Osteoporosis: A New Look

By Debra Kirchhof-Glazier

Member, Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association

Osteoporosis and osteopenia are common diagnoses for many people, particularly postmenopausal women.   Osteoporosis is a skeletal disease characterized by low bone mass due to demineralization that results in bone fragility and susceptibility to fracture.  Osteopenia is a related condition considered to be a precursor to osteoporosis, in which bone mass is subnormal.

Bone consists of a protein matrix infiltrated with the mineral calcium phosphate.   Most people think of bones as inert, but they are vitally alive.  Bone is formed by osteoblast cells and broken down by osteoclast cells.  A complex interplay between osteoblasts and osteoclasts is important in the remodeling process for the formation of new bone, which is more flexible and less susceptible to fracture than old bone.

Physicians treat osteoporosis and osteopenia in order to prevent fractures in their patients.  Medications like Fosamax, Acontel, and Boniva are often the treatment of choice.  Most osteoporosis medications suppress the activity of the osteoclasts, which prevents the dissolution of current bone but makes the bones more brittle.   In addition, there can be side effects, some of which are serious.  However, there are alternatives to medication for treating demineralization of the bones, and new findings are challenging conventional wisdom about the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of osteoporosis and osteopenia.

Vivian Goldschmidt, M.A. in Nutritional Sciences and Biochemistry, in her book The Bone Health Revolution, claims that osteoporosis is both overdiagnosed and not a disease, but rather a reactive condition caused by the body’s attempt to correct a biochemical imbalance primarily caused by diet.

The most common test for osteoporosis is the DEXA scan, which measures bone mineral content of the spine, hip, or other selected parts of the skeleton.  The bone mineral density (BMD) determined by this test is compared to a norm of an established standard peak bone mass (PBM) set by a reference group of young adults in their mid to late twenties.   Ms. Goldschmidt points out problems with the interpretation of bone density tests.  First, there is no international standard for PBM due to significant variation in bone mass in different ethnic groups, which makes scan results open to some question.  In addition, bone mass is affected by many different factors, including genetics, body frame, exercise, and overall health.  She concludes that conventional testing may not be an accurate indicator for risk of future fractures.

Vivian Goldschmidt cites several natural approaches for preventing osteoporosis.  One is to perform weight-bearing exercise, such as hiking or moderate weight lifting.  Another is to avoid smoking and heavy drinking.  Smoking floods the body with free radicals that can weaken bones, and alcohol suppresses osteoblasts.  Her primary focus, however, is on proper nutrition.

Calcium and vitamin D have been targeted as the nutrients of choice for maintaining healthy bones, but much more is involved.  An article entitled The Calcium Myth in the July/August edition of Natural Solutions by Michael Castleman, co-author of the book Building Bone Vitality, outlines 16 vitamins and minerals that are known to be important in bone health.  The article also discusses emerging evidence for the dangers of high protein intake on bone health, a concept that is emphasized by Vivian Goldschmidt.

Proteins are metabolized into amino acids, which lower the pH, a measure of acid or alkaline conditions.  The body strictly controls blood pH in a narrow range from 7.35 to 7.45 in order to maintain life.  If the acid-alkaline balance of your blood begins to fall outside this range, several compensatory mechanisms come into play.  For example, if your blood becomes too acidic, alkaline substances in the blood will neutralize the acid.  A large reserve of alkaline substances comes from the metabolism of specific foods.  When these become low the bones will release calcium phosphate.  The phosphate neutralizes the acid, and the calcium is excreted from the body.

Most vegetables and fruits are metabolized to alkaline end products in the blood.  On the other hand, dairy products, meat, grains, and most processed foods are metabolized to acidic end products.  Medical advice for preventing osteoporosis usually includes consumption of calcium-rich dairy products.  However, since the calcium content of dairy products is offset by the acidifying nature of milk proteins, dairy products may actually promote osteoporosis.  This is a disturbing twist on conventional wisdom.

Dr. T. Colin Campbell, leading nutritionist and professor emeritus from Cornell University, co-authored a compelling book in 2006 called The China Study that substantiates these claims.  He presents hundreds of studies that show proteins in animal products such as milk are associated with a host of health problems that plague our society, including osteoporosis.

Therefore, a novel nutritional approach for promoting healthy bones is to balance your diet with the proper ratio of acidifying and alkalizing foods and to eat non-dairy calcium-rich foods.  There are guidelines and menus in The Bone Health Revolution book, and the article by Michael Castleman provides some rules of thumb.  For example, three servings of fruits and vegetables are required to neutralize the acid in one serving of meat, and two servings of fruits and vegetables are needed to neutralize one serving of grain.   He recommends balancing your meal so that the serving of meat, poultry, or fish takes up one fourth of the dinner plate and vegetables and fruits take up the rest.  To make things simple, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, some whole grains, and minimal or no meat, dairy products, and processed foods.  The interesting fact is that this diet also promotes cardiovascular health and good blood sugar levels.

If you are at risk or being treated for osteoporosis there is a lot to think about and discuss with your doctor.  Good luck in your quest to be healthy and fracture-free.

The Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association makes no medical claims or recommendations.  Check with your doctor about your specific health care needs.  For more information on the Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association contact Chrystal Spayd, president, at 814-6 43-0588 or spaydx3@verizon.net.