Building bone vitality
Osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease is a silent condition that often goes undetected until a bone is broken. Extensive studies reveal Western countries consuming the most dairy foods experience the highest rates of this bone-depleting disease, which poses the provocative question: is a higher intake of dairy foods really the solution?
When it comes to building bone health, the nutrient that first springs to mind is calcium. This abundant mineral is indeed critical to safeguard bone. But preventing and reversing osteoporosis may involve much more than taking a calcium supplement or consuming more dairy foods. There is a fundamental nutritional factor that may provide greater benefits and rival conventional dietary advice: the acid-alkaline balance of the body. Some bone experts now argue that osteoporosis is strongly linked to an acid-forming diet. The typical Western diet is high in acid-forming foods, such as meat, sugar and white flour products.
Authors Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D. and Michael Castleman propose that low-acid eating is the most important strategy to building bone vitality. Lanou is an assistant professor of health and wellness at the University of North Carolina Asheville, USA and Castleman is a renowned health writer. Together they performed a rigorous investigation of over 1,200 studies to reveal that calcium, HRT or common osteoporosis drugs are not the answer to preventing bone loss. Their ground-breaking conclusions, published in Building Bone Vitality: A Revolutionary Diet Plan to Prevent Bone Loss and Reverse Osteoporosis Without Dairy Foods, Calcium, Estrogen or Drugs (McGraw Hill), represent a radically different approach to bone vitality.
While dairy does contain calcium, it’s also highly acidic. So, ironically, a high-dairy diet will suck more calcium from bone than it provides, and eventually cause osteoporosis. “We’ve been told all our lives to drink milk for strong bones,” says Lanou. “Yet, the most industrially advanced countries, which consume the most milk and dairy foods, including Australia, New Zealand, USA and most Western European nations, have the highest fracture rates. Meanwhile, people in much of Asia and Africa consume little or no milk after weaning or dairy foods, and next to no calcium supplements. Yet their fracture rates are 50 to 70 per cent lower. What’s going on?” The latest research shows that our bones need much more than calcium. It turns out the way we eat, along with our lifestyle choices and stress levels contribute greatly to bone depletion, no matter how many calcium supplements we take or how many glasses of milk we drink.
Strange as it may sound, good bone health begins in the bloodstream, Lanou explains. For the body to function effectively the blood maintains an acid:alkaline balance, or pH as it is known, that is slightly alkaline. Protein is composed of amino acids. As the body digests high protein foods, amino acids flood the bloodstream. The body must then neutralise these acids to avoid life-threatening problems, including osteoporosis. The body draws from its own reservoir of alkaline material, such as calcium compounds stored in bone. The calcium released into the bloodstream buffers excess acidity. Eventually the calcium is excreted via the urine.
Unfortunately the more dietary protein we consume, the more acidic the blood becomes and more calcium is leached from bone to swing the pH back into optimal balance.Lanou concludes that low-acid eating (see “Your Low Acid Eating Plan”) is the cornerstone to building healthier bones and reducing osteoporosis risk. In addition to improving bone health, low-acid eating may also lower your chances of developing heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic health issues. It’s a safe, effective, low-cost prescription for health, vitality and longevity.
Reducing your risk
While some risk factors such as being thin or genetics are not totally controllable, you hold the power to minimise the impact of lifestyle habits. According to Osteoporosis Australia, the top five factors that put you at greatest risk include: smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, low dietary calcium intake, a sedentary lifestyle and a lack of sunlight exposure. Other factors that can harm your bones include: malabsorption of important minerals due to poor digestion; bone-weakening prescription medications, such as corticosteroids; a hormone imbalance; and consuming diuretics, such as tea, coffee, soft drinks, energy drinks and alcohol. According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, drinking cola drinks on a regular basis is strongly associated with adverse effects on bone density. Cola drinks contain phosphoric acid which tears calcium from bone. This ingredient is added to cola drinks to provide a tangy, or ‘refreshing’ taste.
Do you have an under active thyroid? There is little doubt among natural health experts that low thyroid problems are on the rise. This important endocrine organ plays a role in bone mineral metabolism by producing a plentiful supply of calcitonin, a hormone that protects against calcium loss. To complicate this problem, the drug of choice for treating hypothyroidism is sodium levothyroxine, a synthetic version of thyroxine (T4). One of the main long term health issues of this thyroid hormone replacement medication is the potential to accelerate bone loss, says the Cochrane Database System Review, while studies published in Osteoporosis International reveal sodium levothyroxine may result in accelerated bone turnover.
Ageing experts agree regular weight-bearing exercise ensures life-long bone health. Bones adapt to physical stress; the more you use them the stronger they become. Yoga is a low-impact activity that builds balance, strength and flexibility. Specific yoga poses, or asanas are an excellent group of weight-bearing exercises known to stimulate bone building in both the upper and lower body. A new study in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand confirms regular yoga practice can slow bone break down. In addition, the study found daily yoga practice promoted vitality and better quality of life.
There is no doubt declining bone density is normal with ageing, and combating bone loss is a constant challenge after the transition into menopause. Women usually achieve peak bone mass, a state of maximum bone density between 25 to 30 years of age. Women are susceptible to significant bone loss after they reach peak bone mass as the hormones oestrogens and progesterone play a dual role in maintaining bone density. HRT is often touted to treat menopausal bone loss. However, it is important to consider that hormones maintain a natural cycle and the body can adapt when positive steps are taken to support this transition. As a naturopath I do not advocate turning to hormone replacement therapy (HRT), given the demonstrated risks of increasing cancer occurrence, as reported in Lancet Oncology. Natural remedies such as herbal phytoestrogens can assist in gently restoring hormonal balance. Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) and red clover (Trifolium pratense) are prized herbs that support declining hormone levels during menopause. Your naturopath can guide you on a personal treatment plan to assist hormone balance.
Your guide to low-acid eating
1. One serving of protein from meat, poultry or fish is about the size of a deck of playing cards. Ideally it should only take up about a quarter of your dinner plate; reserve the other three-quarters for vegetables.
2. Keep in mind that it takes three servings of fruits and vegetables to neutralise the acid in one serving of protein. Two servings of fruits and vegetables neutralise one serving of grain.
3. If you eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, you can safely eat one serve of protein. It is still wise to plan at least one day a week without animal protein if you are not vegetarian. The richest plant sources include legumes, nuts, seeds and traditionally prepared soy foods.
While osteoporosis is often thought of as an older person’s disease, it can strike at any age. The common symptoms can include:
* Increased susceptibility to fractures
* Cramping at night in lower extremities
* Noticeable bone pain and tenderness
* Neck and back discomfort
* Persistent pain in the ribs, spine and lower back
* Gum disease and tooth decay
* Brittle fingernails
* Loss of height or curving of the spine
Key bone-building nutrients
Throughout your lifetime, bone cells break down making room for new, stronger bone. Ensuring you reach maximal bone mass in younger years and minimising bone loss with ageing is fundamental to building bone health. Strong bones reduce your future fracture risk. The good news? It is never too late to safeguard bone density.
Calcium: Vital mineral for building bone density. The most common supplemental form is calcium carbonate. If you have low stomach acid you may experience impaired absorption. Check your healthfood store for a comprehensive calcium supplement. Vegetarian source: Green leafy vegetables, Chinese cabbage, tofu, tempeh, chia seeds, and legumes.
Magnesium: Important for building bone framework. Also involved in calcium absorption and synthesis of vitamin D. This mineral is part of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants. Green leafy vegetables are a rich source. Green leafy vegetables, quinoa, unrefined grains, almonds, and legumes.
Vitamin D: Acts as the ‘gatekeeper’ to facilitate optimal calcium absorption in the digestive tract. Most vitamin D is created during a chemical reaction that starts with sunlight exposure on the skin. According to the Medical Journal of Australia, many Australians are deficient in vitamin D3. A blood test can check your levels. Vegetarians confined indoors may need a supplement. Sunshine and some fortified foods (best non-vegetarian source – cod liver oil).
Vitamin K: Necessary for the production of osteocalcin, a protein that attracts calcium to bone. F ind it in green leafy vegetables and quality monounsaturated oils.
Boron: Supports activity of calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. Best vegetarian sources are raisins, prunes, nuts, non-citrus fruit, vegetables and legumes.
Manganese: Vital for building bone matrix to reinforce bone strength. Also helps activate superoxide dismutase (SOD), an important antioxidant enzyme. Best vegetarian sources are pecans, brown rice, green leafy vegetables, green tea and pineapple.
Note: Wholegrains, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain phytic acid in the outer layer. Phytic acid can combine with calcium, magnesium and other nutrients in the intestinal track to block absorption. However, soaking these foods before cooking or eating breaks down and neutralises phytic acid.