Osteoporosis has a silent onset, as it's a disease that develops over many years, often going unnoticed because there are not obvious symptoms or discomforts—you cannot "feel" the weakening of your bones until they are so vulnerable you experience a bone fracture. The International Osteoporosis Foundation says that in the U.S. alone, 44 million men and women over the age of 50 are affected by low bone mass and osteoporosis. That is a startling 55% of all individuals age 50 and older living in the U.S., making the problems associated with low bone mass a major public health concern. Many people who face osteoporosis treatment are searching for the best and safest therapeutic, and the natural treatment of osteoporosis can be highly effective.
Natural osteoporosis treatments include addressing certain hormonal imbalances, getting enough exercise (especially via resistance training), preventing a vitamin D deficiency, and eating what's considered an “osteoporosis diet.” The osteoporosis diet supports bone health by providing you with enough vitamins, minerals, and protein, especially minerals like calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, all of which play a key role in bone formation. For details on the nature of osteoporosis and the natural remedies you can embrace to regain bone strength, read on.
What Is Osteoporosis?
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, the definition of osteoporosis is a bone disease that occurs when the body loses too much bone, makes too little bone, or both. Osteoporosis translates to "porous bones."
This disease is generally found in women over the age of 50, although it can develop in younger women and men as well. About one in two women and up to one in four men over the age of 50 will suffer a broken bone due to osteoporosis at some point—that's 25% of men and a concerning 50% of women.
When observed microscopically, osteoporotic bones reveal abnormal tissue structure. The disease occurs when small holes or weak spots are formed in the bones, which can then lead to bone fractures, bone pain, and other side effects and complications such as what's called a Dowager's hump, an abnormally outward spinal curvature in the upper back or thoracic vertebrae that appears as a humpback.
Osteoporosis vs. Osteopenia
Osteoporosis is distinct from osteopenia, a condition that is also associated with bone loss and bone weakness but is less severe than osteoporosis. According to the Harvard Medical School, both conditions involve various degrees of bone loss as measured by a bone density test, a marker for the level of risk there is that a bone might break.
Thinking of bone mineral density as a slope, a healthy skeleton would be at the top of the slope, and advanced cases of osteoporosis would be at the bottom. Osteopenia affects about half of all Americans over 50, and it falls somewhere in the middle of the bone density slope.
The Signs and Symptoms of Osteoporosis
The loss of healthy bone density is an incredibly serious condition that should not be taken lightly. Broken bones, especially in older adults, can be difficult to recover from completely, and may lead to a decrease in overall life enjoyment or worse (like chronic pain, long-term hospitalization, or even premature death). Broken bones and the surgeries needed to fix them can sometimes lead to life-threatening complications, permanent disability, limited mobility, and, of course, the emotional toll that such circumstances take, which could lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression.
Recognizing the symptoms of osteoporosis before a serious injury occurs could save your life. The most common symptoms include:
- Osteoporotic bone fractures: Breaks and fractures most commonly occur in the hip, spine, or wrist bones, but may also affect the knees, feet, and various other parts of the body.
- Limited mobility: Increased difficulty getting around or completing everyday tasks could be a sign of weakening bones, and many elderly adults who do break a bone require long-term in-home nursing care or need to take up residency in an assisted living facility.
- Bone pain: Intense or persistent bone pain is another clear sign of bone weakening.
- Loss of height: Becoming shorter as you age is not so much a natural occurrence as it is a sign of loss of bone strength and density.
- A hunched or stooped posture: Remember the Dowager's hump associated with osteoporosis? An abnormal curve of the spine is more than a slouch, it could be a sign of weakening bones.
Feelings of isolation and depression are also symptoms that stem from this loss of vitality. About 20% of seniors who break a hip die within a year of the fracture, making osteoporosis a contributing factor for increased risk of death.
Osteoporosis: Causes and Risk Factors
Not everyone over the age of 50 develops osteoporosis, so what are the risk factors that make the difference? Low bone mass and the risk of osteoporosis are often caused by a combination of different factors, including age, surrounding health conditions, and nutrient deficiencies due to eating an insufficient diet. The most common causes of osteoporosis include the following.
- Inactivity: Too little exercise can contribute to a loss of muscle and bone mass, while regular exercise helps to strengthen the skeletomuscular system.
- Aging: The fact of the matter is aging leads to progressive decline in all our body's faculties, including bone health.
- Hormonal changes or imbalances: Particularly low estrogen levels in postmenopausal women, one of the main symptoms of menopause, can lead to a decrease in bone mass. The same can occur in men with low testosterone levels, though due to the changes inherent in menopause, women remain more at risk.
- A history of certain medical conditions: Autoimmune disorders, kidney or liver disease, and pulmonary disease can put you at an increased risk for osteoporosis.
- A vitamin D deficiency: Vitamin D is needed for bone health and maintenance, and low levels of it can lead to skeletal weakness.
- Other nutritional deficiencies: A lack of calcium or vitamin K can lead to osteoporosis, as they are two other key building blocks for your bones.
- Stress: High amounts of stress or depression can alter your body's chemistry and health and contribute to conditions like osteoporosis.
- Weight loss: Whether intentional or unexplained, significant weight loss that involves severe calorie restriction or malnutrition can lead to weakening bones.
- Long-term medication use: Certain serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), fertility drugs or hormonal medications, aromatase inhibitors, anti-seizure medications, steroids (glucocorticoids or corticosteroids), and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) can contribute to the development of osteoporosis.
On top of the previously listed symptoms, being a woman and/or being over 70 are two more significant risk factors, as are a number of other health problems that can deplete the body's supply of minerals and lead to low bone density over time. Those conditions include but aren't necessarily limited to:
- Autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, ankylosing spondylitis, or lupus)
- Breast cancer
- Chronic kidney disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema
- Cushing’s syndrome
- Female athlete triad, irregular/absent periods, or premature menopause
- Hematologic blood disorders
- Hyperparathyroidism or hyperthyroidism
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Liver disease, including biliary cirrhosis
- Organ transplants
- Parkinson’s disease
- Polio and post-polio syndrome
- Prostate cancer
- Spinal cord injuries
Doctors typically use a bone mineral density (BMD) test to confirm osteoporosis. The BMD test involves a specifically designed machine like a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry scan (a DEXA scan), which measures the amount of bone mineral present in certain areas of your skeleton, usually the high-risk areas like your wrists, fingers, and forearms, your spine, your hips, and your heels.
Diagnosis is also confirmed by performing a physical exam, evaluating a patient's medical history, administering blood and urine tests to discern whether there are underlying causes or contributing conditions, taking biochemical marker tests, and conducting vertebral fracture assessments (VFAs)—decreases in height are often due to loss of bone mass causing tiny fractures in the spine.
While osteoporosis is not life-threatening in and of itself, the prognosis can be worrisome for those who are diagnosed, because the longer the disease progresses, the more at risk they are of dangerous bone breaks. It's possible to live many healthy years if you're able to slow the progression of osteoporosis with weight-bearing exercises each day, for example, which can help build up bone mass.
While a case of low bone density can be stabilized or even improved in a matter of 6-12 weeks, once full osteoporosis is diagnosed, the patient's bone mass usually does not return to normal. Once you have a diagnosis, the goal is to protect the strength you have and to rebuild density as much as possible to prevent your bones from becoming weaker and more at risk of fracture.
Conventional Osteoporosis Treatment
Conventional approaches to treat osteoporosis often involve prescribed medications, exercise recommendations, and dietary changes. There are many medications used to treat aspects of the condition and to help stop progressive bone loss, but not all of these medications are advisable for every patient. Factors include considerations like gender, age, medical history (like if you're a cancer survivor or have a chronic autoimmune disease), and your lifestyle (your diet and activity level).
Available medications for osteoporosis include:
- Bisphosphonates: This class of drugs is made up of alendronate (Fosamax), risedronate (Actonel), ibandronate (Boniva), and zoledronic acid (Reclast). Some of medications are suitable for both men and women, though others like Boniva are designed exclusively for women.
- Rank Ligand inhibitors: Suitable for both men and women, Rank Ligand inhibitors aim to reduce bone absorption.
- Parathyroid hormone-related protein agonists: This osteoporosis treatment aims to increase bone mass.
- Hormone replacement therapy: Most of these treatment options are designed for women only, and can include selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM) or tissue specific estrogen complex.
The Natural Treatment of Osteoporosis: 7 Alternative Treatment Options
If you're looking for a natural cure for osteoporosis, you may need to temper your expectations, because osteoporosis is a condition that will most likely need to be managed indefinitely. However, if you're unable or unwilling to take the pharmaceutical drugs meant to treat this disease and you want an alternative natural treatment of osteoporosis, here are some steps you can take to manage your symptoms and help halt the progression of bone loss.
1. A Healthy Diet
When it comes to osteoporosis foods, you'll want to prioritize foods that contain the essential nutrients for bone health, like magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, vitamin K, and sources of calcium. Protein is important, as nearly half of our bones' structure is made up of protein, and a high-protein diet may be extremely valuable to your health if properly balanced.
A mineral-rich diet to help combat osteoporosis includes the following.
- Raw cultured dairy: Yogurt, kefir, amasai, and raw cheese all contain calcium, vitamin K, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamin D.
- Foods high in calcium: Calcium-rich foods include all dairy products, green vegetables (like kale, broccoli, okra, and watercress), almonds, and sardines.
- Foods high in manganese: Manganese can be found in whole grains like brown rice, buckwheat, rye, teff, oats, and amaranth, as well as beans and legumes, macadamia nuts, and hazelnuts.
- Wild-caught fish: Osteoporosis may be exacerbated by chronic inflammation, and the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish can help reduce inflammation in the body. The best sources include anchovies, sardines, mackerel, wild salmon, and halibut.
- Sea vegetables: Sea vegetables like nori, agar, wakame, algae, and kombu can provide critical minerals for bone formation and antioxidants for overall health.
- Green leafy vegetables: For both vitamin K and calcium, green leafy vegetables like kale, mustard greens, spinach, Swiss chard, watercress, collard greens, dandelion greens, and escarole can provide valuable vitamin and mineral content.
- Quality proteins: Diets low in protein can impair bone health in the elderly. The recommended daily amount of protein for adults is between 0.8-1.0 grams per kilogram (~2.2 pounds) of body weight. Foods high in protein include wild-caught fish, grass-fed meat, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, fermented cheese and yogurt, as well as pastured eggs and poultry.
Foods to Avoid
Here are some foods and practices that could worsen your bone loss or contribute to overall bad health if you are at risk of osteoporosis.
- Too much alcohol: Osteoporosis and alcohol don't mix. Alcohol increases inflammation and can lead to calcium being leached from your bones.
- Sweetened beverages: The high phosphorus content in soda can also remove calcium from your bones, and the sugar content of sweetened beverages can increase inflammation.
- Processed red meat: A high intake of red meat and sodium may result in increased bone loss.
- Caffeine: Though the risk is small, an excessive intake of caffeine without enough calcium ingestion to counteract it may result in bone loss.
- Smoking: You should also discontinue smoking or avoid being around active smokers, as smoking can worsen many chronic health conditions including osteoporosis.
2. Physical Activity
Exercise of almost any sort can be beneficial for those with osteoporosis: yoga, strength training, swimming, you name it. Physical activity can help build bone mass, relieve stress, improve flexibility and balance, reduce inflammation, and more. However, there are some exercises that you may want to avoid if the intention is to protect increasingly fragile bones, such as activities that require too much twisting of the spine, bending from the waist, or jumping up and down. Instead, consider some of these other options for strength training.
- Brisk walking
- Lifting weights
- Bodyweight exercises
- Tai chi
- The elliptical machine
Gentler exercises are ideal, and using equipment like bands, light weights, chairs, and walls to assist you is encouraged. In fact, one study showed that the low-impact practice of tai chi can provide as much as a 47% decrease in the likelihood of falls for the adults who practice it.
If there is any lingering pain or soreness after trying a new exercise, consult with your doctor on whether there isn't a better form of fitness more suited to your needs. Weight-training exercises are especially important for improving bone density, but always defer to your doctor's advice when it comes to your specific health needs.
3. Help Prevent Dangerous Falls
The National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that about 1/3 of all people over 65 will fall each year, and many times this results in fractured or broken bones. One serious break like a hip fracture could irrevocably damage an elderly person's life or even cause their death, so here are important steps you can take to reduce your risk of falling.
- Get up slowly from sitting or lying down positions.
- Use a cane or walker for increased support.
- Use a flashlight in the dark or keep your home well lit to avoid objects that may trip you up, especially in stairwells.
- Wear comfortable, sturdy shoes that help you keep your balance (low-heeled shoes with rubber soles, boots, flats, sneakers, etc.).
- Utilize handrail supports as you climb stairs or walk on inclines.
- Be extra cautious in slippery conditions like rain or snow.
- Avoid slippery walking surfaces like tile, highly polished marble, or floors that have recently been mopped.
- Make sure paths are cleared in and around your home, including keeping clutter out of your driveway, off your porch, and up from the floors as much as possible (wires, cords, loose floor rugs).
- Keep often-used items within reach, use assistive devices to avoid straining while reaching, and be sure to use a sturdy stepstool when needed.
- Install support bars and non-slip items in your shower, tub, and bathroom.
- Place non-skid mats and rugs in your kitchen and throughout your house.
- Try not to move too quickly, as being in a rush makes falling more likely.
- Consider using a personal emergency response system (PERS), and wear it on your person if you live alone, in case you need to call for assistance.
4. Essential Oils
Applying essential oils on affected areas of the body or consuming them may help aid bone repair, increase bone density, or relieve osteoporosis-related pain. Sage has been observed to help prevent bone absorption, and aroma-massage therapy with ginger and orange essential oils has shown short-term pain relief.
Other essential oils for osteoporosis relief include rosemary and thyme oils, peppermint, cypress, fir, helichrysum, eucalyptus, wintergreen, and lemongrass oil. Acupuncture may help to reduce stress as well—explore these therapies to find out which one works best for you.
5. Sunshine for Boosting Vitamin D Levels
As little as 20 minutes of sun exposure on your bare skin each day can help prevent a vitamin D deficiency. To gain enough vitamin D, it's necessary to expose large areas of your skin to sunlight without sunscreen, but not for long periods of time (for those who are cautious about skin cancer). However, the darker your skin tone, the more time you will need to gain enough vitamin D from sunlight.
Studies suggest that older adults have a more difficult time making vitamin D than younger people do, even with the same amount of time spent in the sun. Likewise if you live in a cold, overcast climate (Chicago, Seattle, London, etc.) or are above the age of 60, you may want to take vitamin D3 supplements to ensure you get enough of this vital vitamin.
6. Osteoporosis Supplements
Here is a list of assorted supplements that may help you maintain bone health.
- Magnesium (500 mg daily): Magnesium is necessary for proper calcium metabolism.
- Calcium (1000 mg daily): Choosing a calcium supplement comprised of calcium citrate may bring you the best absorption rate.
- Vitamin D3 (5,000 IU daily): Vitamin D improves calcium absorption.
- Vitamin K2 (100 mcg daily): Vitamin K is needed to make a critical protein for bone formation, and can be had via supplement or by eating foods rich in vitamin K like leafy green vegetables.
- Strontium (680 mg daily): This metallic element can improve bone density. Naturally found in seawater and certain foods like fish and dairy products, most people still need to take a supplement to gain a sufficient amount.
7. Discuss Medication Use with Your Doctor
If you require steroids to treat another health condition like asthma, Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, or lupus, you may need to take even more strenuous precautions to protect your bones, including regular exercise, a mineral-rich diet, and immediate cessation of smoking. Common steroidal medications include dexamethasone (Decadron), cortisone, methylprednisolone (Medrol), and prednisone. Taking these medicines for longer than 3 months has been shown to increase your risk of losing bone mass and developing osteoporosis, so talk to your doctor about whether there are any possible alternative treatments or extra precautions you can take if they are indeed necessary.
Natural Sources of Strong Bones
Incorporating these natural treatments for osteoporosis can be the dietary and lifestyle change that saves you. The causes of osteoporosis include poor diet, lack of exercise, aging, hormonal changes, certain medications, medical conditions, and nutrient deficiencies, and while all of these factors can't be avoided or cured, you have control over your diet and activity levels. Treatment for osteoporosis may involve medications, but natural supplements and remedies alongside your doctor's treatment may help alleviate your symptoms and strengthen your bones to their maximum potential.