Building Better Bones
"It is a bone-deep change you are going into, my beloved," counsels Grandmother Growth. "You must open to your very marrow for this transformation. No cell is to remain untouched. You are to open more than you ever dreamed you could open, more than you have opened in birth or in passion. You open now to the breath of mortality as it plays the bone flute of your being. What can you do but dance to the haunting melody, develop a passion for an elegant posture and a long stride?
"Ah, yes," Grandmother Growth smiles rather wantonly. "It would do you well to develop a taste for dark greens tarted with vinegar and mated with garlic. These things will build strong flexible bones to support you as you become Crone."
Did you know that your bones are always changing? Every day of your life, some bone cells die and some new bone cells are created. From birth until your early 30s, you can easily make lots of bone cells. So long as your diet supplies the necessary nutrients, you not only replace bone cells that die, you have extras left over to lengthen and strengthen your bones.
Past the age of 35, new bone cells are more difficult to make. Sometimes there is a shortfall: more bone cells die than you can replace. In the orthodox view, this is the beginning of osteoporosis, the disease of low bone mass. By the age of forty, many American women have begun to lose bone mass; by the age of fifty, most are told they must take hormones or drugs to prevent further loss and avoid osteoporosis, hip fracture, and death.
Women who exercise regularly and eat calcium-rich foods enter their menopausal years with better bone mass than women who sit a lot and consume calcium-leaching foods (including soy "milk," tofu, coffee, soda pop, alcohol, white flour products, processed meats, nutritional yeast, and bran). But no matter how good your lifestyle choices, bone mass usually decreases during the menopausal years.
For unknown reasons, menopausal bones slow down production of new cells and seem to ignore the presence of calcium. This "bone-pause" is generally short-lived, occurring off and on for five to seven years. I noticed it in scattered episodes of falling hair, breaking fingernails, and the same "growing pains" I experienced during puberty.
I did not see it in a bone scan, because I didn't have one.
The idea behind bone scans is a good one: find women who are at risk of broken bones, alert them to the danger, and help them engage in preventative strategies. There's only one problem: bone scans don't find women who are at risk of broken bones, they find women who have low bone density.
I would like to help you let go of the idea that osteoporosis is important. In the Wise Woman Tradition, we focus on the patient, not the problem. In the Wise Woman tradition, there are no diseases and no cures for diseases. When we focus on a disease, like osteoporosis, we cannot see the whole woman. The more we focus on one disease, even its prevention, the less likely we are to nourish wholeness and health.
Focusing on osteoporosis, defining it as a disease, using drugs to counter it, we lose sight of the fact that postmenopausal bone mass is a better indicator of breast cancer risk than broken bone risk. The twenty-five percent of postmenopausal women with the highest bone mass are two-and-a-half to four times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than those with the lowest bone mass. And that hormones which maintain bone mass also adversely affect breast cancer risk. Women who take estrogen replacement (often given to prevent osteoporosis), even for as little as five years, increase their risk of breast cancer by twenty percent; if they take hormone replacement, the risk increases by forty percent.
Focusing on bone mass, we lose sight of the fact that a strong correlation between bone density and bone breakage has not been established, according to Susan Brown, director of the Osteoporosis Information Clearing House, and many others. We lose sight of the fact that women who faithfully take estrogen or hormone replacement still experience bone changes and suffer spinal crush fractures.
Bone-pause passes and the bones do rebuild themselves, especially when supported by nourishing herbs, which are exceptional sources of bone-building minerals and better at preventing bone breaks than supplements. The minerals in green plants seem to be ideal for keeping bones healthy. Dr. Campbell, Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, has done extensive research in rural China where the lowest known fracture rates for midlife and older women were found. He says, "The closer people get to a diet based on plant foods and leafy vegetables, the lower the rates of many diseases, including osteoporosis." Women who consume lots of calcium-rich plants and exercise moderately build strong flexible bones. Women who rely on hormones build bones that are massive, but rigid.
Hormone replacement regimes do not increase bone cell creation; they slow (or suppress) bone cell killers (osteoclasts). There is a rebound effect; bone loss jumps when the hormones are stopped. Women who take hormones for five years or more are as much as four times more likely to break a bone in the year after they stop than a woman of the same age who never took hormones. Women who build better bones with green allies and exercise nourish the bone cell creator cells (osteoblasts).
Hormone or estrogen replacement, taken as menopause begins and continued for the rest of your life, is said to reduce post-menopausal fracture rates by 40-60 percent. Frequent walks (you don't even need to sweat) and a diet high in calcium-rich green allies (at least 1500 mg daily) have been shown to reduce post-menopausal fractures by 50 percent. The first is expensive and dangerous. The second, inexpensive and health promoting. It's easy to see why more than eighty percent of American women just "say no" to hormones. It is never too late to build better bones, and it is never too soon. Your best insurance for a fracture-free, strong-boned cronehood is to build better bones before menopause. The more exercise and calcium-rich green allies you get in your younger years, the less you'll have to worry about as you age.
"A woman has lost half of all the spongy bone (spine, wrist) she'll ever lose by the age of 50, but very little of the dense (hip, hand, forearm) bone. Attention to bone formation at every stage of life is vital; there is no time when you are too old to create healthy new bone." - American MD
"Osteoporosis is much less common in countries that consume the least calcium. That is an undisputed fact." -T. C. Campbell, PhD. Nutritional Biochemistry
Step 1: Collect Information
Calcium is, without a doubt, the most important mineral in your body. In fact, calcium makes up more than half of the total mineral content of your body. Calcium is crucial to the regular beating of your heart, your metabolism, the functioning of your muscles, the flow of impulses along your nerves, the regulation of your cellular membranes, the strength of your bones, the health of your teeth and gums, and your vital blood-clotting mechanisms. Calcium is so critical to your life that you have a gland (the parathyroid) that does little else than monitor blood levels of calcium and secrete hormones to ensure optimum levels of calcium at all times.
When you consume more calcium than you use, you are in a positive calcium balance: extra usable calcium is stored in the bones and you gain bone mass (insoluble or unusable calcium may be excreted, or stored in soft tissue, or deposited in the joints). When you consume less calcium than you use, you are in a negative calcium balance: the parathyroid produces a hormone that releases calcium stores from the bones, and you lose bone mass.
To ensure a positive calcium balance and create strong, flexible bones for your menopausal journey, take care to:
- Eat three or more calcium-rich foods daily.
- Avoid calcium antagonists.
- Use synergistic foods to magnify the effectiveness of calcium.
- Avoid calcium supplements.
Step 2: Engage the Energy
The homeopathic tissue salt Silica is said to improve bone health.
What does it mean to you to support yourself? To be supported? To stand on your own? To have a backbone in your life?
Step 3: Nourish & Tonify
What do we need to make strong flexible bones? Like all tissues, bones need protein. They need minerals (not just calcium, but also potassium, manganese, magnesium, silica, iron, zinc, selenium, boron, phosphorus, sulphur, chromium, and dozens of others). And in order to use those minerals, high-quality fats, including oil-soluble vitamin D.
Many menopausal women I meet believe that protein is bad for their bones. Not so. Researchers at Utah State University, looking at the diets of 32,000 postmenopausal women, found that women who ate the least protein were the most likely to fracture a hip; and that eating extra protein sped the healing of hip fractures.
Acids created by protein digestion are buffered by calcium. Traditional diets combine calcium- and protein-rich foods (e.g. seaweed with tofu, tortillas made from corn ground on limestone with beans, and melted cheese on a hamburger). Herbs such as seaweed, stinging nettle, oatstraw, red clover, dandelion, and comfrey leaf are rich in protein and provide plenty of calcium, too. Foods such as tahini, sardines, canned salmon, yogurt, cheese, oatmeal, and goats' milk offer us protein, generous amounts of calcium, and the healthy fats our bones need. If you crave more protein during menopause, follow that craving. CAUTION: Unfermented soy (e.g., tofu) is especially detrimental to bone health being protein-rich, naturally deficient in calcium, and a calcium antagonist to boot.
Bones need lots of minerals not just calcium, which is brittle and inflexible. (Think of chalk, calcium carbonate, and how easily it breaks.) Avoid calcium supplements. Focus on getting generous amounts of calcium from herbs and foods and you will automatically get the multitude of minerals you need for flexible bones.
Because minerals are bulky, and do not compact, we must consume generous amounts to make a difference in our health. Taking mineral-rich herbs in capsule or tincture form won't do much for your bones. (One cup of nettle tincture contains the same amount of calcium - 300 mg - as one cup of nettle infusion. Many women drink two or more cups of infusion a day; no one consumes a cup of tincture a day!) Neither will eating raw foods. I frequently come across the idea that cooking robs food of nutrition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cooking maximizes the minerals available to your bones. Kale cooked for an hour delivers far more calcium than lightly steamed kale. Minerals are rock-like, and to extract them, we need heat, time, and generous quantities of plant material.
Green sources of calcium are the best. Nourishing herbs and garden weeds are far richer in minerals than ordinary greens, which are already exceptional sources of nutrients.
But calcium from green sources alone is not enough. We need calcium from white sources as well. Add a quart of yogurt a week to your diet if you want really healthy bones. Because the milk has been changed by Lactobacillus organisms, its calcium, other minerals, proteins, and sugars (no lactose) are more easily digested. This carries over, enhancing calcium and mineral absorption from other foods, too. (I have known several vegans who increased their very low bone density by as much as 6 percent in one year by eating yogurt.) Organic raw milk cheeses are another superb white source.
Horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense) works like a charm for those premenopausal women who have periodontal bone loss or difficulty with fracture healing. Taken as tea, once or twice a day, young spring-gathered horsetail dramatically strengthens bones and promotes rapid mending of breaks. CAUTION: Mature horsetail contains substances which may irritate the kidneys.
Step 4: Stimulate/Sedate
Beware of calcium antagonists. Certain foods interfere with calcium utilization. For better bones avoid consistent use of:
- Greens rich in oxalic acid, including chard (silver beet), beet greens, spinach, rhubarb.
- Unfermented soy products, including tofu, soy beverages, soy burgers.
- Phosphorus-rich foods, including carbonated drinks, white flour products, and many processed foods. (Teenagers who drink sodas instead of milk are four times more likely to break a bone.)
- Foods that produce acids requiring a calcium buffer when excreted in the urine, including coffee, white sugar, tobacco, alcohol, nutritional yeast, salt.
- Fluoride in water or toothpaste.
- Fiber pills, bran taken alone, bulk-producing laxatives.
- Steroid medications, including corticosteroids such as prednisone and asthma inhalers. (Daily use reduces spinal bone mass by as much as ten percent a year.)
- Restricted calorie diets. Women who weigh the least have the greatest loss of bone during menopause and "neither calcium supplements, vitamin D supplements, nor estrogen" slow the loss. Among 236 premenopausal women, all of whom consumed similar amounts of calcium, those who lost weight by reducing calories lost twice as much bone mass as women who maintained their weight.
Although chocolate contains oxalic acid, the levels are so low as to have only a negligible effect on calcium metabolism. An ounce/3000 mg of chocolate binds 15-20 mg of calcium; an ounce of cooked spinach, 100-125 mg calcium. Bittersweet (dark) chocolate is a source of iron. Recent research has found chocolate to be very heart healthy. As with any stimulant, daily use is not advised. Chocolate is an important and helpful ally for women. Guilt about eating it and belief that it is damaging to your health interferes with your ability to hear and respond to your body wisdom. If you want to eat chocolate - do it; and get the best. But if you're doing it every day - eat more weeds.
Excess phosphorus accelerates bone loss and demineralization. Phosphorus compounds are second only to salt as food additives. They are found in carbonated beverages, soda pop; white flour products, especially if "enriched" (bagels, cookies, cakes, donuts, pasta, bread); preserved meats (bacon, ham, sausage, lunch meat, and hot dogs); supermarket breakfast cereals; canned fruit; processed potato products such as frozen fries and instant mashed potatoes; processed cheeses; instant soups and puddings.
To avoid phosphorus overload and improve calcium absorption:
- Drink spring water and herbal infusions; avoid soda pop and carbonated water.
- Eat only whole grain breads, noodles, cookies, and crackers.
- Buy only unpreserved meats, cheeses, potatoes.
- Avoid buying foods with ingredients; they are highly processed.
Excess salt leaches calcium. Women eating 3900 mg of sodium a day excrete 30 percent more calcium than those eating 1600 mg.The main sources of dietary sodium are processed and canned foods. Seaweed is an excellent calcium-rich source of salt. Sea salt may be used freely as it contains trace amounts of calcium. Salt is critical for health; do not eliminate it from your diet.
Increase hydrochloric acid production (in your stomach) and you'll make better use of the calcium you consume. Lower stomach acid (with antacids, for example) and you will receive little bone benefit from the calcium you ingest. Some ways to acidify:
- Drink lemon juice in water with or after your meal.
- Take 10-25 drops dandelion root tincture in a little water before you eat.
- Use calcium-rich herbal vinegars in your salad dressing; put some on cooked greens and beans, too
Step 5a: Use Supplements
I really wish you wouldn't use calcium supplements. They expose you to dangers and don't prevent fractures. A study in Australia that followed 10,000 white women over the age of 65 for six and a half years found "Use of calcium supplements was associated with increased risk of hip and vertebral fracture; use of Tums antacid tablets was associated with increased risk of fractures of the proximal humerus."
If you insist on supplements, go for calcium-fortified orange juice or crumbly tablets of calcium citrate. Chewable calcium gluconate, calcium lactate, and calcium carbonate are acceptable sources. Dolomite, bone meal, and oyster shell are best avoided as they usually contain lead and other undesirable minerals.
For better bones, take 500 mg magnesium (not citrate) with your calcium. Better yet, wash your calcium pill down with a glass of herbal infusion; that will provide not only magnesium but lots of other bone-strengthening minerals, too.
Calcium supplements are more effective in divided doses. Two doses of 250 mg, taken morning and night, actually provide more usable calcium than a 1000 mg tablet.
Step 5b: Use Drugs
Even if you take hormone therapy (ERT or HRT) you must get adequate calcium to maintain bone mass, according to researchers at Columbia University. That's 1200 - 1500 mg a day (a cup of plain yogurt, two cups of nettle infusion, a splash of mineral-rich vinegar, plus three figs is about that). As you increase your intake of calcium-rich foods/herbs, gradually cut back on your hormone dose if you wish.
Step 6: Break & Enter
Bone density tests are frequently used to push women into taking hormones or drugs. If your bone density is low, use the remedies in this section and schedule another test (for at least six months later) before agreeing to such therapies.
by Susun Weed, Host and Contributing Editor of Wise Woman Way which offers interviews and commentary on women's health and well-being.
There is also a wealth of information at http://www.susunweed.com
There are numerous other articles by Susun Weed at The Healing Journal under the nutrition/diet subtopic (click on at top of each page).