Preventing osteoporosis in old age should begin early. We build up our bone stores in childhood and as young adults, reaching peak bone mass in our thirties. From this peak, we begin gradually losing bone.
Bones undergo a continual process called “remodeling” in which old bone is dismantled, and new bone is built to take its place. The adult human skeleton is renewed every 10 years by overhauling tiny patches of bone at a time. First, bone cells called osteoclasts chip away at old bone (often referred to as “bone resorption”); then bone cells called osteoblasts build fresh new bone.
Somewhere in our thirties, we start losing more bone than we build, so the more bone we’ve amassed in our youth with good nutrition and weight-bearing exercise, the better our chances will be of maintaining strong bones for life.
But, because bones are constantly being replaced, we can, in the words of President Joe Biden, “Build Back Better” at any time. Many factors influence both the quality of our bones and the balance between losing and rebuilding them. In fact, older people, even in their seventies and eighties, have been able to gain a little more bone than they lose!
In our last two articles, we talked about two important ways we can build good quality bones and influence the balance between losing and rebuilding bone in our favor:
1) getting the full “team” of nutrients we need
2) keeping our system slightly alkaline
Here are a few more.
The right kind of exercise can not only make your bones stronger but can help to maintain muscle strength, coordination and balance as you age.
What is the right kind of exercise?
Although marathon runners are marvelous to behold, very strenuous exercise isn’t the best kind for building bones—too much intensity can even tear bone down. Also, it’s always important to listen to our bodies and be especially mindful if we have certain health limitations. The National Institutes for Health offer some good tips for exercising as you get older.
The best kind of exercise for building bones at any age is weight-bearing—walking, jogging, climbing stairs, playing tennis, dancing, and our favorite at Beyond Health rebounding. Second-best is resistance exercise, like lifting weights or using resistance bands. On the other hand, swimming or riding a bicycle, although great for developing muscles and endurance, are not as good for strengthening bones.
Managing stress is another way of protecting your bones.
In a stressful “fight or flight” situation, our adrenals secrete the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol 1) inhibits bone building, 2) activates bone resorption, 3) decreases production of androgen hormones (which build bone), 4) reduces mineral absorption in the gut, and 5) increases urinary excretion of calcium. All of this is fine if the stress is brief and quickly followed by recovery, but it’s a “perfect storm” for bone destruction if stress is chronic and unrelieved.
Since sleep deprivation is a common chronic stressor, oncologist Charles H. Weaver M.D. recommends protecting our bones with a good 8 hours of sleep each night. He also recommends preventing chronic stress by setting healthy boundaries, employing time management techniques, and maintaining a work-life balance, as well as engaging in stress management techniques, like deep breathing, meditation, guided imagery and exercise. (Over-dieting is another calcium-robbing stressor to avoid.)
Who knew essential fatty acids were also very important in maintaining healthy bones? These fats, especially the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, 1) enhance calcium absorption, 3) enhance the effects of vitamin D (necessary for normal calcium absorption), 3) increase calcium incorporation into bones, 4) decrease calcifications in soft tissue, 5) reduce calcium lost in the urine, and 6) increase bone protein and bone strength.
Naturopath Tori Hudson recommends about 1 gram daily of EPA and DHA (omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) for good bone health.
Poor gastrointestinal health is a powerful, although often overlooked, cause of bone loss. For one thing, it prevents absorption of the minerals and other nutrients you need to build healthy bones. Many patients with celiac disease—an autoimmune illness in which gluten ravages the small intestine leading to major malabsorption problems—develop osteoporosis. And there are many more of us with damaged intestines from gluten sensitivities or other problems, like chronic candida infections, who also don’t absorb nutrients well.
Undigested food, resulting from lazy chewing, or lack of hydrochloric acid in the stomach or pancreatic enzymes in the intestines, that passes through a leaky gut wall can put the immune system into overdrive, a source of chronic stress that pushes cortisol levels up. This same alarm state creates systemic acidity, which draws calcium out of the bones.
You’re not supposed to have bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea! Any chronic problems with digestion should be investigated with the help of a good functional medicine doctor or similarly oriented healthcare practitioner.
Look for more bone-saving strategies as well as ways to test your bone strength next time.
- National Institutes of Health. Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. Exercise for Your Bone Health. Last reviewed October 2018.
- Weaver CH. Cortisol and bone loss: Elevated levels of cortisol can affect bone health. The Arthritis Connection. May 23, 2018.
- Bao M. Therapeutic potentials and modulatory mechanisms of fatty acids in bone. Cell Proliferation. February 2020;53(2):e12735.
- Sunyecz JA. The use of calcium and vitamin D in the management of osteoporosis. Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management. August 2008;4(4):827-836.
- Hudson T. Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2008), p. 256. Available free online as a McGraw-Hill e-book.
- Stenson WF. Increased prevalence of celiac disease and need for routine screening among patients with osteoporosis. Archives of Internal Medicine. February 2005;165(4):393-399. Because it’s possible to have celiac disease without any apparent symptoms, these authors recommend that anyone with osteoporosis be checked for celiac disease.