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Osteoporosis

General characteristics

General characteristics

The word osteoporosis derives from Greek meaning 'porous bones'. It refers to the condition whereby bone mineral density is reduced to below normal levels and continues to decline. This puts the bones at much greater risk from fracture and breaking from minor falls or injuries. In osteoporosis as bone loss increases, the possibility of skeletal deformities also increases, most commonly the spine becomes bent and deformed and height is lost as the body shrinks. Postural abnormalities such as this can lead to difficulty in breathing, severe pain and difficulty in moving around depending on the area of the body worst affected.

Normal healthy bones are incredibly strong - some estimates conclude that (weight for weight) bones are stronger than steel! Under normal circumstances, bone tissue is constantly being destroyed and rebuilt by cells called osteoclasts (reabsorb old bone) and osteoblasts (build new bone). In osteoporosis the normal balance of osteoclast and osteoblast activity is disturbed, the result being a higher ratio of old bone destruction to new bone formation. Low bone density and osteoporosis are not necessarily the same thing however. It is possible to be told you have low bone density and never go on to develop full osteoporosis, especially if you adopt a few simple lifestyle and dietary changes.

The mineral most essential to bone density and therefore strength is calcium. Other important nutrients for bone health include vitamins D, K2, B complex and magnesium, zinc and phosphorous and fatty acids. Calcium makes up over half of the weight of the total mineral content of our body. It is crucial in muscle contraction, nerve signalling, hormonal processes and bone and connective tissue integrity to name but a few things. Excessive consumed calcium is either stored in the bones and soft tissue or deposited in the joints. If calcium levels in the diet are low then calcium stores, such as from the bones, are released in order to fulfill its many and varied essential functions. Not all calcium is the same however. Calcium supplements tend to be made with a synthetically made form derived from mineral rock, calcium carbonate, that is not easily utilised by the body. This form of calcium is not present in any other type of food we eat and is extremely difficult to absorb. Its use has been linked with heart disease, kidney disease and stones and a host of other problems as the excess calcium, mostly unabsorbed by the body, circulates in the blood and can end up depositing along the inner walls of blood vessels and in the kidneys. Calcium from food sources however does not seem to have these associations, even if eaten in excessive amounts, as food based calcium is thought to be excreted in the urine when in excess to bodily needs.

Risk factors for developing osteoporosis include high blood pressure (especially if systolic blood pressure, the first number of the reading, is over 145), lack of exercise, ovarian removal or disease (especially pre-menopause), smoking, poor diet (refined foods, excess salt, fizzy drinks, lack of plant foods), a consistently high or low protein diet, low stomach acid (as indicated by heartburn and GERD) as good stomach acid levels are needed to absorb calcium, regular excessive alcohol intake, thyroid diseases, medications (such as regular antacids, warfarin, anticonvulsants, long term steroid use), oestrogen decline (as in post-menopausal women or early menopause, bone loss speeds up after menopause), vitamin D deficiency, lack of body fat (eg.very thin people, anorexia/bulimia), celiac disease/gluten intolerance or other factors interfering with normal digestion, smoking, diabetes, chronic diarrhoea, excessive laxative use, long term synthetic calcium supplementation, having 5 or more children, kidney disease and long term diuretic use and unfortunately for many, just being an older woman.

Healing objectives are to focus on prevention of the condition through good diet and lifestyle. Any factors that predispose you to the condition need to be remedied wherever possible (such as oestrogen deficiency, digestive disorders etc.). Contrary to some opinions, many studies have shown that it is entirely possible to regain bone density when it has become low through the use of proper diet, herbs, phytonutrients and exercise. Read on for more ideas.


Diet and lifestyle

Diet and lifestyle

All the B vitamins, especially folic acid, are vital for healthy bones so include plenty of food sources such as whole grains, fresh leafy green veg, broccoli, cauliflower, squashes, lentils and other beans and peas.

Include a sprinkle of any edible seaweed in homemade soups or casseroles occasionally for their bone building rich mineral content.

Eating a high proportion of fresh vegetables has long been associated with maintaining good bone density so include as many fresh veg as you possibly can into your daily diet.

Eat at least a large portion daily of raw or lightly cooked green leaves such as kale, spinach, watercress, herbs etc. for their calcium and vitamin K and B content.

Include a portion of fermented soya bean foods such as natto, miso and tamari in the weekly diet. They are rich in phytoestrogens and bacteria which promote the manufacture of vitamin K2 in the bowel, both useful in maintaining good bone health. Vitamin K2 helps to direct the calcium to where it is most needed but also helps to prevent calcium from depositing where it is not needed. Natto is particularly rich in bacteria that encourage K2 production. Other fermented foods such as sauerkraut are also good.

Eat a handful of prunes (dried plums) regularly as they contain substances which help to regulate bone density and slow down bone density decrease. Read more about the powerful bone building properties of dried plums here. Chop them up and add to meusli, stew them and make a dessert or just snack on them throughout the day. Start slowly and build up if you find that your bowels loosen off!

Avoid any carbonated (fizzy) drink, even fizzy water, as their high phosphate content robs minerals, especially calcium from the body. High levels of phosphorous are also found in many refined carbohydrate foods such as biscuits, cakes, breads and processed meats.

Other things that interfere with calcium absorption and storage and render the body more acidic (which hinders calcium storage) include white sugar, oxalic rich foods, flouride, reduced calorie diets, unfermented soya products, excessive insoluble fibre intake, excessive tannins (such as in strong black tea), laxatives and refined carbohydrates.

Make sure you consume enough good quality fats and oils (omega 3 especially) such as from avocado, nuts, seeds (particularly fennel seeds), organic dairy (especially yoghurt), organic unprocessed meats, oily fish like sardines, mackerel and raw cold pressed plant oils.

Useful foods that contain phytoestrogens or other bone density enhancing substances include pomegranate, olives, green tea, plums and prunes, onions, garlic, red yeast rice, blackberries, blueberries, turmeric, blackstrap molasses, beans and legumes, whole grains and seeds such as aniseed, caraway, cumin, coriander and fenugreek seeds.

Eat several tablespoon of organic, unprocessed live yoghurt daily for its rich calcium content and immune enhancing bacteria. Organic raw milk is also excellent but sadly hard to come by. The bacteria provided by live yoghurt are also associated with increases in bone density.

Raw organic cacao (unprocessed chocolate) is extremely rich in nutrients that are valuable for bone health.

Avoid low fat and reduced fat foods as they provide no benefit to the body.

Avoid too much added salt as it leaches calcium from the bones.


Useful herbs

Useful herbs

One of the simplest, most effective and cheapest way of getting good calcium levels is to make a nutrient rich herbal tea part of your daily life. You could use equal parts (1 tablespoon of each to a pint and a half of boiling water) of oatstraw, nettle and raspberry leaf as a base for example. These 3 herbs contain large amounts of easily absorbed calcium, magnesium and many other vitamins and minerals. Then from time to time add smaller amounts (a teaspoon of each used) of other herbs such as horsetail, alfalfa, fenugreek seeds, boneset, fennel seeds, red clover, rose buds and hips and dandelion leaf, using a couple of different herbs each week for variety and wider health benefits. Brew your base mix (leaving all the herbs in the liquid for extra extraction of nutrients) and add 1 or 2 of the other herbs to the mix, cover and put to one side. Pour off a small cupful of herbal tea throughout the day until all the liquid is consumed.

Comfrey leaves (Symphytum officinale) stimulate the construction of bone and connective tissue cells and can be invaluable in osteoporosis. If you have access to fresh comfrey, eat a small piece of a young leaf regularly but not daily (about an inch square) or make a tea from the dried leaves using a quarter of a teaspoon per cup, up to 2 cups daily.

Bitter herbs such as dandelion can also help provide more calcium by encouraging its proper digestion and absorption.

Herbs that are rich in phytoestrogens are useful in maintaining good bone density. These include black cohosh, hops (even in beer form!), ashwagandha, aniseed, fennel seed, agnus castus, blackcurrant buds/berries, wild yam, sarsaparilla, sage, fenugreek seed and saw palmetto.

Fennel seeds which can be chewed, added to teas or cooking are extremely valuable in terms of preventing bone density loss.

Rehmannia root has been shown to slow bone loss and encourage bone building.

Ground ivy has a unique ability to lessen the production of osteoclasts, the 'bone eating' cells and could be added to other formulas.


Natural healing

Natural healing

Exercise regularly. Any weight bearing activity (walking, cycling, gardening, dancing etc.) will encourage osteoblast activity (new bone formation) and result in denser and more flexible bones, reducing the risk of fractures. Tai chi and yoga are especially helpful in increasing coordination and balance. Rebounding on a small trampoline is also beneficial.

Apple cider vinegar (unpasteurised and 'with the mother') increases the body's ability to absorb minerals, including calcium. Doses vary but start with  a teaspoon in water with a meal once daily and increase gradually to a teaspoon twice daily.

Sunbathe regularly without sunscreen for 15 or so minutes at a time to ensure good vitamin D supply.


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