The key to understanding bone health is understanding minerals.
The primary mineral in your skeleton is calcium, but bones do not live on calcium alone. Drop a piece of chalk (calcium carbonate) and it will easily shatter. No one wants an all-calcium skeleton.
Although calcium supplements are the most common strategy for maintaining strong bones, Americans are much more likely to be deficient in magnesium—a mineral that provides strength and a bit of flexibility to bone tissue.
Without magnesium, bones have trouble absorbing calcium, so calcium is either excreted through the kidneys or builds up in the blood and soft tissue. Excess calcium can result in symptoms such as bone spurs, kidney stones, constipation, and joint pain. It can increase risk of heart attack and stroke, and can even lead to weaker bones.
Yet they put additional calcium in everything—especially foods marketed to women. Meanwhile, dietary magnesium is at an all-time low. Some doctors and other health professionals are increasingly prescribing magnesium supplements to counteract the calcium excess.
A stable skeleton requires the right balance of minerals. Anything that upsets this balance compromises bone health.
Mineral deficiency due to malnutrition or too much of a single mineral due to overzealous supplementation are the most direct ways to disturb this balance, but a change in hormones can also alter bone’s ability to process minerals effectively. For women over 50, this can sometimes lead to a bone weakening disease called osteoporosis.
As osteoporosis progresses, bones become porous and fragile, increasing the risk of fractures and breaks. The modern fix for this problem is a class of drugs called bisphosphonates, better known by brand names Fosamax, Actonel, and Boniva.
Bisphosphonates emerged in the1990s, at about the same time doctors started acquiring machines to measure bone loss, and Medicare began to cover scans.
Bone scans give doctors a valuable tool in earlier bone loss detection, but critics say the system has mostly served to boost drug sales. The bone scan threshold is set so that even women who show a minor dip in density (osteopenia) are encouraged to take a bisphosphonate.
Bisphosphonates act on bone’s ability to process minerals. While this treatment strategy has demonstrated some improvement in mineral density and may slow the process of deterioration, its ability to create a stronger, healthier body is debatable. Common side effects include bloody urine, painful urination, esophageal irritation, lower back or side pain, flu-like symptoms, and anxiety.
In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a review of long term bisphosphonate trials in the New England Journal of Medicine. They found that these drugs can lead to “rare but serious adverse events” such as femur fractures, esophageal cancer, and jawbone death. Risk rose the longer the drug was taken.
Food as Medicine
Serious cases may require drug intervention or calcium supplementation, but most of us should think of food as our main bone medicine. Nourishing bone- or mushroom-broths, greens, beans, and root vegetables are the safest and most effective sources of the minerals our bones need to be healthy.
While you’re at it, cut back on sodium, sugar, caffeine, soda, and alcohol. These foods have been shown to harm bone health.
Dairy is known for being the top bone food, but most of this reputation comes from a strong marketing campaign rather than hard science. There is little evidence that dairy protects against bone loss any better than other sources of calcium. In fact, studies show that people who drink lots of milk have a higher risk of osteoporosis and fracture.
For those seeking a better beverage to boost healthy bone minerals, consider making a tea from the following herbs.
Stinging nettle leaf has a reputation thousands of years old for treating arthritis and general weakness. It is a good source of calcium and magnesium, as well as silica and boron—other minerals important to bone health. Nettle leaf is rich in vitamins C and D, which both improve calcium absorption, and vitamin K to make for stronger bones.
Alfalfa can develop roots which penetrate 20 to 30 feet into the earth, and leaves which provide an excellent resource of bioavailable bone minerals: calcium, magnesium, boron, silica, and zinc. Alfalfa leaf is a good source Vitamins D and K, as well as phytoestrogens which can gently smooth the hormonal fluctuations that can lead to bone problems.
When selecting alfalfa, consider your source. Some alfalfa grown in the United States is genetically engineered.
Like alfalfa, red clover is also a good source of minerals and phytoestrogens that are especially valuable to women concerned about bone loss. In a study published in the Feb. 2004 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that women taking red clover isoflavones had significantly slower spinal bone loss compared with women in the placebo group.
Oat straw is a mineral rich grass often found in herbal formulations to heal broken bones. It is also used to soothe anxiety, and increase fertility.
Horsetail is the richest plant source of silica, a mineral necessary for strong nails, hair, and bones that is often lacking in modern diets. Horsetail has been used for issues of bones and strength for generations. An Italian study found that women with osteoporosis improved their bone density after taking horsetail extract for one year.
Because horsetail contains a considerable amount of nicotine, it is not recommended for children or pregnant women. Other silica sources include almonds, flax and sunflower seeds, whole grains, bananas, and asparagus.
A Word About Tea
Herbs are available in tincture and pills, but a strong, hot tea is the best method for extracting minerals. Nettle leaf is often available in tea bags, but other herbs may only come as loose plant material. To get a rich mix of nutrients consider combining some or all these herbs together. Measure one teaspoon of dried herb to each ½ cup of boiling water. Simmer on low for at least 20 minutes, and filter out the plant material with a mesh strainer.