It is never too early to be concerned about bone health. As a natural function of aging, we undergo a life-long progression of bone-tissue loss. For some, however, this loss progresses faster than others. It is important to be mindful of bone health throughout your life, so that you arrive in your golden years with the strongest bones possible. Osteoporosis, a condition characterized by severely reduced bone mass and brittle bones, is often thought to only concern older women. This is only partly true. Osteoporosis can affect both men and women, however studies show women may experience a drop in bone mass of 5 to 7 percent during menopause, which increases their risk for osteoporosis. Keep in mind that there are many other factors that affect the health of your bones such as diet, exercise, and how your body digests food.
Although your bones quit lengthening in your teens, your bone mass continues to climb for a bit longer. During this period, weakened or damaged bone tissue is removed by your body and new tissue takes its place; but here the growth far outpaces the loss. The net result is improved bone health with denser, stronger bones. Adult bones continue a constant process of remodeling, where older tissue is reclaimed by the body and replaced by new, stronger tissue. Over time, your body’s mechanism for rebuilding bone weakens, and you begin a gradual loss of bone mass.
There are three main strategies you can take to improve your bone mass: making sure you build as much bone as possible while you are young (and your bones are still growing), supporting your body’s ability to rebuild bone tissue with diet and supplementation, and reducing the stimuli that kick your body’s bone-absorbing processes into high gear. Managing bone health is a lot like saving for retirement: even small sums saved early in life have a tremendous impact on the final balance.
Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to strengthen and maintain your bones naturally, through diet and lifestyle. Taking charge of your bone health using these methods has been shown to improve health and quality of life—even if you have already entered the high-risk years for fractured bones. And the best part is that if you already lead a healthy lifestyle, you are probably well on your way!
Calcium has long been identified as a primary building block for bones. We drink low-fat milk and take supplements to be sure enough calcium is available for our bodies. However,the problem we face is whether our bodies can absorb the calcium we consume, and whether it eventually reaches our bones at all.
In reality, our ability to absorb calcium declines with age, especially as our stomach acid weakens. We take antacids for indigestion, but in some cases the discomfort is due to insufficient acid—not just insufficient to absorb calcium, but to properly digest food. Partially digested food hanging around in your stomach can back up and cause symptoms similar to heartburn or reflux. So we pop another antacid to feel better and further complicate the problem. In the meantime, the calcium in our diet is flushed out of our bodies.
In the rest of our body, the acid issue is reversed. Our bodies must maintain a very steady acid/alkaline balance. If fluids and tissues within our bodies become too acidic, the acid must be neutralized. Within each of us, a vast supply of alkaline substance is available to balance internal acidity—the calcium stored in our bones. Chronic acidity in the body robs bones of that essential nutrient.
Calcium is also required for other jobs in our bodies like blood clotting and neural transmission. Because of these other needs, the supply of calcium in the bloodstream is closely regulated by the body. When it drops too low, more calcium is stolen from your bones.
Calcium recommendations vary based on age and gender, but 1,000 mg/day is a good starting point. Check with your doctor to determine the best levels for you. In supplements, calcium carbonate is hard for your body to absorb, so try looking for other sources such as calcium citrate, which is one of the most easily absorbed forms.
To control acidity, augment your diet with plenty of dark, leafy greens and vegetables with rich colors. Limit refined sugar, refined grains, carbonated beverages, and excessive amounts of protein.
Research identifies three crucial roles vitamin D plays in bone health. The first relates to D’s amazing ability to reduce inflammation. Vitamin D inhibits the cells that eat away at existing bone through the natural bone regeneration cycle, keeping them from acting too aggressively. In the long-term, keeping these in check slows the progression of bone loss.
Vitamin D also aids in primary absorption of calcium in the digestive tract. However, this is not the only place calcium management takes place. Excess calcium is filtered out of the bloodstream by the kidneys and flushed out of the body in urine. Vitamin D helps regulate this process, ensuring that the kidneys do not “dump” too much calcium and deplete the blood’s supply. When blood calcium is too low, your body sends a message to steal calcium from your bones to compensate and vitamin D plays a role in that process, too.
To keep up your vitamin D levels, get regular exposure to midday sun (15 to 20 minutes several times per week should be enough) or take a vitamin D3 supplement. Ideally your blood serum vitamin D level—25(OH)D3— should lie between 125 and 165 nmol/L or 50 to 65 ng/mL. A simple blood test can show what your level is.
Optimum levels of vitamin D3 in your system require the presence of vitamin K2 to help regulate the additional calcium in the bloodstream. Vitamin K helps ensure that calcium deposits are formed in your bones, rather than in your soft tissues such as muscle and skin. Vegetables, especially cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, and soy beans are good dietary sources of vitamin K. When supplementing to balance vitamin D, 100 mcg of vitamin K2 (MK-7 is the naturally occurring version) is adequate. Talk to your doctor about vitamin K if you are taking blood thinners.
Vitamins A and C
The antioxidant properties of these vitamins have been shown to improve bone health, and vitamin C is also strongly linked to calcium absorption. These vitamins lock up the free radicals that both cause inflammation and stimulate the cells that break down bone tissue. Try to get these daily in the following amounts: vitamin C, 500 to 1000 mg, found in citrus fruit, tomatoes, cantaloupe, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus; vitamin A, 2,500 to 5,000 IU, from carrots, cantaloupe, spinach, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens.
The amino acid methionine, found in meat protein, breaks down in the body to form a substance called homocysteine, which impacts the formation of collagen. Collagen is the primary protein found in bone and joints, and is also found in skin. B vitamins—in particular folate, B6, B12, and riboflavin—are required to completely metabolize homocysteine and prevent it from affecting bone tissue. Most of the necessary B vitamins can be obtained from eating plenty of vegetables, but B12 is derived from animal sources, including dairy, eggs, beef, and salmon. Supplement B12 at a rate of 100 to 500 mcg per day.
Exercise is the one activity you can do that doesn’t just slow bone loss, but actually builds bone mass. Studies have shown that you can build your bones at any age through exercise. Your activity must be weightbearing to have an effect on bone health, so swimming and biking don’t help in the bone department. However, walking, jumping, and dancing score high marks. A brisk walk lasting as little as five minutes per day or a few minutes of plyometrics has been shown to positively affect bone health. The key is to carry your own weight and stress the bones through some sort of impact.
Bones also respond positively to stresses within the body. Resistance training strengthens muscles, which apply more force to bones. Bones respond to this force by growing stronger. To get the benefit of this exercise, you must work at 70 percent of your maximum load. Stronger muscles equal stronger bones. Stress is also a factor that impacts bones. Managing stress through exercise and meditation can lower your cortisol levels and help protect your bones. Studies of healthy men revealed cortisol levels high enough to negatively affect bone mass.
Magnesium has been shown to positively affect bone mineral density, and plays a significant role in regulating the effectiveness of vitamin D. Sources of magnesium are whole grains, broccoli, seeds and nuts, dairy products, meats, and chocolate.
Bones are a complex construction of many minerals including boron, copper, fluoride, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, silica, strontium, and zinc. A balanced diet provides many of these nutrients and a multivitamin can help you be sure you get them regularly.