Osteoporosis (thinning bones) is one of the most dreaded diseases of women, and with just cause. Like a silent killer it sneaks up on its victim without symptoms, until finally it becomes a potentially fatal disease. About 30 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis, 80% of whom are women. In fact, in the United States nearly 50 percent of all women between the ages of forty-five and seventy suffer from some degree of osteoporosis. About a quarter of these will eventually go on to have a hip fracture later in life, many of whom will die of complications related to the fracture. In fact, the lifetime risk of death from a broken hip for a 55 year old woman rivals the death risk from breast cancer. The ravages of osteoporosis are not confined to broken hips however. Thinning bones also result in other fractures, as well as collapsed vertebrae, disfigurement, disability, and chronic pain. Overall osteoporosis results in an $18 billion price tag for the American health care system.
So why is this becoming such an epidemic? As with many other common diseases, the modern American diet, sedentary lifestyle, and stress have a lot to do with it. In some less developed cultures, osteoporosis is actually quite rare. Our high sugar, processed food, fast food diets often don’t have the vitamins and minerals needed to build new bone. Also, we don’t get out in the sun as much as we used to. This creates a lack of vitamin D, which is necessary for building healthy bones. Weight bearing exercise also stimulates bone strengthening, but more and more, we have become a sedentary society. Finally, our body reacts to this stressed out culture we live in by raising levels of the hormone cortisol, which then results in thinning of the bones.
What actually happens in osteoporosis? Childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood are the prime opportunities for building strong bones. Our skeletal system reaches its greatest density at about the age of thirty. After that we start a long steady decline. With the onset of menopause, women begin an accelerated period of bone loss. In fact white women in America tend to loose 30-40% of their bone mass between the ages of 55-70.
So who’s at risk? Women are at greater risk than men, and caucasian women are at greater risk than African-American women. Asian women fall somewhere in the middle. In general you’re at greater risk if you’re fair skinned and blue eyed, if you’re thin or small framed, if you smoke, if you’re sedentary, if you rarely get out doors, if you drink too much alcohol or coffee, or if you went through long term depression. You’re also at increased risk if you went through late puberty or early menopause, if you have a poor diet, if you have a history of chronic liver or kidney disease, if you took steroid drugs for an extended period of time, if you had a hysterectomy with ovariectomy, if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia, if you’ve had a prolonged absence of menstrual periods, or if you don’t get enough calcium in your diet. Stress and a poor immune system may also contribute to bone loss. Osteoporosis tends to run in families, so if your mom has it, you’re more likely to get it. Some drugs such as those in the Prilosec or Nexium family put the patient at significant increased risk of osteoporosis.
The key is to get tested. Ideally one should get tested with a bone density screening either before or during perimenopause. Although the fractures don’t show up until later, it helps to get a baseline test in order to establish a trend later on.
Hormones play an important role in bone health. In fact, the primary cause of osteoporosis is hormonal imbalances that interfere with the bone-forming cells. Estrogen prevents bone loss. Progesterone, and to a lesser degreee, testosterone, actually help to build new bone. Together, progesterone and estrogen offer a powerful one-two punch against thinning bone disease. DHEA, melatonin, growth hormone, and calcitonin also support sturdy bones. On the other hand excessive levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), and too much thyroid can lead to bone loss. When it comes to using hormones for bone health, I prefer to use bio-identical hormones. Artificial progestins have actually been found to cause bone thinning.
Here is a game plan to help you to keep your bones strong:
*Regular exercise (especially weight bearing)
*Targeted nutritional supplementation
*Bio-identical hormone Optimization.
The optimal bone- building diet should include foods that are rich in the building blocks of bones such as nuts, seeds, flax, soy, fish, yogurt, broccoli, and green leafy vegetables. At the same time we should avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol, sugar, and refined grain. Eliminate soda from your diet and reduce red meat. Keep a lid on the added salt and avoid processed foods. Supplements should contain calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, boron, silicon, vitamin C, strontium, and vitamin K.
Take care of your bones and they’ll carry you through into your happy, healthy, vibrant golden years.