Osteoporosis rates in the U.S. have gone up 300% in the last 30 years, much like the rates of diabetes, obesity, cancer and other lifestyle- and diet-related diseases. Millions of Americans are at risk for osteoporosis, and even more will probably suffer bone loss.
If you’re over 30, you should be concerned about your bone density. According to World Health Organization (WHO), osteoporosis is second only to cardiovascular disease as a global healthcare problem. And, if you’re like the millions of people who are trying to prevent osteoporosis, you may be taking a prescription medication like Boniva, or loading up on calcium.
If so, there are much better ways to protect your bones you should know about.
- Causes of Bone Loss
- The Myth About Bisphosphonate Drugs
- Why Calcium Supplements Might Be Harmful
- Preventing Osteoporosis Naturally
- 1. Eliminating Bone Killers
- 2. Bone Building Exercise
- 3. Bone Building Nutrition
- A Healthy Lifestyle Prevents Osteoporosis
Causes of Bone Loss
The American epidemic of osteoporosis, like all of our health epidemics these days, is largely lifestyle- and diet-related. Some of the factors that cause bone loss include:
- Lifestyle. Lifestyle factors that contribute greatly to the onset of osteoporosis include smoking cigarettes, high intake of alcohol and/or coffee, and low levels of physical activity (weight-bearing exercise).
- Too much sugar. Excess sugar and refined carbs from processed foods leach calcium from the bones into the urine.
- Too much soda. Excess phosphorus intake from drinking lots of sodas, particularly colas, causes the body to balance this phosphorus by leaching calcium from the bones.
- Vitamin deficiency. Most Americans eat a diet that is poor in the nutrients necessary for healthy bones and teeth, such as magnesium, calcium, Vitamins D, K, B-6, B-12 and folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids and trace minerals like boron and manganese.
- Magnesium deficiency is a huge factor for osteoporosis. Magnesium is actually more important than calcium for bone growth and bone density. As many as 90 percent or more of us are deficient in magnesium.
- Omega-3 deficiency. Over the last century, the increase in processed starches and seed oils and the decrease in leafy green vegetables in our diet has led to an overabundance of Omega-6, and a lack of Omega-3 fatty acids in our bodies. This Omega-3 deficiency and overabundance of Omega-6 can lead to obesity, inflammation, and heart disease, as well as bone loss.
- Pasteurized milk consumption. Excess consumption of pasteurized, homogenized dairy products from corn-fed cows can actually contribute to bone loss, contrary to what many might believe. This is due in part to the lack of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and Omega-3 fatty acids in modern dairy products. (Raw milk from grass-fed cows has plenty of CLA, as well as some Omega-3!)
- Hormones. Among women, the decrease in estrogen during menopause has been correlated to a rapid reduction in bone density. Other hormone deficiency states can lead to osteoporosis, such as testosterone deficiency. Glucocorticoid or thyroxine excess states can also lead to osteoporosis.
- Medications. Some medicines can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb calcium and others can increase bone loss. These include cortisone, blood thinners, antacids containing aluminum, thyroid medications, chemotherapy, lithium, and certain antibiotics. Birth control pills also contribute to loss of folic acid, which contributes to bone loss.
- Illness. Other illnesses or diseases, such as over-active thyroid, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis may also cause bone loss. Diseases that inflame the gut like Celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, IBS, etc. can lead to serious nutrient deficiencies that can cause bone loss. Diseases like anorexia nervosa or bulimia can cause malnutrition and changes in a person’s estrogen level which lead to osteoporosis.
- Fluoride. Fluorides destroy collagen, the glue which adds strength to the bones. Fluorosis from excess fluoride consumption (in tap water for example) can pit and scar your bones, and make them more porous.
So how can you prevent osteoporosis, or possibly even reverse it if your bones have already begun to lose density?
The Myth About Bisphosphonate Drugs
Bisphosphonate bone drugs (like the kind you’ve seen on TV and women’s magazines) are commonly prescribed to menopausal women for osteoporosis prevention. But these drugs are made from the same class of chemicals that is used in the cleaners that remove soap scum from your bath tub!
Bisphosphonates do very little to contribute to healthy bone growth and osteoporosis prevention, but they do come with a long list of adverse reactions:
- severe and sometimes incapacitating pain
- osteonecrosis (bone death) of the jaw (irreversible)
- dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
- atrial fibrillation
- and dozens more (far too many to list here!)
One study even found that one of these drugs—you may have seen the headlines about Fosamax—may actually be responsible for causing leg fractures!
Why Calcium Supplements Might Be Harmful
If you’re taking extra calcium, you should know that some calcium supplements can actually harm you. Taking too much calcium, or the wrong form, not only won’t help your bones, it has been implicated in contributing to all sorts of problems, including kidney stones, arteriosclerosis, stroke, and heart attacks.
Calcium needs to not only be provided in a bioavailable form, it also needs to be balanced with Magnesium, as well as Vitamins D and K, to be effective for bone building. (Learn more about supplementing calcium below.)
Preventing Osteoporosis Naturally
Maintaining and improving your bone density involves just three powerful steps:
1. Eliminating Bone Killers
First, reduce or eliminate all the junk food, sodas, fluoride-containing foods and beverages (including bottled “juice drinks,” and fluoridated tap water), coffee, alcohol and other lifestyle factors that contribute enormously to osteoporosis. (See list above.) Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from bone loss.
2. Bone Building Exercise
Second, one of the most effective ways to increase bone density quickly is to exercise. At a minimum, exercise for at least thirty minutes three times a week, doing a weight-bearing activity such as walking, dancing or jogging. (Bicycling, swimming and rowing are great exercises, but are not weight-bearing.)
Regular weight-bearing exercise has been proven to increase bone mineral density and reduce the risk of falls by strengthening the major muscle groups in the legs and back.
You don’t have to join a gym, buy videos, or work out until you’re a sweaty, exhausted mess. Just get your heart pumping a bit for 30-45 minutes, 3-4 times a week. Whether you choose walking, running or tango lessons, whatever you enjoy doing is best, because you’ll stick with it.
3. Bone Building Nutrition
Third, eating whole foods rich in calcium, magnesium, silica, Vitamins D and K, as well as Vitamins B-6, B-12, folic acid, trace minerals and Omega-3s at every meal is arguably the most powerful thing you can do to avoid or even reverse osteoporosis.
Supplements will not protect you alone; they are often in the wrong forms and combinations to be properly utilized by the body, and are often poorly assimilated, especially in older people or people with digestive issues (which seems to be most of us these days).
Here are some of the best food sources for the vitamins and minerals your bones need to carry you strongly into your old age.
Humans need large amounts of calcium every day to remain healthy—a minimum of 1000-1500mg. But if we don’t get enough, the body has no problem taking what it needs from storage in our teeth and bones, which can lead to tooth decay, and later in life, osteoporosis.
Studies suggest that getting calcium from foods such as sardines, leafy greens, and raw-milk cheese is much better for building bone than taking a calcium supplement. Women who get most of their daily calcium from food have stronger bones than women who rely on supplements as their main source of calcium—even though supplement takers have a higher average calcium intake!
In order to get 1,000–1,500mg of calcium every day, foods rich in calcium should be consumed with every meal. (A glass of milk has about 300mg; 5oz of canned salmon has 350mg; a cup of cooked broccoli has 90mg, and a tablespoon of tahini has 65mg, for perspective.)
Excellent sources of calcium include full-fat, grass-fed dairy products (milk, cheese, and yogurt, especially raw), wild salmon, sardines, almonds, sesame seeds, beans, dark green leafy greens and broccoli. Raw, grass-fed cheese also contains CLA and Vitamin K, which also contribute to bone building and strength.
If you are vegan, you will need to eat leafy greens, beans, and sesame seeds as often as possible to ensure you get enough calcium.
Choosing a Bioavailable Calcium Supplement
If you feel you aren’t getting 1500mg of calcium a day from your diet alone, supplementation might be necessary. Eggshells are a highly absorbable, affordable source of food-based calcium you can easily add to your diet. In fact, a recent study found that calcium absorption was up to 64% greater from eggshell powder compared to the calcium found in most commercial supplements.
Additionally, in both animal and human studies, eggshell calcium has been shown to increase bone density, reduce arthritic pain, and even stimulate cartilage growth.
You can buy ready-made eggshell calcium online, but it’s easy to make for free in your own kitchen.
Related: How to Make Eggshell Calcium Powder
Magnesium is essential for good bone growth and density, and is just as important as calcium for preventing osteoporosis. It is estimated that 8 out of 10 people do not get enough magnesium daily and that over 90% of the U.S. population is magnesium deficient.
The recommended daily minimums are 320mg for women and 400mg for men, but optimum daily amounts are more like 600 to 800 mg.
Magnesium-rich foods should be included in every meal. Excellent sources include pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard, wild salmon, halibut and black beans, but it is difficult to get enough magnesium through diet alone, so supplementation is advised for most people.
Magnesium supplements are difficult to absorb, and can often cause bowel discomfort or diarrhea. The very best ways to get magnesium into your body are to use magnesium oil on your skin, take a bath in magnesium chloride salts, or take it orally in angstrom form.
It is estimated that 75% or more of the U.S. population is deficient in Vitamin D. The very best way to get Vitamin D is by exposing your bare (no sunscreen) arms to the sun between 10am and 2pm for about 20-30 minutes every day, but it is also important to get Vitamin D in your food, especially during the winter months.
Products fortified with Vitamin D like pasteurized skim milk are not good sources of the vitamin because they typically use a synthetic form (D2) which is poorly utilized by the body, and can be toxic in large amounts.
Natural, concentrated sources of Vitamin D (D3) include wild salmon, shrimp, grass-fed beef liver, cod, cod liver oil, eggs from pasture-raised hens, and grass-fed, whole milk (especially raw). Vitamin D is not available in plant foods; it is only found naturally in sufficient amounts in foods from animals that get plenty of sun.
Deficiency in Vitamin K is an often overlooked contributor to osteoporosis. Once called “Activator X” by Dr. Weston A. Price, new research has shown that this little known vitamin is the secret key to calcium balance in the body, leading to good bone and dental health.
Without enough vitamin K, any calcium pills you take won’t likely help your bones, but rather the excess calcium will get stored in your arteries and other tissues, causing arteriosclerosis, bone spurs, kidney stones and other problems, or get excreted in your urine.
Vitamin K has two main forms, K1 and K2, and they can be found in green, leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, spinach, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, parsley, asparagus, and mustard greens. Natto from fermented soy, grass-fed, deep yellow butter, raw milk cheese and grass-fed beef liver are also excellent sources.
You can also take a Vitamin K supplement if you do not eat these foods often.
NOTE: If you take blood thinners like Coumadin or Warfarin, these drugs deplete Vitamin K from your body in order to make your blood harder to clot, and you should talk to your doctor before you eat foods high in Vitamin K or take a Vitamin K supplement. People who take blood thinners may be at greater risk of osteoporosis because of Vitamin K deficiency.
Vitamins B-6, B-12 and Folate
These three B vitamins, in which the elderly are commonly deficient, contribute to the building of collagen, which helps build strong bones. The recommended daily dosage is 400 mcg of folate, 400 mcg of vitamin B-12, and 25-100 mg of vitamin B-6.
Excellent sources of vitamin B-6 include bell peppers, turnip greens, and spinach.
Excellent sources of folate include spinach, parsley, broccoli, beets, turnip greens, asparagus, romaine lettuce, lentils and grass-fed calf’s liver.
Excellent food sources of vitamin B-12 include grass-fed calf’s liver, sardines, wild salmon, and pasture-raised eggs. B-12 is only naturally present in animal foods.
Trace minerals like boron, strontium, manganese, silica and copper can be found by eating a varied and broad-based diet that includes mostly unprocessed foods, such as soaked and sprouted nuts and seeds, soaked and sprouted grains and beans, fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, seaweeds, wild-caught fish, shellfish and pasture-raised organ meats.
Foods high in boron (a mineral that helps the body hold calcium) are beneficial for those affected by osteoporosis. Boron is found in apples, pears, grapes and other fruit, as well as in leafy greens, legumes, nuts and honey.
Strontium helps increase bone formation and is found in wild-caught fish, whole grains, kale, parsley, lettuce, Brazil nuts, and molasses.
Manganese is another bone-beneficial trace mineral found in pineapples, brown rice, chick peas (garbanzo beans), spinach and oats.
Silica can be found in bean sprouts, cucumbers, leafy green vegetables, nettles and oats. Foods high in copper include grass-fed beef liver, sesame seeds, cashews, crimini mushrooms, and chick peas (garbanzo beans).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
New research provides evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can significantly decrease bone turnover rates. In women, these beneficial omega-3 fats work with estrogen to stimulate bone mineral deposits and slow the rate of bone breakdown.
Most Americans get too much Omega-6 in their diet from yellow seed oils like soybean, canola and sunflower oils, and not enough Omega-3. This imbalance leads to all sorts of health problems, including osteoporosis.
You can protect your bones by reducing or eliminating the use of yellow seed oils (try butter, coconut and olive oils instead!), and eating lots of anti-inflammatory, Omega-3-rich foods like flaxseed, hempseed, and walnuts, as well as grass-fed beef, and cold water fish like wild salmon, tuna and cod. Cod liver oil is also an outstanding food-based, concentrated source of Omega-3s.
A Healthy Lifestyle Prevents Osteoporosis
Like all chronic diseases that plague Americans these days, preventing or even curing osteoporosis requires giving up modern convenience foods like packaged meals, yellow seed oils, junk food, and excess sugar and refined carbs, and replacing them with a whole-food diet rich in high-quality meat, dairy and fish, healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids, and abundant amounts of leafy greens and other fruits and vegetables.
Eating this way does mean more home cooking, and a slower pace at dinner-time, but given that hip fractures due to osteoporosis are one of the leading causes of death for people over age 50, I think you (and your bones) are worth it.