Most people do not concern themselves with the topic of strong, healthy bones until the second half of their lives. Specifically when a bone density measurement shows that there is already excessive bone loss. In the worst case, they may already have osteoporosis. Now is the time to act. We have compiled some tips on how to maintain your bone density – for a lifetime.
Strong bones form at a young age
Bone metabolism is a complex process that – depending on age – is predominated by build-up or degradation processes. In the early years of life, it is important to build up as much bone mass as possible. The maximum bone density is reached between the ages of 30 and 35. From then on, the degradation processes predominate. The stronger and more robust the bones become at a young age, the less dramatic the consequences of natural degradation in old age. Of course, the right nutrition with all essential nutrients is key. Sufficient movement with impact loads on the bones (e.g. by jumping) is also necessary to increase bone mass. This is because the skeleton is stressed, and the minerals from food are increasingly integrated into the bone structures.
Menopause and bone density – the moment of truth
With the onset of menopause, bone loss suddenly becomes an issue for women. The reason for this is the increased degradation rates during the first five years after menopause (menopause is defined as the time of the last menstrual period, which occurs around the age of 50 in most women). If the average annual age-related decrease in bone density in younger years is 1.5%, this increases to up to 5% after menopause. During this time, bone density measurement can be useful. If osteoporosis or the preliminary stage of osteopenia is detected in time, countermeasures can still be taken.
Although a lack of bone density is usually regarded as a women’s issue, there are also other risk factors. The regular use of certain medications (e.g. proton pump inhibitors to protect the stomach or cortisone against inflammation) disrupts the supply of necessary minerals to the bones.
On the other hand, lactose intolerance is only a problem for bone metabolism if other sources of calcium are missing from the diet. Mineral water, nuts, various herbs and vegetables, seaweed, soy, and coconut milk provide a good basis. Special calcium supplements can complement a basic dietary regime.
The same applies to a vegan lifestyle. Here, attention must be paid not only to vitamin B12 but also to the mineral calcium. However, it has now been proven that high doses of calcium are not enough to keep bones healthy. Many other minerals and vitamins are necessary for the development and maintenance of healthy bone structures. A vegan diet has advantages over the average diet.
One clear risk factor for bone loss is lack of exercise. Moderate muscle training also helps to strengthen the bones. Short interruptions of inactivity (e.g. regularly getting up from screen work) are more effective for the bones than a long inactive phase followed by a long active phase as researchers found out in the American National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
What should be done once the risk has been recognised?
Taking calcium supplements is the first solution that comes to mind, but this does not have any health benefits for the bones. Unfortunately, simply increasing calcium intake as a protection against osteoporosis has been proven to be ineffective. The evaluation of data collected over decades shows no evidence (i.e. no scientific proof) that calcium carbonate alone can influence bone density.
One explanation for this is vitamin D, which plays a central role in bone metabolism through several functions. Vitamin D is not only necessary for the absorption of calcium from the intestine into the body – it also regulates the storage of calcium in the bones. Vitamin D also improves muscle strength in people over 60. It reduces the risk of falling and thus the risk of bone fracture by about 22%. However, at least 20 µg of vitamin D is required each day (equivalent to 800 IU).
Other micro-nutrients are necessary for bone metabolism. For example, magnesium, which also ensures strong bones. And vitamin K, which is either produced by our intestinal bacteria (if we have a healthy intestinal flora) or absorbed through food (if we have enough vegetables and offal in our diets). Vitamin K is necessary for the formation of osteocalcin, a protein that binds calcium and hydroxyapatite as a matrix in the bones and thus increases bone density. The central role of vitamin K in the maintenance of bone mass is still given too little attention. Avoid acidification: A high proportion of animal protein in food as well as industrially processed foods lead to an excess of acid in the body. In order to balance this, basic minerals are needed; these are mainly found in unprocessed plant-based foods. Without these, the minerals are released from the deposits (i.e. the bones) and ultimately excreted via the kidneys. A balanced diet with plenty of fresh ingredients forms the basis for bone stability and is a powerful weapon against bone loss and osteoporosis.
And, of course, movement, movement, movement: Swimming and cycling are good for muscles and the cardiovascular system. However, these activities play a limited role in maintaining bone density. Only movement that exerts pressure on the bones (e.g. gymnastics, strength exercises, Nordic walking, hiking, cross-country skiing, or dancing) improve bone strength. And of course, all ball sports are good for bone mass.
Summary: Healthy bones are a long-term project
Bone mass builds up over years and unfortunately also degrades. This process begins at a young age, when the foundations for good bone density are laid. A varied diet with an emphasis on vitamins and minerals – coupled with a healthy lifestyle and plenty of exercise – is the basis for strong bones into old age. When women enter the menopause at the latest, they should focus specifically on their bone density again because the degradation rate increases from this point onwards. If any medication is being taken over a longer period of time, the topic of osteoporosis should also be discussed with the doctor providing the treatment, and precautions should be taken.
If you want to be on the safe side, you can supplement your diet with nutrients that promote healthy bones in every phase of life. However, as we now know, there is little point in simply taking calcium supplements. The products that will be effective are combination products containing at least calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K.