- Exercise: I changed my gym workout, now choosing the treadmill over an elliptical trainer. This causes more impact to my bones, which should challenge them to grow stronger. I’ve continued using weight machines to work my lower body, but now choose free weights for upper body work, and do those exercises standing up so my spine can carry the extra weight. On days I don’t get to the gym I go for a brisk walk. Keep moving.
- Supplements: I added strontium citrate (680 mg per day), Vitamin K2 (100 mcg per day of the MK7 or menaquinone form), silica, and 3 mg per day of boron. I was already taking B complex, a balanced mineral supplement, fish oil, magnesium, Vitamin D, and Vitamin C.
- Diet: I gave up most dairy products. Yup, to improve my bones I stopped drinking milk. I found out through testing that I’m sensitive to milk (not that I noticed any symptoms) which means it would have tended to cause inflammation, and that is bad for bone health. Also, dairy products metabolize to form acidic residue, which increases bone loss. I get my calcium from leafy greens, nuts, and salmon, with about 600 mg per day from a supplement. (The 1500 mg per day supplement my doctor recommended is way too much!) I put more emphasis on making and drinking mineral-rich bone broths. I already ate a lot of vegetables, and that hasn’t changed. I had already given up gluten, and any foods that contain it. Since lower body weight is one of the major risk factors for osteoporosis, I gave myself permission to abandon my life-long pursuit of weighing a little less. That must have been effective, as I have gained about 3 kg, and mostly feel fine with that :).
- Reading: I devoured some excellent books that helped form my understanding. My favourites are Your Bones by Lara Pizzorno, The Whole Body Approach to Osteoporosis by R. Keith McCormick, The Myth of Osteoporosis by Gillian Sanson, and Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox by Kate Rheaume-Bleue.
- Support: I joined an online community of people who share what they’re learning about osteoporosis. I also continue to meet with a local Health Pursuits Reading/Study Group where lots of wise people have spurred me on with their insights into natural approaches.
- Drugs: I have not taken any. I don’t plan to take any. Since I haven’t needed to return to my nice well-meaning doctor who told me I had no choice but to take Actonel, she doesn’t know. I have a choice, and I’m exercising it by venturing into realms that are beyond her training.
- Followup bone density test: Although I was told I would get an automatic recall, that hasn’t happened. I considered initiating the appointment myself, but then wondered: What would I do differently if I got a worse test result? I’m already doing everything I know how to improve my bones. Since I’m very numbers-oriented, I know I’d obsess over the new scores, way beyond their accuracy or their ability to predict fractures. So I’ve let it go, and I’ve stopped having bad dreams in which I’m about to get my retest scores. One day, if the test centre calls, I’ll go for a repeat test. But I am more than a test score.
Did you catch this headline? Last week all the media outlets reported the results of a German nutrition study that tracked 24,000 people over an 11-year period. Participants who took calcium supplements had almost double the heart attacks of those who didn’t take calcium. The authors concluded that we should ditch the supplements and meet our calcium needs from food sources. While that is generally a very good approach with most nutrients (a handful of supplements can’t atone for a junky diet!), there’s some missing information here: How much calcium were the un-supplemented participants getting from their diets? How much of what forms of calcium were the others taking, and how much were they also getting from their diets? What were their bodies able to absorb?
More important, were they taking vitamin K2? As I mentioned before, it’s responsible for directing calcium to our bones, and away from our arteries. Although bacteria in our intestines can convert some vitamin K1 (the renowned blood-clotter) into K2, even if we ate several cups of leafy greens a day, without a good serving of Japanese natto or a supplement, we’d still be deficient. If the calcium-popping participants weren’t also taking K2 then it’s not surprising their arteries were overloaded.
And what were the participants’ vitamin D levels? There’s an important partnership between vitamin D and vitamin K2; too little of one prevents the other from doing its best work. If the supplementing group had vitamin D levels in any way typical of people in Germany’s northern latitude – their calcium may well have wandered into their hearts.
And what were they all eating? Adding calcium supplements to a highly-processed diet might well have compounded other issues.
In the absence of definitive answers, how is a diligent bone-lover to respond? It was just months ago that my own doctor advised me to take 1500 mg per day of calcium supplements, with no discussion of how I eat or any other supplement than magnesium; I don’t feel at all inclined to go back and ask for her updated advice, especially since she also insisted I take bisphosphonate drugs!
The approach that makes sense to me is to continue with a non-processed diet, based largely on a wide variety of fresh vegetables, with some meat, fish, nuts, fruit, eggs, yogurt, cheese, healthy fats, and non-gluten grains. Consistent with the COMB study I mentioned before I also take K2, D, magnesium, and fish oil. (That report recommended strontium citrate, which I took for a month. However, I figured out it was the cause of some daily headaches that developed, so stopped. I’ll try strontium again soon, as other support nutrients may be better balanced now.) I also take silica, boron, a multi-mineral supplement that includes 500 mg calcium, a vitamin B complex, and vitamin C.
When new information comes out it can be hard to make sense of it. Personally, after reflecting on this news I don’t find it too scary after all.
In my early reading, The Myth of Osteoporosis by Gillian Sanson served to calm me down. The author methodically debunks several key tenets of the medical approach to osteoporosis. For instance, less dense bone is not necessarily brittle bone. (Think of peanut brittle: dense but fragile.) And other factors than low density seem much more significant to the question of fracture risk. For example, risk of falling, regardless of bone density, is a better predictor of broken bones.
Dr. Alan Gaby, in Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis, as well as in his mammoth work entitled Nutritional Medicine, outlines a very practical response to osteoporosis. That brings me to the gluten story.
The gluten story
Almost two years before my bone density test, a chance encounter with an alternative health practitioner convinced me to try eliminating gluten from my diet. While demonstrating a novel non-invasive testing method she diagnosed me with low levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, and iron. Although I was aghast at her suggestion that I was malnourished (“But you don’t know me: I eat an excellent balanced diet!”), I set about researching symptoms of gluten intolerance, and found my family tree riddled with them, although never diagnosed as gluten issues: anemia, peripheral neuropathy, colon cancer, depression. The information was compelling enough that I made radical changes in my eating, and watched the following symptoms all disappear: daily headaches, eczema, insomnia, joint pain. I felt healthier than I had in decades, and I watched my nutrient levels rebuilding. When my daughter eliminated gluten, her depression and brain fog resolved within a week, as did her persistent bloating after meals. My sister’s “irritable bowel” was healed.
In those who are sensitive to gluten, ingesting a small amount causes severe inflammation of the small intestine in the area where several key nutrients are meant to be absorbed. This prevents their absorption, resulting in malnutrition. The effects of this can impact any system or organ of the body. The only treatment for gluten intolerance (or celiac disease, which is the best-known form) is strict adherence to a gluten free diet for life.
Because there is no pharmaceutical solution to this, the conventional medical profession has paid little attention to the growing problem, believed to affect around 1% of the population, although most are undiagnosed.
But now I learned something new and troubling from Dr. Alan Gaby’s work: Osteoporosis is commonly caused by gluten intolerance, and can even be the primary manifestation of celiac disease! So it’s quite likely that my bones never did reach the peak density they should have in my 20s, and the bone that did form has been leaching away silently for many years.
Enter the medical profession. They happily diagnose osteoporosis. They have a drug for that.