You’ve likely been told since before you can remember that healthy and strong bones are important. After all, how many times did you hear your mother tell you to drink your milk so that you would have stronger bones? While bone growth during childhood is important, taking good care of your overall health and supporting bone strength is important at any age.
The International Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that 44 million people in the United States aged 50 and older suffer from osteoporosis or osteopenia, bone diseases that involve decreasing bone mineral density (1). Osteopenia and osteoporosis more commonly affect women than men, but men can also experience these conditions and suffer from fractures, especially as they age. Fortunately, there are many natural ways to help strengthen your bones at any age, and it’s never too late to start.
Vitamin D is one of the most important vitamins to support bone health, but an estimated 75 percent of American teens and adults suffer from vitamin D deficiency (2). Vitamin D is critical for bone health because it helps your body absorb enough calcium to strengthen and develop bones. Our bodies make vitamin D when we receive enough sun exposure or consume foods like fortified dairy products, fatty fish, and liver. People who live at high altitudes or in areas that do not receive much sunlight, as well as vegetarians and vegans who may not include vitamin D-rich food sources in their diets, are at increased risk of a vitamin D deficiency. Unfortunately, even people who spend time in the sun regularly and consume vitamin D-rich foods are often still deficient in the key nutrient, and may need to take a vitamin D supplement, or better yet, a supplement that contains vitamin D along with other essential nutrients for overall health.
Weight-bearing exercises, such as strength training, resistance training, or even running, help promote bone health by encouraging the formation of new bone. It’s not only important for children who need to run around and participate in regular physical activity in order to properly reach their peak bone mass, it’s also critical for older adults because it can help support bone health as they age. Strength training and weight-bearing exercises have been proven effective for this, as studies have shown that strength training helps to support bone health in women, including those who already have low bone density (3). Another study of men with low bone mass found that performing weight-bearing exercise and strength training actually promoted bone density in several different areas (4). Strength training doesn’t have to involve going to a gym and lifting the heaviest weights you can find. You can perform exercises using a resistance band or your body weight and still see similar benefits.
We already know that vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium which promotes bone health, but in order to have enough vitamin D in an active form that can perform this function, we need magnesium. Magnesium helps to convert vitamin D into the active form of the vitamin that helps to encourage calcium absorption, so it’s important to make sure you get plenty in your daily diet. Unfortunately, there are very few food sources that are considered excellent sources of magnesium aside from leafy greens like kale, so most of us get magnesium in trace amounts from a variety of foods, especially since leafy greens aren't necessarily the food of choice for a lot of people. Therefore, many people need to take a supplement that includes magnesium in order to get their recommended daily intake. One study found that women who took 400 mg of magnesium per day had a bone density that was 2 to 3 percent higher on average when compared to women who only consumed 200 mg of magnesium per day (5).
There’s no better (or more delicious) place to get the vitamins and minerals you need than from whole foods, and vegetables are packed with important nutrients that help to keep bones strong. Green and yellow vegetables in particular have been shown to increase bone mineralization in children and maintain bone mass in young adults, while onions have been found to improve bone health in women over age 50 (6) (7). It’s believed that the vitamins and minerals found in vegetables help to decrease bone turnover, which is one of the major risk factors for poor bone health in older adults. Bone turnover is the process of breaking down old bone and forming new bone, and a higher rate of bone turnover can cause a decline in bone density and strength. One study showed that women who consumed more than nine servings of vegetables high in bone-protective antioxidants had a lower rate of bone turnover than women who did not eat the vegetables (8).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Commonly lauded for their benefits for heart health and brain health, omega-3 fatty acids are also associated with healthy bones. It appears that omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in supporting bone health through aging, especially when consumed concurrently with calcium, as one study showed (9). Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in foods like fatty fish (think sardines and salmon), nuts, seeds, fortified foods, plant oils, and algae such as spirulina and chlorella; however, some people still do not receive enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diets depending on their dietary restrictions. In these cases, additionally omega-3 fatty acids can be consumed through supplementation.
Eat Enough Calories
With the obesity epidemic on the rise, some people who are trying to lose weight can go to extremes and eat extremely low calorie diets. Regardless of a person’s weight, very low calorie diets (consuming less than 1,000 calories per day) have been tied to lower bone density in several studies; normal weight, overweight, and obese patients were all impacted (10). Even weight-bearing exercise and strength training can’t make up for not eating enough calories; one study showed that obese women eating 925 calories per day suffered a significant decline in their bone density over a four month period, even while performing strength training (11). It’s recommended that people consume at least 1,200 calories a day in order to maintain bone health and healthy bone density.
Another vitamin that is linked to bone health is vitamin K2, a cousin of the more common vitamin K. Vitamin K2 modifies a protein that helps in bone formation called osteocalcin. Without modification by vitamin K2, osteocalcin is unable to bind to minerals in the bones and prevent the bones from losing calcium. There are two common forms of vitamin K2, and studies have shown that regardless of which type people consume, they experienced enhanced osteocalcin modification and improved bone density (12). Vitamin K2 can be found in fermented foods, including sauerkraut and some types of cheese, as well as in liver, eggs, and meat. People who are vegetarian or vegan are more likely to experience vitamin K2 deficiency, although anyone can be affected. Vitamin K2 can be achieved with a whole food supplement like GEM, which provides vitamin K2 in a natural form that is easily absorbed and used by the body.
Live a Healthy Lifestyle
Another important key to maintaining strong bones is living a healthy lifestyle. Avoid using tobacco, which has been found to contribute to weak bones, and avoid drinking alcohol in excess. Long term use of certain medications, including corticosteroids, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), and other medications can cause a decrease in bone density as well, so it is important to live a healthy lifestyle and do all of the other things that help to support strong bones if you are taking these medications (13). No matter your age, living a healthy lifestyle and getting plenty of exercise while eating a balanced diet will go a long way towards ensuring that your bones, and the rest of your body, are healthy for years to come.
By the Numbers:
- 8.9 million: The number of fractures caused per year by osteoporosis worldwide (1).
- 1 in 3: Number of women worldwide over the age of 50 who will experience osteoporotic fractures (1).
- 1 in 5: Number of men worldwide over the age of 50 who will experience osteoporotic fractures (1).
- 206: Number of bones in the human body (14).
- Only one bone in the body is not connected to any other bones: the hyoid (14). This v-shaped bone is located at the base of the tongue.
- Bones contain calcium, sodium, phosphorus, collagen, and other minerals (14).
- The smallest bone in the human body is called the stapes, and it is located in the middle ear (14).
- The strongest bone and the longest bone in the body is the femur, or thigh bone (14).
- The place where two bones connect is called a joint (14).