Throughout your life, the 206 bones that form the living skeleton of your body are in a continual state of buildup and breakdown. Like a well-stocked refrigerator, where food is added and consumed, so it is with bones. In terms of bone health, problems occur when more food is removed than is added. This translates to a decrease in bone mass and bone density, leading to porous and fragile bones — a condition known as osteoporosis. The National Institutes of Health considers osteoporosis a major public health threat.
Boning Up on Bone Health
Roughly 10 million Americans have osteoporosis. Eighty percent of those afflicted are women aged 50 and older. An additional 34 million Americans may have low bone mass, a risk factor for osteoporosis.
Despite the statistics, older women aren’t the only ones who need to be concerned. The time to start building your bones (stocking the refrigerator) begins when you’re young — the better stocked your bones are, the less chance you have of running low in your senior years. Most of us reach our maximum bone density and strength (peak bone mass) between the ages of 25 and 30. After that, we may lose up to 1 percent of our bone mass every year.
Ideally, we should reach our optimal bone mass in early life and retain it throughout adulthood to have optimal bone health in our later years. And making sure we get adequate calcium throughout childhood and adolescence is crucial to achieving an optimal peak bone mass. But even if the critical bone-building years have passed, you still can improve the quality of your bones no matter your age.
Spotlight on Calcium
In regard to bone health, calcium (a main mineral in bones) has been the center of attention. In fact, U.S. Department of Agriculture research suggests that 70 percent of women don’t get anywhere near the calcium they need. Inadequate intake of calcium is one piece of the puzzle, but the deficit also can be attributed to dietary factors that inhibit its absorption: a diet high in animal protein, salt, sugar or phosphorus (found in cola drinks), as well as too much caffeine or alcohol.
“Aging and stress also decrease calcium absorption,” says Mark Izzo, Ph.D., a biochemist and the CEO of Ideal You, a company that manufactures an all-natural, calorie-free sweetener. “Your blood needs a certain amount of calcium every day, and if you don’t supply it through the diet, your body will steal it from your bones.”
To replenish calcium, many adults choose supplements, and studies confirm that calcium supplementation during our senior years can delay the bone loss associated with osteoporosis. How-ever, calcium absorption among the different types of supplements varies. Many experts find calcium citrate to be one of the most effective forms available. “Citrate is a chelating agent, which means that it binds to the calcium and enhances its absorption,” says Laurie Steelsmith, a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist based in Honolulu. In her book Natural Choices for Women’s Health (Three Rivers Press, 2005), she writes that “citrate is more acidic than other chelating agents, which helps because you need to have adequate stomach acid in order to absorb your minerals.”
As a calcium food source, dairy products are a popular choice, but they’re not the only option. Other excellent sources of calcium include dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale, mustard greens and Swiss chard (1 cup of mustard greens provides nearly 300 mg); many seeds and nuts (1/4 cup of almonds provides nearly 100 mg); calcium-enriched tofu (1/3 cup provides 100 mg); fortified soy milk, rice milk and orange juice; canned fish with bones, such as salmon or sardines; soup cooked with bones; seaweed; and dried beans.
Nutrients for Strong Bones
A car won’t perform its function if it doesn’t have an engine, gas, oil and other mechanical essentials. Likewise, calcium needs the support of other nutrients to support bone health, like vitamins D, B6, B12, C and K, as well as folic acid, magnesium, zinc, boron, essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in fish or flaxseed oil, and protein — all synergistic factors found in food. (Phosphorus is important, though most Americans get too much in their diets.) Each nutrient is dependent on the other in some way.
Consuming more fruits and vegetables (five or more servings daily) is a great place to start — studies have shown a positive relationship between their consumption and bone health. Not only do they contain a wide spectrum of plant-based vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and flavonoid compounds, which have been shown to improve bone mineral density, they also help create a more alkaline pH in the body, which ultimately helps keep bones strong.
Vitamin D affects calcium absorption from the bloodstream into the bones. Dietary sources include butter, egg yolks, fatty fish, liver and enriched milk, but your body also can produce adequate amounts of vitamin D with just 15 to 20 minutes of sunlight exposure each day. However, the ability to do so decreases with age, so experts recommend that older adults consume or supplement with 400 to 600 IU of vitamin D a day. More recently, however, a team of scientists from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University suggested that a higher dose of 700 to 800 IU per day of vitamin D may reduce the risk of fractures by 25 percent.
Vitamin C can significantly increase calcium absorption, and magnesium — at a 2:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium — is needed to metabolize both calcium and vitamin C. Boron works with magnesium and calcium to keep bones strong. In addition to boosting the absorption of calcium, boron keeps calcium in the bones and also raises estrogen levels in the blood, according to studies, with just 3 mg a day. Boron is found in nearly every fruit and vegetable; cabbage, nuts, grapes, apples, carrots and leafy vegetables are high-quality sources.
Protein is essential to bone health, as bones contain a lot of protein. But when your body digests dietary protein, acids are released that pull calcium from the bones to counteract its effects. This calcium is then lost in the urine. Too much animal protein increases the loss of calcium. On the other hand, diets lacking in protein also have been associated with low bone mineral density.
The key is in consuming the right balance of protein, along with other nutrients that help neutralize the acidity. A plant-based diet helps create a more alkaline pH, thereby safeguarding minerals in bones.
“Soy is thought to be especially effective for preserving minerals in bones, since the proteins in soy don’t create an acidic pH as readily as other forms of protein do,” Steelsmith says. Soy contains phytoestrogen (plant-derived estrogen) isoflavones that help protect against bone loss. “Another bonus to eating soy products is that they contain genistein, a potent bone-building compound,” Steelsmith adds.
Bottom line: The more healthy foods you consume and the more varied your diet, the more likely you are to get the nutrients your bones need. “The average American has 20 favorite foods, and for the most part eats about 10 that are typically high in sugar, simple carbohydrates and/or caffeine,” says Majid Ali, a licensed acupuncturist, herbalist and nutritionist in Santa Monica, California.
Helpful Herbs and Other Supplements
Making bone-building foods a regular part of your diet and taking vitamin and mineral supplements that support bone health will go a long way toward keeping you standing tall in your golden years. More recently, researchers are looking at the relationship between strontium and bone health. “Strontium is a naturally occurring mineral that recently was found to inhibit the breakdown of bone and stimulate the formation of new bone,” Steelsmith says. Findings reported in the New England Journal of Medicine suggest that strontium — found in foods like seafood, whole grains, legumes and leafy vegetables — helps increase bone density in women with osteoporosis.
As scientists continue in their search for new compounds that can have a positive impact on bone health, some are discovering that inulin — a substance that supports the growth of beneficial bacteria — affects calcium metabolism in a positive way. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Nutrition concludes that inulin increases calcium absorption and overall bone density. Further studies have shown that inulin (in a dose of 8 grams daily) can increase calcium absorption by 20 percent. With inulin — which is found in onions, garlic and in rather large amounts in chicory root — calcium is better absorbed into the body because it ultimately increases the pH within the digestive tract. “A little-known fact is that, on average, we only absorb about 30 percent of the calcium we ingest,” Izzo says. “Inulin has been clinically proven to increase calcium absorption, and increasing our absorption rate is the best way to maximize our calcium intake.”
Herbs also contain minerals that help support bone health. For instance, herbs like nettle (Urtica dioica), oat straw (Avena sativa) and red clover (Trifolium pratense) are rich in calcium. Research suggests that herbs rich in silica can help maintain bone mass. Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is especially rich in silica. Steelsmith recommends a daily infusion made from horsetail, oat straw and nettles.
Red clover may help delay bone loss. Studies show that red clover’s isoflavones — phytoestrogen plant compounds that mimic the hormone estrogen — considerably slow loss of bone density in postmenopausal women. Moreover, Austrian researchers suggest that phytoestrogens derived from red clover may someday be an alternative to estrogen replacement therapy. Ali recommends the following blend for healthy bones: red clover, nettle, oat straw, chickweed (Stellaria media) and raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus). Mix a handful of each in a large jar, fill with hot water and let steep for four hours, then strain and drink as a tea.
Diet and lifestyle choices play a huge part in bone health, but to some extent, degradation of bone health is a natural aging process. Loss of bone health decreases mobility and muscular function. It’s a downward spiral from there. “We’re not talking maintenance here,” Izzo says. “You need to cheat time and stop that natural aging process that leads to demineralization of your bones.”
Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.
She lives in the hills of western Oregon with her photographer husband, Rick Wetherbee. Visit her website at www.KrisWetherbee.com.
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