Building Better Bones
"It is a bone-deep change you are going into, my beloved,"
counsels Grandmother Growth. "You must open to your very marrow for
this transformation. No cell is to remain untouched. You are to open more
than you ever dreamed you could open, more than you have opened in birth
or in passion. You open now to the breath of mortality as it plays the
bone flute of your being. What can you do but dance to the haunting melody,
develop a passion for an elegant posture and a long stride?"
"Ah, yes," Grandmother Growth smiles rather wantonly. "It
would do you well to develop a taste for dark greens tarted with vinegar
and mated with garlic. These things will build strong flexible bones to
support you as you become Crone."
Did you know that your bones are always changing? Every day of your life,
some bone cells die and some new bone cells are created. From birth until
your early 30s, you can easily make lots of bone cells. So long as your
diet supplies the necessary nutrients, you not only replace bone cells
that die, you have extras left over to lengthen and strengthen your bones.
Past the age of 35, new bone cells are more difficult to make. Sometimes
there is a shortfall: More bone cells die than you can replace. In the
orthodox view, this is the beginning of osteoporosis, the disease of low
bone mass. By the age of 40, many American women have begun to lose bone
mass; by 50, most are told they must take hormones or drugs to prevent
further loss and avoid osteoporosis, hip fracture, and death.
Women who exercise regularly and eat calcium-rich foods enter their menopausal
years with better bone mass than women who sit a lot and consume calcium-leaching
foods (including soy "milk," tofu, coffee, soda pop, alcohol,
white flour products, processed meats, nutritional yeast, and bran). But
no matter how good your lifestyle choices, bone mass usually decreases
during the menopausal years.
For unknown reasons, menopausal bones slow down production of new cells
and seem to ignore the presence of calcium. This "bone-pause"
is generally short-lived, occurring off and on for five to seven years.
I noticed it in scattered episodes of falling hair, breaking fingernails,
and the same "growing pains" I experienced during puberty.
I did not see it in a bone scan, because I didn't have one.
The idea behind bone scans is a good one: Find women who are at risk
of broken bones, alert them to the danger, and help them engage in preventative
strategies. There's only one problem: Bone scans don't find women who
are at risk of broken bones; they find women who have low bone density.
I would like to help you let go of the idea that osteoporosis is important.
In the Wise Woman Tradition, we focus on the patient, not the problem.
In the Wise Woman tradition, there are no diseases and no cures for diseases.
When we focus on a disease like osteoporosis, we cannot see the whole
woman. The more we focus on one disease, even its prevention, the less
likely we are to nourish wholeness and health.
Postmenopausal bone mass is a better indicator
of breast cancer risk than broken bone risk
Focusing on osteoporosis, defining it as a disease, using drugs to counter
it, we lose sight of the fact that postmenopausal bone mass is a better
indicator of breast cancer risk than broken bone risk. The 25% of postmenopausal
women with the highest bone mass are 2 1/2 to 4 times more likely to be
diagnosed with breast cancer than those with the lowest bone mass. And
that hormones which maintain bone mass also adversely affect breast cancer
risk. Women who take estrogen replacement (often given to prevent osteoporosis),
even for as little as five years, increase their risk of breast cancer
by 20%; if they take hormone replacement, the risk increases by 40%.
Focusing on bone mass, we lose sight of the fact that a strong correlation
between bone density and bone breakage has not been established, according
to Susan Brown, director of the Osteoporosis Information Clearing House,
and many others. We lose sight of the fact that women who faithfully take
estrogen or hormone replacement still experience bone changes and suffer
spinal crush fractures.
"The closer people get to a diet based on
plant foods and leafy vegetables, the lower the rates of many diseases,
including osteoporosis." ~ Dr. T. C. Campbell, professor of nutritional
biochemistry, Cornell University
Bone-pause passes and the bones do rebuild themselves, especially when
supported by nourishing herbs, which are exceptional sources of bone-building
minerals and better at preventing bone breaks than supplements. The minerals
in green plants seem to be ideal for keeping bones healthy. Dr. T. C.
Campbell, professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University,
has done extensive research in rural China, where the lowest known fracture
rates for midlife and older women were found. He says, "The closer
people get to a diet based on plant foods and leafy vegetables, the lower
the rates of many diseases, including osteoporosis." Women who consume
lots of calcium-rich plants and exercise moderately build strong, flexible
bones. Women who rely on hormones build bones that are massive, but rigid.
Hormone replacement regimes do not increase bone cell creation; they
slow (or suppress) bone cell killers (osteoclasts). There is a rebound
effect; bone loss jumps when the hormones are stopped. Women who take
hormones for five years or more are as much as 4 times more likely to
break a bone in the year after they stop, compared with a woman of the
same age who never took hormones. Women who build better bones with green
allies and exercise nourish the bone cell creator cells (osteoblasts).
It is never too late to build better bones.
Hormone or estrogen replacement, taken as menopause begins and continued
for the rest of your life, is said to reduce post-menopausal fracture
rates by 40-60%. Frequent walks (you don't even need to sweat) and a diet
high in calcium-rich green allies (at least 1,500 mg daily) have been
shown to reduce post-menopausal fractures by 50%. The first is expensive
and dangerous; the second, inexpensive and health promoting. It's easy
to see why more than 80% of American women just "say no" to
hormones. It is never too late to build better bones, and it is never
too soon. Your best insurance for a fracture-free, strong-boned cronehood
is to build better bones before menopause. The more exercise and calcium-rich
green allies you get in your younger years, the less you'll have to worry
about as you age.
"A woman has lost half of all the spongy
bone (spine, wrist) she'll ever lose by the age of 50, but very little
of the dense (hip, hand, forearm) bone. Attention to bone formation at
every stage of life is vital; there is no time when you are too old to
create healthy new bone." American MD
"Osteoporosis is much less common in
countries that consume the least calcium. That is an undisputed fact."
T. C. Campbell, PhD., professor of nutritional biochemistry,
Step 1: Collect Information
Calcium is, without a doubt, the most important mineral in your body.
In fact, calcium makes up more than half of the total mineral content
of your body. Calcium is crucial to the regular beating of your heart,
your metabolism, the functioning of your muscles, the flow of impulses
along your nerves, the regulation of your cellular membranes, the strength
of your bones, the health of your teeth and gums, and your vital blood-clotting
mechanisms. Calcium is so critical to your life that you have a gland
(the parathyroid) which does little else than monitor blood levels of
calcium and secrete hormones to ensure optimum levels of calcium at all
Eat three or more calcium-rich foods daily.
When you consume more calcium than you use, you are in a positive calcium
balance: Extra usable calcium is stored in the bones and you gain bone
mass. (Insoluble or unusable calcium may be excreted, or stored in soft
tissue, or deposited in the joints. When you consume less calcium than
you use, you are in a negative calcium balance: The parathyroid produces
a hormone that releases calcium stores from the bones, and you lose bone
To ensure a positive calcium balance and create strong, flexible bones
for your menopausal journey, take care to:
- Eat three or more calcium-rich foods
- Avoid calcium antagonists.
- Use synergistic foods to magnify the
effectiveness of calcium.
- Avoid calcium supplements.
Step 2: Engage the Energy
- The homeopathic tissue salt Silica is
said to improve bone health.
- What does it mean to you to support
yourself? To be supported? To stand on your own? To have a backbone
in your life?
Step 3: Nourish & Tonify
- What do we need to make strong flexible
bones? Like all tissues, bones need protein. They need minerals (not
just calcium, but also potassium, manganese, magnesium, silica, iron,
zinc, selenium, boron, phosphorus, sulphur, chromium, and dozens of
others). And to make use of those minerals, we also need high-quality
fats, including oil-soluble vitamin D.
- Many menopausal women I meet believe
that protein is bad for their bones. Not so. Researchers at Utah State
University, looking at the diets of 32,000 postmenopausal women, found
that women who ate the least protein were the most likely to fracture
a hip; and that eating extra protein sped the healing of hip fractures.
- Acids created by protein digestion are
buffered by calcium. Traditional
diets combine calcium- and protein-rich foods (such as seaweed with
tofu, tortillas made from corn ground on limestone with beans, and
melted cheese on a hamburger). Herbs such as seaweed, stinging nettle,
oatstraw, red clover, dandelion, and comfrey leaf are rich in protein
and provide plenty of calcium, too. Foods such as tahini, sardines,
canned salmon, yogurt, cheese, oatmeal, and goats' milk offer us protein,
generous amounts of calcium, and the healthy fats our bones need.
If you crave more protein during menopause, follow that craving. CAUTION:
Unfermented soy (e.g., tofu) is especially detrimental to bone health,
being protein-rich, naturally deficient in calcium, and a calcium
antagonist to boot.
- Bones need lots of minerals, not just
calcium, which is brittle and inflexible. (Think of chalk, calcium
carbonate, and how easily it breaks.) Avoid calcium supplements. Focus
on getting generous amounts of calcium from herbs and foods and you
will automatically get the multitude of minerals you need for flexible
- Because minerals are bulky, and do not
compact, we must consume generous amounts to make a difference in
our health. Taking mineral-rich herbs in capsule or tincture form
won't do much for your bones. (One cup of nettle tincture contains
the same amount of calcium (300 mg) as one cup of nettle infusion.
Many women drink two or more cups of infusion a day; no one consumes
a cup of tincture a day!) Eating raw foods won't make much difference,
either. I frequently come across the idea that cooking robs food of
nutrition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cooking maximizes
the minerals available to your bones. Kale cooked for an hour delivers
far more calcium than lightly steamed kale. Minerals are rock-like,
and to extract them, we need heat, time, and generous quantities of
- Green sources of calcium are the best.
Nourishing herbs and garden weeds are far richer in minerals than
ordinary greens, which are already exceptional sources of nutrients.
- But calcium from green sources alone
is not enough. We need calcium from white sources as well. Add a quart
of yogurt a week to your diet if you want really healthy bones. Because
the milk has been changed by Lactobacillus organisms, its calcium,
other minerals, proteins, and sugars (no lactose) are more easily
digested. This carries over, enhancing calcium and mineral absorption
from other foods, too. (I have known several vegans who increased
their very low bone density by as much as 6% in one year by eating
yogurt.) Organic raw-milk cheeses are another superb white source.
- Horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense) works
like a charm for those premenopausal women who have periodontal bone
loss or difficulty with fracture healing. Taken as tea, once or twice
a day, young spring-gathered horsetail dramatically strengthens bones
and promotes rapid mending of breaks. CAUTION: Mature horsetail contains
substances that may irritate the kidneys.
If you want to eat chocolate, do it; and get
the best. But if you're doing it every day, eat more weeds.
Step 4: Stimulate/Sedate
- Beware of calcium antagonists. Certain
foods interfere with calcium utilization. For better bones avoid consistent
- Greens rich in oxalic acid, including
chard (silver beet), beet greens, spinach, rhubarb.
- Unfermented soy products, including
tofu, soy beverages, soy burgers.
- Phosphorus-rich foods, including carbonated
drinks, white flour products, and many processed foods. (Teenagers
who drink sodas instead of milk are four times more likely to break
- Foods that produce acids requiring
a calcium buffer when excreted in the urine, including coffee, white
sugar, tobacco, alcohol, nutritional yeast, salt.
- Fluoride in water or toothpaste.
- Fiber pills, bran taken alone, bulk-producing
- Steroid medications, including corticosteroids
such as prednisone and asthma inhalers. (Daily use reduces spinal
bone mass by as much as 10% a year.)
- Restricted calorie diets. Women who
weigh the least have the greatest loss of bone during menopause
and neither calcium supplements, vitamin D supplements, nor estrogen
slow the loss. Among 236 premenopausal women, all of whom consumed
similar amounts of calcium, those who lost weight by reducing calories
lost twice as much bone mass as women who maintained their weight.
- Although chocolate contains oxalic acid,
the levels are so low as to have only a negligible effect on calcium
metabolism. An ounce (3,000 mg) of chocolate binds 15-20 mg of calcium;
an ounce of cooked spinach, (100-125 mg calcium. Bittersweet (dark)
chocolate is a source of iron. Recent research has found chocolate
to be very heart healthy. As with any stimulant, daily use is not
advised. Chocolate is an important and helpful ally for women. Guilt
about eating it and belief that it is damaging to your health interfere
with your ability to hear and respond to your body wisdom. If you
want to eat chocolate, do it; and get the best. But if you're doing
it every day, eat more weeds.
- Excess phosphorus accelerates bone loss
and demineralization. Phosphorus compounds are second only to salt
as food additives. They are found in carbonated beverages, soda pop;
white flour products, especially if "enriched" (bagels,
cookies, cakes, donuts, pasta, bread); preserved meats (bacon, ham,
sausage, lunch meat, and hot dogs); supermarket breakfast cereals;
canned fruit; processed potato products such as frozen fries and instant
mashed potatoes; processed cheeses; instant soups and puddings.
- To avoid phosphorus overload and improve
- Drink spring water and herbal infusions;
avoid soda pop and carbonated water.
- Eat only whole grain breads, noodles,
cookies, and crackers.
- Buy only unpreserved meats, cheeses,
- Avoid buying foods with ingredients;
they are highly processed.
- Excess salt leaches calcium. Women eating
3900 mg of sodium a day excrete 30% more calcium than those eating
1600 mg. The main sources of dietary sodium are processed and canned
foods. Seaweed is an excellent calcium-rich source of salt. Sea salt
may be used freely, as it contains trace amounts of calcium. Salt
is critical for health; do not eliminate it from your diet.
- Increase hydrochloric acid production
(in your stomach) and you'll make better use of the calcium you consume.
Lower stomach acid (with antacids, for example) and you will receive
little bone benefit from the calcium you ingest. Some ways to acidify:
- Drink lemon juice in water with or
after your meal.
- Take 10-25 drops dandelion root tincture
in a little water before you eat.
- Use calcium-rich herbal vinegars in
your salad dressing; put some on cooked greens and beans, too.
Step 5a: Use Supplements
- I really wish you wouldn't use calcium
supplements. They expose you to dangers and don't prevent fractures.
A study in Australia that followed 10,000 white women over the age
of 65 for 6 ½ years found Use of calcium supplements was associated
with increased risk of hip and vertebral fracture; use of Tums®
antacid tablets was associated with increased risk of fractures of
the proximal humerus.
- If you insist on supplements, go for
calcium-fortified orange juice or crumbly tablets of calcium citrate.
Chewable calcium gluconate, calcium lactate, and calcium carbonate
are acceptable sources. Dolomite, bone meal, and oyster shell are
best avoided as they usually contain lead and other undesirable minerals.
- For better bones, take 500 mg magnesium
(not citrate) with your calcium. Better yet, wash your calcium pill
down with a glass of herbal infusion; that will provide not only magnesium
but lots of other bone-strengthening minerals, too.
- Calcium supplements are more effective
in divided doses. Two doses of 250 mg, taken morning and night, actually
provide more usable calcium than a 1000 mg tablet.
Step 5b: Use Drugs
- Even if you take hormone therapy (ERT
or HRT) you must get adequate calcium to maintain bone mass, according
to researchers at Columbia University. That's 1200-1500 mg a day (a
cup of plain yogurt, two cups of nettle infusion, a splash of mineral-rich
vinegar, plus three figs is about that). As you increase your intake
of calcium-rich foods/herbs, gradually cut back on your hormone dose
if you wish.
Step 6: Break & Enter
Bone density tests are frequently used to push women into taking hormones
or drugs. If your bone density is low, use the remedies in this section
and schedule another test (for at least six months later) before agreeing
to such therapies.
Legal Disclaimer: This content is not intended
to replace conventional medical treatment. Any suggestions made and all
herbs listed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any
disease, condition or symptom. Personal directions and use should be provided
by a clinical herbalist or other qualified healthcare practitioner with
a specific formula for you. All material contained herein is provided
for general information purposes only and should not be considered medical
advice or consultation. Contact a reputable healthcare practitioner if
you are in need of medical care. Exercise self-empowerment by seeking
a second opinion.
- these feet are made for walking,
photo courtesy of Mary Thorman.
- seaweed, photo courtesy of Donna