BY EVA NORLYK-HERRIOTT
In early January, the FDA issued health warnings for the popular osteoporosis drugs Fosamax and Boniva. Taken by millions of women to counteract thinning bones, the drugs contain bisphosphonates, which may cause severe and even disabling pain in muscles, joints, and bones.
Well, one might say, better late than never. The drug labels already list pain as a “potential” side effect. Now, several lawsuits later, the “potential” has turned out to be significant enough to compel the FDA to issue the warning. The muscular-skeletal pains may occur within days, months, or years after taking the drugs. This new announcement from the FDA brings to the fore a long-standing controversy about a drug taken by millions of women for osteoporosis, and is likely to prompt many to take a closer look at prevention.
A Major Health Concern
While not life-threatening like cancer, osteoporosis is a major health concern, particularly for menopausal women. An estimated 45 million people in North America suffer from osteopenia, the precursor of osteoporosis, which happens when bones thin too fast. After the age of 50, statistically, one in two women and one in four men will have an osteoporosis-related fracture as they get older. Hip fractures are the most common fracture sustained. One in four older people who fracture a hip become so disabled they require long-term care; worse, one in four dies within a year (and here the statistics reverse, as the death rate is twice as high for men as for women).
Your bones are active, live organs, which are affected by every food and lifestyle choice you make, so effective osteoporosis prevention must be multi-dimensional, involving numerous health habits. The key to making a difference is to adopt a multi-pronged approach.
Eat Leafy Greens
While the standard recommendation is to take calcium supplements to ensure bone health, there are many pros and cons of calcium supplementation. Your bones are comprised of not only calcium, but phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, manganese, zinc, iron, silica, and many other trace minerals. The absorption and activity of these minerals is typically an interactive process, so supplements with stand-alone minerals are not enough to build and maintain healthy bones. Worse, calcium supplements may, in some cases, lead to the formation of kidney stones. In short, counteracting bone loss with a calcium supplement or drug without regard for your overall health will not allow you to build and maintain the healthiest bones that your genetics will allow.
Instead, consider eating mineral-rich foods to provide the nourishment your bones need. The best source of the nutrition you need is whole foods—especially leafy green vegetables. Eat 7 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, including 4 to 7 servings of leafy-green vegetables. The best calcium-rich vegetables are broccoli, kale, and collard greens. Chew these vegetables thoroughly, to break down the protective cell walls of the plant cells and allow for proper digestion. Other good sources of calcium include milk, cheese, yogurt, citrus fruits, and shellfish.
If eating 7 to 9 servings of vegetables and fruits every day sounds like too much, try fresh-pressed vegetable juice or high-quality green food powders. Mineral-rich broths made by simmering a variety of vegetables and bones (if you are not a vegetarian) for several hours are another great source of calcium and other minerals needed for bone health.
If you do want to supplement for extra protection, follow these precautions to help prevent the formation of kidney stones: drink plenty of water, avoid caffeine, and limit your intake of salt and animal protein, all of which increase urinary calcium or the risk of stone formation.
Get Lots of Vitamin C
Vitamin C is needed for the body to synthesize collagen. Look no further than the mirror for graphic evidence of what happens as the skin loses the support of this long, fibrous protein (yes, wrinkles). But collagen is also critical for providing tensile strength to the bones, which enables them to resist sudden, stressful impact without breaking.
Again, taking synthetic forms of vitamin C is not the same as taking it in whole foods. Some excellent sources of vitamin C include goji berries, citrus fruits, acerola cherries, bell peppers, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Improved collagen synthesis will greatly improve the appearance of your skin as well.
Let the Sun Shine In
To be able to absorb and deposit calcium into bones, the body must have a sufficient supply of vitamin D. Typically, 15 minutes of sun exposure 4 to 6 times a week is all you need for the sunlight on your skin to stimulate vitamin D production. But keep in mind that sunscreen above SPF 8 and above can block this production, so if you wear sunscreen, leave some areas of the skin exposed.
The good thing about getting your vitamin D supply from the sun is that the body will automatically stop producing vitamin D when you have built up an adequate level. On grey, cloudy days, be sure to get enough vitamin D from food sources, such as wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, high quality cod liver oil, liver, and egg yolks.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
When you are under stress, the body steals minerals from your bones to fuel the “fight or flight” response. Chronic emotional stress elevates the level of the hormone cortisol in your blood. While this is useful in the short term for helping you resist stress, over the long term, it can cause your bones to weaken.
Similarly, if stress causes you to lose precious, health-restoring deep sleep, it can interfere with bone health. During stage 4 sleep, the deepest stage of sleep, your body produces a melatonin-related hormone called NAMOT. This hormone triggers the vital repair necessary to replace the bone cells that die every day. If you don’t get sufficient deep, restorative sleep, your body falls behind on bone repair and your bones begin to weaken.
The sleep needs of people ranges from 7-1/2 to 9 hours of sleep every night, so don’t be a slave to your alarm—allow yourself enough sleep. For deep, soothing sleep, try an old stand-by: drink a glass of warm milk with honey 15 to 30 minutes before bedtime (or half milk and half water). The honey and the tryptophan in the milk help settle and calm the mind; and the calcium in the milk provides building blocks for bone repair.
Stay Physically Active
Last but not least: Nothing has greater impact on the health of your bones than the amount of physical activity you get. Your body constantly adapts to your needs. Physical activity that puts weight-bearing demands on the body signals to the body that you need strong bones and causes it to build your bones as strong and flexible as is possible with the resources available.
Weight-bearing activity is any kind of activity which requires the muscles to work against gravity, including walking (add weights for an extra boost), jogging, running, stair climbing, rope jumping, skiing, aerobic dancing, active forms of yoga, sports such as tennis or volleyball, and needless to say, weight lifting. Housekeeping and gardening count, too. If you are regularly doing chores throughout the day, your need to engage in structured physical activity is less. On the other hand, if your work requires you to be mostly sedentary, be sure to engage in weight-bearing exercise 3 to 4 hours a week.
Eva Norlyk Herriott, Ph.D., LMT, RYT, is a writer and a massage and yoga therapist. She can be reached at (641) 469-3063.