Bones define the very structure of your body. These constructs of protein, minerals, and collagen allow you to stand, walk, and resist gravity. They also serve as the body’s principal storehouse for essential minerals. Most importantly, bones are living tissues that are helped or hurt by our everyday lifestyle choices as well as environmental factors. When bone health fails, the body fails, and the result can be increased fracture risk from the too-familiar condition known as osteoporosis.

To understand how bone health can be undermined, we must first understand how healthy bone is created and maintained. Bone cells called osteoblasts are responsible for generating new bone (osteogenesis) in an ongoing process known as remodeling. As the osteoblasts are doing their job, other bone cells called osteoclasts are doing theirs — resorbing old bone to make way for new, healthy bone. Obviously the dance between osteoblasts and osteoclasts must be a carefully choreographed one. Excessive resorption, or insufficient new growth, will result in brittle bones. A naturally-occurring example of this condition is the rare genetic disorder known as ontogenesis imperfecta,

Is your bone health at risk? Bone health can be jeopardized by a wide variety of factors. Many of them are hormonal in nature, such as an excess of cortisone from stress, deficient amounts of progesterone or testosterone, or the effects of medroxyprogesterone acetate (Provera®). Other risk factors include celiac disease, lack of exercise (bone growth is stimulated by weight-bearing activity), poor nutrition, alcohol abuse, and deficiencies of folic acid, Vitamin B12 and Vitamin K.

Childhood and menopause are the two most critical periods for bone health. If you’re a woman approaching menopause, you can expect to face a significant loss of bone density in the near future. Diminished bone density is a natural consequence of aging, but like any condition which weakens the structure of the bone it can cause serious health problems and an increased risk of fractures. It’s no surprise that so many women turn to medical science to treat this condition. But it may surprise you to learn that the prescribed “cure” can be worse than the disease.

Fosomax®, Actonel®, Zometa®, Boniva®, Dirdronel® — these are familiar names in doctor’s offices and pharmacies. These medicines are biophosphonates, a class of drug approved by the FDA and widely prescribed for osteoporosis and other bone-related conditions for over 15 years. According to the April 2009 issue of Health Alert, biophosphonates can cause devastating side effects, including increased rates of both hip fractures and jaw necrosis (jawbone death following dental procedures). Biophosphonates inhibit bone resorption, causing the bone to become thicker and thicker without allowing for the extra blood supply needed to keep the bone alive and well. The bones become denser, but they also become even more brittle and prone to injury than before. Even worse, biophosphonates have a half-life of over 10 years — longer than the entire bone remodeling cycle.

How, then, can you keep your bones strong the natural way? First, look out for environmental factors that have a negative impact on bone health. In addition to such obvious villains as alcohol and smoking, steer clear of sodas and other carbonated drinks. These products contain high levels of phosphorus, which can be very harmful to bone growth. Even fluoride, that ubiquitous additive to our drinking water and toothpaste, can interfere with the formation of collagen necessary for healthy bones. Also, be aware that pesticides, heavy metals, and other poisons are impossible for the body to remove naturally, so they can wreak mayhem on the body’s mechanisms for a very long time.

Proper nutrition definitely plays a major role in bone health, but there’s a lot more to it than just popping a calcium supplement every day. For one thing, the body absorbs different forms of calcium with varying levels of efficiency; in the case of calcium carbonate, available in over-the-counter antacids that many people take as a “supplement,” you might as well be eating chalk for the actual benefit your bones are likely to receive. Calcium citrate and calcium lactate are both better absorbed by the body than calcium carbonate. Also keep in mind that any calcium requires the presence of Vitamin D before the body can absorb it and transport it to bone tissues. Insufficient Vitamin D can also cause your osteoclasts to work overtime, further weakening the bone. Many calcium supplements come with some Vitamin D added. Spending some time in the sunshine every day is a simple, natural solution. Unfortunately, sun block can prevent Vitamin D absorption, so supplementation is essential. While the RDA for Vitamin D is 400 IU per day, a minimum of 1000 IU is the current recommendation of most experts. Make sure you’re getting a wide spectrum of other minerals too, along with the B and K vitamins.

Herbs traditionally have been used with great success to build healthy bones. According to one clinical study of 28 menopausal women, use of Chinese herbs for one year resulted in an average increase of 3.4% in bone density with few or no side effects.

Beyond supplementation, your lifestyle for bone health should include drinking plenty of (non-fluoridated) water, exercising regularly, making healthy dietary choices, and maintaining normal hormonal and pH levels. Our bodies prefer a pH level of around 7.2, but eating too many refined foods can create an overly acidic environment that works against normal body functioning. And be sure to avoid excess stress, proteins, or table salt (unbleached sea salt is the only salt that contains nutrients the body can use).

But what about that old calcium standby, milk? Believe it or not, dairy products have been associated with an increased risk of fractures. A Harvard Nurses study of 77,671 women revealed that fracture rates were higher among those who drank three of more glasses of milk per day. It’s just another compelling reminder that not everything touted to be “good for you” actually is.

Our bones, like so many other components of the human body, have an extraordinary ability to heal, rebuild, and maintain themselves. But it’s up to you to give them the tools and support they need to get the job done.

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