Did you know that most calcium supplements on the market today are basically limestone? Yes, that's chalk. Conceal it within a capsule, a slickly glazed tablet, or in the form of a silky smooth liquid, and it is magically transformed into a "calcium supplement": easy to swallow, "good for the bones" and a very profitable commodity for both the dietary supplement and mining industries. After all, a sizable portion of the Earth's crust is composed of the stuff.
Calcium carbonate comes very cheap. But does it work? A review published in Osteoporosis International Aug. 2008 concluded that calcium monotherapy (without vitamin d) actually increases the rate of fracture in women. If we believe the results of this study, it would appear that calcium alone may do nothing to prevent bone fracture or the loss of bone quality. Were this the end of the story, we might write off the $100 or more we spend on calcium supplements every year as a loss, and start drinking more milk. Not so quick!
In the Harvard Nurses' Health Study, a review tracking 78,000 nurses for 12 years found that the more cow's milk they consumed, the higher rate of bone fracture they experienced; in the study, the relative risk of hip fracture was 45% higher in those women who drank two or more glasses of milk per day versus those who drank one glass or less.
In fact, in countries where both dairy consumption and overall calcium levels in the diet are the lowest, bone fracture rates are also the lowest; conversely, in cultures like the United States where calcium consumption is among the highest in the world, so too are the fracture rates among the highest (see: The China Study).
Osteoporosis, after all, is a complex disease process, involving lack of strenuous exercise, chronic inflammation, multiple mineral and vitamin deficiencies, inadequate production of steroid hormones, dietary incompatibilites and many other known and unknown factors, the least of which is in any probability related to a lack of elemental calcium in the diet. Also, osteoporosis, as defined by X-ray analysis, e.g. Dual-emission X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scans, can only directly measure bone mineral density and not structural integrity/strength, which is the real-world indicator of whether your bone will resist breaking when under the trauma, say, of a serious fall.
If we rule out drug (e.g. steroids, synthroid, acid-blockers) and hyperparathyroidism-induced osteoporosis, arguably the two main contributing factors associated with lower-than-normal bone mineral density are:
1) Dietary Acidosis: caused by the excessive consumption of acid forming foods like starchy grains, dairy (excluding goat's milk) and meat, all of which result in the leaching of the alkaline mineral stores in our bones. (Additionally, the consumption of highly acidic substances like coffee, alcohol, sugar, over the counter and prescribed drugs, and even the metabolic byproducts of chronic stress can all put the acid/alkaline balance beyond the tipping point). The flip-side is the under-consumption of alkalinizing fruits and vegetables, which disburden the mineral stores within the skeletal system of their sacrificial, acid-neutralizing role.
2) Malabsorption Syndrome: caused in large part by the excessive consumption of wheat, cow's milk products, soy (non-fermented) and corn.* All four of these foods, in fact, can be used to produce industrial adhesives, e.g .wheat = book binding glue, cow's milk protein (casein) = Elmer's glue, soy = plywood glue, corn = cardboard glue, and while not a problem for everyone, for many, their ingestion leads to a disruption of the absorptive capacity of the villi in the intestines by producing a "gluey coating," contributing to inflammation and atrophy of the villi. Other causes include dysbiosis, an overgrowth of unfriendly and undergrowth of friendly bacteria in the alimentary canal, as well as acute and/or chronic stress which depletes the glutamine without which the intestinal villi die (villi cell turnover occurs within 2 days, indicating even acute bouts of stress of short duration can cause profound damage). You don't see a lack of calcium or Boniva in this picture, do you?
Fortunately these two factors are completely preventable and treatable through dietary and lifestyle changes. It is increasingly clear that osteoporosis is not caused by a lack of calcium; to the contrary, it appears that excessive calcium intake may actually cause greater bone fracture rates, especially later in life! After all, the traditional Chinese peasant diet, based as it is on eating a calcium-poor, plant-based diet, included approximately 250 mg of food calcium a day – not the 1200 mg (or more!) a day the National Osteoporosis Foundation claims is necessary for women and men over 40 to maintain strong bones.
Paradoxically, not only does the aforementioned hypothetical Chinese peasant have less dense bones than your average Westerner, but s(he) also has incomparably stronger bones. In fact, the Chinese have no traditional word for osteoporosis, and this is at least a 3,000 year old language!
These facts beg for a scientific explanation. A Dutch researcher by the name of Thijs Klompmaker, in his 2000 article "Excessive Calcium Causes Osteoporosis," provides a brilliant explanation as to why too much calcium interferes with bone health. According to Klompmaker's analysis, the consumption of excessive calcium introduced through diary products and mineral supplementation may be making our bones weaker.
Due to the fact that excess calcium can deposit into soft tissues, leading to osteoarthritis, muscle cramping, insomnia, constipation, kidney stones, and increased rates of breast and prostate cancers (note: calcium crystals like hydroxylapatite (bone meal) can be mitogenic, stimulating proliferation of cells, and are responsible for th e screen detectability), the body prevents "calcium overload" by shunting the extra calcium into the bone, where it is stored until it can be safely excreted.
This can be a life-saving mechanisms because excess calcium in the blood can lead to the accumulation and destabilization of plaque in the arteries, can exert a hypertensive effect on the heart muscle, and may even induce cardiac arrest. In fact, according to two meta-analyses published in the British Journal of Medicine last year, 500 mg of supplemental elemental calcium a day increases the risk of heart attack by at least 24%!
There is a price to be paid for having to continually sequester excess calcium into the bone, which is that it stimulates the accelerated replication of osteoblasts (bone-building cells), and when osteoblasts replicate approximately 60-70% die as they become part of the new bone mineral matrix they lay down. Because there are only a fixed number of progenitor cells and replication cycles available to each cell, in a given lifetime, the osteoblasts become prematurely senescent and incapable of replicating at a rate rapid enough to keep up with the osteoclasts, which break down bad bone.
These osteocasts are still much younger and active than the osteoblasts, which tips the scales in favor of increased bone turnover, resulting in a rapid decline in bone mineral density and bone quality later in life. This explains why Asians eating their traditional calcium-poor diet, for instance, have lower bone mineral density throughout their life, but reach peak bone mass later, showing slower declines than Westerners while experiencing their golden years.
Sadly, conventional medicine pays far too little, if any attention to the link between dietary and tissue acidosis/malabsorption syndrome and osteoporosis in particular, and the obvious causal link between diet and disease processes, in general. Moreover, with its questionable bias towards viewing disease as genetically predetermined and treatable with chemical therapies, the true causes of suffering are rarely perceived, treated and resolved.
In fact today a popular first-line treatment for osteoporosis is the use of bisphosphonates, a class of "bone-building" drugs (e.g. Fosomax, Actonel, Boniva, Reclast), which are made from a class of chemicals first employed to soften water in irrigation systems used in orange groves. The same toxic substance once used to prevent corrosion and scaling on industrial equipment is being given to millions of Americans to "treat" their weakening bones.
These chemicals are highly toxic, and are known to poison the group of bone-building cells known as the osteoclasts, which break down weak bone, making room for new, stronger bone that the osteoblasts put in its place. This unnatural intervention causes weak bone to accumulate beneath the new strong bone, resulting in an increase in bone density at the expense of bone quality. Three to five years into taking these drugs, though bone density usually increases, bone fracture rates may increase as well.
The side effects of taking these drugs can be life-threatening, e.g. perforation of the intestines, ulceration of the stomach and intestines, liver and kidney damage, atrial fibrillation, spontaneous bone fractures and an irreversible degeneration of the jawbone known as osteonecrosis. (View all 39 adverse effects here). To make matters worse, there is a systematic trend to label over 18 million Americans with a "disease" known as "osteopenia," when in fact this is not a clinically relevant, evidence-based term at all, based on a completely arbitrary standard that highly favors overdiagnosis and overtreatment...
Osteopenia does not describe a disease state, nor is it an accurate predictor of future bone fracture rates. Technically speaking, "osteopenia" is defined having a T score -1 to -2 standard deviations from an arbitrarily defined norm, which is the approximate age in the human life cycle for peak bone mass: 25 years of age. The Z score, were it to be emphasized, would take into the age of the person being evaluated (along with other variables such as well as sex, ethnicity, etc).
The Z-score, because it is age-mediated, takes into account that as one ages the bone naturally becomes less dense. The use of the T-score generates the illusion that older men and women who are experiencing the natural gradual decline in bone density called aging are not going through a normal process but rather a disease process. This is all the more disturbing when we take into account that higher bone density later in life has been correlated with far higher (300% or higher!) rates of malignant breast cancer.
Ultimately the present T-score based bone density scoring system provides justification for prescribing unnecessary and extraordinarily dangerous medications. Bone health has everything to do with things we control, such as our ability to stay active, and what we do or do not ingest. Vision and gait disorders, in fact, are at least as important as low bone mineral density in contributing to increased bone fracture rates. We should not allow ourselves to be convinced that swallowing limestone supplements or metabolic poisons will in any way fill the void that a lack of genuine nutrition and exercise left there.
Here are a few tips that should help you go a long way in preventing or reversing bone loss:
1) Eat high-quality protein and vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables! All bone begins as collagen, a substance whose intricate triple helix structure is formed through the Vitamin C driven hydroxlation of the essential amino acids L-lysine and L-proline. Focusing on selecting a diet closer to our hunter and gathered predecessors (not too distant from where we are now, in biological time) appears to be a key factor in preserving both bone density and bone strength.
And remember: Vitamin C is not the same thing as ascorbic acid. Szent-Gyorgyi, who received the Nobel Prize for its discovery in 1937, himself concluded that we need a whole food source of this vitamin, e.g. paprika or adrenal extract, and not the synthetic crystals we now carelessly identify with this life-giving food factor in food in order to prevent scurvy.
2) Get sunlight! Vitamin D supplements are to sunlight, what ascorbic acid crystals are to the Vitamin C activity found in whole, raw food. 3) Vitamin K works with vitamin D, preventing hypercalcemia and ectopic calcification, as well as strengthening the bone, without altering bone mineral density. It is is found in wonderfully nutrient-dense foods like kale, and as a by-product of the metabolic activity of friendly bacteria in our gut or in cultured foods.
3) Eliminate Wheat & Gluten from your diet. No grain is more harmful to human health, with wheat having over 120 documented adverse health effects culled directly from the National Library of Medicine.
4) Incorporate bone-building/strengthening substances into your diet. For a list of over 200 carefully reviewed natural substances with value, use the GreenMedInfo.com Osteoporosis resource page.
*While soy protein and flours, consumed excessively, will contribute to intestinal issues, including malabsorption of nutrients, in moderate quantities -- and treated as a medicine, not a food -- soy has profound therapeutic properties. The byproduct of soy fermentation will generate a phytoestrogen known as genistein, for instance, which is probably one of the most powerful, evidence-based bone-strength and density preserving substances in nature.