Beyond Calcium: Full-Spectrum Bone Health
by Marlaina Donato
Our bones are the foundation that supports our bodies and the quality of our lives. Unlike the brick and mortar and bedrock of a building, the human skeletal system is living tissue that breaks down and rebuilds; this constant remodeling demands much more than just taking an obligatory calcium supplement.
Compromised bone health is most often associated with postmenopausal women, but it can also impact men and younger adults. Genetics, hormonal changes and nutritional deficiencies can all foster bone loss. The National Osteoporosis Foundation reports that 44 million Americans have low bone density and 10 million suffer from osteoporosis, facing a high risk of fracture from this debilitating condition.
Fortunately, it’s never too early or too late to do right by our bones. “Osteoporosis can be prevented, and I’ve seen many patients reverse osteoporosis,” says Leat Kuzniar, a Nutley, New Jersey, naturopath. “It becomes more difficult after menopause and if the bone density is very low, but we can always make some improvements in bone health. We need to assess diet, exercise, gastrointestinal health, hormones, medications, pH and even stress levels.”
Synergy of Vitamins and Minerals
Walter Willett, M.D., chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, argues that the daily recommended 1,000-to-1,200 milligrams of calcium is based on inadequate studies, and advises half that amount.
Other minerals may play an equally critical role. The body robs calcium from the bones when blood levels of this vital mineral fall too low; but taking a calcium supplement—especially without co-nutrients—can increase fracture risk. “Calcium supplementation is complex; more isn’t better. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, and vitamin K2 is essential for getting that calcium to your bones and keeping it out of your arteries,” Kuzniar says. Magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and potassium are also allies in calcium metabolism.
Vitamin C, too, is a key player in bone health, promoting collagen synthesis. Nutrient absorption relies on integrity of gut health, so opting for probiotics is a wise choice across the board.
Bone Up on Superfoods
Optimally, the quest for stronger bones begins with a nutrient-dense diet. “Plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein and some fats create a physiology in the body to support optimal bone health. Avoiding too much sodium and animal protein also helps,” says Mary Jane Detroyer, a New York City-based nutritionist and certified dietitian. She underscores the importance of mineral-packed kale, collards, mustard greens, bok choy and broccoli, but warns against oxalate-laden spinach and chard, which inhibit calcium absorption. “Other calcium-rich foods like tofu, edamame, yogurt, kefir and cheese are also good, as well as milk substitutes fortified with calcium.” Omega-3-rich chia seeds, walnuts and other tree nuts are heavy hitters that boost both calcium absorption and collagen production essential for bone strength.
A 2016 Brazilian study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that a diet with excessive sweets and caffeinated beverages negatively impacts bone mineral density in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis. Soda consumption also amps up the risk of fractures. An analysis of female subjects spanning 30 years published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2014 reveals a 14 percent increased risk for fractures with each daily serving of soda, including diet beverages.
High-impact activities like jumping rope and jogging build strong bones in our youth, but as we age, low-impact exercise is easier on the joints. Mayo Clinic recommendations include walking, gardening, dancing, stair-climbing and elliptical training.
Resistance also yields significant results. A 2018 Korean study published in the journal EnM reveals that exercise employing free weights, weight machines and elastic bands increases muscle and bone mass in both women and men. American College of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer Susie Hathaway, in Fairfield, Iowa, explains why. “What’s good for muscles is good for bones. When a muscle contracts, it gives a beneficial pull on the adjacent bones, stimulating the bone-building cells to be more active.”
Hathaway highlights safety and the importance of bearing weight on the feet. “Gravity is important for bone health. Weight-bearing aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, provides a mild stimulus for your bones and helps slow down bone loss.”
Kuzniar reminds us that with the right care, our bones can carry us through life. “Once we know what factors are at play in the patient, we can address the underlying causes.”
Marlaina Donato is an author and composer.