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Osteoporosis is a growing concern in our country as we get older as a nation. Before you decide this isn’t an important topic for you personally, consider that good bone health is important for everyone, even if you aren’t in a high risk category. And, from a holistic perspective we are always looking at prevention. Prevention ideally starts in childhood, however, you can start in at any time.
What is osteoporosis?
Our bones are living tissue and they are in a constant flow of change called resorption and reformation. Resorption is the process where the body pulls minerals from the bones to be used elsewhere in the body, or if something is out of balance that causes the leaching of minerals. Reformation is the process where the body adds minerals to the bones.
In osteoporosis the natural process of bone resorption and reformation is out of balance and the resorption is faster than the reformation. In other words, the bones are losing more than they are gaining and lose density.
Some people have osteopenia which is also low bone density but not low enough to be considered osteoporosis.
Who gets it? What is the prevalence?
You have a higher risk of getting osteoporosis if any of the categories below are true for you:
- Born female
- Caucasian, Asian 2nd highest racial group
- Post-menopausal woman
- Older adult
- Small in body size
- Eat a diet low in calcium
- Physically inactive
- Family history of osteoporosis
Please remember, being in a higher risk group does not mean that is your destiny, it means that you need to take better care of your bones because the likelihood is higher.
Here are some statistics, for you number lovers, from the Center for Disease Control (2004):
- 1 in 2 women are likely to break a bone due to osteoporosis in her lifetime
- Eight out of 100 (or 7.94%) adult women reported being diagnosed with osteoporosis
- Twenty out of 100 (or 19.8%) adult women said that they have a family history of osteoporosis
- Women with a family history of osteoporosis were 2.4 times more likely to have osteoporosis than women without such history
What are bones anyway?
Many of us think of bone as inert, when actually it is living tissue in a constant state of resorption and reformation. Bones are made up of minerals embedded with living cells and collagen (which provides flexibility). These living cells of our bones need food and oxygen, like all cells in our body.
Our skeleton is also designed to protect our internal organs and allow movement. It is rather interesting that one of the hardest, most solid structures in our body is what allows us to move. Our muscles would be useless without our bones to pull against and give shape.
Density of bone is important as is flexibility. The big concern is breaking bones, especially later in life. So, that flexibility also helps protect us from breakage, not just the density alone.
Bone formation is determined by hormones, diet and stress on a bone. Stress on a bone causes it to grow; part of how anthropologists determine the occupation of skeletons that they find. Greater levels of testosterone mean greater bone density. So men are less prone to osteoporosis, but not immune. And diet, as always, you are what you eat…and how well your body assimilates what you eat.
Peak bone mass refers to the genetic potential for bone density. By the age of 20, the average woman has acquired most of her skeletal mass; men a little later. As we age, we lose bone mass which increases our risk of osteoporosis. For women this occurs around the time of menopause.
It is important for young girls to reach their peak bone mass in order to maintain bone health throughout life. A person with high bone mass as a young adult will be more likely to have a higher bone mass later in life. Inadequate calcium in the diet and not enough physical activity early in life can affect someone’s ability to reach their peak bone mass as an adult.
Move your body!
Yes, exercise is beneficial for just about everything. Lack of exercise is a huge factor in osteoporosis. We need weight bearing and muscle strengthening exercise; including activities that improve posture, balance, and flexibility.
The experts recommend at least 30 minutes most days of moderate activity. Children need at least 60 minutes of moderate activity most days. Examples of weight bearing exercise include walking, running, weight training and aerobics. Exercise such as the following help with strengthening and flexibility: stretching, yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Gong and swimming.
What to avoid
So, we don’t have control over a lot of the risk factors (except exercise and proper nutrition) but there things we can do. Not surprisingly, the list of what to avoid to help prevent osteoporosis is the same list of what we want to avoid for many other health issues.
Things to avoid:
- Diets high animal protein, sodium or sugar
- Artificial carbonation
- Smoking, alcohol, caffeine
- Many pharmaceuticals
Many pharmaceuticals have bone loss as a potential side effect. So when it is necessary to take a drug, and sometimes it is, stay in contact with your doctor about your lowest effective dose and when, or if, you can come off of it. They include many common drugs such as; antacids containing aluminum, some types of chemotherapy, lithium, PPIs (like Prilosec), SSRIs (such as Zoloft and Prozac), some steroids and excess thyroid hormones, just to name a few.
It is important for you to know the potential side effects of any medication that you are taking and know how often you need to get tested (either for blood levels or organ function). Most drugs are metabolized in your liver, kidneys or both; so those two organs are working harder, under more stress. You can find this info on your drug insert, from your pharmacist, doctor or online on websites such as, www.rxlist.com . (I don’t particularly endorse this site, it is just one example of many.)
What to eat
Obviously you want to eat a good, healthy diet in general. More specific to osteoporosis you want to eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables; with a focus on calcium and anti-oxidants.
Foods that are high in calcium include:
- sesame, sunflower, pumpkin seeds, almonds, brazil nuts (make sure all of these are good quality and not rancid since they are high in fat)
- Dark green leafy veggies (eaten with lemon or vinegar to aid assimilation) such as: spinach, kale, dandelion greens watercress, parsley, collard greens, broccoli , bok choy
- Whole grains
- Legumes, especially: black eyed peas, kidney and black beans
- Black strap molasses: use in moderation and make sure it is not from GMO beets
- Seaweed; careful about source especially post Fukushima
- Dairy; fermented, organic. Skim milk is devoid of fat and enzymes necessary for proper calcium absorption. It is best not to rely heavily on dairy as your calcium source because too much animal protein leaches calcium from the body.
- Canned salmon and sardines with bones. Balance your intake of canned fish with the issues of mercury levels and BPA in cans in mind.
- Bone broth made with vinegar. Consider the quality of your meat sources if you do this.
Anti-oxidant rich foods improve bone health as well. To get the most antioxidants, eat a diet that includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Variety is important so include a mix of colors, especially the dark green, orange, red and blue fruits and vegetables. Hawthorne berries and rosehips are also high in antioxidants and taste great in tea blends.
Tune in to the next installment of this article where I’ll go over herbs to physically support your bones as well as a look at the emotional patterns connected to bone health.