I find bones quite amazing things.
Before I was a practitioner, I used to think bones were a bit like rocks – strong, unmoving, (hopefully) unbreakable, and static – they didn’t do anything other than hold our bodies up.
When I was completing my studies, I was astounded to learn that nothing could be farther from the truth. Our bones, far from being unchanging, were continually being renovated and improved, a process known as ‘bone turnover’. Tiny cells within your bones are continually tunneling out and replacing your bone throughout your life, and when this process is in balance (i.e. there’s not more tunneling out than replacement going on) then your bones will be strong, healthy and resilient to damage. However, when this process is not going quite the way it should be, this is where you can end up with weakened bones (known as osteopenia) or damaged, brittle bones (osteoporosis).
Most of our bone is laid down in our younger years – our bones do most of their growing during childhood, then during late adolescence and througout our twenties they continue to build in strength. The ‘peak’ bone mass that we achieve depends on how active we are at this time in our lives, our nutrient intake, lifestyle factors (such as smoking or whether we are taking certain medications) and our hormones.
What Do Bones Need?
We all hear about how calcium is important for building, and maintaining, strong healthy bones – particularly as we age. Your skeleton and teeth store around 1-1.4kg of calcium – which equates to around 99% of the calcium in your body. The remainder is functioning as part of your muscle signalling network (including keeping your heart beating at the right rate), blood clotting and enzymes. The message that calcium is found in dairy products, and that this is crucial to bone health has been drilled into us for decades, thanks in large part to the efforts of the dairy industry. Yet in a society where most of us regularly eat dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, we have a shocking rate of osteoporosis (at least 15% of women, and 3% of men over the age of 50, in fact).1
The trouble is, calcium forms only part of the equation when it comes to healthy bones, and dairy is not the only (nor necessarily the best) source of calcium for us.2
The Neglected Nutrients
Interestingly, whilst calcium is important, it is actually only one of several nutrients that work in tandem to create this vital, strong framework for your body. In other words, by focusing only on calcium, we run the risk of still experiencing problems with our bones. Here are some of the other nutrients we need to take into account...
Many people are unaware that we need magnesium for bone health. Magnesium ‘partners’ with calcium to help maintain bone strength, and also plays a role in controlling inflammation within the body (more about that later). Our typical Australian diet means that many of us do not get enough magnesium from our foods. Around 60% of your body’s magnesium is stored within the bones.3 Good sources of magnesium include chicken, turkey, almonds, Brazil nuts, pecans, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds.
Vitamin D is crucial for bone health, because it turns into a hormone that helps your body absorb calcium from the foods you eat. We obtain vitamin D from sunshine, as well as from certain foods such as milk, cheese, egg yolk and sardines. Surprisingly, Vitamin D deficiency is common within Australia (even here in Queensland!), especially towards the end of winter, where many people do not have adequate levels of vitamin D in their blood .4 This potentially leaves our bones to pay a heavy price.
Vitamin K plays a role in how well your body is able to hold onto calcium, and it also helps stop your bone cells from performing excessive renovation of your bones (meaning that they are more likely to stay stronger and denser). Your body makes some vitamin K in your gut, but you can also obtain it from green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and silverbeet.
Looking After Your Bones – So That They Can Look After You
There are certainly some other proactive approaches that you can uses to help your body maintain its bone strength, and potentially help support the rebuilding process
Include calcium-rich foods such as almonds, egg yolk, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts, seafood and spinach if you don’t eat dairy.
Look after your gut health, so that your body has a good ability to absorb the bone-building nutrients that you obtain from your food. As with most things these days, we now know that what is going on in the gut can affect so many areas of our health!
Keep inflammation in the body under control. Inflammation in the body can contribute to increased bone loss. Limit pro-inflammatory foods such as sugar, alcohol and heavily processed foods, and focus on naturally anti-inflammatory foods such as brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, nuts and lean protein sources.
Are You Playing Russian Roulette With Your Supplements?
In the clinic, I work regularly with people who are wanting to support their bone health naturally in order to reduce the risk of fractures and poor bone health down the track. It is quite common for people I see to already be taking a supplement for bone health, which is great.
However, it pays to be aware that some supplements are not necessarily the best investment for your bones. Many popular supplements contain calcium in the form ‘calcium carbonate’ which is a form that your body can't absorb very well. In fact, calcium carbonate actually forms the bulk of naturally occurring chalk or limestone. Quite understandably, this means that your body’s ability to absorb this type of calcium is limited and consequently, some of it may pass through your body without doing much good at all. Not something you want when your bones are relying on it! Supplement manufacturers tend to use this form because it is cheap and readily available – not because it is necessarily the best for you.
The form of calcium that I use most often in the clinic is a highly absorbable form known as microcrystalline hydroxyapatite, which is the same form of calcium that is found in your bones and teeth, but it also contains an array of beneficial compounds such as collagen, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. Trace minerals that are important for bone health such as boron, zinc and manganese are also present in hydroxyapatite. Studies have shown that this form of supplementation helps maintain bone strength better than calcium carbonate.5
Vitamin D is another nutrient that is usually easily found in bone health formulations, however many people do not realise that vitamin D is quite an unstable molecule, and as such it can easily degrade on the shelf when it is exposed to air – which reduces the quality and the dose that you ultimately receive. In my clinic I use practitioner-strength vitamin D supplements that have been checked for stability and have guaranteed potency – meaning that you ultimately get the dosage that you have paid for.