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How You Can Build Better Bones

How To Avoid Osteoporosis

Bones are a “big” part of us. They are the frame and foundation that keep us together. Without bones we would quite literally be jelly. When they are strong and healthy we are able to move and enjoy life. When they are brittle or weak we are confined and need to be protected from getting hurt.

Conventional wisdom states that as we age our bones will become weaker and we can expect to be at higher risk for osteoporosis and fracture (broken bones). But is this inevitable, or can we work to prevent it?

The statistics for osteoporosis and bone fractures in Canada are quite alarming. 63% of seniors and one-half of adolescents were injured in falls, as were 35% of working-age adults. Of these, almost 1 in 5 are fractures. Fractures from osteoporosis are more common than heart attack, stroke and breast cancer combined. At least 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will suffer from an osteoporotic fracture during their lifetime. Most frightening is that 28% of women and 37% of men who suffer a hip fracture will die within the following year.

Bones

Made mostly of protein, not calcium, bone is living, growing tissue. The protein provides a soft framework, while calcium adds strength and hardens the framework. This combination of protein and calcium makes bone strong and flexible enough to withstand stress. More than 99 percent of the body's calcium is contained in the bones and teeth. The remaining 1 percent is found in your blood.

Your bones are constantly under renewal. Dedicated cells called osteoclasts break down and remove old bone tissue. Dedicated cells called osteoblasts build new bone to replace the old. This is also the process of how bones grow and heal. Vitamin D along with hormones including estrogen (in women), and testosterone (in men), work to regulate osteoclasts and osteoblasts.

As we age, unfortunately these two groups of cells grow less efficient in working together – the osteoclasts remove old bone faster than the osteoblasts are able to rebuild it. To compound the problem, calcium, like many nutrients, is absorbed less effectively as we age.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is the single biggest threat to our bones. It is the name given to a degenerative disease that causes deterioration of the bone, a decrease in bone mass and strength. This leads to increased risk of fracture, particularly of the hip, spine, wrist and shoulder. Unlike many other degenerative diseases, most people are unaware of their osteoporosis until it is too late as bone loss occurs without symptoms. 

Like all other tissues in our bodies, our bones are living things that change with time, can grow and are affected by the foods we eat and lifestyle choices we make.

Diet

It is not surprising that our diet plays a key role in the health and well-being of our bones. Poor food choices that are lacking in real nutrition (i.e. junk and processed food) offer no real value to our body including our bones.  A well balanced diet, made up of nutrient-dense foods is one of the secrets to healthy bones.  Obtaining adequate protein from varied sources (meat, dairy, legumes, etc), helps build a strong foundation for bones.

Less protein equals more fragile bones. Lower protein levels also lead to a reduction in muscle size and muscle strength. Weaker muscles lead to reduced balance and more falls leading to fractures. It is common to find that people who break bones had a deficiency of protein in their diet over a period preceding their fracture.

Additionally bones need good sources of calcium, potassium, phosphorus. Studies show that adequate calcium intake can slow bone loss and lower the risk of fracture. Growing up I (and most people of my era) had it drummed into them that “milk does the body good” and who can forget the “Got Milk?” campaign? The main premise behind the message was that milk (and dairy) was essential because it was rich in calcium and other nutrients. True, milk has about 300mg of calcium per serving, but no one ever talked about whether or not you can absorb it. What good is a nutrient if it’s not absorbed?  Research has shown that at best you can absorb less than 1/3 of the calcium from milk and dairy. So that rich source actually turns out to be just an ok source.

Calcium is a mineral that should be built up through your life. Strong calcium levels in your youth contribute to better bones as we age. It is never too late (or too early) to start building your stores.

Exercise

Daily exercise is vital for good bone (and overall) health. Strength training improves muscle mass and strength helping to reduce the occurrence of falls (and fractures). Exercise forces you to work on improving your balance and coordination, which helps prevent falls, and this in turn may prevent fractures.

Spine fractures are usually caused by forces on the spinal vertebrae that are too great and tax them to the point of fracture. Exercises that target the muscles that extend your back can help improve posture, reducing the risk of spine fractures. Most compelling is that combining muscle strength exercises (i.e., strength or resistance training) with weight-bearing aerobic physical activity, helps to prevent bone loss as you age, reducing your fracture risk.

Supplements

The obvious choices for healthy bones are Protein, Calcium and Vitamin D. But which form and what type of each impact the effectiveness?. With protein, ideally you want to supplement with a protein that is certified organic (to ensure it is clean), displaying the USDA organic logo, vegan (to avoid kidney issues) and fermented (for easy digestion and better taste).

There are literally thousands of calcium supplements available. The vast majority are tablets. Researchers at the University of Alberta found that most of these tablets go into and out of your system the same way, intact with virtually no absorption. The better choice is a soluble powder, as it can be absorbed.  Look for powders containing both Calcium potassium phosphorus complex, and Calcium Gluconate Lactate. The combination of these two sources offer your best foundation for bone health.

The media darling supplement for the past couple of years has been vitamin D. Research keeps piling up on what it can do to improve your health. One of the basic benefits is helping your bones. Unfortunately in Canada, no matter where you live you can’t get enough sunshine (without cancer) every day to make enough Vitamin D, so supplementing makes sense. Again tablets are not the best choice as they are often filled with other undesirable ingredients and can have impurities. I prefer using liquids, specifically the one taste one dose products as they make dose multiplying easier. There is considerable debate over which type of vitamin D to take, D2 (vegan) or D3. For me the choice is pretty clear. Almost all the clinical research on Vitamin D was performed using D2. It has been proven safe and effective. The added bonus for my family is that D2 is vegan and there are no risks of contamination from animal tissues.

Eat well and supplement wisely for happy, healthy bones!

Joel Thuna MH is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience. Dr. Claude Gallant holds a PhD in Microbiology.