Calcium and other minerals are tightly packed together to form the bones which are hard and strong. The bones change from soft cartilage in early life to hard bones but as a person gets older the bones become gradually weaker. Eventually it reaches the point where the bones are weak and brittle and can easily fracture, particularly in late life. However, there are several ways to slow down this weakening of the bones and to some extent it can be reversed.
Why do bones get weaker?
Bone mass increases at a very slow rate. By the late teens, both males and females reach about 90% of their peak bone mass. It continues to increase until around the age of 30 years where it stabilizes for years. There is some loss thereafter but it is usually very slow. In women this bone mass loss speeds up after menopause which is the reason that osteoporosis, a disease where the bones become very weak, is more common in older women. In fact women are two to three times more at risk of non-traumatic fractures later in life.
However, men are not entirely immune to this loss in bone mass either. After the age of 50 year men also experience significant bone mass loss although it may not be as pronounced in women of the same age. Senile osteoporosis affects both genders from the age of 70 years and older. This change in bone strength is considered to be a natural progression in bone mass but sometimes it can be worsened by the use of certain drugs, with certain diseases and due to dietary and lifestyle factors.
What makes bones strong?
It is important to understand what makes bones strong in order to understand how to strengthen it. The hardness of bone is what gives it its strength. This is formed by the bone mineral and matrix which are produced by cells known as osteoblasts. It is composed of calcium, protein and other minerals which are “woven” by the osteoblasts. The bone tissue is then maintained by another type of cell know as osteocytes. Old bone is resorbed by cells known as osteoclasts.
Read more on bone formation.
Although bone formation is controlled by various factors within the body, it can be influenced to some degree by external factors such as nutrition and physical activity. It is these factors that can be utilized to strengthen bones. However, it is not always easy to reverse extensive bone mass loss, especially later in life and in the backdrop of menopause. Therefore measures to strength the bones should be started in early adulthood.
Calcium is one of the main components of bone and is therefore needed in sufficient quantities to maintain bone integrity. There are many different foods that are rich in calcium and should be included in the daily diet. Contrary to popular belief, milk is not the only or main source of calcium for every person. People who are at risk of osteoporosis or already have the condition may need to take calcium supplements to ensure adequate calcium levels.
TIP: Vegetables such as kale, collard greens and brocolli are rich in calcium.
Vitamin D is another essential micronutrient for bone health. It helps the body absorb calcium which is necessary for bone integrity. In addition, vitamin D helps with absorption of phosphorus, another important micronutrient for bone health. Therefore while vitamin D may not directly play a major role in bone formation, it nevertheless has a crucial role by influencing the levels of calcium and phosphorus which are the main components of bone.
TIP: Vitamin D is produced by sunlight exposure and is rich in foods like oily fish, red meat liver and dairy.
Read more on vitamin D sources.
Another important but lesser known micronutrient for bone health is potassium. It is not a major component of bone like calcium and phosphorus but potassium helps with resorption of bone. Deposition and resorption of bone are natural processes but with conditions like osteoporosis the resorption is greater than deposition. Therefore the bone is gradually weakened and potassium can help to slow this down.
TIP: Foods like sweet potatoes, bananas, tomatoes, beans and yogurt are rich in potassium.
The bones are not only composed of calcium and other minerals like phosphorus. Another important building block is protein. Most of the time there is sufficient protein intake in the diet. However, some people may not get enough protein due to dietary choices or the lack of suitable nutrition. This does not always require the consumption of meat but vegetarians and vegans need to ensure a balanced diet to acquire sufficient protein.
TIP: Legumes, soy and nuts as well as dairy have sufficient protein in suitable quantities.
Exercise is crucial for bone health. The more active a person is, the stronger the bones. Both strength training and weight bearing exercise are required for maintaining the strength in different bones. There are several reasons for these benefits for bone health. Force placed on the bones during workouts helps to stimulate the formation of stronger bones. Being sedentary minimizes this force on the bones.
TIP: For osteoporosis, 3 to 5 weight training workout sessions a week is recommended with each session lasting 45 to 60 minutes.
Coffee and Cola
Caffeine and sugar intake has a negative impact on bone health. There is some evidence to suggest that it affects the utilization of calcium and other minerals for bone formation. It may not have a significant effect in small quantities. However, excessive consumption over a prolonged period of time may impact on bone integrity, particularly in people with weakened bones (like osteoporosis).
TIP: Opt for fruit juice as a beverage. Orange juice for example is rich in calcium, phosphorus and potassium.
Smoking and Alcohol
Both tobacco smoking and excessive alcohol consumption have been shown to have an adverse effect on bone health. Tobacco speeds up bone loss while alcohol reduce bone formation. Tobacco smoking should be stopped altogether while alcohol should be limited to a maximum of two alcoholic drinks a day. People who have alcohol-related diseases may still be at risk of weak bones even after stopping alcohol altogether.