Building better bones—without more calcium

When it comes to the problem of osteoporosis (“brittle bones”) and hip fractures in elderly women, the focus has been on calcium in the diet. The government’s confusing and contradictory recommendations on dietary calcium have not helped.

But getting enough calcium from the diet or from supplements can be quite a challenge (see the article “Protect yourself from the government’s blatantly wrong ‘requirements’” for more on this topic).

The good news is, there are other— better—options for protecting your bones.

In fact, new research shows that one of the best ways to prevent brittle bones and hip fractures is to get plenty of a nutrient I’ve covered in these pages quite a bit recently: omega-3 fatty acids.

Scientists analyzed blood cells from women with and without a history of broken hips as part of the large, long-term study known as the Women’s Health Initiative.1 (I helped organize the forerunner of this study at the National Institutes of Health during the mid-1980’s.) They found higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids were associated with a lower risk of suffering a hip fracture.

Researchers also looked at omega-6 fatty acids (a prominent ingredient in the packaged, processed foods that are such a large part of the standard American diet). They found the higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, the higher the risk of hip fracture. Women with the highest levels had up to double the risk.

The researchers attributed the increased risk of bone loss and fractures to inflammation. This also helps explain the protective role of omega-3s. Omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation, while omega-3s help reduce it.

In the February 2013 issue of Insiders’ Cures, I described how controlling inflammation is the key to controlling the damage and pain that occurs to joint cartilage in arthritis. And I also explained that to benefit the joint cartilage, it’s critical to support the underlying bone.

A complete approach to bone and joint health should control inflammation to prevent arthritis, osteoporosis, and fracture.

What to add—and what to cut

As usual, wholistic, natural approaches are the best options for protecting your bones.

Osteoporosis drugs have shown disastrous side effects. I consulted on one recent case where the drug given to strengthen the hip bone caused erosion of the jaw bone (mandible) leading to an abscess that was permanently disabling— and nearly fatal.

So here is yet another reason to make sure you get sufficient omega-3s from diet and/or supplements.

I recommend everyone take at least 1 to 2 grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil. Ideally, you should be looking for dietary sources of omega-3s, such as salmon, sardines, and other fatty fish. Of course, if you don’t like fish, purified omega-3s and fish oil supplements are widely available.

It is very important to use a high-quality fish oil supplement, which has been distilled to remove toxic metals like mercury, so you don’t get the wrong results—like the recent study on fish oil and prostate cancer from the statisticians in Seattle (see the August 5, 2013 Daily Dose Something smells fishy—and it’s not the fish” for more on this debacle). Nordic Naturals makes some good quality products that I have personally tested over the years.

It’s worth noting that this study also suggests that plant sources of omega-3s were just as effective as fish sources. Good plant sources of omega-3s include flaxseeds, chia seeds, cauliflower, and walnuts.

Flaxseed supplements are also widely available.

Of course, it’s not just about what to add to your diet, but about what to cut. Avoid omega-6 sources. Linolenic acid comprises 99 percent of the omega-6s in the U.S. diet. It’s found in corn, soybean, safflower and sunflower oils.

Between corn oil, corn syrup, and genetically mutated “sweet corn” itself (see “The curious case of corn”), we have reached the point where this once great Native American food regrettably needs to be avoided altogether, in all its forms. The No. 2 crop grown by U.S. farmers today has simply become toxic (and that’s not even counting the pesticides). And, unfortunately, our No. 1 crop—soy—is now no better.

Note to big agriculture: you have a growing problem.

1. “The association of red blood cell n-3 and n-6 fatty acids with bone mineral density and hip fracture risk in the women’s health initiative.” J Bone Miner Res 2013; 28(3): 505-515