Today, over 25 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis. This disease, whose name literally means porous bone, is much more common in women than in men. At least 1.2 million bone fractures occur each year as a direct result of osteoporosis. Nearly one third of all women and one sixth of all men will fracture their hips during their lifetimes, a fracture that is fatal up to 20% of the time and requires long term nursing home care for half of those who survive.
Now for some good news. You don’t need to become one of these statistics. If you start early and learn how to take care of your bones, you never need to fall prey to osteoporosis. Read on to learn what you need to know to beat the odds… and beat osteoporosis.
Check the list below to find out if you are statistically at risk for developing osteoporosis.
Women are at greater risk than men. Once menopause has begun, estrogen levels decline and so does the body’s ability to recycle calcium. Women have less bone mass than men to begin with and the rapid bone loss during first 5 years after menopause (the average woman loses 5-10% of her bone mass then) can set a woman up for trouble. Because a man’s testosterone levels don’t decline until later, he won’t usually experience bone loss until after age 70. But at that point it can be severe.
Adequate mineral intake and metabolism is very important to avoid osteoporosis. If we aren’t eating enough mineral rich food or if what we eat isn’t being digested and absorbed properly we could be at risk for bone loss. Sufficient HcL production in the stomach is very important. Here’s why. All minerals are rocks. Before they can be absorbed they must be chelated (bound) to amino acid (protein) molecules in the stomach by the action of HcL (hydrochloric acid). In essence, chelation “welds” the minerals to the protein, allowing them to be absorbed by the body. If there is insufficient HcL this reaction doesn’t take place and the minerals pass through the body as waste.
One of the common misunderstandings about osteoporosis is that it results strictly from a deficiency of calcium. Osteoporosis is really the result of both mineral and non-mineral deficiencies. Osteomalacia, softening of the bone, is the disease that results from merely a lack of calcium. In osteoporosis, there is also a degeneration of the non-mineral framework or bone matrix that holds the calcium in place. This matrix is made of collagen and other protein and chondroitin sulfate. Chondroitin is getting press lately for its use with glucosamine sulfate to improve arthritis conditions.
Several drugs can put someone at greater risk for developing osteoporosis. These include:
– Cortico-steroid drugs used for rashes. They can leach potassium from the bones and decrease intestinal absorption of calcium.
– Tobacco, antibiotics and alcohol all interfere with mineral absorption. Women who smoke cigarettes (1 pack a day or more) have 10% more bone loss than non-smoking women do. When women regularly drink coffee, alcohol and smoke, they have a 10-30% lower bone mineral content compared to non-smokers.
– Women on synthetic thyroid medication should have their dose monitored regularly because an excess of thyroid hormone will draw minerals out of the bone.
Many researchers believe that adolescence and young adulthood is the most critical time for building strong bones. By the age of 35 most of us achieve peak bone density. After that, our work is to maintain this bone mass. The higher the bone density we achieve when we’re young the less we are at risk of developing osteoporosis. In his book “Nutrition Made Simple” Robert Crayhon compares these calcium deposits to savings in a retirement account. He asks the question: “what if you found out that the only money you could use in retirement was what you saved between the ages of 14 and 35 – you’d be sure to save a lot during those years, wouldn’t you?” The same holds true for the mineral stores in our bones.
If someone is at hereditary risk for osteoporosis or if they are post-menopausal, they want to be sure to avoid aggravating their condition with a poor diet. Animal protein, eaten in excess (more than once a day) creates an acid condition that can deplete our calcium stores. Red meat is an especially acid forming food. Red meat has 25 times more phosphorus as calcium. Healthy blood ratio of calcium to phosphorus is 1:1. To restore the imbalance created by excess meat consumption, the body must release alkaline minerals to neutralize the acid chemistry. Calcium is the primary alkaline mineral in the body. So calcium will be drawn from the bones to correct the body’s pH. There is a similar loss of magnesium. Phosphorus is the element in red meat that creates the problem. Phosphoric acid, a primary ingredient in most soft drinks is another contributor to an acid body chemistry. If you have any doubts about this, try pouring Coca-Cola on your car and watch what it does to the paint. Remember that the body needs to maintain equal blood levels of calcium and phosphorus. The more phosphorus we consume, the more calcium is drawn out of bone to neutralize it.
White flour and white sugar, staples of the American diet, also weaken our bones. Both are very refined foods, lacking in many vitamins and minerals. Which brings up an important point. In order for the body to metabolize any food, certain nutrients, called co-factors, need to be available. Nature’s design ensures that these co-factors come as standard equipment in all whole foods. But processing and refining removes most of these nutrients from our food supply. In order for the body to get energy from these denatured foods it must rob its own stores of the vitamins, minerals and enzymes needed to metabolize them. Minerals are leeched from the bones. Like a thief with no manners, these foods bring no gift of nutrition when they visit. Then they rob the house of its precious contents.
Milk is a food that has been promoted as a good food to build and maintain strong bones. I don’t agree. In the Stone Age there were no dairy farms and no one drank milk. However, anthropologists have determined that our Stone Age ancestors managed to consume1 ,500-3,000 mg of calcium a day, which is 2-1/2 times the current RDA. Their bone density was better than ours and they drank no milk. Milk is not everything it’s cracked up to be. It is high in phosphorus, the acid forming mineral antagonistic to calcium. It is also high in a precursor to homocysteine, a powerful free radical that interferes with the cross-linking of collagen and weakens the matrix that holds minerals in the bone. Many people are allergic to the protein in milk and are unable to digest the sugars in milk. Maybe the slogan “Milk, it does a body good” should be replaced with, “Milk, it does a body in.” As to it’s value in protecting us from bone loss, the countries that consume the most milk ( U.S., England, Sweden and Finland) have some of the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world.
Women who are on perpetual or frequent weight loss diets put themselves at greater risk for osteoporosis. Being excessively lean or over-exercising causes reduced progesterone, the hormone that stimulates monthly ovulation. Progesterone also stimulates bone formation. Most women on a weight loss diet are not eating an adequate range of nutrients for months at a time. Think of the grapefruit or cabbage soup diets. To add insult to injury, women on nutrient deficient (deprivation) diets almost always gain the weight back. Interestingly, follow-up studies have shown that when these women added green drinks and vegetable drinks high in minerals while dieting they kept the weight off.
Let’s take another look at the foods that either interfere with mineral absorption or leech minerals from the bone. Red meat, pasteurized dairy products, sugar, white flour, coffee, alcohol and tobacco. Basically, I’ve just described the standard American diet. Is it any wonder 25 million people suffer from osteoporosis in America today? One study found that people who drink more than 3 cups of coffee a day increase their risk of osteoporosis by 82%. Caffeine, as it turns out, increases calcium excretion in the urine.
We said earlier that excess animal protein is a risk factor for osteoporosis. You might be wondering if a vegetarian diet is better. One study of 1,600 women showed that lacto-ovo vegetarians (animal protein intake limited to dairy foods and eggs) had an 18% bone loss as opposed to a 35% bone loss in omnivores. The average American eats about 90 grams of protein a day. This is nearly twice their nutritional need. The excess only serves to leech calcium out of the body.
An old wives’ tale holds that a woman loses a tooth for each child she has – a function of bone loss due to calcium deficiency. But African women who consume diets high in vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains can have 10 babies, nurse them all, and still have the bone density of a 20-year-old when they are 70. True, a baby does consume 80% of its mother’s calcium. But if the mother is also losing calcium because of excess animal protein, pasteurized dairy and soda intake, her jawbone will thin and ultimately won’t hold her teeth in. Eskimos have the highest incidence of osteoporosis in the world. They consume 250-400 grams of protein a day (fish, walrus, whale meat). That’s a lot of protein. They also receive over 2,200 mg of calcium daily. That’s a lot of calcium. So, it’s clear just increasing calcium isn’t the answer. On the other hand, studies show that diets low in protein and high in sugar can be just as bone weakening. So just giving up meat isn’t the answer either.
A whole food, largely vegetarian diet that includes a modest amount of animal protein (one serving a day) should include high mineral foods like whole grains, seeds, nuts and foods especially rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium and silica – green leafy vegetables, cabbage, carrots, and fruits.
A healthy population of friendly bacteria in our intestines is also important for strong bones. Friendly bacteria supply our bodies with Vitamin K, which is needed to build the bone matrix. The foods a person can eat to increase their supply of good bacteria include lactic acid foods such as home made sauerkraut (cultured vegetables), raw yogurt, kefir (the only dairy foods I recommend) and plenty of fiber, which provides a place for the good bacteria to grow.
When we tell people to stay away from dairy products, they all want to know where they’re going to get calcium. The best sources include dark leafy green vegetables, lettuce, watercress, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale, broccoli, collards, mustard greens, oats, navy beans, almonds, walnuts, millet, sunflower seeds, corn tortillas, sardines, asparagus, figs, prunes, tofu and all unrefined grains. If someone insists on using dairy products the best are yogurt or kefir. The lactose (sugar) in these fermented products has been consumed by the fermenting culture and converted to lactic acid.
Low stomach acid will prevent someone from absorbing calcium and other minerals. It’s one thing to eat a food, another to digest and absorb the calcium and other nutrients contained in that food. As we age, our stomachs produce less HcL, which can lead to a variety of nutrient deficiencies. Lemon water or raw apple cider vinegar taken before meals can help trigger the stomach’s HcL production. If all else fails, supplementing HcL may be necessary.
What about taking supplemental calcium? The most common form used in supplements is called carbonate, a non-ionized, insoluble form that requires a good amount of HcL in the stomach to be converted to a usable form. Studies show that only 4% of the carbonate form of calcium is absorbed in patients with low stomach acid. Better supplemental forms include calcium citrate, lactate, aspartate or gluconate. Each of these forms is soluble, ionized and much more assimilable. In fact, 45% of these forms are absorbed in patients with low stomach acid.
Some people worry about developing kidney stones from supplemental calcium. This is a legitimate concern if they are using non-citrate forms and over-supplementing. In this case, excess calcium can be re-distributed in soft tissues and put you at risk for arthritis, arteriosclerosis, glaucoma, and kidney stones. A person should be careful not to overdo calcium supplements. Optimum range varies from person to person, generally 800 to 1,500 mg/day taken in divided doses. And remember, the less phosphorus someone eats (meat, dairy, soft drinks) the less calcium they require.
Earlier we said that there are other nutritional factors involved in maintaining healthy bones. The organic matrix that holds minerals in the bone is very important. Collagen makes up 95% of this matrix. Nutrients involved in collagen synthesis include Vitamins C, A, and the minerals zinc and copper. Proanthocyanadins, including pycnogenol and grape seed extract are very important to help stabilize collagen and many researchers believe they can help prevent osteoporosis.
Many menopausal women are taking Premarin (synthetic estrogen) and Provera (synthetic progesterone) prescribed by their medical doctors. My understanding is that neither of these has demonstrated an ability to reverse osteoporosis. And estrogen replacement therapy has many downsides including increased risk of gall bladder and liver disease, heart disease, stroke, breast and uterine cancer. Indeed, post-menopausal women are at greater risk for developing osteoporosis than anyone. Estrogen is necessary to recycle the calcium in the bone from old dying cells to new ones. When estrogen levels decrease, that calcium can be lost. For this reason, phytoestrogens, plants that have an estrogenic effect, can be very beneficial, not only with osteoporosis, but also with the symptoms of menopause. Phytoestrogens, including vitex, dong quai, licorice, black cohosh, fennel, unicorn root and false unicorn root have a proven estrogenic activity. They occupy the estrogen receptor sites and send many of the same hormonal messages as the body’s own estrogen. But because they are 1/400 th the strength of prescription estrogen replacement they have none of the potential negative side effects.
Progesterone, a key factor in laying down and strengthening bone, has also helped a lot of women. One study of progesterone was 100% successful in restoring an average of 15% bone mass in women with osteoporosis. Some women with the poorest bone mass gained as much as 40%. Results were even better when a germanium supplement was added. According to Dr. John Lee who ran the study, osteoporotic fractures were virtually eliminated.
Boron, a trace mineral has both a positive effect on estrogen and helps reduce calcium loss. It activates both estrogen and vitamin D (important for calcium metabolism). If a woman isn’t eating a lot of fruits and vegetables she’s probably deficient in boron. 3-5 mg a day could be supplemented for women at risk of osteoporosis.
Silicon is responsible for cross-linking collagen strands which is critical for keeping the bone matrix strong. It has not yet been established whether the typical American diet supplies enough. If regeneration of bone is desired, it is a good idea to supplement this mineral in the form of the herb horsetail or silica capsules or gel.
The free radical homocysteine, which is so destructive to the bone matrix, can be neutralized if a person is getting enough vitamins B6, folic acid and B12. So a good B complex is important. You’ll also reduce your risk of clogged arteries, heart attacks and strokes.
If someone has a long-standing deficiency of magnesium, they’re also likely to have low levels of vitamin D needed to metabolize bone. The balance of magnesium and calcium is also important. People need at least ½ as much magnesium as calcium, but many only get ¼. Calcium won’t be laid down in the bone without enough magnesium (or zinc, copper or manganese for that matter). So a good chelated multi-mineral is very important.
Moderate weight-bearing exercise like walking, jogging or dancing increases the uptake of calcium into the bones and helps to keep them strong. A morning walk is a good idea as sunlight is especially good for the production of vitamin D. Exercise is important but don’t overdo it. Ironically, elite gymnasts have been shown to have reduced estrogen production that puts them at greater risk for osteoporosis.
The nutritional suggestions in this material are not offered to treat, mitigate or cure disease, and should not be used as a substitute for sound medical advice. This information is designed to be used in conjunction with the services of a trained, licensed healthcare practitioner.