Osteoporosis is the most common metabolic bone disease of western women, caused not so much by a calcium deficiency as such, but by an increased rate of calcium loss. This results in bone loss exceeding bone formation, which causes bone density to decrease. Smoking, lack of exercise, a bad diet and excessive alcohol are also factors. Osteoporosis can start a decade before the menopause so it is never too early to address the problem. Here is some guidance on what you can do.
Nearly 3 million people in the UK have osteoporosis, and most are women. It is a condition where the bones weaken and are liable to fracture. In the spine they can actually crumble under the weight of the body, leading to back pain, loss of height and a hump in the back. Often the first outward sign of osteoporosis is a broken bone from what appears to be a relatively minor accident.
Many factors contribute to osteoporosis, one of which is a lack of progesterone. It starts before menopause but accelerates at menopause as progesterone levels fall, causing a decrease in new bone formation and bone density.
If your bone density is normal, progesterone will not increase it. Around the menopause bone density can fall 5% per year. Three to five years after the menopause the rate of bone loss slows. Progesterone’s prior effect on building bone density helps arrest the deterioration during menopause, and as the rate of bone loss later slows it helps the bones ‘catch up’ to restore the density– though it is a slow process and can take four years.
“ What Your Doctor may not Tell You About The Menopause” by John R Lee is a useful source of information.
Progesterone cream is not a solution on its own – exercise and diet are important too –and it is no good taking calcium supplements if the vitamins necessary for its absorption are absent – see Nutritional Supplements.
How do you know if you have osteoporosis?
Bone density scans cost about £80 and take 10 minutes whilst you lie on bed with your clothes on and a boom is passed over your hips.
The two tests that give accurate readings without the use of high dose x-rays are:
- DEXA or dual energy x ray absorbtiometry, using low dose x-rays
- SPA/DPA or single/dual photon absorptiometry, using light instead of radiation.
Conventional x rays will only spot osteoporosis when quite advanced – when you have lost about one third of your bone density. Scans are available at most private health clinics.
Or you could have an ultrasound scan costing about £40, which avoids the need for any x rays. It is often done on your ankle because the ankle bones closely resemble hip and spine bones and wear out at the same rate, and it measures bone density and flexibility. Whereas the DEXA/SPA scans need a radiographer and specialist equipment, ( and can sometimes give incorrect high readings if you have had a fracture or already suffer from osteoporosis) you can usually have an ultrasound at your local osteopath. If your bones don’t look too good then you can be referred for a full body DEXA scan for more detailed analysis.
It is useful to have a benchmark starting point. Then, if you get another scan done 6 or 7 years later, you will be able to see if your bones are holding up well or starting to crumble at an alarming rate. At least then you can take action to slow down, or possibly even stop the deterioration.
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO?
The answer? Three things – diet, exercise and supplements.
A well balanced diet (low fat, moderate protein, lots of green vegetables) goes a long way to providing all the body’s needs for bone strength. Calcium deficiency can often arise from the body’s inability to absorb it into the bones due to lack of other factors, rather than a lack of calcium itself.
Rather than relying just on calcium supplements, change your diet to calcium rich foods, as natural calcium is much more easily absorbed. Acidosis of blood contributes to osteoporosis, fatigue and depression, so cutting back on acid forming food and keeping your diet balanced towards alkaline-forming foods will help.
- Fresh fruits
- Leafy green vegetables (broccoli, kale, pak choi, cabbage, swiss chard, lambs lettuce and rocket)
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas)
- Whole grain bread, pasta, cereals (wheat free if you suffer from bloating)
- Almonds, brazil nuts, hazelnuts and dried figs
- Sea vegetables (agar agar, kelp,hiziki, dulse, wakame) – not easy to find but very calcium and mineral rich.
- Refined food
- Tea and coffee
Take regular exercise. Aerobic exercise like running, walking and aerobics is great for heart and lungs, but you need weight bearing exercise to build stronger bones and muscle tissue – using dumb bells, doing squats etc and resistance training.
Muscle and bone strengthening takes place after resistance training – over the next 48 hours when you rest, so it’s a good idea to vary your training. For example, work on your shoulders and arms on day 1, chest and back on day 2, and then legs and abdomen on day 3.
Taking calcium on its own is of little use without the enzymes and their catalysts (magnesium, Vitamin D and vitamin B6) that assist its absorption and incorporation into bone.
So for example you could have an adequate intake of calcium, but an existing magnesium deficiency will cause a calcium deficiency in your bones because it will be deposited in soft tissues, rather than bone.
Try Phytofood Calcium (from seaweed which is extremely rich in calcium) or Food State Calcium (which is in a readily absorbed form) from Cytoplan, Supamag Plus or Calcium Magnesium Complex from Nutrigold.
You also need Vitamin D (from sunlight it facilitates the mineralization of bones with calcium and phosphorus), Zinc (a catalyst for building the collagen matrix in cartilage and bone)and Vitamin C (for synthesis and repair of collagen, cartilage and bone matrix). A multivitamin like Cyto Gold from Cytoplan is a good all round supplement.
Further information can be obtained from the National Osteoporosis Society