12 Natural Ways to Build Healthy Bones
Read this before buying any vitamins or supplements.
The 206 bones in the human body may appear solid and unchanging, but our skeleton constantly remodels itself, with the bones breaking down and being rebuilt in a complex metabolic dance. Although some bone loss is inevitable with time (especially for women), there are things we can do now to move this dance in our favor and maintain optimal bone strength well into our older years. You'll have a much better chance of keeping them strong if you start good habits young.
TYPES OF BONE TISSUE
First, a bit of anatomy. There are two distinct types of bone tissue and they both lose mass as we age, but at different speeds.
Trabecular bone is the inner latticework that, in cross section, looks like a sponge or risen bread. The calcium in trabecular bone is loosely held and leaches into blood when blood levels of calcium are low. Trabecular bone begins to lose mass from when we’re roughly age 30 onward, which is why it’s important for even young adults to follow a bone-strengthening lifestyle.
Cortical bone is the relatively solid outer shell covering each bone. It hangs on to its reserves more tightly than does trabecular bone and doesn’t start to lose mass until we’re about 40.
Calcium is important: In addition to what women get from their diet, they should take 1,200 to 1,500 mg a day; men should get no more than 1,000 to 1,200 a day from all sources. But dietary calcium gets the most attention as a bone-health priority, and shortages of other nutrients can contribute to loss of bone mass as well.
Your body makes vitamin D when it's exposed to sunlight, but seniors and dark-skinned people should consider taking supplements—1,000 IU daily—because their bodies may not make as much.
Vitamin C is a building block of collagen—one of the first elements in bone formation. Some research shows that women who take vitamin C supplements have stronger bones. Find it in citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries, cantaloupe, peppers, broccoli, and potatoes. I advise everyone to take 200 mg of vitamin C daily, in addition to eating plenty of vitamin C-rich foods.
Magnesium is another mineral that aids bone formation; studies have shown bone density is higher in people who get plenty in their diets. It's found in leafy greens, whole grains, dairy products, nuts, seeds, legumes, and potatoes. I recommend a supplement; take half as much magnesium as you do calcium. But read labels: Your calcium pills may already contain the mineral (many do). Don't take magnesium if you have impaired kidney function.
You don't need to take supplements for these unless your doctor tells you to. Vitamin K slows bone loss and speeds fracture healing; food sources are leafy greens and healthy oils like olive and canola.
This is another one you don’t need a supplement for unless your doctor advises it. Potassium can be found in fruits and veggies-bananas and potatoes, for example. People who eat potassium-rich diets tend to have denser bones.
Some studies have found soy foods helpful, possibly because of their phytoestrogen content. Try two daily servings of whole soy, such as tempeh, edamame, or calcium-fortified soy milk or tofu. Skip supplements such as ipriflavone, which may reduce immunity in some.
Sodium can increase the amount of calcium you lose in urine. Cut back by limiting processed and fast foods and by not adding salt at the table.
Too much protein has been shown in some studies to increase urinary calcium loss.
Heavy drinking may reduce your body's ability to absorb calcium-and it can lead to falls. But having one drink a day for women, or two for men, may help build bones.
Being sedentary or immobilized in bed dramatically increases osteoporosis risk. However, research shows that two types of movement are particularly effective for bone strength: weight-bearing aerobics (e.g., walking, stair climbing, jogging, and tai chi) and resistance exercises (e.g., lifting weights, swimming, and cycling). Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
If osteoporosis has advanced, prescription drugs such as Actonel (risedronate) and Fosamax (alendronate) may be necessary. These two seem to have a good track record of slowing bone loss, but they do come with an array of potential side effects, including digestive distress and, in the case of Fosamax, an alleged increase in thighbone fractures. Even if you need medication, proper diet and exercise can still help your bones stay strong now and down the road.