Many of my patients 65 and older express their frustration about no longer being able to sit, stand, or move without feeling a sharp pain emanating from their low or mid back.
For some, their pain is so severe that it cripples their ability to remain independent, to work, and to participate in the recreational activities they once enjoyed with such ease.
What is so vexing to them is the lack of any specific injury and they have no history of a “bad” back.
Frequently, they are told that this pain is just due to being old, but commonly this pain is actually caused by a broken bone, or more specifically, a compression fracture. Compression fractures in this patient population are a characteristic finding of osteoporosis.
In this article, you will learn how to build strong bones and strategies to prevent osteoporosis. We’ll also explore how osteoporosis occurs and causes bones to become fragile and break easily.
For those of us not yet diagnosed, the good news is that advanced osteoporosis doesn’t happen overnight. It is years in the making, giving ample time for prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. We’ll discuss some ways to prevent osteoporosis and maintain healthy bones.
You or someone you know may have already been been diagnosed with osteoporosis. With this diagnosis probably came fear to add on to your existing physical pain.
But there is good news for you as well – there are many simple and helpful interventions for every stage of the disease process. We’ll talk about some simple treatments for osteoporosis, whether you are newly diagnosed or further along.
Here’s a sneak peek at what lies ahead:
- What is osteoporosis?
- Who is at risk for osteoporosis?
- What causes osteoporosis?
- 6 easy and effective tips to prevent osteoporosis and strengthen your bones
- What can you do now to prevent or treat osteoporosis?
What is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a health condition that makes bones fragile and more prone to injuries and/or breakage (1).
It develops slowly over time and is usually left unnoticed until it is already in an advanced stage.
Osteoporosis is characterized by low bone density and lack of structural integrity in the bones (2).
If you think of bone as a sponge, osteoporotic bones have way too many pores that cause is it to be very weak, putting at high risk for breakage.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation reports a total of 10.2 million American adults have osteoporosis and an additional 43.3 million have low bone density, a precursor to osteoporosis (2).
Osteoporosis is most common in adults age 50 and above but prevention starts much younger (3).
Some of the most dangerous complications of osteoporosis are broken bones, including spinal fractures and hip fractures. These two types of fractures are the most common injuries, with 700,000 and 300,000 cases of fracture per year, respectively (2).
Osteoporosis also increases the risk of wrist fractures.
Recovering from a fracture is hard enough when you’re young, let alone in your golden years. So preventing osteoporosis, and therefore these complicated injuries, is your best bet to overall health and comfort.
These injuries all too frequently lead to permanent disability without recovery to your pre-injury quality of life and activity level.
Who is at risk for osteoporosis?
While women have a much higher risk of osteoporosis, men and women are both at risk.
And while this condition is associated with old age, its onset actually starts years before.
In most people, peak bone mass is at age 30 and it’s all downhill from there, baby. The formative years of growing, when we are so far from thinking of our bone health, are the most important times to focus on building healthy bones.
So pay attention, because this information is for folks of all ages. Read it now so you won’t have to read it later. The most effective prevention starts decades before diagnosis.
Most experts attribute women’s higher risk for osteoporosis to hormonal changes, especially during their menopausal years.
Estrogen plays a very important role in keeping bones healthy. During menopause, estrogen levels drop low, causing a decrease in bone density (1).
Early menopause at age 45 or younger would pose an even greater risk of osteoporosis.
Other risk factors for women include hysterectomy or removal of the ovaries along with the absence of menstrual period for more than 6 months, which can be brought about by restrictive dieting or over-exercising (1).
The exact cause of osteoporosis in men is not as well explained, but it is believed that low levels of testosterone put them at a higher risk. This can happen from alcohol abuse or medications like corticosteroids (1).
For both men and women, hormone balance plays a key factor in your risk for developing osteoporosis.
Why Do You Get Osteoporosis?
While losing some bone is part of the normal aging process, losing too much bone puts you at risk for developing osteoporosis.
We often think of bones as hard, lifeless structures, but in reality, they are living tissues that are constantly changing.
Old bones cells constantly die and break down through a process called resorption. In return, new bones are formed.
Fundamentally, osteoporosis is simply a mismatch between your body’s ability to make new bone and break down old bone. This imbalance reducing bone strength and putting you at a higher risk for osteoporosis.
Listed below are the common risk factors for osteoporosis to be aware of:
- A family history of osteoporosis
- Early menopause
- Low levels of testosterone
- BMI of 19 and below
- A history of eating disorders
- Malabsorption problems like Crohn’s disease and Celiac disease
- Long periods of inactivity like bed rest
- Long-term use of corticosteroids
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Estrogen and testosterone are not the only body hormones that can affect the process of bone building and strengthening. Any problem with a hormone-producing gland can increase your risk. Some of the most common hormone-related diseases that can trigger osteoporosis are:
- Cushing’s syndrome
- Disorders of the pituitary gland
If you checked off one or more of these risk factors, today is the day to start prevention of osteoporosis and be on your way to building strong and healthy bones.
6 Easy & Effective Tips to Prevent Osteoporosis & Strengthen Bones
Tip 1 – Calcium, Magnesium, Vitamin D and Vitamin K strengthens bones
Calcium, Magnesium, Vitamin K, and Vitamin D are some of the most important minerals and vitamins needed to keep your bones strong and functioning properly. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Calcium is one of the most important nutrients in the body and more often than not, you’ll hear about it as it relates to bone health. It also supports blood clotting and normal functioning of the heart, nerves, and muscles.
It is critical for the development of strong bones. In fact, more than 99% of calcium is stored in bones and teeth.
But how exactly does calcium build strong bones? Calcium combines with phosphorus and water to form a material called hydroxyapatite.
Think of hydroxyapatite like a cement that when mixed with bone collagen hardens to form strong concrete.
Getting enough calcium in your body is essential for bone health. If one lacks calcium from the diet, the body will extract calcium from bone, essentially breaking up the concrete that makes bone strong and exponentially increasing your risk of fracture.
What are the best source of Calcium?
Most people are able to get enough calcium through their diet without supplementation.
Excellent sources of calcium are sesame seeds, almonds, tofu, and dairy products like cheese, yogurt and milk.
Green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli also have high calcium contents too, along with many other health benefits!
If you feel you are lacking calcium in your diet or just want an extra boost of calcium, supplementation is a great option (4). Look for formulations that include Vitamin D, as it is essential for proper calcium absorption.
How much calcium do you need?
The recommended intake of calcium may differ depending on age.
Adolescents age 9-18 – 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day.
Adults age 18 to 50 – 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day
Elderly age 50 and above – 1,200 milligrams daily (4).
The adolescent stage is an essential time to ensure adequate calcium consumption as this is a crucial stage in growing strong bones. This sets the tone for your bone health moving forward. Approximately 90% of bone mass develops before age 20 (5). Sadly, as per reports, only 10-25% of adolescents and 50-60% of adults in the US get these recommended amounts of calcium (5).
Our bones store about 60% of total body magnesium, making it another essential mineral to strong bones.
Unfortunately, studies have found that about 50% of the US population get less than the recommended daily amount of magnesium.
Magnesium is necessary for the production of a protein called integrin. Integrin binds bone collagen fibers together giving bone the right amount of strength and flexibility. A healthy amount of magnesium and therefor integrin will help prevent bone fractures.
Additionally, magnesium supports the production of ATP, the main energy molecule in the body. Given the high energy demands of new bone formation, ATP plays an oversized role in fueling the bone healing process.
What are the best sources of magnesium?
Rich sources of magnesium include dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes, many of the same foods that are high in calcium. These bone healthy foods should become staples in your diet.
How much magnesium do you need?
The recommended daily allowance for adult men is 420 mg/day and for adult women 320 mg/day.
This vitamin is needed for proper calcium absorption, which is why you’ll often find them paired in supplements. It stimulates calcium absorption from the gut and reduces calcium excretion by the kidneys.
If Vitamin D levels are sub-optimal then dietary calcium will not be properly absorbed, resulting in less calcium available to make new bone.
Where can you get vitamin D?
You can get this nutrient from two great sources, and one of them is free! Vitamin D can be made in the skin with the help of the sunlight, or you can get it from your diet.
Your skin is capable of producing Vitamin D in reaction to sunlight and stores it in fat cells for later use.
However, the body’s ability to make Vitamin D from sunlight exposure decreases with age and several other factors.
Spending too much time inside and overuse of sunscreens can both hinder the production of Vitamin D. Even an SPF level of as low as 8 can reduce production by 95% (6). So while sunscreen is wonderful for long days in the sun, avoid using it absolutely every time you step outside.
Season and geographical location may also play a role in Vitamin D production from the sun. For these reasons, getting enough of this vitamin from your diet can really be helpful.
Foods rich in vitamin D include butter, eggs, fatty fish, and fortified products like cereals, milk, and orange juice (5).
How much vitamin D do you need?
The recommended daily intake of vitamin D is 400-800 IU for people age 50 and below.
It must be increased to 800-1000 IU daily for age 51 and up.
This may still vary depending on one’s needs and overall health condition. But as per the Institute of Medicine, it is safe to keep an upper limit of 4000 IU daily for most adults (6).
This vitamin’s usual claim to fame is the role it plays in blood clotting, but Vitamin K is incredibly vital for healthy bone metabolism.
Vitamin K actually describes more than one molecule with Vitamin K1 and Vitamin K2 being the most important.
Interestingly, Vitamin K1 is synthesized by plants while Vitamin K2 is synthesized by your good gut bacteria.
Functionally, this nutrient boosts the activity of bone producing cells called osteoblasts and helps special proteins called matrix Gla proteins ensure the bone has a healthy balance of minerals, such as calcium.
What is the best source of Vitamin K?
Excellent sources of vitamin K are green leafy vegetables and fermented foods such as fermented soy beans and cheese.
How much Vitamin K do you need?
The recommended daily allowance for adult men is 120 mcg/day and 90 mcg per/day for woman (including pregnant and breastfeeding mothers).
Tip 2 – Exercise helps prevent osteoporosis
Exercise is very important to prevent osteoporosis and to stimulate new bone growth.
Bones, just like muscles, become stronger with exercise.
Physical activity, especially during childhood and adolescence, can greatly help in increasing strength and bone density.
People who reach a higher peak bone density early in life are less likely to suffer from osteoporosis (4).
The most effective type of exercises to prevent osteoporosis are weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises.
These type of exercises generate a very strong growth signal that stimulates new bone formation and delays age-related bone loss (7).
Common weight-bearing activities would include walking, jogging, hiking, climbing the stairs, jumping rope, dancing, skiing, tennis, and yoga.
According to one study published in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation, yoga, even as little as 12 minutes per day, can help increase bone mineral density in the spine, thigh, and hip bones (8).
Muscle strengthening exercises, also known as resistance training, require your bones to do work against a stronger force than they are used to.
This seems to produce an even stronger growth signal.
Types of exercises to consider for your lower body are squats, lunges and leg presses. Consider bench press and shoulder press for you upper body.
You can use weight machines, free weights, elastic bands, and even your own body weight.
However, any time you are performing resistance exercise – be careful and always use best safety practices. Start small and gradually work your way up in weight.
If you are already diagnosed with osteoporosis, especially in the spine, never do heavy lifting, and always seek the guidance of qualified health practitioner familiar with your unique medical history.
Tip 3 –Add fermented foods to your diet to make your bones strong
Fermented foods like yogurt and kombucha have high levels of probiotics.
Probiotics are good bacteria that reside in your intestinal tract and promote health.
Good gut bacteria helps you absorb crucial minerals and vitamins for bone health, such as magnesium, calcium, and vitamin K.
Moreover, good gut bacteria makes it hard for unhealthy bacteria to get into your bloodstream and cause excessive inflammation.
Tip 4 – Consume plenty of fruits, vegetables, herbs & spices to help prevent osteoporosis
Fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices are rich in bone-friendly plant nutrients like polyphenols, essential oils and health-promoting sulfur compounds.
These nutrients offer potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant protection.
Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are driving forces behind osteoporosis, since they dramatically increase bone resorption and cause a decrease in new bone production.
The plant nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices effectively counter oxidative damage and chronic inflammation, therefore reducing your risk of osteoporosis.
In a study conducted in Swedish in 2015, the researchers tested both men and women between ages 45 and 83. Those that were deprived of plant foods had an 88% increased rate of hip fracture as compared to those who were given five servings of fruits and vegetables every day (9).
Tip 5 – Getting the right amount of sleep helps keep your bones strong
Interestingly, too much and too little sleep are both associated with osteoporosis. Finding the right balance for your body is essential to bone health.
Chinese researchers in a study published Osteoporosis International found that those who sleep less than 6 hours daily and those who slept more than 8 hrs a day had an increased risk of osteoporosis (12).
While the reason why isn’t exactly understood, many experts believe bone production and break down is linked to our natural biological clock called our circadian rhythm.
Disruptions to our sleep cycle, such as sleeping too much or too little, negatively impacts how well your body makes new bone.
Tip 6 – Excessive tobacco & alcohol use weakens bones
Smoking, as we all know, is bad for our health.
Nicotine, in addition to all the havoc it wreaks in your body, also inhibits the bone protective effects of estrogen.
Women who smoke go through a menopausal period earlier than expected, hence hastening the development of osteoporosis (4).
Additionally, getting more than 2 alcohol drinks daily is linked to greater chances of bone loss and fractures (13).
These are related mostly to poor nutrition and increased risk of falling or accidents.
What can you do now to prevent or treat osteoporosis?
Your bone health is just too important not to invest in! Start early and make bone health a part of your daily routine.
Thankfully, it’s never too late nor never too early to start building strong bones.
Irrespective of your age and the degree of osteoporosis in your body, your body is always able to make new, strong bone.
You just need the right building blocks and the right lifestyle.
Armed with these 6 easy and effective tips you are now well positioned to reduce your risk of osteoporosis, manage osteoporosis if you already have it, and avoid the catastrophic complications of a spinal, hip, or wrist fracture.