North Americans consume the most calcium in the world and yet have the weakest bones in the world. How can that be?
The countries that consume the most dairy products (USA, Canada, Sweden and Finland) have the highest incidence of osteoporosis and poorer bone health, despite a major focus on osteoporosis prevention and treatment. Hip fractures in elderly Japanese women occur at less than half the rate of those experienced by women in high dairy-consuming western countries.
The western world’s fascination with calcium to build bone is, sadly, untrue.
It’s true that the bone is largely composed of calcium, however, calcium depends on other nutrients to do its work, especially its twin mineral, magnesium.
Simply increasing calcium without regard for nutrient balance is now known to cause more harm than good.
The standard advice for women with low bone density is to supplement with calcium and sometimes vitamin D, but inevitably, without adequate magnesium, annual Bone Mineral Density (BMD) tests show no improvement whatsoever.
There are two clear reasons for this:
1) Insufficient magnesium to convert the Vitamin D to promote calcium absorption, and
2) High-sugar, high-fat food and drink, so loved by North Americans will cause a literal ‘fat barrier’ that prevents calcium from being absorbed.
The Key Minerals and Vitamins for Bone Health
Clearly, more calcium does not equal stronger bones. The real equation for optimal bone health is magnesium + vitamin D + calcium.
Magnesium activates vitamin D, which in turn metabolizes the calcium. In addition to these three major players in skeletal health, there are many others – but the imbalance of calcium and magnesium is perhaps the biggest reason for bone decay in North America.
When we have magnesium deficiency at the cellular level, calcium can’t do its job in the bone. Calcium alone is useless and potentially harmful.
Without magnesium, the body will blindly deposit calcium into muscle and organ tissue, causing health issues such as calcium deposits and/or calcification of muscle tissues – dangerous when you consider calcification of the heart.
To be clear: taking more magnesium will not fix a calcium deficiency, which in any case is rare in the western population. Instead, magnesium enables the best use of calcium in the body, dissolving any excess calcium, while helping any needed calcium to assimilate.
Without enough magnesium, calcium turns from a nutrient into a pollutant. It can cause heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis and calcification of organs and tissues. Excess calcium combined with low magnesium is a lethal combination indeed.
Excess magnesium, on the other hand, is not typically a concern. Unlike calcium, magnesium is safely eliminated from the body by healthy kidneys every 12 hours.
Magnesium, Hormones and Bone Health
Magnesium also activates a particular hormone, calcitonin, that helps to preserve bone structure and draws calcium out of the blood and soft tissues back into the bones, preventing some forms of arthritis and kidney stones.
Calcitonin needs to be guided, if you will, or activated by magnesium to deposit correctly into the bone for continued growth. It is a popular but untrue belief that bones can’t grow after a certain age. They can certainly continue to replenish themselves as long as the right nutrient balance is present.
Magnesium suppresses another bone hormone called PHT (parathyroid), preventing it from breaking down bone.
When we are magnesium deficient, the balance between PTH and calcitonin tilts too far toward PTH, which results in excessive stimulation of osteoclasts and net bone loss.
The imbalance of the hormones DHEA and cortisol may also result in bone loss. Under stress, the body produces a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol will pull calcium from your bones. Cortisol and DHEA balance each other out; if one is high the other is low. Magnesium helps regulate the cortisol response to stress.
It’s also important to note that low hormone levels, in general, can lead to loss of bones, which is why many women start to lose bone density after menopause.
pH Balance and Bone Health
The body needs to maintain a pH of 7 in the bloodstream in the same way it needs to maintain 98°F body temperature.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) diet is mostly an acidic diet. Protein, dairy (even though it is high in calcium) bread, soda, sugar and pastas are examples of acidic foods. When we consume acidic foods, our body becomes more and more acidic.
Acidic foods and drink throw the pH out of balance, and alkaline foods restore the pH. Magnesium and calcium, as minerals, are alkaline.
To compensate for the acidic diet, the PHT hormone will draw minerals from the bones to neutralize the acid in the bloodstream. An acidic diet thus depletes the bones of precious minerals.
You can check your pH balance yourself at home. Ask your local pharmacists for a litmus test paper.
High Fat, High Sugar Diets and Bone Health
The HFS diet (HighFatSugar) diet remains the diet of choice, despite an overwhelming mountain of evidence that junk food is directly linked to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, to say nothing of the obesity crisis. But the HFS diet also has implications for bone health.
HFS food leads to weight gain, adding pressure on the skeleton, while at the same time a HFS diet deprives the body of the nutrients it needs to build strong bones. Magnesium, in particular, is glaringly absent from a HFS diet, and in fact prevents the body from making use of what magnesium is acquired through such a poor diet.
The Science of Bone Building & Osteoporosis Prevention
Osteoporosis is not an inevitable part of aging. It is simply the body’s attempt to compensate for factors that are interfering with normal biochemical balance and bone formation.
Some of these factors include:
- poor nutrition – particularly a perpetual state of magnesium deficiency – and highly acidic diets, which is to say an emphasis on animal proteins, dairy and processed foods
- lack of sunlight exposure, resulting in low Vitamin D
- high caffeine and/or alcohol intake
- lack of exercise
- chronic stress
- some prescription medications – yes even those prescribed to arrest bone loss
Menopause and Osteoporosis
Along with lower estrogen in menopausal years, there are also findings of lower magnesium in menopausal women. Some health care professionals wisely suggest that menopausal women take magnesium – usually to help with absorption of calcium in the gastrointestinal tract. However, few medical professionals realize the importance of magnesium in its own right and the risks of too much calcium.
Prescription Drugs for Bone Building
Fosamax is part of a class of osteoporosis medications known as anti-resorptive drugs. These medications dramatically reduce bone loss, but in a disturbing way. The drug leads to premature death to osteoclasts, the cells that break down and recycle old, worn-out segments of bone. Bone breakdown and bone build-up, however, are tightly coupled, so that just as bone breakdown is dramatically reduced by Fosamax, so too is new bone formation. In fact, studies show that the bone-forming surface of bone is suppressed by 60–90% with the usual dose of bisphosphonates.
It is far more accurate to call these prescription medicines ‘bone hardeners’, not bone builders. The results show up in bone density tests as “improved”, when they have so altered the fundamental composition of the bone that it eventually leads to higher risk of fracture. These are the outcomes currently under review as the class of drugs is relatively new.
Supplements for Osteoporosis
Dr. Carolyn Dean suggests a nutritional alternative to prescription drugs for bone building. The following list is excerpted from her bestselling book, The Magnesium Miracle.
- Calcium: 500 mg per day
- Magnesium: 300 mg twice a day
- Boron: 2 mg daily (involved in Vitamin D conversion)
- Copper: 1-3 mg daily (for collagen cross-linking)
- Manganese: 5- 10 mg per day
- Zinc: 10 mg daily (important for bone matrix)
- Vitamin A: 20,000 IU daily (forms bone matrix)
- Vitamin B6 : 50 mg per day
- Folic Acid: 800 mcg daily
- Vitamin B complex: 50 mg per day
- Vitamin C: 1,000 mg per day
- Vitamin D 1,000 IU per day or 20 minutes in the sun daily
- Progesterone for postmenopausal women under the advice of your octor and after hormonal saliva testing to determine deficiency of progesterone