The Nutritionist’s Guide to Treating and Preventing Osteoporosis

Takeaway: Osteoporosis is a condition where bones become fragile and weak. Medication, supplements, and exercise can help manage the problem. Prevention is better than cure, with diet and nutrition being key.

What is Osteoporosis? Osteoporosis is a weakening of the bones which can lead to painful fractures and other problems. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF), osteoporosis currently affects around 44 million Americans over the age of 50. It’s much more common in women than men. The CDC states that 5.1% of men over 65 have osteoporosis of the femur or spine, whereas the same condition affects 24.5% of women of the same age group. So, what can be done to treat osteoporosis? And can the onset of osteoporosis be prevented?

Osteoporosis Treatments

Being diagnosed with osteoporosis can be daunting, but it needn’t be the end of the world. There are many ways to treat osteoporosis and lots of advice for living with the condition. Osteoporosis treatment is all about finding ways to strengthen bones, or looking after fragile bones in order to prevent breakages. Ways to deal with osteoporosis include:

  • Increased physical activity
  • Taking steps to prevent falls
  • Change of diet
  • Medication
  • Weight-bearing exercise
  • Yoga
  • Supplements

For those suffering from osteoporosis natural treatments and options can be very helpful and complement conventional treatments. The key to dealing with osteoporosis is to find ways to improve your bone density. Two key supplements that help with this are vitamin D and calcium. Vitamin D and calcium supplements are widely available and often quite inexpensive.

Another natural way to deal with osteoporosis is by changing your diet. An unhealthy diet might mean you’re not getting enough of the vital nutrients that encourage bone development. A good variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products (where appropriate), and vitamin D rich food like eggs can ensure your bones are well looked after. Some foods are fortified with calcium or vitamin D, making it even easier to get your recommended daily amount.

The most natural treatment for osteoporosis is sunshine.

A natural treatment for osteoporosis is sun!

Sunshine boosts your vitamin D levels naturally and can prevent deficiencies. Around 20 minutes of exposure to the sun a day can help, but always be safe in the sun. Long periods of exposure to the sun can be harmful.

When suffering from osteoporosis, natural treatment may seem like the best option; however, your doctor may also prescribe medication to assist with the strengthening of bone. Osteoporosis medications include:

  • Bisphosphonates
  • Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators (SERMs)
  • Parathyroid Hormone
  • Supplements

Yes, supplements also made it onto this list. Doctors will often prescribe additional calcium or vitamin D, either through changes in diet or supplements. The best calcium supplement for osteoporosis is one that your body can absorb easily. Supplements like “Bone Strong” are a popular treatment for osteoporosis as they combine calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, and magnesium. These ingredients work together to encourage healthy bone formation and leave you less prone to bone-related injury.

Osteoporosis Symptoms

You may wonder what osteoporosis symptoms are and what warning signs to look out for. The unfortunate truth is, there are no outward signs of osteoporosis until a fracture or breakage happens. Prior to bone damage, the body exhibits no indication that anything is wrong.

Small fractures in the spine can lead to some older people having a ‘stooped’ position. This is due to the spine no longer being able to support the full weight of an upright upper body. A commonly asked question is, “Does osteoporosis cause pain?” The answer to this is no providing the osteoporosis hasn’t caused bone damage such as a fracture due to a fall. Once the bones become damaged, osteoporosis can be very painful. But the pain comes from the broken bones- not directly from osteoporosis itself.

Osteoporosis occurs most commonly in post-menopausal women. This is because, during the menopause, levels of estrogen reduce. A lack of estrogen is directly related to reduced bone mass. Other conditions which cause reduced estrogen can also cause the onset of osteoporosis. Prolonged use of some medications, such as certain steroids, can have a similar effect. Osteoporosis in men tends to occur due to genetic or lifestyle factors and is not as common.

Osteoporosis Risk factors

Another commonly asked question is, “Is osteoporosis genetic?” Yes, osteoporosis does run in families, so if your parents or grandparents developed osteoporosis, there is a chance you could too. However, there are other osteoporosis risk factors including:

  • Having a small build (less overall bone mass)
  • Suffering amenorrhea (abnormal absence of menstrual periods)
  • Being a post-menopausal woman
  • Long-term use of certain medications
  • Poor diet, particularly low calcium intake
  • A sedentary lifestyle (little to no physical activity)
  • Smoking
  • Overuse of alcohol

Osteoporosis, known as a silent disease, can remain undetected for years. It’s only when a fracture occurs that the problem becomes evident. Osteoporosis can be diagnosed using a bone mineral test. This is a way to test the density of the bone, and determine whether you have osteoporosis or not.

Smoking is linked to many diseases, but you might be surprised to know there’s a link between smoking and osteoporosis. It’s not clear if smoking is a direct cause of a loss of bone density or one of a variety of connected lifestyle choices that lead to weaker bones. However, it is clear that smokers are much more likely to develop osteoporosis than non-smokers.

Chronic alcohol use has a negative impact on health for many reasons. A connection to osteoporosis is just one more reason among many to drink in moderation. Alcohol can affect the amount of calcium that bones are able to absorb. Without enough calcium, bone density is less, making bones brittle and more prone to fractures.

How to Prevent Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis can be prevented by changes to your lifestyle.

When thinking about how to prevent osteoporosis, it’s important not to get hung up on the fact that it can be genetic. Even if it runs in your family, osteoporosis can be prevented by changes to your lifestyle. These may include:

  • Increasing physical activity to 2.5 hours a week minimum
  • Eating a healthy diet full of calcium and vitamin D
  • Avoiding or quitting smoking
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation
  • Spending a moderate amount of time in the sun
  • Losing weight, but only if your doctor suggests you need to

Prevention is always better than cure, so by taking action early, you can keep your bones as healthy as possible and delay or even stop the onset of osteoporosis. Increasing physical activity is often the first step to improving bone density. Two and a half hours of exercise per week is considered the minimum to ensure bones and muscles are having enough strain put on them to encourage them to grow. There are lots of fun ways to increase physical activity, as we will explore a little later on in the article.

Can Osteoporosis be Reversed?

Not completely. Once osteoporosis becomes evident, either after a fracture or because of a bone density test, you can take steps to try and improve your bone density. One of the key ways to do this is through nutrition, and the first step to adequate nutrition is a healthy and varied diet. For good bone density, it’s important to eat plenty of foods rich in calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin D is found in high quantities in:

  • Oily fish
  • Pork
  • Eggs
  • Liver
  • Specially fortified foods including some cereals, milk, and mushrooms

Calcium can be found in:

  • Dairy, including milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Soybeans
  • Sardines
  • Tofu
  • Okra
  • Some squashes

With this much variety, it should be easy to find a tasty way to boost your bone density. Through the summer months, a good dose of sunshine can top up your vitamin D levels. If all else fails, a good quality supplement is a great way to make sure you’re getting your recommended daily amounts of calcium and vitamin D.

The primary reason it’s so important to get an adequate amount of both calcium and vitamin D is very simple. Without the right amount of vitamin D, the body struggles to absorb calcium. Even if you’re eating a calcium-rich diet, without any vitamin D, the body can not take in the calcium you’re providing it with. So, what does the body do? It starts to take calcium from the richest deposit it can find: your bones. This directly weakens the bones and is a primary cause of osteoporosis. This is why diet is so important in preventing osteoporosis, as is exercise.

Exercises for Osteoporosis

Physical activity is a great way to prevent osteoporosis

Physical activity is a great way to achieve a healthy lifestyle. Exercise improves circulation, increases cardiovascular health, and can help prevent or treat osteoporosis. Exercises for osteoporosis can range from gentle flexing and stretching to tougher resistance and strength exercises. Here are just a few of the osteoporosis exercises your doctor might encourage you to do:

  • Treadmill walking or running
  • Step machine exercise
  • Elliptical training machine exercise
  • Low impact aerobics
  • Lifting weights
  • Exercise band training
  • Weight machines

It may help to alternate aerobic activity with muscle strengthening exercise. Exercises specifically to improve balance can help prevent falls and tumbles, and increase your confidence.

There are lots more ways to increase bone density through physical activity, and we’ve highlighted a couple of the most frequently recommended in the next two sections.

Weight-Bearing Exercises for Osteoporosis

Weight-bearing exercises for osteoporosis are all about retraining your body to deal with its own weight. You’re encouraging your bones to bear the weight of your frame and muscles and become stronger in doing so. It’s a way of using gravity to strengthen your entire body. Weight-bearing exercises for osteoporosis include:

  • Running
  • Jogging
  • Jump-rope
  • Tennis
  • Walking/hiking
  • Dance
  • High-impact aerobics

It’s important to note that if you’ve already been diagnosed with osteoporosis, particularly if you have suffered a fracture, care should be taken to avoid falls. Dancing, for example, could be dangerous if you have two left feet! Exercise should be fun and not overly stressful, so pick an activity that you feel confident with, and set goals for yourself. If you’re unsure or need advice, talk to a doctor or physical therapist about what osteoporosis exercises are appropriate for you.

Yoga for Osteoporosis

Yoga is a great way to prevent osteoporosis.

Another way to support bone health is to consider taking up yoga for osteoporosis. Yoga increases flexibility and muscle tone, which can encourage better bone density. Certain yoga asanas, or poses, are considered beneficial for osteoporosis. The ‘Tree’ is a standing pose which involves bringing one leg up and flexing the hip. The ‘Triangle’ involves a deep stretch to the side, increasing flexibility and working the leg muscles too.

Again, it’s important that when balancing on one leg in poses like the ‘Tree,’ that you are careful not to overbalance. Falling can have severe consequences for those who have osteoporosis. Bones are fragile, and it doesn’t take much to break them.

Performing yoga for osteoporosis can be done safely, though. If a teacher or class is not available, maybe ask a friend to join you at home, and you can practice the relevant asanas together. Use a mat or cushions to avoid falling onto hard surfaces. And, don’t push yourself into positions that are painful or hard to get out of.

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