Osteoporosis is a weakening of the bone structure that results in a slow, insidious loss of calcium. Osteoporosis literally means ‘porous bones’. Bone is a living tissue that is constantly renewed through a natural process in which new bone replaces old bone. The problem is that as we age, this renewal process becomes less efficient and we begin to gradually lose bone. Having osteoporosis means that bone loss occurs more rapidly, causing the bones to become very thin and weak over time.
The wrist, spine and hip bones are most prone to fractures, with hip fractures being the most debilitating because they can result in death in up to 20 percent of cases and disability in up to 50 percent of those who survive.
It is women who must worry the most about osteoporosis because they are more at risk than are men. The hormone estrogen plays an important role in keeping bones healthy, and at menopause, estrogen levels fall dramatically, and many women experience an accelerated rate of bone loss. However, this is not to say that men are immune to osteoporosis! Even though men usually have a greater bone mass than women, they should still follow the lifestyle changes recommended to prevent and delay osteoporosis.
Here is a list of some risk factors that play a role in the development of osteoporosis:
- slender, small bones
- low physical activity
- past menopause
- cigarette smoking
- family history of osteoporosis
- previous fracture
- low calcium diet
- ovaries removed, or menopause before age 45
- vitamin D deficiency
- too much caffeine or alcohol intake
- excessive use of some medications (cortisone, prednisone, anticonvulsants)
Conventional medicine has promoted hormone replacement therapy using estrogen and progesterone to treat and prevent bone loss; however, modern medicine is rethinking its approach due to the startling results in 2002 of a study called the Women’s Health Initiative. This study followed 16,000 post-menopausal women taking HRT, and determined that while preventing bone loss and/or treating menopausal symptoms, they were sharply increasing their risks of stroke, breast cancer and heart attacks.
Naturopathic medicine instead focuses on the factors which are within our control. Although there has been an incredible push for supplementing calcium in an effort to halt bone loss, osteoporosis is much more than a lack of dietary calcium. It is a complex condition involving hormonal, lifestyle, nutritional and environmental factors. It is vital to look at why calcium is drawn from the bone in the first place, instead of simply treating the loss of calcium through supplementation.
In addition to providing strength and structure to our bones, calcium is essential for heart, muscle, nerve, blood, and colon function. Almost all of the calcium in our body is used for bone structure while the remaining amount circulates in our blood to supply the above mentioned systems. When there isn’t sufficient calcium circulating, the body must take it from the bones.
There is an interesting phenomenon that takes place when calcium is pulled into the bloodstream from the bones. In order to get into the bloodstream, calcium has to cross cell membranes. The only way it can cross over is with protein. Therefore, protein is pulled out of bones and tissues whenever calcium is. This process has implications for other problems in the body such as lower back pain, as well as osteoporosis.
Let’s get started on preventing and treating osteoporosis:
The goal is to keep our body’s chemistry as alkaline as possible. Acidic tissue begins to impair the function of major systems in the body, including vital organs, digestion, skin integrity and repair from injury. In an attempt to buffer our system from the highly acidic pH level, calcium and other alkalinizing minerals are pulled from the blood and tissues, but mostly bone. Dr. Susan Brown, leading researcher in the area of osteoporosis, and author of “Better Bones, Better Body,” has found that the single most important factor in changing bone density and decreasing osteoporosis is maintaining optimal pH through an alkaline diet and lifestyle. Today’s fast-paced and stressful lifestyle, coupled with a diet that lacks nutritional value, contribute to an acidic pH. When we are under tremendous stress, our acidity increases because of the demands on our cells to become more active. Keeping hectic schedules, not getting adequate sleep, having rushed and imbalanced meals all add to an acidic body chemistry.
1. Nutrition –
Since many organ systems, especially the kidneys, adrenal glands and lungs, play important roles in maintaining proper pH, we need to feed them the proper nutrients. Consuming a diet high in alkaline foods will ensure that our body will eventually have the resources it needs to rise to the appropriate alkaline level for good health. Avoid refined and processed foods such as fast food pizza, sugar-laden baked goods and doughnuts, and other refined-flour products such as sugar cereal, burgers and fries, coffee, potato chips, soda pop and other snacks – all of which are acid forming and are called non-foods. Non-foods contain little, if any, nutritional value except unwanted fats and calories; they deplete the body of nutrient stores and cause nutrient malabsorption, pull calcium from bones, block essential metabolic pathways, increase the load of toxins and cancer-causing substances in the body, and stress and irritate all organ systems.
Instead, choose from a variety of evolutionary foods. These are foods our ancestors ate: vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, and small amounts of protein; and they won’t upset our body chemistry as non-foods will. In addition, our bodies have the appropriate enzymes to properly digest these foods and prevent malabsorption.
2. Calcium –
It is well understood that osteoporosis is caused by a deficiency in calcium, but in addition to consuming more calcium, what needs to be addressed is how this deficiency develops in the first place. Calcium from the diet and supplements will be less available to the cells of our bodies if caffeine, alcohol, antacids, drugs, sugar or refined foods are added because these abusive substances upset the body chemistry.
It is also well understood that osteoporosis can develop as a result of low estrogen in the system. Since estrogen is secreted by one of the endocrine glands, we want to make sure our endocrine glands are functioning optimally through proper nutrition and lifestyle habits. Whenever we upset our body chemistries, a chain reaction occurs among our endocrine glands in order to correct this imbalance. This often involves pulling calcium and other minerals from the bones, which over time will likely result in osteoporosis.
3. Exercise –
Exercise is the only way, short of potent medication, to significantly increase bone mass after you have stopped growing. There is a basic principle known as Wolf’s Law that states that bones respond to stress. Studies have shown that the bones in the dominant arm of a professional tennis player are denser than those in the other arm. The repetitive, vigorous use and pull of muscles have indeed strengthened these bones.
The best kind of exercise for healthy bones is weight-bearing exercises: walking, hiking, climbing, jogging, running, bicycling, rope jumping, tennis, basketball, dancing, aerobics, etc. It has been discovered that the density and amount of calcium in an older woman’s spinal bones correlates very closely to the strength of her back muscles.
4. Lifestyle –
We’ve now established that a fast-paced and stressful lifestyle contributes to an acidic body chemistry and results in calcium and other minerals to leach from our bones. Adopt daily stress-management techniques such as deep-breathing (inhaling to expand the abdomen while keeping the chest still, and exhaling slowly to deflate the abdomen, repeated at least 30 times), yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, meditation, or bodywork (massage, Shiatsu, etc.). Being aware of our ability to maintain health through active participation is the single most powerful tool to health and longevity.
-Camille Nghiem-Phu, BSc, ND, 2008-
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