increases the risk of osteoporosis. Women older than 50, and men over 70, should get around 1,200 mg of natural calcium each day. But there’s more to the calcium equation—we need to balance calcium intake with other nutrients and minerals, including magnesium, zinc, and vitamin K2, to help build a flexible and sturdy skeleton and support other areas of health.
Magnesium is the fourth-most common mineral in the body, with about half of it concentrated in bones. Older adults, particularly post-menopausal women, may have trouble absorbing the mineral. Magnesium deficiency affects how we metabolize calcium and some studies have shown that supplementation can improve bone density. Foods that are rich in magnesium include leafy greens, nuts, beans, whole grains, and others.
In my practice, I recommend calcium supplementation with an equal ratio of magnesium, together with a small amount of trace minerals such as boron, to support absorption. I also recommend strontium, 600 to 800 mg per day.
THE DAIRY DILEMMA
The most common choices for calcium—thanks to decades of marketing—are dairy products. While it’s true that milk, yogurt, and cheese have significant amounts of calcium, they’re also difficult to digest. As a result, normal dairy products can actually have the opposite effect on bone health, by leaching essential minerals from the body rather than adding them. That’s because acid-forming foods, including meat and dairy products, produce organic acids. These acids are buffered by calcium mobilized from bone tissue, thus enhancing osteoporosis.
Foods that provide good sources of calcium and are easier on the digestive system are leafy greens such as chard, kale, collard greens, and cooked spinach; cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli; and sea vegetables such as kelp and nori. In addition to being rich in bone-strengthening minerals and nutrients, these vegetables are profoundly beneficial for overall health. Other calcium-rich foods include sesame seeds, flaxseeds, almonds, and Brazil nuts.
Poor nutrient absorption is another related factor in osteoporosis as it causes nutritional deficiency, which prompts the body to pull minerals from precious bone reserves. It’s not enough to get adequate calcium, magnesium, and mineral-rich foods and supplements; the body needs to be able to take in these essential nutrients via efficient digestive function.
There are a variety of herbs and botanicals that can increase digestion and improve the system over time: pomegranate seed, pepper fruit, Chinese cardamom, cinnamon, galangal root, ginger root, and others. In my practice, I recommend a digestive formula that combines these and other herbs with digestive enzymes, in addition to chromium and zinc. Such a formula can enhance nutrient absorption, aid overall digestion, and reduce occasional digestive discomfort. Probiotic supplements increase the beneficial bacteria that colonize the digestive tract, and are another excellent choice.
Another effective way to counteract inefficient digestion and poor nutrient absorption is to increase your consumption of nutrient-dense foods. Dark green and cruciferous vegetables, low-sugar fruits, sprouted grains and legumes, healthy fats, high-quality protein, and raw nuts and seeds are excellent choices that offer an abundance of nutrients to support digestive, bone, and overall health.
VITAMINS D AND K
In addition to balanced calcium, magnesium, and trace minerals, another important ally in bone density is vitamin D—particularly D3, which is the form of D your body naturally uses. Also known as cholecalciferol, D3 plays a critical role in calcium absorption, supports immunity, and fights inflammation. The body makes D3 when skin is exposed to the sun. Unfortunately, because of the growing concern about sun exposure and skin cancer, D3 deficiency is prevalent today. While cancer is a real concern, don’t be too extreme about avoiding sunlight, as you could end up trading one condition for another. Furthermore, D3 is shown to help fight cancer.
Vitamin D has been found to increase bone density and reduce the number of fractures. D3 can be found in mushrooms, salmon, and other fatty fish as well as in high-quality D3 supplements. Testing blood levels of vitamin D is recommended if you think you are deficient. This can help you and your practitioner determine your need for D3 supplementation, since recommended dosages range from 1,000 to 20,000 IUs or more per day, depending on numerous factors.
Another nutrient that affects calcium metabolism is vitamin K. In particular, K2 ensures that calcium goes to bones, rather than calcifying blood vessels where it can contribute to heart disease. In fact, K2 deficiency has a direct relationship with hardened arteries. In addition to being bad for heart health, the calcium that’s deposited in blood vessels has been diverted from bone tissue in a complex process related to mineral deficiencies. In this way, nutritional deficiencies can become systemic, resulting in poor cardiovascular health, porous bones, and other long-term health problems.
Vitamin K2 is mostly found in meat, cheese, egg yolks, and fermented foods like natto, a fermented form of soy. K1 aids in blood coagulation. Because it is part of the photosynthesis process, it is found in leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach, chard, broccoli, and lettuce. Some experts recommend around 1,000 mcg of K2 and about 500 to 900 mcg of K1 daily.
Deficiencies of calcium, magnesium, and other nutrients have been linked to increased stress levels, anxiety, and depression. Stress and sympathetic nervous system overflow can result in metabolic changes and acidosis that is again buffered by essential minerals from bone tissue. So finding healthy ways to keep stress at bay can help preserve bone integrity. I recommend simple mindful meditation practices which are shown in studies to decrease stress, depression, and anxiety more effectively than psychiatric drugs, and are proven to offer a wealth of additional benefits related to long-term wellness.
As with most chronic health issues, the best way to fight osteoporosis is to support the system as a whole. A diet rich in calcium, magnesium, trace minerals, and vitamins D and K that is coupled with enhanced digestive function, increased nutrition, healthy stress relief, and frequent exercise will push the body toward stronger bone health. The recommendations for preventing and reversing osteoporosis also have much wider applications for protection against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, cognitive decline, and more.
The same measures that strengthen bones also help us age well, on our own terms.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has a MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.