Strong bones reflect a healthy lifestyle

by Dr. Sheila Dunn-Merritt, N.D.

This article was originally published in May 2003

(May 2003) — You assume that your bones are strong and healthy. After all, if you’ve never broken a bone, why would you even think your bones are fragile or in danger of imminent fracture?

More than 29 million Americans have osteopenia, or low bone mass. It is estimated that at least 1.5 million fractures occur each year as a direct result of osteoporosis. Often called the “Silent Disease,” you may never know you have bone loss until you fracture a bone.

What is osteoporosis?
Literally meaning “porous bone,” osteoporosis is a condition in which your bones actually lose mass and density while their structure becomes weaker and more brittle until they are dangerously prone to break. Actually, every year, an estimated 250,000 Americans suffer a broken hip. About 50 percent of the time, a broken hip leads to a permanent loss of mobility and independence.

What causes osteoporosis
We know that bone density is affected by many factors, including dietary choices, activity level, intestinal absorption of nutrients and decreases in the hormone estrogen. The consequences of certain life choices that usually begin being made in the early teens — including smoking, restrictive dieting and excessive exercise — also affects bone density and can contribute to osteoporosis.

Who is most at risk?
You may be at risk and should be evaluated if you:

  • are a thin, small-boned woman;
  • have stopped menstruation due to an eating disorder or excessive exercise;
  • have a family history of osteoporosis or family members who have lost inches in height as they aged;
  • have bone loss in your teeth;
  • use medications including cortisone and steroid drugs, long-term thyroid medication or Depo-Provera for birth control;
  • have a history of any of the following: smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, a low-calcium diet, inadequate exercise or restrictive dieting.

How do I get screened and evaluated?
Dexa Scan of the hip and low back is the most accurate test available to determine bone density and risk assessment for osteoporosis. The Bone Resorption urine test can tell you the rate at which you are losing bone mass. Since bones grow slowly, it is not possible to determine the effectiveness of corrective treatment with another Dexa Scan for at least 12 to 16 months. This urine test immediately informs if the corrective treatments are working effectively.

Osteo genetic markers found in the blood DNA are highly specific and individualized and reveal risk factors for bone loss and, more importantly, specific ways to reduce the risk of bone loss. Since bone loss is accelerated as menopause ensues, these tests are essential if you are going into the menopausal years, especially if you choose to avoid hormone replacement therapy.

What can I do?
There are a number of ways to naturally support the strength of your bones as well as effectively treat osteoporosis. Prevention starts with an active lifestyle including walking, hiking, dancing, jogging or any movement that is weight bearing, ideally five times per week for 30 minutes minimum. Swimming is not as effective as the previously mentioned exercises.

Weight lifting two times a week is beneficial. Though there have been no studies on the benefits of yoga or Pilates exercise, sensible wisdom suggests you could benefit from these forms of exercise as well.

Hormones play a pivotal role in the process of bone formation and restoration. Though estrogen’s effect on the bone is to slow the overall rate of bone loss, estrogen will not build bone appreciably. Since the latest information regarding the long-term use of estrogen is not favorable, its use for the treatment of osteoporosis should be considered carefully. If needed, choose a low-dose, natural form of estrogen.

It has been demonstrated that progesterone has some bone formation activity and may be used in the treatment of osteoporosis in combination with other treatments for best overall effect.

Ipriflavone, a natural substance derived from soy, has been shown to build bone density in doses of 600mg daily. More than 150 studies demonstrate the safety and efficacy of ipriflavone on bone.

Mineral supplementation including calcium citrate (1000 to 1500mg), magnesium (400mg), vitamin D (dose varies with individual genetic variability) and the trace minerals, is essential in the building of bone. A diet rich in these substances is recommended.

As a naturopathic physician, I approach health challenges from a comprehensive vantage point. I use testing to determine your level of risk, followed by supplementation with key nutrients and supporting overall intestinal absorption. I recommend eating a diet rich in nutrients as well as reducing sugars, phosphates and caffeine, and implementing an exercise program. These are all integral to the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.

Dr. Sheila Dunn-Merritt is an experienced naturopath, educator and author. As one of the first graduates from Bastyr University, she has been in practice more than 20 years. She has lectured widely and has published several articles. Her first book, “Treating Osteoporosis,” is available through Random House Publishing or at her office at 425-452-9366.

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