Pop extra calcium and maybe Vitamin D. If that doesn’t work, maybe Fosamax and some extra estrogen. These are the only options recommended to the many, many women diagnosed with bone density problems.
Patients have looked at me like a crazy person when I tell them they can effectively build bone by supplementing or eating more Vitamin C, Magnesium, Vitamin K2, and trace minerals, and by optimizing Vitamin D; and that taking calcium supplements can actually be dangerous, increasing the risk of heart disease. ”Why didn’t my doctor tell me this?”
Basically, bones are made up of much more than calcium. Even on a Standard American Diet, most people get enough calcium but not enough of the other co-factors for bone building. If there are other stressors or hormonal imbalances in place, this is a recipe for systemic mineral balance issues, one manifestation of which could be bone density problems. (Other possible manifestations: arteriosclerosis, cardiac issues, kidney stones, digestive problems, muscular issues, hypertension, bone spurs, just to name a few.)
However, biphosphonate osteoporosis drugs like Fosamax only exacerbate mineral imbalances by putting an artificial damper on calcium loss from bones, without regard to systemic mineral equilibrium or metabolic need. One scary biphosphonate side effect is osteonecrosis of the jaw. Yikes! The effects of systemic mineral imbalances are more insidious (see my blog post on this topic) and the long-term side effects of biphosphonates are only starting to be seen.
A Recipe for Healthy Bones
I recommend stopping calcium supplements (which can actually be dangerous), and eating the following foods on a daily or regular basis:
- Home-made bone broth (for absorbable calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, trace minerals and matrix compounds like collagen)
- Plentiful green, cruciferous and root vegetables (for minerals and cofactors)
- Grass-fed butter, ghee and cream, organ meats and/or fermented foods (for Vitamin K2)
- Fruits and vegetables high in Vitamin C
- Seaweed, organ meats, and unrefined sea salt (for trace minerals)
- Organ meats and egg yolks (for retinol-form Vitamin A and other fat-soluble factors)
- Fermented cod liver oil (for Vitamins D and retinol-form A), possibly mixed with high vitamin butter oil (for Vitamin K2)
The above “recipe” tries to mimic the nutritional composition of traditional diets as documented by Dr. Weston A. Price among people with excellent bone and dental health. Many of these foods are no longer common aspects of the Standard American Diet, but are regaining popularity amongst Paleo and Weston A. Price-style eaters for their many health benefits.
Especially for those who can’t eat the above foods, supplementing for some of these co-factors may be helpful. The dosages on Vitamin D, K2, Magnesium, Iodine, etc determined through the research of Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet might be a helpful resource. Vitamin D levels must be optimized by way of periodic blood testing.
An ancestral diet low in mineral-binding phytate antinutrients found in grains and legumes will also improve calcium absorption, as will the reduction in acid-forming food that comes with the elimination of grain.
The best diet is only as good as one’s ability to digest it. This is why healthy, efficient digestion is a critical co-factor for proper bone mineralization. A few considerations:
- Healthy stomach acid production: Adequate hydrochloric acid production in the stomach is necessary in order to chelate and absorb ingested minerals. Many people don’t produce a healthy amount of HCl, for a variety of reasons– common ones being bacterial overgrowth in the stomach, nutrient deficiencies (e.g. zinc), dehydration, or sympathetic dominance (the nervous system is too ramped up by stressors to prioritize digestive functions like the secretion of gastric juices).
- Gallbladder/bile problems: Healthy and timely bile secretion is needed for absorption of healthy fats, including essential fatty acids which (albeit in minute amounts) are a cofactor in bone health.
- Dysbiosis: We have a symbiotic community of bacteria in our gut that is easily put out of whack by an unhealthy diet, antibiotics, exposure to toxins, and other issues. “Dysbiosis,” or an unhealthy imbalance of gut microbes, can lead to issues with absorbing nutrients including the needed factors for bone health.
- Food intolerances/toxins: Immune reactions against food proteins and toxins can inflame the gut lining and lead to absorption issues. Therefore, ruling out intolerance to major problem foods, like gluten and dairy, or even paleo staples like eggs and nuts, can be helpful.
Working with a nutritional therapist, functional medicine doc or other knowledgeable practitioner can be very helpful in troubleshooting digestion and nutrition, and supporting any of the above issues.
Other helpful factors
Acupuncture: Acupuncture can be a helpful therapy in supporting mineral balance through its endocrine-balancing action. I don’t see this as a substitute for what I outline above, but it could be helpful in boosting bone mineralization in some people, especially post-menopausal women.
Exercise: As far as I know, the standard medical advice on weight-bearing exercise is accurate, and this also makes intuitive sense. Humans are designed for some level of daily physical activity; and bone mineralization is stimulated by piezoelectric stress, which occurs with bearing weight and the contraction of skeletal muscles.
Sunshine: This is the best way to generate vitamin D, and is also beneficial for circadian rhythms which can have hormone balancing effects.
I hope these suggestions inspire those seeking alternatives to nasty drugs like Fosamax!