by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Osteoporosis actually means ‘porous bones’ – a disease that is characterized by low level of bone mass and an overall weakening and deterioration of the bone tissue. Normally, bone is made of tough elastic fibres made of collagen and minerals such as calcium, magnesium and boron. Initially, when young and growing, the bones rebuild faster than they breakdown. As we get older this process generally reverses.
When it comes to osteoporosis it is worth knowing that ALL bones can be affected by the disease. Even so, it is usually the hips, wrists, and spine that are most susceptible to breakage. In the elderly, a broken hip for example can be especially damaging, not only because of the hip pain but also because of the prolonged time of immobility required for healing, which can lead to blood clots and conditions that might get ‘picked up’ from being in hospital.
There are many causes for osteoporosis, the main one being a lack of certain hormones, particularly estrogen in women and the androgen hormones in men.
Women, especially when older than 60, are diagnosed more frequently with osteoporosis than those who are younger. Menopause is naturally accompanied by lower estrogen levels and this alone can increase a woman’s risk for osteoporosis.
Other factors that may contribute to bone loss in both sexes are lack of minerals and vitamin D, thyroid imbalances, lack of muscle use and certain genetic disorders.
Cigarette smoking, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, heavy alcohol consumption (very acidic, as is soda/soft drink use) and use of certain medications, such as corticosteroids and anticonvulsants, are also risk factors.
Often there may be no symptoms until someone has a fall and breaks a bone easily. However, you can get sore aching joints anywhere that osteoporosis is present, which is especially common in the neck, hips, lower back, and wrists. When the joints get inflamed it is then called osteoarthritis.
Sometimes you can get more ‘cracking and popping’ of certain joints. For some, there will be a change in their height, which can be the result of bone loss in the vertebrae of the spine. Posture can be affected by the changes in the spine. Finger and toe nails that are prone to breaking can be another sign.
A bone mineral density scan can give a good indication of your bone strength without waiting for the signs and symptoms to occur.
Apart from looking at the above-mentioned signs and symptoms of osteoporosis, your doctor might send you for an ultrasound or an x-ray to determine your bone health.
Osteoporosis isn’t all about calcium by any means. If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis your doctor will likely prescribe a drug that makes the cells that break down bone (osteoclasts) less active, while allowing the cells that form new bone (osteoblasts) to remain active.
This reduces bone loss and increases bone strength gradually over time. With this, you will usually be prescribed a calcium supplement and maybe a vitamin D supplement if needed. Some doctors will also suggest increasing calcium in your diet.
Exercise is also very important, particularly weight bearing exercise such as walking – even if light initially and gradually build as you become accustomed to the change – and as your enjoyment for exercise increases.
Many do not know that it takes more than calcium to make or keep your bones strong. Let’s look at the essential nutrients needed for ‘happy’ bones.
The essential mineral calcium is the most readily abundant mineral in the body because our bones are primarily comprised of calcium. 99% of the calcium in our bodies is deposited in the bones and teeth. The other 1% of calcium is used for blood clotting processes, nerve and muscle stimulation, parathyroid hormone function, and the metabolism of vitamin D.
To function properly, calcium must be accompanied by magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, boron and vitamins A, C, D, E and K.
Other functions of calcium are for acid/alkaline balance, muscle growth and contraction, nerve stimulation, to regulate the heartbeat, and ease insomnia.
Regarding acid/alkaline balance, calcium is an alkaline mineral, as is magnesium. Because our structure is made of calcium, it is the most abundant alkalizing mineral our body has.
If we are acidic from our diet and lifestyle habits (e.g. processed foods, soft drinks/soda, alcohol, sugar, stress) then the body will rob calcium from the bones to keep the body in a slightly alkaline state.
The blood runs at a pH (our acid/alkaline meter) of between 7.35 to 7.45, with 7 being neutral. A number lower than this such as 6.8 is more acidic, so the body will do everything in its power to keep the blood alkaline or we die, so it doesn’t mind robbing calcium from our bones to keep us alive.
It is interesting to note here that dairy products, considered high in calcium, have an acidifying effect on the body, compared to alkaline calcium rich foods such as vegetables, nuts, seeds, and seaweeds that won’t rob your body of calcium to keep it alkaline.
Overall, people who live in countries and eat traditional food with no dairy products, have a lower rate of osteoporosis than those in countries where lots of dairy is consumed. As countries become more ‘westernised’ and food habits change, osteoporosis increases.
Since the introduction and increased use of soft drinks/soda pop, osteoporosis and dental cavities have dramatically increased because soda is very acidic and corrosive (like car battery acid is).
The amount of calcium is generally higher, weight for weight, in dairy foods as opposed to other food sources. However, calcium absorption is generally very inefficient from dairy sources, which I feel is why we are told to eat so much of it.
But if we compare calcium derived from other food sources such as vegetables, the absorption of calcium from these foods is much more efficient than from dairy products, so we generally need less of them to get the same effect.
When large amounts of fat are combined with calcium (such as in dairy products) an insoluble compound is formed which cannot be absorbed. Phytic acid found in grains can also inhibit the absorption of calcium.
In my opinion, the best sources of calcium are green veggies, shellfish, fish (especially the bones in tinned fish), nuts, seeds, and seaweeds.
Other nutrients needed for healthy bones
Boron – some of the best sources of boron are in chickpeas, almonds, beans, vegetables, bananas, walnuts, avocado, broccoli, prunes, oranges, red grapes, apples, raisins, pears, and many other beans and legumes
Vitamin D – in fatty varieties of fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, and in animal products. The sun also helps with good levels of Vitamin D
Magnesium – in spinach, beet/beetroot greens, all other greens, okra, tomato products, artichokes, plantains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and raisins
Potassium – in tomato products, raisins, potatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, oranges, papaya/pawpaw, bananas/plantains, and prunes
Vitamin C – in red/green/yellow peppers, oranges, grapefruits, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, papaya, and pineapples
Vitamin K – in dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, spinach, mustard greens, turnip greens, and Brussels sprouts
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
This case study is about my husband Rod who has never been diagnosed with osteoporosis. But more about him shortly.
The question I almost always get asked by clients when I recommend they go off dairy products for the sake of their health is, “What about my calcium levels to prevent osteoporosis?”
I then explain about the benefits of calcium absorption from vegetables vs dairy products and the advantages of an alkaline diet and they are generally fine. If anyone feels uncomfortable about it, they still have the option of taking a calcium supplement (which are sometimes also needed for other reasons).
Now back to Rod. In April 2014 when Rod was 65 (he’s older now, but still vital) after being off dairy for eight years, he asked me the same question about his bones and the potential for osteoporosis, so I suggested he have a bone density scan to see how things were looking.
After the test, the technician was amazed at the results. His bone density was so good that she rated it the same as a healthy 25yr old which is the peak age for bone density. Rod was rapt. The technician said, “you must eat a lot of dairy products”.
Rod told her that he had not eaten any dairy products for the previous eight years and ate a healthy plant based diet with good fats and healthy amounts of protein mostly from fish.
He also mentioned he kept quite active by maintaining a couple of acres (and the chooks) where my clinic was previously located and he regularly went for walks. The technician was quite surprised, and a touch sceptical.
This isn’t to suggest that this is all you need to do to prevent osteoporosis, as there can be many other factors involved.