A body well built.
We’d look a bit funny without them, but why do we think bone health is only about milk? What else can we do to build better bones?
Eventually, all that’s left of our physical body is quite truly, a bag of bones. 206 of them to be precise, unless you had some ribs removed à la Cher! Each of these 206 bones give our body support, protect our brain, and vital organs while making movement such as walking, dancing and that crazy yoga pose possible. Our bones also store many minerals for us and even make our blood cells. In fact one of the most mind boggling statistics about the human body is that our bone marrow produces 2.4 million red blood cells every second. Yes, every second! I still find that hard to comprehend.
We all know the devastating effects of osteoporosis. That stooped look we get as the spine loses height and strength. Gran’s cracked ribs from a heartfelt hug (true story), and broken hips that can have fatal consequences. In most cases though, hip fractures often begin the downward spiral of pain, poor health and loss of mobility that eventually leaves us unable to care for ourselves.
So we want our bones to be in the best shape they can be and right now is the time to do it. It’s easy to think of bones as being lifeless, inert frames. But from 8 weeks development in utero, bones are growing and changing, breaking down and remodelling right through till the day we die. In fact every 10 years our entire skeleton is replaced by new cells. Bones are an alive, active tissue and as such can be affected by our lifestyle and food choices too.
So what are the main culprits when it comes to unhealthy bones?
Lack of exercise is responsible for many of modern mans woes, and poor bone health is one of them. Weight bearing exercise especially before 40, but right throughout life will ensure your bones have the strength to survive tripping over a stray buzzy bee, the laptop cord or the cat. The best ones are walking, jogging, tennis etc. Non-weight bearing exercises include cycling, swimming and gentle yoga, which are all good for you for other reasons.
For the longest time calcium, and by association dairy, has taken all the glory for healthy bones. But in fact over 20 vitamins and minerals are essential in the development, remodelling and maintaining of healthy bones. The minerals boron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium and zinc along with vitamins C and D are the most important ones. The minerals mentioned can be gained from a diet rich in a variety of vegetables but especially green leafy ones, small amounts of raw nuts and seeds and moderate amounts of lean protein including eggs and fish. At least 30% of New Zealanders and Australians are vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption from the intestine, for regulating the levels of calcium in our blood and maintenance of the skeleton. It’s found in small amounts in eggs, liver and mackerel. Yummy! But humans can’t get enough vitamin D from food alone. We need sun exposure. AS I mentioned last issue, the Ministry of Health is very reluctant to quantify how much sun exposure is required, while in Australia the numbers are helpfully specific. You’ll find a detailed chart on the Osteoporosis Australia website.
Foods dense in bone healthy nutrients include the edible bones in tinned salmon, mackerel and sardines, egg yolks, fresh salmon, dairy if it suits you (otherwise other milks are fortified with calcium), kale, broccoli, and capsicum.
Many a study has shown reduced bone density in women who drink excess soft drinks. Carbonated drinks contain phosphoric acid which may lead to mal-absorption of calcium. Or perhaps the excess sugar creates acidity (more on that next). Researchers can’t decide why it happens but I guess that doesn’t change the fact that we should be limiting our fizzy fluids. Unfortunately even soda water is a culprit. Replace with water, of the non-bubbly kind.
What’s your pH?
Apart from our digestive system which relies on acidity to break down food, our bodies thrive when alkalinity rules. Many processes in the body produce acidity. Breathing produces carbon dioxide while exercise creates lactic acid. The stress and immune responses create acidic by-products too. In turn our body requires a very complex buffering system to maintain our alkalinity. There are constant checks and balances maintaining a specific pH and this is accomplished by drawing on our stores of alkaline substances such as calcium and other minerals from the bones. So the more acidic we become, the more minerals are leached from our bones. See the below table for a simple guide to reducing food caused acidity.
Broccoli, kale, alfalfa sprouts, coriander, garlic, ginger, sorrel, barely grass, chlorella, celery, cucumber, water, wheat grass, seaweed.
Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, processed fats, cheese, white flours, salt, additives, red meat, processed meats, artificial sweeteners, cigarettes.
Other interesting points
Lactose intolerance is by no means a recipe for weak bones. Look at Japan and China, with their long histories of low fracture rates. Unfortunately like many health conditions previously avoided, these countries are fast catching up with the infiltration of westernised food. Be conscious of all the points above and you should be fighting fit in the bone department.
As well as all the other lovely things we can expect from menopause, you can add losing bone mass to the list. Oestrogen for all it’s faults promotes bone formation and slows bone loss, so without it we are more at risk. The good part of this tale is that working on your bone density before menopause (ideally before 40 years of age) will stand you in good stead post-menopausally.
Lastly, there is some concern about particular medications and our bone health. Excessive use of glucocorticosteroids such as cortisone and prednisone as well as asthma and hay fever medications are known to interfere with normal bone health. So much so, that there exists all kinds of dinky acronyms like SIOP (steroid induced osteoporosis) and GIOP (Glucocorticoid induced osteoporosis). More recently concerns have been raised about anti depressants (specifically serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRI’s) and their effect on bone loss. It’s not known exactly how SSRI’s effect bone health but the research seems to be pointing to the fact that higher levels of circulating serotonin have an inhibiting effect on bone building cells. At this point more research is needed to fully understand the underlying biochemistry, but hopefully in time we will see some warning on the packaging that at least gives the patient all the information.
Hopefully this sheds some light on the intricacies of our lovely bones. Start as early as possible to make their health a priority, and you may get a few more years out of them than you thought!