How to prevent osteoporosis
Bones are a living, dynamic tissue. When we discuss bone density and bone strength, the general rule is that bones will be as strong as the muscles attached to them ask them to be. If we stop using a bone or a muscle, the muscle becomes weak and the bone will also become weak – very quickly! An arm in a cast will lose up to 40% of it’s mass in only 6 weeks.
The good news is that the bones are alive and will grow if we ask them to. To do that, we need to give them the nutrients they need, and then ask them to work harder. The nutrients needed include adequate protein, vitamin C, vitamin K2, vitamin D3 and minerals such as calcium, magnesium and silica. It is important to not take excessive calcium and to consider dietary intake when determining appropriate levels of calcium supplementation. Calcium should not be supplemented alone. There are many bone support formulas on the market that include all the nutrients the bones need. They will usually have more absorbable forms of the minerals and avoid poorly absorbed forms of the minerals such as calcium carbonate and magnesium oxide.
What is the difference between bone density and bone strength?
First imagine a bone as something like a loofah sponge – a latticework of proteins. The spaces inside the lattice are filled with minerals – phosphorous, calcium, magnesium and others. Strength is a combination of elasticity of the lattice and how full of minerals it is. The phrase bone strength is self explanatory – how strong is that bone? Bone density is what we can easily measure with a machine – it calculates how many minerals are present in a section of bone. The integrity of the protein latticework is important – nutrients like vitamin C, bioflavonoids from food and adequate protein in the diet are what we need to nourish this. Density is more about the minerals – so we need to provide these minerals and the supportive vitamins D3 and K2 to make those minerals work for us.
Why do we need vitamin D and vitamin K2 and how do they work? Vitamin D increases our absorption of calcium from our diet and decreases our excretion of calcium in the urine, effectively increasing the amount of calcium in our blood and bodies. Vitamin D does not tell our bodies where to put all this calcium. This can cause problems, particularly if there is excessive supplemental calcium. Vitamin K2 directs the calcium to deposit in the bones, which minimizes the amount that can deposit in the arteries, heart valves and other soft tissues where we don’t want it! Vitamin D and vitamin K2 intake are well below needed levels for the average Canadian and should be supplemented.
When we read about bone density there is much discussion about “weight bearing exercise”. What does this mean? It is helpful to think less about specific exercises for your bones, and think more about your muscles. If you do something, like walking, visualize the muscles that get stronger when you do that. The bones that those muscles attach to will get stronger as well. This means that we need to do a variety of activities in our lives so that all the muscles in our body are strong. You can walk 15 km per day and have fantastic bone density in your legs and hips but if you slip and fall you can still break your wrist. How are you keeping those arm muscles strong? There is good research for all kinds of activities that improve bone density: walking, yoga, gardening etc. Find something that you like to do and do more of it. If osteoporosis is a major concern, work with a naturopath and a personal trainer to set specific exercise and strength goals that work for you. If that includes going to a gym and using weights, great! If that includes hiking in the woods and doing some yoga in the morning, great!