Healthy bones are essential to overall wellness. They protect us from injury, allow us to move, and provide us with a mineral reserve of calcium, which helps us maintain a healthy pH balance, among other things. Unfortunately, the bone renewal process slows as we age, beginning to drop off around age 35. By the time you hit middle age, your body may be losing bone faster than it can make it, leading to decreased bone density. While bone-density loss is a natural part of the aging process, diet and lifestyle factors, as well as disease and certain medication use, can lead to a substantial loss in mass—aka, osteoporosis.
Whether you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis or not, increased frailty with age is not a foregone conclusion. Through diet, exercise, and lifestyle modifications, you can make a positive impact on your bone health at any age, and look forward to a stronger, healthier future.
A Bone-Boosting Diet
Proper nutrition is integral to any aspect of good health, and bone health is no exception. A diet full of processed foods, sugar, alcohol and animal products can negatively impact our bone health. Not only are we not getting the nutrients we need to build strong bones through an imbalanced diet, but this kind of eating can produce excess acid in the body that leads to bone and muscle loss. When our pH is too high, our bones are forced to dole out our reserves of calcium to counteract that acidity. Overtime, that calcium depletion will weaken our bone density.
An alkaline (low-acid) diet rich in plants may be the best diet for bone health. While most of us think of dairy as the best source of calcium, it can be an acidic, and therefore counteractive, vehicle. Dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, certain vegetables, and oily fish are all excellent calcium sources. For example, a cup of cooked collard greens contains 266 mg of calcium. Other bone-boosting foods include edamame (98 mg per cup), almonds (75 mg per quarter cup), and oily fish, such as canned sardines or pink salmon, which net you 20 to 35 percent of your daily calcium needs per serving. The best dairy products include full-fat yogurt (the fermentation process lowers its acidity and provides as much as 450 mg of calcium per one-cup serving), or goat milk products, as goat milk is less acidic than cow’s milk.
Some dark leafy greens and vegetables pack a bigger calcium punch than others, as they are lower in oxalic acid, which can not only tax our calcium reserves, but can make it less bioavailable. Some low-oxalate options include collards, arugula, alfalfa sprouts, bok choy, broccoli, and kale. Higher-oxalate, calcium-rich greens, such as spinach and chard, should be cooked to lower their acid content and paired with another calcium-rich food, like nuts or seeds, to provide the most benefit.
Alkaline-forming foods can also help keep calcium in the bones. These include broccoli, celery, cucumber, kelp, lemons, limes, and parsley. A hearty salad packed with raw veggies can be a great bone-boosting addition to your diet, and adding a little apple cider vinegar can help release the calcium and other minerals from those salad greens.
It’s also important to consider how calcium is absorbed by the body—and it cannot do the work on its own. Vitamins D and K2, as well as minerals magnesium and phosphorous, are essential in making sure the calcium we consume gets deposited into our bones. Vitamin D aids calcium absorption while vitamin K2 gets it to the right place. Magnesium supports vitamin D in two ways—by converting it to its active form and by transporting minerals across cell membranes.
While getting your calcium through diet is ideal, you may need to supplement when necessary. However, too much can lead to excess calcium in your joints and blood vessels, and cause problems such as kidney stones. I can help you decide how much and which type of calcium to supplement.
The best exercise for bone health? Strength training. Studies show that not only does strength training (with free weights, resistance bands, or machines), slow bone loss, but that it can even help build it. Strength training also targets the hips, spine and wrists, all places more likely to suffer fracture. It also helps increase power and balance, which can help prevent falls.
Weight-bearing aerobic exercise can also be a boon to bone health. As with strength training, the stress on bones from pushing and pulling increases activity in bone-building cells, resulting in stronger, denser bones. Weight-bearing aerobic activities include walking, running, elliptical and stair-
climbing machines, yoga—and even gardening!
Hormones and Healthy Bones
Hormones also play an important role in bone health, as they either build it up or break it down. Estrogen and testosterone help build bone, and the natural waning of their levels as we age is a big contributor to bone density loss. Another, lesser known factor is the stress hormone cortisol which breaks down structural protein. The overuse of glucocorticoids, such as prednisone, can also boost cortisol levels, so stress management and medication monitoring can go a long way in protecting bone health.
Another hormonal factor includes thyroid health. The thyroid gland produces calcitonin which regulates calcium, as well as T3 and T4 which assist in growth and metabolism. Thyroid hormones play a vital role in bone mineral homeostasis and density. Hyperthyroidism (and to a lesser extent, hypothyroidism) are both associated with lower bone mineral density and a greater risk of osteoporosis, so it’s important to check in on your thyroid health periodically.
Getting enough calcium (and the vitamins and minerals that boost its absorption) is necessary—but can be tricky.
If you need help modifying your diet and lifestyle for optimum bone health, contact me. I’m here to help!