Osteoporosis is one of the biggest concerns for women after natural or forced menopause caused by cancer therapies. Any cancer treatments that lower estrogen levels can increase the risk of osteoporosis including chemotherapy, radiation to the ovaries, hormone therapy medications like aromatase inhibitors and tamoxifen (to a smaller degree compared to aromatase inhibitors).
This may surprise you, but 1 in 2 women over the age of 50 will experience a bone fracture due to osteoporosis. This isn’t just limited to cancer survivors so it’s important for all women to start thinking about bone health boosting strategies!
But there are natural strategies to help minimize the risks for osteoporosis and osteoporosis related fractures by helping to boost our bone health.
In fact, we have more control over our bone mass than we might think! Research shows that as much as 40% of bone mass is determined by our lifestyle choices – which means there’s a lot we can do to help decrease our chances of osteoporosis and fractures!
The fact about bones
Our bones are made up of living cells that grow, remodel and repair themselves. In fact, bones are constantly remodelling. Specialized cells called osteoclasts (“bone resorbers”) resorb and remove mineral salts from aged bone and osteoblast cells (“bone builders”) work to form new bone.
While the rate our bones form is faster during our growth years, our bones start to thin after the age of 35 as the rate of bone we lose starts to exceed the rate our bones grow.
What’s worse, after menopause, estrogen levels decrease and speed up this process even more, leading to an increase in thinning of bones and a higher risk for osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis or “porous bone” occurs when the bones become thin and brittle, which can increase our risk of fractures. The concern around osteoporosis is that because we cannot feel it, most often, people will only find out after breaking a bone.
This risk of fractures is really important as it can lead to long term issues or complications. While these fractures usually happen because of a fall, they can also sometimes occur with normal movement as well.
Here are 3 key natural strategies to help boost your bone health and decrease fracture risks:
1. Boost bone healthy nutrients
Calcium is critical as it’s the major component of bone. While the rate of bone turnover depends on our estrogen status, it may also increase in response to acid. This can be dependent on our diet and whether our diet is acidogenic.
What is an acidogenic diet? Typically, this diet is high in animal protein and salt, low in fruits and vegetables can lead to a subclinical or low grade state of metabolic acidosis which can impact our bone health.
On the other hand, a high intake of fruits and vegetables has been associated with a benefit to bone health. These provide a lot of nutrients that may have specific effects on osteoblasts or osteoclasts helping to reduce bone loss.
Natural sources: green vegetables (cabbage, broccoli and okra), soy products (including tofu), fish (sardines, salmon, etc), nuts, dried fruit, milk substitutes (like rice, oat, soy are fortified with calcium).
A fat soluble vitamin, vitamin D plays an important role in calcium absorption and bone health. It is often found to be low, especially during the winter months for those living in the northern hemisphere. While supplementation may be beneficial, testing levels is also important to assess how much should be taken because it can have toxic effects at high doses but adequate doses can also play a critical part for things like mood, energy, and immune support.
Natural sources: sunlight, oily fish, egg yolks, fortified foods.
This fat soluble vitamin plays a role in the metabolism of calcium and while research points to those with a healthy diet most likely having adequate amounts, supplementation may sometimes be necessary. It is important to note though that vitamin K2 can interact with some medications (including but not limited to warfarin).
Natural sources: natto beans, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, soy, parsley, avocado, blueberries, etc.
As high as 70% or more of women may be magnesium deficient but as much as 60% of magnesium is found in the bones. Magnesium is also important for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, blood pressure, protein and DNA synthesis and healthy bones! It’s also important as a key cofactor for how our bodies are able to make and activate vitamin D.
Magnesium deficiency can also lead to a reduction in bone stiffness, increase the resorption of bone while decreasing the building of new bone and also promote inflammation and bone loss.
For these reasons and others, people with higher intakes of magnesium seem to have a higher bone mineral density.
Natural sources: dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts, whole grains (nearly 80%of mag is removed from grain refining treatments (ie. white flour).
This is one you may not have heard about but adequate potassium is important for bone health! Potassium has been seen to be helpful in neutralizing acids that remove calcium from the body protecting our bone density!
Natural sources: banana, avocado, spinach, tomatoes, dried fruits, beans, lentils, spinach, broccoli, avocado, etc.
Eating lots of foods with polyphenols may help reduce oxidative stress. This along with its ability to help reduce inflammation can prevent osteoporosis and help speed up healing of fractured bones.
Natural sources: dark berries, olives, nuts, spices, teas, flaxseeds, herbs, etc.
Did you know? Bones are actually made up of about 50% protein. This makes it really critical to ensure we consume an adequate amount of protein daily as it’s important for bone health and repair.
Natural sources: lean meat (chicken, fish, turkey), nuts, eggs, tofu, lentils, beans, etc.
2. Avoid bone depleting foods
Drinking alcohol is associated with a higher risk of fractures, especially for those drinking higher amounts of alcohol. Alcohol may impact our ability to absorb calcium and seems to impact the structure of the bone by causing leaching of calcium from the bones.
Tip: Drinking alcoholic beverages with meals may help to lower potential risks.
Research has found that post menopausal women with high salt diets seem to lose more bone minerals than other women of the same age. Limiting sodium intake to a teaspoon of salt a day can help with this. Interesting to note, we normally eat double or more of that amount of salt a day!
Tip: avoid processed foods, processed meats, fast food, canned foods etc which tend to be very high in salt.
We know sugar can impact our health in so many ways and bone health is also part of that list. Consuming too much sugar has been shown to have the potential to increase our risk of osteoporosis. This is because it appears to increase the excretion of both magnesium and calcium. By lowering the magnesium levels it also reduces the absorption of calcium by lowering levels of active vitamin D leading to impaired bone formation!
Tip: minimize sugar intake and avoid processed/refined foods.
Namely Cola beverages, but others as well, contain phosphoric acid. Phosphoric acid (phosphorus) can increase calcium loss from the body. In fact, soft drink consumption was found to be directly associated with risk of fractures and drinking soft drinks every day was associated with doubling that risk!
Tip: if you’re craving a soda, try carbonated water instead. Carbonated water does not seem to have the same impact on bone health as soft drinks do.
I know. I hate to say it but coffee can leach calcium from our bones. Interestingly, caffeinated teas like green tea do not seem to have the same impact on bone health and may actually be protective against osteoporosis.
Tip: try to opt for teas rather than coffee when possible to gain from its potential benefits as well!
This is probably the last one we may all think about, but phthalates, found in things like plastics, may directly be associated with low bone mass and osteoporosis in women. This is seen to be true regardless of one’s calcium intake or physical activity. This may also play a role in the link found between soft drinks and increase in fracture risks as it’s widely used to make bottles for soft drinks!
Tip: avoid phthalates by avoiding products like plastic wraps, bottles or containers.
3. Exercise to build bone
Exercise is important for bone health and may help decrease the risk for falls that could lead to fractures.
In order to have an impact on bone health however, both weight bearing exercises and strength training exercises are critical. Remember, if you’re incorporating weights, higher repetitions of lower weights can also be effective at strengthening and for bone health. In fact, research shows it may help increase bone mineral density by up to 8%!
Weight bearing exercises include walking, climbing stairs, jogging, gardening, dancing, playing tennis, low impact aerobics etc.
Strength or resistance exercises include lifting weights, rowing machines or using stretch bands.
Remember to get a baseline bone density test done and regular assessments, especially if you’re on treatments that make you more prone to osteoporosis and to work with your healthcare practitioner to help you figure out appropriate doses of supplements if needed.
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