Preventative measures you can take right now to maintain the health of your bones into old age.
Bone health is often overlooked as an important aspect of health – particularly with young girls and as women approach the menopause. The reality is that too many people don’t consider bone health until they experience an issue.
Bones are living and active tissues that are constantly being broken down and repaired. We tend to just think of our bones as a constant structure – a scaffold holding our body together but in reality around ten percent of an adult’s skeleton is replaced and remodeled each year!
The process of bone remodeling is done in two phases. Firstly, specialized cells called osteoclasts break down bone. Then new bone tissue is laid down by osteoblasts. Bone remodeling is all about an appropriate balance between bone breakdown (osteoclasts) and bone building (osteoblasts) and we know that we can use food and supplements to tip this balance. Remodeling is important as it allows the body to fix damaged sections, reshape the skeleton during growth, and regulate calcium levels (we don’t want that calcium deposited in arteries, raising cardiovascular risk – we want it where it should be, in the bones)
Peak bone mass is reached by 30 years of age – which is why it is crucial to be well nourished in our early years as this dictates how strong our bones are in later life. In women, bone density decreases at menopause due to falling oestrogen levels. In men, low testosterone levels can cause a loss of bone mass. However, there are many dietary and lifestyle interventions that can help strengthen and maintain our bones as we get older.
Dietary interventions to support bone health
It may not seem like it but around 50 percent of bone is made up of protein. Studies show that not having enough protein negatively affects the rate of bone formation and breakdown. It has been argued that high protein diets can cause calcium to be leeched from the bone, however this is not the case providing that there are sufficient levels of dietary calcium. But one reason to be wary of high protein diets is that they are often deficient in vital minerals such as magnesium, found in high levels in wholegrains.
People following low-calorie diets have been shown to have lower bone density regardless of their size and weight. Apart from being miserable to follow, low-calorie diets rarely provide adequate nutrients. If you are trying to lose weight, try following a more balanced approach such as a low-GL diet coupled with exercise rather than restricting nutrient intake. In terms of exercise, one of the best types of activity for bone health are weight-bearing or high-impact exercise, which promotes a higher muscle mass and the formation of new bone.
Being underweight increases the risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis. Low body weight is considered the main contributing factor to reduced bone density and bone loss in postmenopausal women!
Specific bone nutrients
No one nutrient works in isolation when it comes to bone health. There are a numerous minerals that are needed to ensure optimal bone density and repair. We’ll look at sources of the main ones here and often supplements, designed specifically for bone density, feature a combination of the key nutrients that work well.
Collagen is the main protein found in bones. Supplementing with collagen can help protect and strengthen our bones. Collagen can also help to build muscle, ligaments and connective tissues that support our bone health.
A recent study found that postmenopausal women supplementing with collagen increased their bone mineral density. The supplements were also associated with a favorable shift in bone markers, indicating increased bone formation and reduced bone degradation.
Another study used a supplement that combined collagen with calcium and vitamin D and found that the loss in bone mineral density was substantially lower in the collagen group than in the group who were supplemented with calcium and vitamin D alone.
Vitamin C stimulates the production of osteoblasts (bone-forming cells) and studies have suggested that damage to bone cells can be prevented by the antioxidant effects of Vitamin C. Studies have also shown vitamin C to accelerate bone healing after fractures.
Vitamin C is also essential to the formation of collagen. A severe vitamin C deficiency can result in scurvy – people with this condition lose teeth, bleed easily and lose the strength of their bones.
Calcium: About 99% of our total body calcium stores are found in bones and teeth. Calcium plays a critical role in skeletal health but it does not work alone. Other nutrients are important to help absorb and utilize calcium in the bones; these include vitamin D, vitamin K, boron, potassium and magnesium. Calcium is pulled out of our bones to compensate for low dietary levels and this can weaken bones therefore it is important to ensure that your diet is rich in calcium.
Vitamin D and vitamin K are essential for building strong bones. Vitamin D supports calcium absorption and low vitamin D levels are associated with low bone density. The best dietary sources are fish, eggs, dairy and fortified foods. Also, like humans, mushrooms can make their own vitamin D if left in the sun! But unlike other nutrients, it isn’t possible to get enough vitamin D through diet alone (foods really only provide about 10% of our Vitamin D), especially in the colder months so you need to factor in a regular dose of sunshine and/or consider supplement.
Vitamin K helps protein and minerals bind to the bone. Small amounts of vitamin K can be found in foods (see below). Otherwise choose a vitamin D supplement that also contains vitamin K in order to help ‘pull’ the Vitamin D into the bones. Avoid Vitamin K supplements or high Vitamin K foods if you are on certain medications including blood thinners though.
Berberine is one of our fabourite herbs, useful for so many things but in terms of bone, it has been shown to inhibit osteoclasts (the cells that break down bone) instead promoting osteoblast formation (bone-building cells) and thus encourages bone growth and repair.
Food sources of important bone nutrients
Protein with each meal: meat, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, soy beans, tofu, tempeh.
Calcium: Dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, collard greens and turnip greens, seeds, cheese, yogurt, sardines, Swiss chard, sesame seeds, milk, cabbage and broccoli.
Magnesium: seeds (hemp, pumpkin, flaxseeds, sesame, chia), wholegrains (amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, oats, rice, wheat, rey), dark chocolate, nuts, Swiss chard, spinach.
Vitamin D: sunshine or supplements!
Vitamin K: Small amounts of vitamin K can be found in cruciferous vegetables, liver, eggs, meat and fermented foods like cheese, sauerkraut, pumpkin, pine nuts, blueberries.
Vitamin C: Vegetables and fruit are a great source of Vitamin C, particularly papaya, peppers, broccoli, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, kiwi, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, grapefruit, parsley, raspberries and Swiss chard.
Boron: raisins, almonds, hazelnuts, apricots (dried), peanut butter, Brazil nuts, walnuts, kidney beans, prunes, cashew nuts, dates, lentils, chickpeas.
Potassium: avocados, sweet potato, spinach, watermelon, coconut water, white beans, black beans, edamame, squash, potatoes, dried apricot, banana, Swiss chard, beets, pomegranate.
So as you can see there are many nutrients that are needed to strengthen our bones and help repair. Just taking calcium alone just doesn’t cut it. A better approach is to eat a balanced diet rich in leafy green vegetables, proteins and healthy fats to ensure a wide range of nutrients.
If you are suffering from a broken bone, or are concerned about your bone density, I would also consider supplementing with collagen and the specific nutrients discussed above that can ensure that your body has the building blocks it needs to strengthen and repair.
Functional Medicine is a different way of viewing health and disease. It looks at the underlying root cause of health conditions and assesses your health journey so far. We pay attention to individual interactions between genetics, diet, environment and lifestyle – all factors that can influence long-term health and chronic, complex disease.
If you’re interested in working with us on a personalised plan to support your own bone health why not book in for a free 15 minute Discovery Call to see what we can offer?