Looking to build bones? You just need some calcium, right? Correct, but that’s not all. We have all heard that you need calcium and vitamin D to build strong bones. But did you know that magnesium and manganese are also needed for proper mineralization of bone? Or that the trace mineral strontium increases both bone density and bone quality while silicon increases the structural integrity of bone? It turns out that our bodies use many vitamins and minerals to build our bones and those nutrients are needed in appropriate quantities and ratios to each other.

Our bones need balanced amounts of calcium, magnesium (nearly as much as calcium), copper, zinc, manganese, boron, strontium, vanadium, silica, vitamin D and vitamin K to build healthy bones. One study found that a combination of copper, manganese and zinc was more effective than calcium alone for preserving bone mass in menopausal women. In fact, supplementing with just calcium can actually deplete magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, manganese and silica needed for bone building. Phosphorus is a component of calcium mineral crystals in the bone. Taking in enough phosphorus to prevent deficiency is important to preserve bone mass, but excess (found in refined foods, especially soda) can increase parathyroid activity and increase bone loss. Excess sodium (also found in sodas and refined foods) also decreases bone mineral density.

Speaking of refined foods and sodas, let’s talk about food. Anything that causes chronic inflammation of the digestive system (consuming foods we are sensitive to, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, Celiac, etc) is strongly associated with a decrease in bone mineral density due to poor absorption of minerals through the inflamed gut wall. Traditional wisdom tells us that dairy products, especially milk, are the best way to get calcium for strong bones. Modern research, however, has found that there is not actually a strong correlation between dairy consumption and bone strength. This is presumably due to the frequency of dairy and lactose intolerance in adults. Similarly, gluten causes chronic low-level inflammation for many people making it more difficult for them to absorb the nutrients they need to maintain or preserve bone density. So, for some people, going gluten- and dairy-free can make a big difference in bone strength.

It is also very important to get the right amount of protein in your diet. Excessive amounts of protein (taking paleo diets to a high protein extreme) and too little protein (poorly balanced vegan or vegetarian diets) can both take a big toll on bone health. Interestingly, research has found that soy has a significant protective effect on bone density in menopausal women. No big surprise, but sugar intake is associated with decreased bone density and an increase in kidney stones (from the calcium that used to be in your bones). Caffeine in general seems to decrease bone density, but appears to be more of an issue with coffee and colas. Tea appears to be protective, even with caffeine.

Of course, we can’t forget the pivotal role that hormones play in maintaining strong bones. Estrogen, progesterone, DHEA and testosterone all play major roles in maintaining and strengthening bone density. Declining levels of these hormones are a major factor in bone loss as we age. Increased parathyroid activity directly lowers bone mineral density. The parathyroid can be over stimulated by hyperthyroid disease, over-supplementing with thyroid hormone (TSH levels below the normal range), and too much phosphorus (put down that Coke or Pepsi!). In addition to maintaining healthy hormone levels, weight bearing exercise is also a must for preserving bone density. This can include weight training, formal exercise programs or simple things like gardening, walking and yoga.

In summary, for optimum bone health:
1. Soy is in (if you don’t need to avoid it for other reasons), dairy and gluten are out.
2. Tea is in, coffee and soda are out.
3. Protein, sodium and potassium need to be balanced.
4. Sugar, as usual, is not our friend.
5. Hormone balance is critically important and should be monitored by your physician.
6. Weight bearing exercise is still important.
7. Bone building supplements should go beyond just calcium and vitamin D. They should be broad-spectrum and well-balanced products like New Chapter’s Bone Strength Take Care and Professional Health Products’ Calcium Osseoapatite Plus.

by Becky Andrews ND*, MSA