How to Build Better Bones

Build better bones with these essential nutrients to prevent bone loss and other osteoporotic fractures.

| January/February 2015

  • Weight-bearing activity such as jogging and walking is necessary to maintain bone health and density.
    Photo by iStock
  • Many Americans are under the assumption that dairy products will provide a quick fix to problems with bone health.
    Photo by iStock
  • Bone health-enhancing vitamins and minerals are plentiful in many legumes, nuts and whole grains.
    Photo by Veer

For many years, a popular chorus of wisdom about calcium and bone health has been playing. Its refrain exclaims calcium is essential to bone health. Variations on this theme are also heard. “Drink your milk for healthy bones.” “Take a calcium-based antacid, and it will help your bones while it soothes your stomach.” “Look, this food is fortified with calcium for healthier bones!” In the well-known “Got Milk?” campaign, one ad even has Superman promising “bones of steel” if you drink milk.

In our society, where calcium is widely available and its benefits widely known, bone disorders such as osteoporosis (fragile bones) and osteopenia (reduced bone mineral density) are still prevalent. Why is this? The reasons for this paradox fly in the face of popular understanding: Bone loss is not caused by low calcium intake alone.

Calcium’s Role in Bone Health

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body and serves several important functions. Two percent of our total body weight is made of calcium, and more than 99 percent of total body calcium is stored in bones and teeth, where it supports their structure. The body gets the calcium it needs for everyday, minute-to-minute physiological functioning in two ways. One way is from the intake of calcium-rich foods. These include dairy products, which have a high concentration per serving of highly absorbable calcium, but also many other foods, including dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds and beans.

The body can also obtain calcium by extracting it from the bones when blood levels of calcium drop too low and dietary calcium intake is insufficient. Ideally, calcium taken from the bones will be replaced when calcium levels are replenished. But before you reach for that glass of milk, realize that replacing the calcium in our bones is an intricate process involving not only intake, but also metabolism and utilization.

This is the crux of the myth—while calcium is clearly important, there are at least 19 other key nutrients that each play a vital role in the structural integrity and overall health of our bones. (Visit Better Bones for a full list of these nutrients.) Think of bone as a brick wall, where the bricks are made of calcium and the other key nutrients make up the mortar. Just like a brick wall without mortar is unstable, bone without vitamin D, vitamin K and magnesium will lose its calcium.

Calcium and Vitamin D

The last few years have witnessed a virtual explosion of research on vitamin D. This “sunshine vitamin” has been linked with the prevention of many chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease and osteoporosis. When it comes to bone health, vitamin D is the key to calcium absorption. To paraphrase vitamin D researcher and doctor Michael Holick, you can swim in calcium and it will do no good unless you have adequate vitamin D. Specifically, without vitamin D our bodies can only absorb 10 to 15 percent of dietary calcium—even if calcium is present, the body can’t use it. When vitamin D is added, the absorption of dietary calcium increases to 30 to 40 percent. Both calcium and vitamin D are necessary to prevent osteoporosis, including postmenopausal osteoporosis.

12/26/2014 3:48:14 PM

This is a very good article. And everything Gardenman said is true. Vitamin K2 from fermented foods is the form our bodies need, and fermented foods offer this. However, as soon as fermented foods are pasteurized, the benefits of the fermentation and, hence, the Vitamin K2 are completely lost. All products sold in stores, even health food stores, are pasteurized. You need to either eat foods rich in K2, buy a K2 supplement made from the fermented soy food "natto, make your own fermented foods or find a source of unpasteurized fermented foods. As Gardenman said, the soil in the US where conventional farming is practiced has been completely contaminated by chemicals and, thus, the mineral content is minimal. Magnesium Chloride, also called Magnesium oil, is the most bioavailable form of magnesium. All other forms are poorly absorbed by our bodies. Magnesium chloride, magnesium oil, is expensive but well worth the investment in terms of optimal health. I've been using it for 6 months now and notice a marked improvement in my overall health. All the best to you!

12/23/2014 11:54:25 AM

Good article. The authors book probably goes into greater detail and explains that it is vitamin K2 found in fermented foods like kefir, Brie cheese and fermented vegetables that is the necessary form of vitamin K for improving bone health. People report that tartar stops forming on their teeth when they take enough K2 to optimize calcium metabolism. The article failed to say that NPK fertilizer has no magnesium in it so all the foods grown with it now have less than a quarter as much magnesium as they did 100 years ago. Furthermore all the supplement manufacturers use magnesium oxide or carbonate citrate form which is very poorly absorbed, less than 10%. Magnesium chloride (Slow Mag) or magnesium citrate is needed and it costs a lot more. We need 400-800 mg a day of magnesium and the average American diet isn't supply more than 1/4 of that amount. Magnesium oil (liquid Chloride) slathered on the skin can stop muscle aches and pains.

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