Our skeletal system is what structures our bodies. It is a major influence on our height, build and movement. Our bones are not only building blocks, however, they are indeed a living and dynamic part of our physiology as well. As we age so do our bones, and bone loss can leave people more vulnerable to fractures, immobility, and death. Ways to influence our bones can of course be affected by our lifestyle choices, but there are many natural medicine options as well…so let’s get those skeletons out of the closet and talk about bones.
First we should cover some basic bone physiology. Bones are made up of 35% organic tissues and 65% minerals. The minerals in bone include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium as well as trace minerals boron, manganese, zinc and copper. In the organic tissues there are blood vessels, nerves and cells which both build and destroy the mineralized bone matrix. Two important cells within the bone that are of note here are osteoblasts and osteoclasts…in short blasts ‘build’ and clasts ‘chew or destroy’ bone. They are both fundamental to bone health as the destruction of old bone makes room for new bone to be built but also maintains calcium and other bone minerals available for the blood and therefore other tissues in the body. The organic tissue is also the source of our blood cells. All blood cells arise from the primordial stem cells which are formed in the bone marrow. Stem cells can mature to a white blood cell, a red blood cell or a platelet.
Next let’s talk about the normal lifecycle of the bones. Clearly in our early years from birth to mid-late teens we are building bone. Osteoblast activity is high so it is an ideal time to start paying attention to bone mineral intake, especially for young girls who have a family history of osteoporosis or severe digestive disorders which impair mineral absorption (also see risk factors listed below). Ideally in this phase of life we are building healthy bones which are dense and active. At about age 30 a shift occurs from build to break-down, therefore more osteoclast activity. This scenario begins to get much more significant in women who have stopped menstruating for more than 6 months (i.e. menopause). Thankfully this menopausal shift begins to level off after the first 3-5 years into menopause but overall decline in bone mineral density continues after 30 in both men and women for the rest of our lives. Note here: women who for any number of reasons have a break in menstruation for 6 or more months will also experience this physiological shift…pregnancy, eating disorders, athletes, DepoProvera use, complete hysterectomies, etc. some of which may be reversible when menstruation resumes. Other risk factors include smoking, heavy alcohol use, corticosteroid medications, being small and thin, family history and sedentary lifestyles.
But dear readers do not fear…there are ways to invest early or now to ensure long-term bone health. Weight bearing exercise! This encourages bone growth by stressing the bones which sends the message ‘make me stronger’. Now I know not all of you are gym people but there are certainly alternatives. I have read an article which touted the bone building results of one legged standing. Yep the forces transferred to the standing leg are enough stress on the bones of the hip and femur to result in bone formation. I then translate that as an example of the benefit of yoga poses done on hands and forearms, think of the possibilities. Of course the gym works too, as does walking with weights, but the bottom line is doing nothing will invest nothing. Yes calcium, but not ONLY calcium. As you can see the matrix is rich with many minerals, and is also influenced by two fat soluble vitamins: D and K. Vitamin D3 helps the minerals access bone tissue; gives them a ticket to get on the bone train. Vitamin K2 helps to keep that bone tissue more flexible so that the matrix is better able to bend rather than break. With all this in mind I am encouraging my female patients to choose a bone formula versus just calcium to ensure all these other aspects of bone nutrition are applied. Essential fatty acids are a must here too as they like Vit D assist mineral access to the bones…so those fish oils, cod liver oil and/or flax seed oil all contribute to better bone health.
For those who are already facing decisions about how to treat osteopenia (a precursor to osteoporosis) or osteoporosis itself the above nutrients are a must. I also recommend looking at hormone levels as they do indeed have an appreciable influence on bone health and may be overlooked by conventional practitioners. But most certainly what your medical doctors are recommending are biphosphonate drugs among other things. My concern with this classification of drugs is that yes they are helping to build bone, but not in a physiological manner. It’s true that when you take these medications and have follow up testing that there is more bone mass, BUT the basic mechanism of ‘break down old and then build new’ is not followed. To simplify this means that osteoblasts are stimulated to build, build, build but since there is only fragile bone as a foundation it makes for an overall weak combination…strong sturdy cement structure on old rotting wood. That’s not to say it’s a terrible choice for everyone, just one to weigh carefully, and as always with any medication ask about side-effect as there are some to consider here! Osteoporosis should certainly not be ignored as studies show that once the bones become weak enough and DO fracture; our life span decreases significantly.
Hope I have inspired you all to invest in your bone health…your stability and longevity will be your thanks!
Do something you love, Be with someone you love, Eat your vegetables, Drink clean water, Breathe deeply, and Move your body EVERYDAY!