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As we get older, it’s often believed that our bones becoming weaker or more fragile is a normal part of aging. Even if you’re not quite there yet, you may have noticed the elders in your life such as your parents or grandparents struggle with more bone fractures or breaks, stooped posture, or even bone pain at times. Or maybe you’re already seeing the signs of poor bone health yourself.
Osteopenia and osteoporosis are semi-common conditions that we see in older generations, however the idea that this is an inevitable part of aging is simply not true! You are not destined to live with poor bone health or remain on medication, even if you’re already experiencing bone density loss or if osteoporosis runs in your family.
So, if osteoporosis is not a normal part of aging, then what are the causes and risk factors? How do you know if you have osteopenia or are on the road there? And what should you be doing to support your bone health and prevent bone density loss? Luckily, there are several scientifically proven ways to improve your bone health, strengthen bones, and lower your risk of osteoporosis that you can start today!
First, you might be wondering— what is the difference between osteopenia and osteoporosis? If you’ve ever had a bone density test, your doctor is looking to identify your bone mineral content, which correlates to the strength of your bones.
If you are diagnosed with osteopenia after a bone density test, this is simply the stage before an osteoporosis diagnosis. This means your bone density is below normal but not low enough to be considered osteoporosis. Your bones have likely shed and you may have experienced bone fractures. Osteopenia is a warning sign that you are at risk for osteoporosis.
A bone density test uses a measurement called a T-score. Your T-score is your bone density compared with what is expected in a healthy young adult. The more negative your T-score, the less dense your bones are.
In order for your doctor to make a true diagnosis of osteoporosis, they will need to take several tests to compare your bone density trends over time.
There are three main factors that increase your risk of osteopenia and later, osteoporosis. These are the three contributors that you will want to address and get under control first and foremost so that you can strengthen your bones.
Inflammation is the root of most conditions. I’d even go as far to say that inflammation is at the root of EVERY condition. In order to reduce your susceptibility to osteopenia, you must reduce inflammation in your body. Inflammation decreases your osteoblast activity and increases osteoclast activity. Osteoblasts are the cells that build bone whereas osteoclasts are responsible for bone resorption. Too much osteoclast activity is what degrades the bone!
This is a major factor that often gets overlooked! Heavy metal accumulation is always present in bone loss. This is because heavy metals attract and pull out calcium and minerals from your bones, causing you to lose bone density. One heavy metal in particular to look out for is cadmium, as it can break down collagen and stimulate osteoclasts. There are heavy metals everywhere so some accumulation is inevitable, but limiting your exposure is key! The best way is to look at your environment and make changes as needed.
I suggest getting a heavy metal analysis test done so that you have a good overview of how much heavy metal toxicity you have accumulated. Always test, don’t guess!
Chronic stress contributes to loss of bone density. It activates your HPA axis and sympathetic nervous system, which suppresses the secretion of growth hormones! It also increases inflammatory cytokines. This means that psychological and chemical stress inhibit bone formation and increase inflammation, both of which contribute to bone loss.
While the above factors are the main causes of bone density loss, there are other significant contributors of osteopenia that lead to osteoporosis. These are not as prevalent but definitely worth noting!
A common misconception when it comes to bone health is that osteopenia or osteoporosis is caused by a diet low in calcium. While calcium is an essential mineral for healthy bones, it’s actually very difficult to eat an extremely low calcium diet, even if you’re dairy-free. The mineral is found in more foods than you may realize! There is calcium in most fruits, veggies like leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. Unless you are eating mainly processed foods, you are likely eating enough calcium.
The best way to find out if you are deficient in calcium is to test your micronutrient levels. With a functional medicine micronutrient analysis, we can not only see how much calcium is free floating in your bloodstream (extracellular calcium), but also how much is actually being absorbed by your cells (intracellular calcium). In order for your calcium rich diet or calcium supplements to make a difference, your body must absorb it effectively.
When it comes to supplements, I always suggest testing your micronutrient levels before you start taking anything— especially calcium. Too much calcium or the wrong kind of calcium can cause build up in places other than your bones, such as your arteries or blood vessels. This can lead to risk of heart attack or stroke.
If your micronutrient levels show that you are deficient in calcium, it’s important to be strategic with supplementation so that the mineral is absorbed properly by your bones.
I always suggest taking a calcium supplement with vitamin K2, otherwise known as menaquinone. There are three types of vitamin K, but menaquinone is the type that is essential for bone health. It redirects calcium to the bone, ensuring optimal absorption. K2 is actually the #1 nutrient deficiency I see in my clients as it’s extremely common in those with leaky gut.
In short, you’ll want to first make sure that you are actually calcium deficient before taking a supplement, even if osteoporosis runs in your family. And second, if you are deficient, make sure you are taking a quality supplement in combination with K2 so that the mineral deposits to your bone, where calcium belongs.
Another common misconception when it comes to preventing osteoporosis and supporting bone health is that you must avoid protein. Protein is an essential macronutrient that your body NEEDS. It’s actually the basis for bone and collagen. There is no reason to fear protein or cut it out of your diet!
The real reason why protein gets a bad rap for bone health is because so many people consume poor quality protein. A lot of protein rich food or protein powders are full of heavy metals, which we know rob the bone of minerals and are a huge contributor to osteoporosis.
I generally suggest 4-6oz of quality protein per meal consisting of organic pasture raised poultry and eggs, grass fed beef, wild seafood and shellfish, and high-quality protein powder.
Food is the best medicine and is the most important factor in healing, reducing inflammation, and preventing and reversing health conditions. Following a diet geared towards improving bone health is my #1 prescription for treating osteopenia and osteoporosis through functional medicine. So without further adieu, here are 6 ways to tailor your diet to target bone health.
Remember that inflammation in the body is one of the main causes of bone density loss. Less inflammation equates to healthier bone function. It’s very important to eat plenty of anti-inflammatory ingredients in order to strengthen your bones and nourish your osteoblasts (the cells that build bone). Some great examples of what to eat more of include quality animal proteins, omega-3 fish, oysters, organ meats, leafy greens, fruits, vegetables, and healthy animal fats. And of course, limit processed and packaged foods.
For anti-inflammatory meal plans and recipe ideas, I encourage you to check out our Gut & Autoimmune Meal Plan Membership, which provides tons of resources to begin reducing inflammation and supporting your diet with nutrient dense and gut healthy foods.
Always avoid your known food sensitivities. It’s so important to have a quality food sensitivity test done so you’re not guessing with what foods to avoid. If you haven’t had a food sensitivity done, I suggest staying away from common gut and autoimmune triggers that typically exacerbate inflammation. These include gluten, conventional dairy, soy, corn, and oats.
Eating the right sources of calcium is a gamechanger for bone health. There are so many anti-inflammatory dairy-free foods that are rich in calcium. You’ll want to avoid conventional pasteurized dairy as it increases inflammation and is difficult to digest. Being dairy-free doesn’t mean you need to eat a low-calcium diet.
Some fantastic food sources of calcium include:
Calcium and K2 are an important duo as K2 ensures that calcium is absorbed in the bones and not redirected to other areas of the body like the arteries or blood vessels. It provides bone support by transporting nutrients to the cells to help them absorb. Dark deep leafy green veggies contain menaquinone, which is an active form of K1 that converts to K2. Additionally, healthy animal fats like duck fat, ghee, beef tallow, and grass-fed butter are rich in K2.
Don’t fear fat! Not only are healthy fats important to include in your diet for their K2 content, but also for fuel and nourishment. We need fat to balance hormones, fuel important functions like bone formation, and help with the absorption of K2. You’ll want to increase medium-chain triglycerides (MCT’s) like organic and unrefined extra virgin coconut oil, omega-3’s like wild caught fish, flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts, and healthy animal fats like duck fat, beef tallow, lard, grass-fed butter, and ghee.
Bone broth is liquid gold! It’s naturally high in collagen, gelatin, and essential minerals. Collagen and minerals make up a large portion of healthy bone and because bone builds bone, consuming these help with bone formation. You’ll want to be sure to choose a quality organic bone broth that doesn’t contain heavy metals or make it from scratch with pasture-raised bones! If you choose to purchase ready-made bone broth, I like the brands Kettle & Fire and Bonafide Provisions.
Caffeine and alcohol often trigger inflammation and are best to be avoided. I suggest limiting caffeine to less than 300 mg per day. This includes caffeine in coffee, tea, chocolate, and soda. I also recommend cutting out alcohol completely or at least limiting to one drink per week.
Toxin accumulation wreaks havoc on the body, especially the bones. Heavy metals pull essential nutrients and minerals from the bones, causing bone density loss. This is why reducing toxins is a key element to preventing and reversing osteopenia and osteoporosis! Here is how to strengthen bones by reducing toxins.
The most effective way to reduce toxins is to swap out the products you use in your everyday life for clean, heavy-metal tested, toxin free alternatives. This includes cleaning products, skincare, beauty products, foods, and even drinking water.
Here are some clean products and suggestions I recommend so you can start making non-toxic lifestyle swaps today:
Filtered drinking and bathing water: Berkey Filter
One of the tools I use in my practice to help detox the body is Toxin Removal Spray (TRS). TRS is a tasteless spray that promotes heavy metal detoxification! This spray contains teeny tiny negatively-charged particles called zeolites that are encapsulated in water clusters. They can travel anywhere in the body where there is water (and remember, your body is actually 60% water!). These zeolites attract positively charged heavy metals and excrete them from your body where most zeolites cannot.
When we don’t properly reset and detoxify the liver and gut, the digestive system and body as a whole can become sluggish and inflamed. One of the easiest ways to improve this is to take one week at the change of seasons and eat only simple and nutrient dense meals with detoxifying properties.
This is why I created the Gut and Autoimmune Reset & Reboot Mini-Course. This clinically designed reset and reboot is a comprehensive program designed to support your body’s natural detoxification process while also making sure you get the nutrients you need to thrive. We do this by helping you to eat the right real foods to nourish and support your organs in combination with taking targeted supplements to cleanse your body safely. The process activates Phase 1 and Phase 2 liver detoxification which helps cleanse your body and rid it of toxins.
When it comes to supplementation, it’s important to get micronutrient tested first so that you know which supplements you need and which you can leave out. Supplementation is not a one size fits all solution to any condition, including osteopenia and osteoporosis! And as always, check with your doctor before starting any new supplement routine. Here are the supplements that I generally recommend in a bone health protocol.
Vitamin D is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies I see in my clients and is so important for improving bone density. I always recommend getting your levels to 60-70 ng/mL. It’s important to first and foremost get vitamin D from sunshine whenever possible and then consider supplementation as needed.
To reiterate, K2 is such an important vitamin for bone health, especially because it allows calcium to be absorbed in your bones rather than other unwanted areas of the body. Always get as much K2 from your diet as possible first and then supplement if needed. I suggest 200 micrograms per day because over-supplementing can interfere with hormone function.
Alpha lipoic acid is an antioxidant that promotes bone health because it helps to support essential mineral balance and is anti-inflammatory. I suggest aiming for 300-600mg per day.
Berberine is a plant compound that is able to make changes within the body’s cells. Research shows that berberine supports osteoblast activity (the cells that build bone) and lower osteoclast activity (the cells that degrade bone). I suggest aiming for 250-300 mg per day.
Magnesium is the other most common deficiency along with vitamin D. It is an important component of bone that keeps it flexible and also supports mineral absorption. I suggest supplements with magnesium bicarbonate in liquid or powder form.
Hydroxylapatite (HA) is a naturally occurring form of calcium phosphate. It’s a form of calcium that won’t deposit in your arteries or cause high cholesterol. I consider it to be the most ideal form of calcium for bone replacement and repair!
To wrap it up, don’t be discouraged if you’ve been diagnosed with osteopenia/osteoporosis or have noticed your bones start to weaken. There are ways to support your bone health and reduce your risk for fractures and falls with functional medicine!
It’s important to look at the whole picture and get to the root cause as to why it’s so common to experience bone density loss as we age. In order to prevent and reverse osteoporosis, it’s essential to heal inflammation, toxin accumulation, nutrient imbalances, dysbiosis, infections, and hormone imbalances. For help and guidance in healing from the inside out, check out my foundational program Microbiome Makeover!
"When it comes to balancing our body, healing the gut, reversing autoimmunity, and achieving optimal health—we are a lot like a car that won’t run right. In order to fix the problem once and for all instead of relying on jumper cables, we must get underneath the hood, run the diagnostics, and replace the battery so that it runs good as new."
-Nikki Yelton, RD
If you are ready to stop wasting precious time, get off the never-ending hamster wheel, and finally surrender trying to figure things out on your own—this is your moment.
You don’t have to settle for just getting by and hoping tomorrow is a better day. We both know you are a woman who deserves better and are made for so. much. more.