Date: 1 December, 2001

Osteoporosis causes your bones to become thin, weak and brittle. Because the loss of bone happens so gradually, it has been dubbed the ‘silent killer’, as there are no symptoms or warning signs in the early stages of the disease. In fact, if you are over 45, then it is likely that your bones are already affected by osteoporosis to a certain extent, without you even realising it!

Although osteoporosis can strike from as early as the age of 25, it is mainly post-menopausal women who are at risk from developing the condition, due to declining levels of oestrogen. Osteoporosis is less common in men, yet it is still estimated that one in every 12 sufferers from the disease is male.

Once osteoporosis has reached an advanced stage, your bones become far more susceptible to fractures – especially those of your wrist, hip and spine – which can be fatal for older people.

Oestrogen helps prevent the release of calcium from your bones
One of the causes of osteoporosis is the loss of the mineral calcium from your bones, which tends to start between the ages of 30 and 35, at an estimated rate of 0.2 per cent of your entire bone tissue every year. The situation gets much worse after the menopause, when the loss of calcium can increase by up to 1per cent each year.

This loss of calcium is mainly due to a deficiency of the hormone oestrogen, which is accelerated during the menopause. Oestrogen is so important for maintaining healthy bones because it stimulates osteoblast cells, which use calcium to form new bone. In addition, oestrogen reduces the activity of cells called osteoclasts, which destroy bone tissue.

Other conditions that contribute to osteoporosis include:

  • Liver problems, which cause a lowering of hormones such as oestrogen.
  • Any major operation which necessitates long bed rest – prolonged inactivity allows calcium to leave your bones.
  • Steroids (used for asthma or polymyalgia, for example) promote the release of calcium from your bones and into your blood stream.
  • Other factors such as a high alcohol intake, smoking, lack of exercise, low body weight and early menopause, also increase your risk of osteoporosis.

Conventional drugs carry big risks to your health
A conventional treatment for osteoporosis is the drug Raloxifene, which helps stimulate the action of oestrogen. However, there are serious dangers associated with its use, such as thrombosis, painful cramps and flu-like symptoms.
Drugs such as clodronate and alendronate are also prescribed to prompt osteoblast cells to form new bone tissue, but these also have unpleasant side-effects such as diarrhoea, nausea and skin allergies.

Safe and effective alternative treatments
Many osteoporosis sufferers have found relief through using the following remedies:
Vitamin K has been found to be extremely effective for both the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. Vitamin K improves the activity of bone-forming proteins, such as osteocalcin, which work with osteoblast cells to form new bone tissue. Vitamin K is widely used by many doctors in Japan as a standard treatment for osteoporosis (J Nutr 1996, 126 (4), 1159-1164). Take 5-10mg a day.

Warning: Vitamin K is essential for normal blood clotting – if you are currently taking anticoagulant medication, such as warfarin, you should only use Vitamin K under medical supervision.

DHEA. This naturally occurring hormone is indispensable to the healthy functioning of your metabolism, and boosts the action of oestrogen and osteoblast cells – which help retain high levels of calcium in your bones. DHEA is currently available on prescription only. A dose of 25-50mg is normally recommended under medical supervision.

Natural progesterone cream has benefits similar to those of oestrogen, and appears to increase bone tissue and the calcium content in your bones (Endocr Rev 1990, 11 (2),386-398). Natural progesterone is usually obtained from yam extracts and helps to both prevent and treat osteoporosis. Again, natural progesterone cream is currently available on prescription only – normally one pea-sized portion is recommended to be rubbed on the skin, once or twice a day.

Take These Preventative Measures To Maintain Strong Bones:

Calcium, Vitamin D and Magnesium can help prevent the loss of calcium from your bones, especially after the menopause (Endocrinol Metab Clin N Am 1998, 27(2) 389-398).

Increase your dietary intake of calcium to keep your bones strong, by eating more cheese, sardines, broccoli and dark leafy vegetables. Supplementing with this essential mineral is also advisable: take 1,000mg of calcium a day; women over 50 (especially post-menopausal women) and men over 65 should take a higher dose of 1,500mg.

Vitamin D is also important, as it helps your body absorb calcium. In addition, Magnesium helps to retain calcium in your bones. Dietary sources include, chickpeas, dried figs, pumpkin seeds and peanuts. Alternatively, take 600mg of magnesium daily.

Exercise. Weight-bearing exercises are thought to play an essential part in reducing your risk of osteoporosis (Endocrinol Metab Clin N Am 1998, 27 (2) 369-387). Applying weight to your bones stimulates osteoblasts into creating new bone tissue. Suitable exercises include jogging, brisk walking and weight lifting.

Natural HRT is increasingly being used by women who are concerned about the side-effects of conventional HRT, which include weight gain, stomach upset, fluid retention, thrombosis and breast cancer. Conventional HRT includes synthetic oestrogen, and is taken to replace low oestrogen levels that occur after the menopause, to increase the strength and quality of bone tissue.

Natural HRT contains phyto-oestrogens — plant extracts such as soya and red clover – which are generally better assimilated by your body. They work in the same way as conventional HRT, helping to slow down some of the damage caused by low oestrogen levels in your body (J Clin Pharm Theur 1996, 21 (2), 101-111). However, they have the added advantage of causing far less side-effects — slight breast swelling and menstrual bleeding have been reported by some women, but these problems normally soon disappear once the dosage has been lowered.

It is never too early to start taking preventative measures against osteoporosis. If you think you may be at a high risk of developing the condition, consult your doctor, who will assess your medical history and can arrange for you to have a scan to measure your bone mineral density. For more information visit the National Osteoporosis Society website: www.nos.org.uk

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