Babies and growing children need plenty of calcium to support healthy bones. However, once we reach adult-hood, we don’t tend to think about our bones until something happens to them. Osteoporosis or “brittle bones” is known as the silent disease, as most people are unaware of it until they experience a fracture. However, this often painful and debilitating condition affects one in three women over the age of 50 in the UK and one in nine men. So, looking after our bones should be a life-long concern.
Bone is living tissue that changes throughout life, being constantly broken down and built up again. Cells called osteoclasts break down old or damaged bone and this is replaced by new bone, created by cells called osteoblasts. At least 15 vital nutrients including calcium, magnesium, manganese, silicon, zinc and boron and vitamins D, C and K are required to support the bones and the whole process is orchestrated by calcitonin and the parathyroid hormone. In this way, the entire skeleton is replaced approximately every seven to 10 years!
Oestrogen and progesterone have a protective effect on bone density in women but levels drop after the menopause and this protection is lost.
To stand you in good stead later in life, it makes sense to achieve a good peak bone density by your late 20s, with healthy eating and sensible exercise. By taking care of your bones throughout your life, changes in hormone levels at the menopause should not wreak too much havoc.
Post-menopausal women in the Far East do not suffer from osteoporosis to the same extent as women in the West. Greater consumption of fermented soya foods throughout life is thought to be a contributing factor. Soya isoflavones, also considered as beneficial hormone-like ‘phyto-oestrogens’, have been linked to higher bone density and are found in foods such as tempeh, miso and natto.
As these aren’t common ingredients in Western cuisine, supplementing fully fermented active soya isoflavones may be beneficial. The fermentation process improves digestion of the soya and makes the isoflavones more available to the body.
The acid / alkaline balance of the body is extremely important for bone strength. If you consume too many acid-forming foods and drinks, not only do you feel tired, lethargic and achy but your body pulls out important alkaline minerals such as calcium and magnesium from the bones, in order to buffer the excess acidity. Too much red meat, refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol, tea and coffee can all contribute to acidity. So, by reducing these foods and drinks and increasing alkalising fruits and vegetables, you will be doing your bones a favour, as well as improving your general wellbeing
However healthy your diet may be, don’t forget the importance of a strong digestive system. Anything that hinders mineral or vitamin absorption may affect the health and strength of bones. If stomach acid levels are low, calcium remains insoluble and cannot be ionised. Boosting stomach acid and / or supplementing digestive enzymes may be beneficial. Taking supplements in a well-absorbed form is also very important. Some calcium supplements are a waste of money because they are indigestible and calcium phosphate, commonly used in tablets as a filler, is nutritionally useless.
Prolonged stress may weaken the digestion as well as increasing stress hormones such as cortisol that, in turn, increase urinary calcium loss. Yoga, meditation and regular exercise can all help boost outlook and mood. Supplementing rhodiola and ashwagandha as well as B vitamins may also be beneficial.
Not only can exercise boost your spirits, regular weight-bearing exercise is essential for building healthy bones. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of exercise on bone density – and it is never too late to start! Walking, jogging, climbing stairs and exercise with weights have all been found to support bone strength.
Crash diets are familiar to many women but may result in accelerated bone loss. The constant pursuit of “fashionable” thinness can lead to deficiencies of essential bone-building nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper and B vitamins. Low body-weight, anorexia and a small frame are all risk factors for osteoporosis in later life. Other risk factors include irregular periods, high protein diets, heavy intake of alcohol, smoking, over or under exercising and some medications.
When it comes to diet, calcium is essential for bone health but dairy products may not be well tolerated by some people. Other sources of calcium include fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, pulses such as kidney beans, wholegrains like brown rice and quinoa plus green leafy vegetables including broccoli and kale. Eating tinned fish with their bones not only bumps up your calcium intake but also provides important omega 3 essential fatty acids. Magnesium helps to metabolise calcium and vitamin C, as well as helping in the conversion of vitamin D to its active form. Good food sources include green vegetables such as spinach as well as nuts, sunflower and sesame seeds, legumes and wholegrains. Vitamin D facilitates the absorption of calcium in the digestive system. Because the main catalyst for vitamin D production in the body is sunlight, obtaining sufficient quantities can be problematic in the United Kingdom – especially in winter! So supplementing vitamin D makes good sense.
Vitamin C is a key player in the manufacture of collagen, which is an essential constituent of the bone matrix, providing the scaffolding of the bone. The best food sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits, berries, potatoes, sweet potatoes and green leafy vegetables. Other important nutrients include boron, zinc and B vitamins.
Bone formation and the manufacture of osteocalcin, a protein plentiful in bone, require vitamin K. Low levels of vitamin K have been associated with fractures. A rich source of vitamin K2 is natto, a fermented soy-bean food eaten in Japan but relatively unknown in the West, so supplementing with vitamin K may be beneficial.
So, be kind to your bones throughout your life and they won’t let you down. Support your bones and they will support you!