One of the most prevalent health concerns among older adults today is osteoporosis, the thinning of bone that leads to increased fractures, bone loss and, in some cases, permanent disability. Once thought to be mainly a problem in older women (women still account for most cases), osteoporosis rates among men and younger people are on the rise. In fact, it is estimated that osteoporosis cases among men will increase 50 percent in the next 15 years. Rates among women are growing as well, and related bone fractures are occurring at younger ages.
Major risk factors include diet and lifestyle (consuming overly processed foods, smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages and neglecting exercise), resulting in bone mineral deficiency and poor overall nutrition. Because of this, millions of patients in the United States now rely on bone-building pharmaceutical drugs, or bisphosphonates, such as Boniva and Actonel. However, the Food and Drug Administration recently recommended that manufacturers of these drugs increase cautionary language on the labels due to a number of long-term users who have suffered unusual thigh fractures or a serious jaw disease. Several FDA advisers said the new labels need to clearly state that the potential benefits offered by these drugs are limited to the first three to five years of use. After that, the effects are largely unknown.
Hindering bone processes
Bisphosphonates work by hindering a natural process of aging that causes bone tissue to gradually dissolve. For patients who have an advanced form of osteoporosis, taking a bisphosphonate regularly may help slow the rate of bone thinning and reduce the risk of broken bones. But, again, the benefits are unknown beyond three to five years.
The truth is, for most new prescription drugs, the long-term effects — both positive and negative — are simply not known. That’s why it is so critical to address health on a larger scale. In my practice I address osteoporosis with therapeutic preventive measures which can also support a patient’s overall health.
To adequately address bone health (for both men and women), I recommend natural solutions that can not only slow the breakdown of bone tissue, but also help to build new bone tissue over time.
Nutrient absorption is key
One critical, though often overlooked, factor in bone health is the ability of your body to absorb nutrients properly. If digestive health is weak, your body may actually leech essential minerals from bone tissue in order to aid the digestive process — a major contributing factor to osteoporosis. This is particularly true with consumption of most dairy products. While dairy may be rich in calcium and other vitamins and minerals, these foods are usually so difficult to digest that they end up depleting essential calcium and other minerals from the body. This is clearly stated in many medical textbooks, but often ignored by health professionals.
You can help to balance this process by taking extra minerals. The best choices for mineral supplementation are food-based multi-mineral formulas and mineral-rich foods such as seaweeds and dark greens. In addition, adding digestive enzyme support can help prevent essential mineral depletion. I recommend a comprehensive digestive formula that contains important minerals for digestive function, along with digestive enzymes and targeted botanicals which support overall digestive capacity.
Again, one of the most important and natural ways to support long-term bone and overall health is to follow a healthy diet rich in essential vitamins and minerals. Calcium-rich foods are especially important for healthy bones and teeth, as well as proper function of the heart, muscles and nerves. Since the body cannot produce calcium on its own, it must be absorbed through calcium-rich foods, which include dark-green leafy vegetables such as bok choy, chard, kale, broccoli, dandelion greens and cooked spinach, as well as sea vegetables such as kelp and nori.
In addition, calcium-rich sesame seeds, flax seeds, almonds and Brazil nuts can be eaten alone or added to other nutrient-dense meals to boost the levels of this bone-strengthening mineral in your body and prevent thinning of bone tissue over time. If you decide to take a calcium supplement, be sure to choose a food-based source that also includes other essential minerals and an equal or greater amount of magnesium for broad-spectrum support and better absorption.
Many people, particularly post-menopausal women, may be deficient in magnesium. In fact, lack of magnesium is often a greater health issue than lack of calcium. For this reason, it is important to fill your diet with magnesium-rich green vegetables such as lightly cooked spinach, raw cacao (chocolate), beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and whole, unrefined grains. When supporting your diet with calcium-magnesium supplements, I recommend taking one with a magnesium-to-calcium ratio of 1-2:1, which will help you maintain normal muscle and nerve function, sustain a healthy immune system and build strong bones.
More and more research is showing just how important vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is to your overall health. Not only is it essential for calcium absorption, but it is also plays key roles in supporting the immune system, regulating inflammation and fighting against many chronic diseases, including cancer. Vitamin D3 is actually a hormone that the body creates naturally from the ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays in sunlight, as well as from foods such as: shiitake mushrooms and other medicinal mushrooms; cod liver oil; and fatty fish, including salmon, sardines and mackerel. Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) also is available from plants but D3 is a much more bio-active form.
The kidneys are responsible for turning both D3 and D2 into calcitrol, the highly active form of the vitamin that naturally helps support healthy levels of calcium in the body. Calcitrol has other benefits as well, including fighting and preventing cancer. If you choose to supplement with this nutrient, be sure to select a food-based form of vitamin D3 for optimal results.
Vitamin K is also a critical nutrient for heart and bone health. There are two natural forms used by the body: K1 and K2. Vitamin K1 is used for blood coagulation, while K2 is used for calcium regulation. K2 ensures that the calcium you consume is deposited in your bones — not in your blood vessels and other soft tissues where it can cause hardening and related complications. Vitamin K2 is mostly found in meat, organ meats (liver), cheese, egg yolks and fermented foods — particularly Natto, a fermented form of soy native to Japan. K1 is found in leafy greens such as kale, spinach, chard, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, parsley and romaine lettuce.
Without consuming sufficient vitamin K (both K1 and K2), the vast majority of the population is at risk for age-related disease. Examples of complications related to vitamin K deficiency can be seen when arteries harden with calcium deposits, and bones become more porous since adequate calcium is not being delivered to them. If you are at risk for osteoporosis, consider adding full-spectrum vitamin K supplementation to your diet. If you are vegan or on a strict diet, it may be especially wise to consider K2 supplements.
A regular exercise regimen can also help strengthen bones, prevent the breakdown of bone tissue and increase muscle strength, coordination and balance. Since bone is living tissue, it responds to exercise by becoming stronger and more durable. As a result, people who exercise regularly have greater bone density and strength than those who do not. Some of the best types of exercise for your bones are low-impact weight-bearing actions, such as light weight training, yoga, walking and hiking.
There are numerous ways to improve and maintain bone health and support overall wellness and vitality in the process. You can start by adding leafy greens to every meal, including more food-based minerals, incorporating a brisk walk into your day and using natural therapies that will improve your bone density over time.