Osteoporosis and the increased risk of fractures affects a large portion of the population over the age of 50. Osteoporosis is more common in women, but occurs in men, too. The risk of breaking a bone increases as we get older because bones tend to become less dense as we age. Calcium from the diet or from supplements is only one of many factors that play an important role in keeping bones strong and preventing fractures.
Current medical research tells us that 1,500 mg of dietary calcium is helpful in treating osteoporosis and preventing fractures. However, some cultures have a calcium intake that is about one tenth that recommendation and have a lower risk of osteoporosis than we do. How can that be?
Are You Getting the Calcium You Eat?
The metabolism of calcium is complex. On average, only about 30% of the calcium that you consume gets into your body. So an average person that is consuming 1,500 mg of dietary or supplemental calcium is really only getting 500 mg that can be used to strengthen the bones.
Maximizing what your body does with the calcium that you eat is very important. Vitamin D dramatically improves intestinal calcium absorption. Did you know that vitamin D deficiency is epidemic in the northeast and is more likely as we age? Correcting low vitamin D levels not only improves calcium absorption and bone health, but it often helps improve muscle aches and strength in the elderly. A simple blood test can determine if you are vitamin D deficient - ask your doctor. In lieu of doing a blood test, a daily intake of 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 is generally recognized as safe.
The absorbability of calcium also depends upon the type of calcium that you eat. Calcium carbonate which is found in most calcium supplements and in antacids is cheap but poorly absorbed even under the best conditions. Calcium that naturally occurs in spinach is very poorly absorbed. The most absorbable form of calcium is calcium citrate-malate (with citric and malic acid) - it is up to 50% more absorbable than calcium carbonate. Orange juice fortified with calcium citrate-malate is an excellent food-based source of calcium.
Through advertising, we are told how milk is good for healthy bones. The calcium in milk is well absorbed, but not as well absorbed as the fortified calcium in orange juice or the calcium that is naturally found in kale. Other vegetables with high levels of well absorbed calcium include: broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, rutabaga, turnip greens, and watercress. Tofu set in calcium is also an excellent source. Ten ounces of these foods are approximately equal to one eight ounce glass of milk in absorbable calcium content.
Are You Loosing the Calcium that You Eat?
Milk and other sources of animal protein like meats and other dairy products acidify the body. When your body is more acidic you lose more calcium in your urine; the consumption of animal protein increases your calcium requirement. High protein diets may contribute to osteoporosis and explain why some cultures have a very low incidence of osteoporosis while consuming very little calcium.
Other dietary and lifestyle factors encourage urinary calcium loss, including: smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, caffeine, and sugar. Reducing your intake of these substances will help to improve your calcium status.
Besides Calcium & Vitamin D…
Bones are like muscles - the more you use them the stronger they get. Weight bearing exercise like running and aerobics or weight training encourage strong bones - they are helpful for treating or preventing osteoporosis. Even in people with severe osteoporosis, most fractures occur because of a fall. Exercise reduces the risk of falling by improving coordination, strength, agility, and balance.
Vitamin K is found in abundance in the same vegetables that are good sources of calcium. The enzymes in your bones that are responsible for taking calcium and putting it into your bone matrix depend on vitamin k; without it, they cannot do their job! Several studies show aggressive daily dosages of vitamin K being effective for halting or reversing osteoporosis. Vitamin K can prevent some forms of blood thinning medication from working - a very bad thing. Aggressive vitamin K therapy should be done with the guidance of a knowledgeable physician.
Strontium - a mineral similar to calcium - is used in a prescription form in Europe to effectively reduce the risk of osteoporosis and to prevent losses in bone mineral density. The prescription form is not available in the United States, but, based on the research I have done, there is no reason to expect the prescription form to work better or be safer than the forms available in supplements. Strontium should still be used with the guidance of a knowledgeable physician.
Responsible & Effective Osteoporosis Prevention:
The development of osteoporosis occurs over decades and involves many factors. The treatment and prevention of osteoporosis, from a natural perspective, are very similar:
- Participate in physical activities that encourages strong bones;
- Consume absorbable forms of calcium that do not encourage calcium loss;
- Eat adequate, but not excessive amounts of animal proteins;
- Make sure to get adequate daily vitamin D (about 1,000 IU);
- Eat plenty of vegetables that are rich in vitamin K;
- Don’t smoke
- Consume small amounts or no alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.
Anyone can do their best to prevent fragile bones following the guidelines provided here. However, osteoporosis and its precursor, osteopenia, are important medical conditions and should be addressed and monitored with the assistance of a doctor.