Natural Remedies to Prevent and Treat Osteoporosis
Bone is constantly breaking down and rebuilding, a process called remodeling. If you have osteoporosis or osteopenia (an earlier stage of bone thinning), the rate of breakdown exceeds that of reconstruction. Result: Porous bones that are brittle and prone to fractures.
A broken bone means pain, tests, repeated doctor visits and maybe even surgery—and that could be just the beginning.
About half of women with osteoporosis (and one in eight men) eventually will have a bone fracture, and many will have more than one.
Drugs Are Not the Solution
The main class of drugs for treating osteoporosis, the bisphosphonates, have been linked to rare but serious side effects, including severe bone, muscle and joint pain and possibly an increased risk for esophageal cancer (due to inflammation of the esophagus). Other rare side effects include atypical femoral fracture, in which the thighbone cracks, and osteonecrosis of the jaw, in which a section of the jawbone dies and deteriorates.
The risks might be justified if the drugs worked—but often they don’t. One study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that 99.8% of patients who took alendronate (Fosamax) did not suffer a subsequent fracture. That sounds impressive, but it turns out that people in the study who took placebos had nearly the same result.
It’s estimated that 81 women would have to take alendronate to prevent just one fracture. Put another way, 80 out of 81 patients who take the drug won’t benefit at all. Here are effective, safer treatments…
Everyone knows that calcium is important for strong bones. But calcium alone isn’t enough. Bones are made up of a variety of minerals. You need all of them to increase—or just maintain—bone strength. Examples…
Magnesium. Up to 80% of Americans don’t get enough magnesium. There is some evidence that people who are low in magnesium are more likely to develop osteoporosis.
My advice: Eat magnesium-rich foods, including dark leafy greens, nuts, fish and whole grains. Because most people don’t get enough magnesium from food, I also recommend a daily supplement that contains 500 milligrams (mg).
Phosphorus. It’s the second-most-abundant mineral in the body after calcium, and 80% to 90% is found in the bones and teeth.
My advice: Eat phosphorus-rich foods, which include meats, fish, nuts, beans and dairy. Aim for 700 mg of phosphorous a day. Examples: Salmon (three ounces) has 315 mg… beef (three ounces), 243 mg…yogurt (one cup), 386 mg.
Calcium. You can’t have strong bones without calcium—but despite what you’ve heard, you do not have to consume dairy to get sufficient calcium. Leafy green vegetables—such as kale, spinach and collard greens—are rich in calcium. A four-ounce serving of steamed collard greens or kale has about the same amount of calcium as one cup of milk.
My advice: Since many people don’t get enough calcium from their diets, a supplement is helpful. Take 600 mg to 800 mg daily. I recommend any calcium supplement other than calcium carbonate, which is poorly absorbed. Combined with the calcium that you get from foods, it will get you into the recommended daily range of 1,200 mg to 1,500 mg.
Some studies have shown a link between calcium supplements and heart attacks, but a recent study by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found no correlation between calcium supplementation and coronary artery disease, and previous research failed to show a link when calcium was taken with other supplements such as vitamin D and magnesium.
Vitamin D increases the body’s ability to absorb calcium from foods and supplements. It also appears to inhibit both the production and activity of osteoclasts, cells that break down bone.
One study found that people who took a daily vitamin-D supplement had a 23% decrease in nonvertebral fractures and a 26% decrease in hip fractures.
Vitamin D is called the “sunshine vitamin” because it is produced in the skin when you’re exposed to sun. But most people don’t get enough sun to produce adequate amounts.
My advice: Take 2,000 international units (IU) to 4,000 IU of vitamin D daily. And take it with meals for up to 50% better absorption. I recommend the natural D-3 form. It raises blood levels 1.7 times more than the synthetic D-2 form.
Leafy greens are not only high in calcium, they are rich in vitamin K. Vitamin K works with vitamin D to increase the activity of bone-building osteoblasts.
The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study found that women who ate a daily serving of leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, dark green lettuce or kale, were 50% less likely to suffer a fracture than those who had only one serving a week.
My advice: Eat a salad every day. Make side dishes that include spinach, kale or beet greens. Other green vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, asparagus and Brussels sprouts, also are high in vitamin K.
One part protein to four parts vegetables
This ratio seems to be ideal for bone health. You need protein to decrease calcium loss from the body and to increase levels of bone growth factors. But too much protein (particularly from animal sources) increases acidity, which depletes bone minerals.
It’s a delicate balancing act. The Framingham Osteoporosis Study found that people who ate the least protein were more likely to have a bone fracture than those who ate the most. But a Harvard study found that people who ate the most protein (from animal sources) had a higher risk for forearm fractures. (Those who got their protein from soy or other nonmeat sources didn’t have the same risk.)
My advice: For every serving of a meat-based protein, consume three to four servings of vegetables to alkalinize your body. An alkaline (low-acid) environment helps prevent bone loss.
Exercise with weights
You need to stress the bones to promote new growth. Lifting weights is the best way to do this, particularly when it’s combined with aerobic workouts. A University of Washington study found that women who did both during a 50-to-60-minute session, three times a week, gained 5.2% in spinal mineral density in just nine months.
Don’t make it easy. If you can lift a weight more than 10 times, you’re not stressing the bones enough. Pick a weight that you can lift only between six and 10 times. You want the last few lifts to be a struggle. When that gets too easy, move up to a heavier weight.
Walking is another good way to build bone. One study found that people who were sedentary lost an average of 7% of bone mass in the spine, while those in a walking program gained 0.5%.
My advice: Wear a weighted vest when you walk. You can build more bone by adding to your body weight. You can buy weighted vests at sporting-goods stores and discount stores such as Target and Walmart. Most are adjustable—you can start with five pounds and work your way up to about 10% of your body weight.