Osteoporosis is no joke. I’m watching my Mother go through the consequences of it and while I knew it was something to avoid, seeing her pain makes me fully realize I do not want to go through this. In the past few years, she’s had two serious episodes of compression fractures in her spine, and now a hip fracture from a fall. Compression fractures are when a vertebrae collapses in on itself, it is so brittle. The doctor showed me the X-ray. It changes from being a square to a smushed oval or diamond-like shape. When this happens, the pain is excruciating. All my mother could do was lay there on her side curled in fetal position. Trying to sit up caused her to yell out in pain. It took months to “heal” to a place where she was in less pain. And she was lucky; she did recover, albeit in a slightly shorter and more hunched form. Some of her neighbors never stop being in pain. I like to think the acupuncture and herbs I gave her played a role, but of course I don’t know for sure.
Two years later, it happened again, and all from merely carrying a little heavier bag of groceries than normal. Six months after that, this past summer, she fell and broke her hip. She is basically like a very fragile bird now; any little thing causes her to snap. The broken hip required surgery that left her bruised along her whole side and back, and she’s been in pain again for several months. Thank goodness, she is recovering from this as well, and is now walking with a cane.
I wish I could have prevented all this for her. I tried to tell her to exercise; she wouldn’t listen, but now I wish I had tried harder. She drank and ate tons and tons of milk and dairy products, so that didn’t work. Now that I see it actually happening, I want to at least warn others. We hear the warnings all the time, but without hearing stories like this, sometimes it’s hard to take it seriously. So how do we prevent osteoporosis for ourselves?
- Calcium: Most of us know by now the key ingredients are Calcium and weight-bearing exercise. But few know the real truth of the matter. The milk industry has misled us. My mother always said, “I drink plenty of milk, I’ll be fine.” True, milk contains Calcium, but it has to be in the right form. For bone density, Calcium needs to at least be taken together in the right proportions with Magnesium. These two work together in concert with your body’s hormones to create a balance of several important systems and then eventually end up in bones If other factors are also present. This hormonal mechanism is so complicated that researchers haven’t even figured it all out yet. They actually keep changing the ratio of Calcium to Magnesium you need, from 2:1 to 1:1; and now some are saying you need more Magnesium than Calcium. Many also recommend having several other cofactors in concert, such as Boron, Vitamin D, Vitamin K, Silicon, and so on. What is the best way to get this? Not dairy. It turns out, too much of dairy can actually leech Calcium from the bones. It turns out, GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLES are the way to go! Yep, good ole’ kale and broccoli once again win the day. Observational studies have shown that in countries where they don’t have any milk at all but eat lots of vegetables AND get weight bearing exercise, bone densities are much better than those in the U.S.
You can take a supplement, of course, and there are lots of good ones out there. Jarrow’s Bone Up, for one, and I carry one of the most readily absorbed forms in my office. Be careful about relying on this too much, though. People in the U.S. are now having problems with kidney stones from taking too much Calcium in supplement form. I do a mix, eat healthy and take Cal/Mag pills sometimes, about half the normal dose.
- Weight Bearing Exercise: Perhaps the single most importantfactor to increase bone density is the weight bearing exercise. Bones need that signal to tell them, “Hey, we need the Calcium over here in the bones to keep them dense for the exercise!” Otherwise, we use the Calcium for other things, or excrete it. Yes, this can mean lifting weights, but that isn’t the only way. Just “bearing” your own weight walking or running is enough for legs. Tai Chi is also highly recommended since it not only strengthens the bones, but builds balance so you have less likelihood of falling. Then there’s your upper body. Yoga is ideal for this. All those poses where you are bearing your own weight with your arms do the trick. Studies have shown that those who do yoga into old age have far less osteoporosis. At least 30 minutes of exercise a day is recommended.
- Avoid Calcium Leechers: Certain foods actually sap minerals from the bones. Any diuretic, such as coffee, tea, and cola drinks are to be limited. Alcohol can prevent Calcium absorption, so the recommendation is not more than one drink a day for women, two for men. And smoking has also been linked to lower bone density, so there’s another reason to quit. Too much protein, especially in the form of meat, can drain calcium from the bones as the body attempts to normalize pH. I do recommend eating meat, but you never need more than a few ounces at a time, more is very hard on your digestive system, and a few ounces just a three or four times a week is all we need for the amino acids it provides. This will also help not only the animals, but our planet, as the raising of large amounts of livestock contributes to global warming! Do continue to get 50-70 grams of protein a day in other forms, though. Finally, too much exercise can also leech Calcium, especially for women. If you are an athlete, you will need to increase your Calcium intake and watch the bone density if you are exercising more than an hour a day.
- Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture: Research in China has shown that certain Chinese herbs increase bone density. These herbs do not contain Calcium so they increase density by some other mechanism, somehow getting the body to put the Calcium in the bones. From Chinese Medicine point of view, certain herbs usually strengthen the kidney energy function, which also governs the bones. If you are a woman over 50 and have any osteoporosis in your family or have been measured with low bone density, I can order you these herbs, either in pill form or to be taken as a tea. Acupuncture to strengthen the kidneys has also been shown to improve bone density!
A final word of warning. Some women are convinced by their doctors that it is ok to take Hormone Replacement Therapy comprised of either estrogen alone or estrogen plus progesterone to help reduce fractures. Unfortunately, I consider the risks to be too great. The Women’s Health Initiative studied this issue and found that estrogen plus progestin does not reduce the risk of coronary artery disease, and slightly increases the risk of breast cancer, stroke, and blood clots.
It’s true that this study was done with certain forms of estrogen and progesterone and some are saying that maybe other forms will be ok. But there is no proof, and I myself am not willing to be their guinea pig. If osteopenia (meaning simply that bone mineral density is low, as opposed to osteoporosis, where the bones have already become fragile) shows up, doctors usually recommend drugs such as Fosomax or Reclast. While these drugs do increase bone density, they also have side effects, and don’t increase density as much as good diet and weight bearing exercise. However, in an elder at greater risk, especially one who is having trouble eating or exercising, it is worth the risk. Fosomax is harder to comply with; it is much easier to get the yearly injection of Reclast.