My interest in bone health was ignited by two life-changing personal experiences. The first was my grandmother’s death after a hip fracture at the age of 102. The second was learning at the age of 36 that I had receding gums — an early sign of osteoporosis.
As a scientist, I couldn’t help but examine the “standard” thinking that both osteoporosis and increased fracture risk were inevitable as I got older. And as someone who had just been told she had early warning signs of excessive bone loss, I was motivated to go even further to discover all the factors that I could change to take control of my bone health.
What I learned caused me to totally reconsider our approach to osteoporosis and its treatment because — no matter what you’ve been told — there is so much you can do to improve your bone health naturally. If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, osteopenia — or an early sign such as receding gums — or if you simply want to avoid brittle bones and fractures without turning to prescription bone drugs, you can follow the bone-building approach I’ve developed over the last 25 years:
Osteoporosis, osteopenia, and fracture risk: find the real cause to stop bone loss
Osteoporosis is not:
- Just thin bones
- Normal aging bone loss
- A female disorder
- Something that goes wrong with our bones
- An isolated disorder
- Thin and substandard bone
- A degenerative disease
- Becoming more common among the young
- One indicator of an overall health issue
First, understand that excessive bone loss and bone fragility are not inevitable. Excessively low bone density, in the form of either osteoporosis or osteopenia, and bone weakness in any bone density, happens for a reason, not just because of age. To stop bone loss or prevent weak bones, the key is to uncover the causes of bone weakening and correct them.
Here are important lifestyle factors that can increase your risk for bone loss and weak bones:
- Inadequate nutrition
- Low levels of specific nutrients vital to bone formation
- An acid-forming diet
- Lack of weight-bearing exercise
- Risk of falls
- Chronic stress
- The use of bone-depleting medications and pharmaceuticals
I also recommend investigating possible pathological causes, such as diseases and physiological disorders, many of which can contribute to bone loss.
The natural approach to osteoporosis and osteopenia
My basic philosophy is that every one of us benefits when we work with the body’s own healing capabilities. Each of the following suggestions can only help you, and the more you make this approach a part of your everyday life, the better for your bones — and your whole body.
Look closely at your individual risk. Have an honest discussion with your healthcare provider assessing your real risk of fracture. Knowledgeable physicians no longer simply use bone density as a measure of fracture risk, for indeed you cannot predict fracture by bone density. Those at highest risk of fracture are those with multiple risk factors.
The World Health Organization has now developed a tool (FRAX) for calculating your risk. It takes into account age, weight, previous fracture history, family history, and other risk factors to determine a number that is more accurate than simply looking at one bone density scan.
For a broader review of your potential risk factors, take my comprehensive Bone Health Profile for more information about your personal fracture risk.
Nourish your body with basic nutrients. When your body isn’t getting what it needs, it taps the bones for the minerals it needs, particularly calcium. We would all lengthen and improve our lives by eating to provide our bodies with the basic nutrients our 60 trillion cells need to function optimally:
- Plan your meals around fresh, whole foods, focusing on a plant-based diet with a moderate amount of animal protein.
- Try to avoid processed foods, white flours, refined sugars, additives, and preservatives.
- Add a high-quality multi-vitamin/multi-mineral containing all the 20 key bone building nutrients in optimal doses to fill in any gaps.
Provide your body with specific bone-building nutrients. There are many key bone-building nutrients women can take for improved bone health:
- Vitamin D, I argue, has been shown to reduce fractures as much or even more than the drug therapies. Vitamin D is also critical to aid in the absorption of calcium, another critical mineral your body needs.
- Vitamin K has been shown to affect how calcium helps with new bone building by allowing calcium to bind to the bone matrix.
- Trace minerals like manganese, zinc, and copper are essential for healthy bone protein matrix.
- Quality, pharmaceutical-grade bone-building supplements, like the one we offer in the Women’s Health Network Better Bones Program can provide the 20 essential bone-building nutrients.
Eat an alkaline-forming diet. The modern American diet is filled with large amounts of acid-forming foods, such as animal protein, refined flour products, an array of processed foods, low-quality fats, refined sugars, and alcohol.
Acid-forming foods can upset your biochemistry and may force your body to turn to your bones to provide alkalinizing or “base” minerals to offset the acid load. While this works in the short-term, it’s harmful to bone health in the long run because it depletes your bones’ mineral reserves. Here’s what you can do:
- Include more vegetables (especially root crops and green leafy vegetables), fruits, nuts, seeds and spices.
- Add fresh lemon or lime to your water.
- Eliminate soda, caffeine, and excess animal protein from your diet.
Generate stronger bone with exercise. Remember that our bodies were meant to move, and our bones need exercise to trigger bone-building activity. Any form of exercise can help halt bone loss by building muscle, as long as you supply the body with adequate nutrients:
- Build bone significantly through extensive strength training.
- Take more walks, enroll in a yoga class, or try exercise DVDs such as my Exercising for Bone Health.
- Try more intensive exercise to build bone both in the years before and during the menopause transition.
Prevent falls to live longer. Women may live for many decades with osteoporosis or weak bones, never knowing they have it if they don’t fracture. One natural alternative to drug therapy is simply avoiding fracture by taking steps to prevent falls or diminishing their impact.
- You can become more stable on your feet by enhancing your balance when you practice yoga, t’ai chi, qi gong, and dance.
- Remove throw rugs to avoid tripping, or consider wearing hip protection.
- Provide for good lighting throughout your home.
Minimize your stress. Chronic stress takes a huge toll on our health — it increases the body’s acid load (and keep in mind, this can be physical stress — as occurs during the menopause transition— as well as emotional or mental stress). Also keep in mind, it’s not just the day-to-day stress of modern life, but also issues from the past which can manifest themselves in new places in our lives.
Cortisol, our major stress hormone, can be extremely detrimental to bone and other organs if it remains at high levels around-the-clock.
Be good to yourself, and seek help if you need it or simply give yourself more breaks — whether it’s to take a relaxing bath or simply reading alone on the couch for an hour. Anytime you quiet your mind and relax your body, you can lower your stress level.
You have choices about bone health
I’m not alone in thinking a natural approach makes sense — the Surgeon General of the United States issued treatment guidelines in 2004 that stated the first two steps a physician should recommend to any patient with osteoporosis, osteopenia or fragility fracture are improvements to dietary and exercise habits, followed by investigation of potential causes of bone loss.
This is where you can take control! You can look at osteoporosis and bone weakening in relationship to your whole body and your whole lifestyle, instead of viewing it as a bone disorder which seems to happen for no good reason as you age. With the new perspective you can then see that there are many natural ways to restore and maintain bone health no matter what your age — from 12 to 102!
One final thought on the use of bone medications. If you and your doctor have decided that you are one of those individuals at high fracture risk who really needs to use bone drugs, this is fine. Keep in mind, however, that the success of your drug-centered bone program will be greatly enhanced if you combine medication use with an approach that focuses on comprehensive bone-building nutrition and lifestyle.
1 Frassetto, L., et al. 2000. Worldwide incidence of hip fracture in elderly women: Relation to consumption of animal and vegetable foods. J. Geront.: A. Med. Sci., 55A (10), M585–M592. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11034231 (accessed 10.14.2008).
2 Mazess, R. 1987. Personal communication, Continuing Education Course on Osteoporosis: Harvard University.
3 Fujita, T., & Fukase, M. 1992. Comparison of osteoporosis and calcium intake between Japan and the United States. Proc. Soc. Exp. Biol. Med., 200 (2), 149-152. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1579574 (accessed 10.14.2008).
4 Garn, S. 1967. Nutrition and bone loss: Introductory remarks. Fed. Proc., Nov/Dec, 1716.
5 Wainwright, S., et al. 2005. Hip fracture in women without osteoporosis. J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab., 90 (5), 2787-2793. URL: http://jcem.endojournals.org/cgi/content/full/90/5/2787 (accessed 10.14.2008).
6 International Osteoporosis Foundation. 2008. FRAX – WHO Fracture Risk Assessment Tool. URL: http://www.iofbonehealth.org/health-professionals/health-economics/frax.html (accessed 6/13/08)
7 Carmona, R. 2004. Bone health and osteoporosis: A report of the Surgeon General (Preface). US Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD. URL: http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/bone-health/ (accessed 10.14.2008).
8 Robbins, J., et al. 2007. Factors associated with 5-year risk of hip fracture in postmenopausal women. JAMA, 298 (20), 2389-2398. URL: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/298/20/2389 (accessed 10.14.2008).
10 Brown, S. 2008. How can we tell who will fracture? URL: http://www.betterbones.com/bonefracture/whowillfracture/ (accessed 01.16.2009).
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