An estimated ten million Americans have osteoporosis and 18 million have low bone mass. Eighty percent of these are women, and its projected that one in three post-menopausal American women will develop osteoporosis. Sadly, this condition is on the rise. It is estimated that 50 percent more men will develop osteoporosis by 2027. Rates are increasing in women as well, and related bone fractures are occurring at younger ages.Calcium is the principal mineral that makes our bones hard, so why is it that regions with the highest calcium intake – the US and Scandinavia – also have the highest rates of osteoporosis? Why do people in countries like China, who consume less dairy and calcium, have a lower risk of developing osteoporosis and have 1/5 the number of hip fractures as we do in the US (3)? What is weakening our bones and how can we keep them strong? This article attempts to answer these questions.
What is Osteoporosis and what causes it?
Osteoporosis means “porous bones”, in other words, bones that are thin, have holes and are thus more susceptible to fractures. Osteoporosis affects the entire skeleton, but the hip, spine and wrist bones are the most commonly broken. About 1.5 million fractures occur annually in the US in people with osteoporosis. Hip fractures in elderly people can result in death as the prolonged immobility required during healing can lead to blood clots or pneumonia (1).
Thin, small-boned, post-menopausal women who live sedentary lifestyles are the most at risk for developing osteoporosis. Smoking, drinking more than moderately, a family history of the condition and removal of the ovaries before age 40 also increases the risk. Antacid medications may also increase susceptibility as low stomach acid appears to hinder the proper absorption of vitamins and minerals. Certain drugs which are known to increase bone loss as well as certain medical conditions such as kidney disease and Cushing’s syndrome can also be involved. This article focuses on age-related osteoporosis.
Acid-alkaline imbalance and osteoporosis
Worldwide, per capita high consumption of animal protein is associated with a greater risk of hip fracture, a strong indicator of osteoporosis, in women aged 50 +, and high consumption of vegetable foods is associated with a lower fracture risk. High protein intake, especially from animal products, has been found to result in calcium loss through the urine. It appears that this is due to the highly acidic nature of animal protein. Excess consumption of soda and other carbonated beverages has also been linked to greater rates of bone fracture due to the high phosphoric acid content of these drinks (2). High sodium and sugar intake also negatively impacts our bones.
Why is acid a problem?
Our blood is designed to thrive with an alkaline pH of about 7.3 or 7.4. While different areas of the body have different pH levels that may fluctuate, our survival depends upon our blood staying in this narrow range. Because of this, our body has several acid buffering mechanisms in place in order to deal with the various metabolic processes that produce acid, such as digestion and our immune and stress responses. When we are younger, our kidneys filter out much of the acid; our lungs do some filtering as well. But as we age, our kidney’s ability to clear our blood of acid diminishes. This leaves our bones, our main mineral storehouse, to do the job. The more acid we accumulate in our blood, the more alkalizing calcium and other mineral salts are leached from our bones to neutralize that acid. Eventually our bones grow weak. Excess acid in the body also stimulates the breakdown of muscle. The combination of osteoporosis and reduced muscle strength increases the risk of falls, fractures and the overall functional decline of the body.
How we can improve our bone health
While it is best to start supporting bone health when we are young, there are a number of things we can do to improve our bone health at any age. Regular weight bearing exercise such as walking, hiking, jogging and resistance training brings more circulation and nutrients to our bones and encourages bone growth. Always consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise program.
Quit smoking or don’t start. Limit drinking to one alcoholic beverage per day. Restrict consumption of animal protein, caffeine, sugar, sodium, white flour, and unfermented soy (tempeh and miso are fine). Educate yourself on the side effects of your medications. Eat five or more servings of veggies and fruit daily and eat from all the different color groups. Vegetables and fruit are full of minerals and vitamins and typically are alkalizing. Be sure to include dark leafy greens as they are particularly mineral rich but minimize intake of spinach, chard, rhubarb and beet greens as their high oxalic acid content interferes with calcium absorption (12). Practice relaxation and stress management. Bones need a balance of minerals to thrive; magnesium, zinc, boron, silica, copper, Vit D3 and Vit K2 as well as calcium are essential. A high quality vitamin/mineral supplement will enhance your healthy diet.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbs strengthen bones
Chinese medicine can also help boost bone strength and promote faster recovery from traumatic fractures. In Chinese medicine, bone health is considered the domain of the kidneys. Treatment of osteoporosis focuses on strengthening the kidney system and improving blood circulation to the bones. Improving the digestive system to increase proper assimilation of vitamins and minerals may also be part of the treatment.
While a combination of acupuncture, herbs and lifestyle adjustments is generally the best approach, acupuncture alone has been shown to greatly improve bone health. A study published in China in 2001 found that post-menopausal women, in similar health, treated with acupuncture, Vit D and calcium had a significant increase in bone density after a six month period compared to the control group who only took the calcium and Vit D supplements but had no acupuncture treatments (7).
Another study, in 2004, focused on treatment with Chinese herbs. Fifty-eight post-menopausal women were given an herbal formula to treat their osteoporosis. After three months of treatment 40 patients had shown marked improvement in their bone mineral content and bone density, their low back and knee pain had decreased or disappeared and they felt stronger and had better appetites. Thirteen patients had no more pain and 5 patients experienced no changes (8).
It is up to us to keep our bones as healthy and strong as we can. Thankfully we have some healthy options to help us in that endeavor!
Originally published on June 1, 2013 in Portland's SE Examiner's "Wellness Word".
(2012, Mar. 19) Understanding Osteoporosis—the Basics. Retrieved from (women.webmd.com)
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Sellmeyer, DE, Stone KL, Sebastian A, Cummings SR, (2001, Jan.) A high ratio of dietary animal to vegetable protein increases the rate of bone loss and fracture in post-menopausal women, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73(1); 118-122.
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(2001) The Influence of Acupuncture on Post-Menopausal Female Bone Density, Journal of Chinese Medicine, #2, p. 88
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