Your bones are your body’s support network, yet they’re often overlooked until they suffer some sort of damage. With an estimated 4.7 million people in the UK affected by osteoporosis, meaning their bones are weak and at risk of fracturing, you may be one of the many people walking around with poor bone health. The condition doesn’t only affect women – 6% of men aged over 50 worldwide will develop osteoporosis.
If you want to improve your bone health and ensure your bones stay healthy in the future, read on.
Your bones consist of a network of calcium laid down on strands of collagen, a type of protein. The calcium provides strength for your bones.
Bones aren’t static; they’re constantly being remodelled, with old bone broken down and new bone formed. This helps to repair any damage and keep bones strong. Cells called osteoblasts build up bone by creating new collagen and recruiting calcium. Other cells known as osteoclasts signal bones to release calcium back into your bloodstream, breaking down old bone in need of being renewed.
This process should be in balance so your skeleton stays strong. If the osteoclasts work faster than osteoblasts, bones are demolished more quickly than they’re rebuilt.
Functional medicine aims to discover the causes of disease, so let’s find out what’s happening in the body for the osteoclast signals to become muddled.
You might connect your immune system with coughs and colds, but science has discovered your immune system affects your bone health, too. Certain inflammatory immune chemicals stimulate osteoclast activity, those cells responsible for breaking down bones.
The trillions of bacteria living in your gut, collectively called your microbiome, interact with your immune system, sending out signals to either increase chronic inflammation or reduce it. A healthy gut bacterial ecosystem controls those inflammatory immune signals affecting bone health.
Secondly, you need vitamins and minerals to build bones, and your gut extracts these for you from your food. Healthy gut bacteria must feed on plant fibre so they can release chemicals called short-chain fatty acids, important for keeping your intestinal lining healthy. If your microbiome is out of balance, the lining won’t function well, and you’ll be unable to absorb nutrients effectively, however healthy your diet.
Your gut plays another important role in bone health – hormone regulation. The female hormones oestrogen and progesterone (also produced by men) are both crucial for bone health. Progesterone is often overlooked in connection with building bones, and this hormone declines rapidly after the menopause when many women start to experience issues with bone health.
At any age, a healthy population of gut bacteria is important to ensure balanced hormones.
Many people believe consuming plenty of calcium is enough for healthy bones, and it’s sensible to ensure you eat plenty of calcium-containing foods, especially green leafy vegetables, beans, tofu, nuts, seeds and fish with bones.
But bones need a host of other nutrients to develop properly. All the calcium in the world won’t help if you’re deficient in other nutrients – in fact it could do more harm than good by creating nutrient imbalances.
Your bones need a good supply of magnesium which regulates bone-building cells and can reduce inflammation. It’s found in seeds, beans, avocados, lentils and nuts.
Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium from your food, regulate inflammation, and help calcium latch onto the bone matrix. It’s primarily obtained from sunlight so you’ll likely need a supplement in winter. Meanwhile, vitamin K2 helps calcium to be attracted into your bones. It’s found in leafy greens, olive oil, egg yolks and fermented soya. Other important bone-friendly minerals include selenium, boron, manganese, copper and zinc.
Collagen provides the strength for your bone matrix. Ensuring you’re eating sufficient dietary protein means your body has the building blocks to construct the collagen. Many people don’t digest protein very well, particularly if they don’t produce much stomach acid. Antacids will neutralise the acid in your stomach, reducing protein availability, plus the older you get, the less stomach acid you’ll produce.
Healthy lifestyle habits for optimal bone health, aside from nurturing your gut, include regular weight-bearing exercises like rebounding on a trampoline, walking, jogging, tennis and dancing, as well as avoiding fizzy drinks because these contain a substance called phosphoric acid, linked with poor bone mineral density.
If you’d like to naturally support your bone health, you’re in right place. Functional medicine will discover the causes of your poor bone health, be they poor gut health, nutrient deficiencies, chronic inflammation or hormone imbalances. For example, testing can reveal whether your microbiome is unbalanced, and with this information, dietary and lifestyle modifications can put things right.
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