Archive | January 2012

Strontium: a new kind of weapon

In the early 1960s when my first baby tooth fell out I made a big decision: rather than leave it under my pillow for the tooth fairy, I helped my mother put my tooth in an envelope to send it away. Before long a small package arrived in the mail addressed to me. Inside was a button with the picture of a gap-toothed child, and the words, “I gave my tooth to science”.

What did “science” do with my tooth? It turns out I was part of the Montreal Baby Tooth Survey that was tracking the concentration of radioactive strontium-90 in the population. At that time, as the nuclear arms race  heated up there was widespread concern about the dangers of radiation that was being absorbed in bones. And the most available supply of bone that could be used for testing was discarded baby teeth. Correlating these with the date and place of birth, researchers could determine how much radiation was affecting people in the year those teeth were formed.

Now I have a new interest in strontium. Rather than hoping to minimize it, I’m deliberately adding it to my bones. One important distinction: this time it’s not the radioactive isotope, but a naturally-occurring salt called strontium citrate. This strontium is an abundant mineral that is chemically similar to calcium, and absorbed by bones in comparable amounts. Once inside, it increases the activity of the bone-building cells (osteoblasts) while slowing down the clean-up cells (osteoclasts).

Strontium-rich foods include beets, brazil nuts, and cabbage, and a typical daily intake is estimated at 1 – 5 mg.  A wide variety of studies have shown that intakes quite a bit higher than this – between 340 and 680 mg per day – build significant bone density, while reducing fractures. The effect is so pronounced that the pharmaceutical companies have grasped the possibilities and  found a way to combine naturally-occurring strontium that can’t be patented with a synthetic compound that can to make a drug called Protelos, made of strontium ranelate. So far this drug is only marketed in Europe, so Canadians like me can enjoy the benefits of the cheaper, safer over-the-counter form.

Because strontium competes with calcium for absorption, it must be taken hours after calcium-rich foods. If I don’t snack in the evening I can take it at bedtime; otherwise I’m trying to take it in the night when I get up to the washroom.

There is some controversy over strontium as a bone-builder because the necessary dosage so far exceeds the amount of strontium a person would normally consume. Still, despite long-term safety studies, the only issues that have come up so far have been with the expensive synthetic prescription version, which leads to increased incidence of blood clots and drug hypersensitivity syndrome.

One important warning if you choose to take strontium citrate for your bones: make sure you always ingest more calcium than strontium.

Take your silicon, or give up now.

That’s my conclusion after reading about this essential element. The collagen matrix of our bones – the framework to which calcium and other minerals attach – is largely made up of silicon. Its strength and flexibility depend on silicon. Silicon is also the catalyst for the production of collagen, which is then used throughout the body.

A recent study of 35,000 middle aged and older women concluded that supplementing with calcium alone provided no protection from bone fractures. Of course if you’ve read all of my blog posts this is no surprise to you. Plainly, it’s unrealistic and outright erroneous to think bones need just one component to thrive. And  silicon is another vital contributor.

Here’s the puzzle: one quarter of the earth’s crust is made of silicon, so how can our bones possibly be deficient? It seems that while silica (a form of silicon) is widespread in the soil, the plants that take it up don’t form a large enough part of the standard diet. This is because it concentrates in the outside husks of grains, and the husks are removed from most of our foods. If all the grains you eat are unrefined, you may get enough silicon, but a lot of white flour and white rice slip into the diets of most people in my culture; those foods are devoid of silicon. And in my case I don’t consume any wheat because of my gluten intolerance, so my diet surely falls short.

Dr. Gifford Jones describes a study that showed significant improvement to bone mineral density in subjects who took a silicon supplement called BioSil. Their results were convincing enough for me, so I’m taking BioSil. You’ll have to wait until September to find out what my bones think of it, but for now, here is my tip: If you’re inclined to take this supplement DON’T buy the drops! They have an absolutely ghastly flavour. (My husband, who likes strong flavours including natto and durian, got curious about BioSil after watching my facial contortions. So he had to taste it for himself, and agreed it’s outstandingly bad.) Mercifully, BioSil also comes in capsules, so if I ever finish my first bottle I’ll switch to that format. Of course there are also other brands of similar products; I just bought the first one I read about.

There’s more good news about silicon: it improves our nails, hair, and skin. After just three months on it I notice that my nails are stronger. I can’t say my wrinkles have gone away, but here’s hoping. And another piece of good news – although we’ll have to wait longer to see how this works out – silicon supplementation lowers the risk of dementia.

The elusive K2

It turns out that K2 is an oft used name. I knew it applied to the second highest mountain peak in the world, located between Pakistan and China. And I’m telling the whole truth when I tell you that until just now I didn’t know it is a word whispered between illegal drug users. But did YOU know that it is also a vitamin that your bones must have?

Maybe you’ve heard of vitamin K. Have you wondered how it rated the 11th letter of the alphabet, when the previous vitamins were A-B-C-D-E? Why it isn’t vitamin F? Well, it turns out that the Danish scientist who identified it referred to it as the Koagulationsvitamin because of its role in coagulation, and that starts with a K. Eventually scientists figured out that there are several forms of this vitamin, and this initial variety was renamed K1

Without vitamin K1 we are prone to hemorrhaging because the blood doesn’t clot appropriately. It’s easy to get enough of this, though, because it’s abundant in leafy green vegetables. Kale is an excellent source of K1.

Another member of the family, vitamin K2, has a major effect on bone metabolism by regulating calcium. While directing the calcium to our bones, where it’s needed, it effectively transfers it away from our arteries, preventing arteriosclerosis. So the gain to our bones also benefits our hearts.

But here’s the problem: while some vitamin K2 can be formed in the body from vitamin K1, the most biologically active form can’t, so must be taken from food or a supplement. The best food source of K2 is a traditional Japanese fermented soybean food called natto.

As it happens, my husband and one daughter love natto, so every now and then I make a batch for them, a three-day process that involves soaking, cooking, then fermenting soybeans with a culture hand-carried from Japan. I can tell you more about this if you want to know. But most non-Japanese people have a very hard time eating natto. Whether it’s the smell reminiscent of stinky socks, the mucous-like threads that hang from a spoonful, or the overpowering taste – chances are it would take you some time to acquire the taste for this food.

So in the case of vitamin K2, for the sake of your bones I strongly suggest you buy a supplement. To help absorption, take it with a bit of fat because K is fat-soluble.

You must meet Boron.

Never heard of boron? Then your bones may thank you for reading this.

Boron is a trace mineral that affects many of our metabolic processes. Of particular interest to me at the moment is that it plays key roles in our calcium status and bone density. It turns out that boron is a vital cofactor in the body’s use of Vitamin D and magnesium, helping us to metabolize them. Too little boron? That seems to demineralize bones, flushing precious calcium and magnesium into our urine, just as if we were nutritionally deficient.

The good news is that we can get boron from lots of foods: almonds, walnuts, avocados, broccoli, potatoes, pears, prunes, honey, oranges, onions, chick peas, carrots, beans, bananas, red grapes, red apples and raisins are some of the best sources. The bad news? The actual boron content of those foods depends on the soil in which they’re grown.

In these days of factory farming and well-traveled foods it’s not possible to keep track of how much boron we’re actually getting. Still, if you eat a diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds you may well average the recommended 3 mg per day. Estimates of the typical American diet – emphasizing milk, meat, grains and junk – fall far short of that.

It would be easy to recommend that we each take a boron supplement for bone insurance. But isn’t the higher road a balanced diet? It has infinitely more benefits, too.

D is for Dense

Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin, because it’s created in our skin in response to sunshine. What an amazing system – our bodies know how to make what they need with just one necessary addition! In my part of the world, though, I spend at least two thirds of the year with everything except my face and hands covered up, so that vital ingredient is missing. While we can store Vitamin D for periods of time, eight months is way over the limit. Essentially everyone in my latitude is deficient in this vitamin by the time we can peel off our parkas.

What difference does it make? Well, we need this vitamin to prevent practically any disease we don’t want, starting with cancers and cardiovascular disease. The Vitamin D Council site contains a wealth of well-documented information about Vitamin D.

And wouldn’t you know: Vitamin D deficiency is a factor in osteoporosis, because D is needed in order for calcium from the diet to be absorbed in the intestines. Without enough absorbed calcium, the body robs calcium from its best storage supply – the bones. Not enough calcium in the bones? Low density.

In recent years there’s been a lot of controversy over how much Vitamin D is enough. It seems the pharmaceutical companies recommend the lowest amount, and natural practitioners the highest. (Regular medical doctors rely on the drug companies for recommendations.) Everyone agrees, though, that most of us need way more than we’re getting.

So what’s a northerner to do through the long winter? Ideally, the ultimate approach would be to spend every second week at a tropical resort lapping up the rays, but my lifestyle can’t accommodate that. It’s not possible to get all the Vitamin D we need through diet, either; we’re left with supplements. The most absorbable form is D3, or cholecalciferol. We’re each biochemically unique, but through regular testing of my levels I’ve found that I need about 6000 IU per day of this through the winter, and about 3000 IU per day through the summer, just to keep me from deficiency. (That’s just me, so do your own research and don’t copy!) Be sure to always take Vitamin D with a bit of fat to help its absorption, as D is fat soluble.

Trying to build bone density? Keep on top of your Vitamin D.