When we hear the term osteoporosis, a lot of people think of a weakening of the bones that happens only to older folks. But the truth is that it’s never too early to start taking precautions to avoid getting this condition later in life. Medical experts agree that the time to start taking steps to avoid osteoporosis later … is childhood!
Osteoporosis is a gradual loss of bone tissue or bone mass, which makes bones porous and much more prone to fractures that can prove very serious. If a person’s bone structure is porous enough, a simple act of life such as sneezing or coughing can actually cause a bone to break. In an older person with osteoporosis, a simple fall can prove disastrous, often leading to a hip fracture, which can severely impair the person’s quality of life, cause severe pain, and even lead to death.
Several factors can weaken bones later in life and deplete their mass, but one of the more important ways to prevent this condition is to consume plenty of calcium and vitamin D in our diet.
There is a very common misconception that only growing children need calcium-rich and vitamin D-rich foods, because they’re the only ones whose bones are still growing. But this is completely wrong. Just like the rest of the body’s cells, bone cells are continuously undergoing transformation, beginning soon after conception in the womb, and ending only when we take our last breath.
After the body extracts calcium from the blood, it deposits it in our bone tissue. Bones, then, serve as storage places for calcium to be used by the entire body. Whenever the body needs calcium, it taps into the calcium supply stored in our bones.
All of our body’s cells need calcium to function. Calcium is necessary for vascular contraction and dilation, for muscle function, for transmission of messages throughout our nervous system, and to trigger secretion of appropriate hormones during our whole lives.
In addition, it’s important to take into consideration that even though when we reach adulthood, our bones stop growing, these bones continue to be renewed on a daily basis, and it takes calcium to effect the transformation. Ninety-nine percent of the calcium that we consume goes to maintaining the structure of our bones and teeth (calcium is also important for hair growth). To maintain healthy bone structures, the body continually removes older bone and replaces it with new bone.
When we’re children, new bone is formed at a faster rate than the old bone is reabsorbed or recycled for miscellaneous processes. In early and middle adulthood, bone breakdown and reabsorption occur at an equal rate. After we reach age 50, bone tissue breakdown occurs at a faster rate than new bone formation; this explains the increased risk of osteoporosis as we get older (and underscores the importance of continued consumption of calcium, even as we age).
Calcium, then, is a substance that we need to consume in abundance throughout our lifespan. Vitamin D assists in the body’s absorption and utilization of calcium, so, vitamin D must also be supplied abundantly throughout our lives.
There is a small handful of foods that are great sources of calcium, and a few foods that are naturally rich in vitamin D. Foods rich in calcium include: dairy products, salmon, sardines, eggs, and the vegetable kale. Foods rich in vitamin D include: enriched dairy products, mushrooms (especially portobello and shiitake varieties), eggs, and the biggest source of all, sunshine, which causes the skin to make its own vitamin D. Even a little sun exposure, such as 20 minutes a day while wearing light clothing, will give you more than your daily requirement of this important vitamin.
For the growing number of folks who suffer from lactose intolerance, before you banish dairy from your life, you may want to first try organic dairy products, which often resolve digestive issues (certified organic dairy is devoid of chemicals that your system may be reacting to, such as pesticides and antibiotics). If that doesn’t work, lactose-free dairy products are a good next choice.
Calcium and vitamin D requirements actually do not decrease all that much once we reach adulthood, contrary to what many believe. The best bet, then, is to eat a diet rich in these two nutrients throughout our lives.
Other lifestyle choices that are important in preventing future osteoporosis are refraining from smoking and not consuming alcohol in excess. Tobacco products have been shown to be harmful to the skeleton and to our overall health; consuming more than two alcoholic beverages a day has likewise been linked to diminished bone health and to many other health complications, including different cancers and heart disease.
Maintaining a healthy weight throughout your life is also important. Either excess weight or being too thin will cause a person to be more prone to bone fractures in later life. This is where frequent exercise is a useful tool in maintaining a proper weight, and in boosting overall health. Exercise does not have to be rigorous, and such activities as walking or dancing count, if performed several times a week.
A diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains is important in that it will not only supply essential nutrients, but it will help you eliminate waste products from your body and keep your bowels regular. As a bonus, eating several servings of vegetables and fruits daily will also greatly help in keeping you at a healthy weight.
Substituting processed, chemical-laden foods for real, whole foods (buying organic when available) is an important, and often overlooked, way to insure that the functions of the body’s cells and systems are supported, instead of obstructed or compromised.
Osteoporosis is known in the medical community as a “silent killer,” due to the fact that the condition may develop for years before it finally manifests itself in a bone fracture. The best course of action is to take preventive steps, long before a debilitating fracture takes place.
By Lisa Pecos