According to a recent report, about 30 percent of all postmenopausal women in the U.S. have osteoporosis. And at least 40 percent of them will suffer one or more fragility fractures.
Unfortunately, the mainstream’s solution to the problem is all wrong. And is likely to cause far more harm than good. In a moment, I’ll tell you what you can and should do to help build strong bones.
But first, let’s back up…
You can’t build on top of a rotten foundation
As you probably already know, I advise against taking any of the popular osteoporosis drugs — such as Fosamax, Boniva and Actonel — which artificially increase bone density.
As I reported in the January 2015 issue of my Insider’s Cures newsletter, several large clinical trials show these drugs don’t significantly lower the risk of bone fractures over the lifetime of a patient. (You can access my newsletter archives by visiting www.DrMicozzi.com and logging into the Subscribers Sign-In with your username and password. Not yet a subscriber? Simply click here.
Plus, research is beginning to reveal that women who take these drugs for more than five years can even suffer from atypical bone fractures — meaning their bones break spontaneously, even without a fall or major force.
These dangerous drugs attempt to build new bone cells on top of old, unhealthy bone cells. And you can’t build a strong structure on top of a rotten foundation. No wonder the research is starting to show increases in atypical bone fractures.
The other mainstream treatment you hear about when it comes to bone health is calcium supplementation. But that approach is problematic as well…
The dangers of calcium supplementation
Mainstream doctors generally believe that nutritional supplements are dangerous. Or — at best — useless.
But they make an exception for calcium supplements.
In fact, the National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends taking 2,000 to 2,500 mg of calcium per day, which is the limit established by the National Academy of Sciences in 2011.
Indeed, many U.S. doctors recommend you take calcium supplements for bone health, especially if you’re an older woman with declining estrogen levels, which can weaken bones.
However, in most cases, I strongly recommend against taking calcium supplements, as they can lead to serious health issues. (You can read more about these issues in my Daily Dispatch archives. Simply visit www.DrMicozzi.com and type “calcium supplements” into the right-hand search bar.)
For one, high calcium intake from supplements increases the risk of dementia, kidney stones and prostate cancer. Second, calcium supplements may affect your thyroid’s hormone production. Third, it can interfere with certain antibiotics. (Although I generally advise against taking these drugs in most instances.) Fourth, excess calcium can interfere with absorption of other minerals taken at the same time.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, research links calcium supplementation with cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 killer in the U.S.
How does it happen?
Calcium supplements can lead to excess calcium in the blood, which contributes to calcification of the arteries, also known as arteriosclerosis. This “hardening of the arteries” is the underlying cause of heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease of the legs.
So, instead of supplementation, I advise that you get your daily calcium from a balanced diet.
Balance your diet with whole foods
Calcium absorbed from food sources doesn’t have the same effect in the body as calcium from supplements. In fact, it’s impossible to get too much calcium from food. And research links higher levels of calcium from the diet to greater health benefits.
You can easily add more calcium to your daily diet. Rich dietary sources include beans, dairy, dark leafy greens (like spinach, kale, collards, and bok choy), oranges, meat, seafood, and sesame and chia seeds.
And you don’t need much. For example, just one cup of milk or yogurt provides 300 to 400 mg of calcium, which is about one third of your daily requirement.
I’ll tell you another reason why I know calcium isn’t the answer to preventing and reversing osteoporosis…
During my medical training, I went to Southeast Asia and China for research fieldwork. I found that populations there are lactose intolerant. And they lack the gene to digest lactose, or milk sugar, during adulthood. Overall, they just don’t produce or eat dairy — the primary source of calcium in western diets.
So, according to western logic, they should have had higher rates of osteoporosis, right?
Osteoporosis was extremely uncommon in Asia.
This observation led me to conclude that osteoporosis is not about adding more and more calcium to the body.
Europe leads the way
In Europe, they’re beginning to see the light. And they’re backing off from recommending high amounts of calcium supplementation. They even seem to recognize the potential dangers of taking calcium supplements
In fact, according to new guidelines published by the European Menopause and Andropause Society, dietary sources of calcium are preferable in all cases.
However, in certain situations, they feel calcium supplementation is required. For example, a vegan woman might not get enough calcium through diet alone. (Just one of many reasons why I always advise against restrictive diets like veganism.)
But even in these isolated cases, the EMAS recommends much lower amounts of calcium than similar organizations in the U.S.
They conclude that just 700 to 1,000 mg of calcium daily is sufficient. And they say some guidelines that go up to 1,200 mg per day are too high.
Furthermore, they don’t recommend ever using osteoporosis drugs in postmenopausal women. Instead, they emphasize diet and lifestyle.
It sounds like the Europeans have it figured out. (Almost.)
Unfortunately, the EMAS doesn’t get my full approval. They suggest providing estrogen hormone replacement to postmenopausal women for treatment of symptoms such as hot flashes. But, as I’ll explain next Monday, new evidence links hormone replacement therapy with a significant increase in breast cancer risk.
In the meantime, let’s get back to building stronger bones naturally…
The natural answer for building bone health is increasing your intake of vitamin D, which is needed by every cell in your body — and of course, especially your bones.
As I learned in medical school in the 1970s, vitamin D is the real way the body absorbs and balances calcium in bones and other tissues. In fact, clinical trials for treating women with osteoporosis show that vitamin D is paramount to building and sustaining bone health.
So — skip the drugs and calcium supplements.
Instead, follow a balanced diet that includes dairy, meat, and seafood. You’ll fortify your bones with foods naturally rich in this essential mineral.
I also recommend supplementing daily with 10,000 IU of vitamin D. Especially at this time of year in North America, when the sun isn’t high enough in the sky to activate vitamin D production in the skin. Look for an easy-to-use liquid form of vitamin D, with or without astaxanthin, a powerhouse marine carotenoid.
I’ve also often reported about the benefits of walking, including building strong bones. So, make sure take a moderately brisk walk or other activity. It takes only about 15 to 20 minutes per day — and no more than 150 minutes per week.
“Calcium in the prevention of postmenopausal osteoporosis: EMAS Clinical Guide,” Maturitas January 2018; 107: 7-12
“Continuing Bisphosphonate Treatment for Osteoporosis — For Whom and for How Long?” N Engl J Med 2012; 366:2051-2053
“Atypical Femoral Fracture Risk in Patients Treated With Bisphosphonates. Comment on ‘Increasing Occurrence of Atypical Femoral Fractures Associated With Bisphosphonate Use.’” Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(12):936-937