Osteoporosis is a metabolic bone disorder caused by bone loss occurring at a rate that exceeds the body's ability to create new bone tissue. Bone loss is a natural phenomenon, but due to factors such as poor diet and hormonal imbalances it can occur at a much higher than normal rate. When it does, it is accompanied by the loss of calcium and phosphate from the bones, leaving them brittle, porous, and prone to fracture. The shrinking of the overall skeletal system can also occur, as can bent posture and humped shoulders and upper back.
Though both men and women can develop osteoporosis, it most commonly strikes women, especially in the U.S., where 33 percent of women past menopause are afflicted with the condition. Overall, approximately 28 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis. In addition, each year in the U.S. 1.5 million people age 45 or older suffer bone fractures of the hip, spine, or wrist because of osteoporosis. In the U.S., the risk of women developing osteoporosis is greater than the risks of uterine, ovarian, and breast cancer combined, making osteoporosis the fourth leading cause of death for American women.
The reason that women are much more likely to develop osteoporosis than men are is because their bodies have proportionately less bone mass compared to men's bodies, and they begin to lose bone mass at a much earlier age—typically starting at 35; whereas most men do not start to experience noticeable bone loss until around age 70. Bone loss in women becomes more rapid in the first five years following menopause, which can begin as early as age 45 or younger. During this five-year period, nearly all women in the U.S. will experience a five to ten percent reduction in bone mass. Once men start to lose bone mass to osteoporosis, their conditions can be equally as severe as those of women.
In addition to bone loss and bones becoming more brittle, fragile, and porous, other symptoms of osteoporosis include bone fractures, brittle fingernails, distorted posture, insomnia and restless behavior, joint pain, leg cramps (especially at night), loss of height, periodontal (gum) disease, and tooth loss. Often, these symptoms can manifest before people know that they have osteoporosis and can, therefore, act as early warning signs that bone loss is occurring. Note: If you chronically suffer from any of these symptoms, seek prompt medical attention to determine their cause.
Bone fractures that occur as a result of osteoporosis can cause serious health consequences. Fractures that occur along the spine can lead to permanent deformities in posture while hip fractures can potentially prove fatal. In fact, among older women (and men, as well) who fracture their hips due to osteoporosis, one in five of them die within a year as a direct result of doing so.
Other symptoms of osteoporosis include loss of strength, endurance, appetite, and muscle mass, especially following bone fracture.
Tests for Osteoporosis: There are a number of ways that you can be screened and tested for osteoporosis. The earliest and easiest test to perform is a height measurement, which should be done as part of an annual physical. If, as you grow older, your readings lessen, especially by half an inch or more, there is a strong likelihood that you are developing osteoporosis.
The next test is a bone density test, which should be performed immediately after you experience bone loss or begin to chronically experience any of the other symptoms mentioned above that can potentially be caused by osteoporosis. There are three types of bone density tests: the dual X-ray absorptiometry (DXA), dual photon absorptiometry (DPA), and the dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) test. Be sure to request either the DXA bone marrow test, which is the most accurate of the three tests, or the DEXA test, as the DPA test, though more commonly available, is the least accurate of the three. Some physicians prefer to rely on regular X-ray tests. These are the least efficient tests of all, and can only detect signs of osteoporosis after there has been at least a 25 percent reduction in bone mass, by which time osteoporosis is in a very advanced stage.
According to the late John R. Lee, MD, a Harvard-educated physician who was considered one of the world's leading experts in osteoporosis treatment and diagnosis, the most effective way to conduct bone density tests is to focus on the spongy areas of long bones, heel bones, and vertebrae, rather than limb bones, which tend to be much denser and slower to exhibit changes in bone density. For best results, have your physician test the lumbar area of your spine, which will enable him or her to measure the bone density of four vertebrae at once, minimizing the risk of error. Should you test positive for osteoporosis, Dr. Lee advised you should then have your physician monitor your lumbar bone density every three to six months to determine how well you are responding to your course of treatment.
Conventional physicians, for the most part, regard the bone loss that characterizes osteoporosis to be a natural and inevitable consequence of growing older. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although a certain degree of bone loss does occur to everyone as they age, in non-Western cultures that continue to follow their native diets, osteoporosis, like most other chronic degenerative diseases so common here in the West, is virtually nonexistent. Only in highly industrialized nations is it commonplace.
That being so, it is clear that osteoporosis is first and foremost a product of our modern day lifestyle and the various factors that comprise it. What follows are the most common causes of or contributing factors for osteoporosis.
Conventional Medications: A variety of common, conventional medications can cause or contribute to osteoporosis. Antibiotics, for example, can disrupt your body's supply of healthy intestinal bacteria, which act as a source of vitamin K, a necessary nutrient for healthy bone formation and regeneration. Other medications, such as steroids, including prednisone, actually inhibit the formation of new bone tissue, as well as inhibiting your body's ability to absorb calcium, another essential nutrient for healthy bones. Additional medications that can cause or exacerbate osteoporosis include antacids that contain aluminum, anticonvulsant and anti-seizure medications, blood thinners, chemotherapy medications, and antidepressant medications such as lithium. Potentially, any medication can worsen osteoporosis symptoms.
Diet: Poor diet is a major cause of osteoporosis, especially in the United States. The standard American diet, appropriately referred to by the anagram SAD, which relies heavily on commercially processed foods, is both high caloric and yet extremely deficient in necessary nutrients. Such a diet also creates a highly acidic effect in the body, causing the body to deplete itself of calcium and potassium stores in order to buffer and protect against acid buildup. This, in turn, causes a need to eat higher amounts of protein-rich foods, which creates further acidity and greater calcium loss, all of which stimulates bone loss and osteoporosis.
Other common aspects of the SAD diet are the high sugar, salt, and white flour it contains, causing the loss of calcium, potassium, and other vitamins and minerals, such as boron, folic acid, vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, and silica, that are each vital for healthy bones. Alcohol, caffeine and soda are other major dietary contributors to osteoporosis. In fact, research shows those that consume three or more cups of coffee per day have an 82 percent higher risk of osteoporosis while as little as one drink of alcohol per day can also significantly cause bone loss.
Further compounding the problem is the fact that non-organic, commercially processed and prepared foods are very low in vital nutrients essential for healthy bones, as well as good health in general.
Environmental Toxins: Heavy metals in our air and water supplies also contribute to bone loss, especially heavy metals such as aluminum, cadmium, lead, and tin. These types of toxins raise acidity levels, causing the body's storehouse of minerals such as calcium and potassium to be depleted, weakening bones in the process. Chlorine and fluoride in our water supplies can have the same effect. Ironically, fluoride was once considered an effective treatment for osteoporosis, but research now shows that fluoride, even in small amounts, can greatly increase the risk of bone fracture and also cause bone abnormalities and weakness.
Hormone Imbalances: Conventional physicians typically regard osteoporosis as a condition caused by diminished estrogen supplies in the body because of menopause. If that were the case, every woman would develop osteoporosis after undergoing menopause, but as mentioned above, osteoporosis is virtually nonexistent in cultures around the world that do not eat a Western diet. In addition, women who follow a near or complete vegetarian diet typically have lower estrogen levels than women who eat meat, yet have greater bone density and less risk of osteoporosis.
Holistic health practitioners recognize that it is not reduced estrogen levels that cause osteoporosis, but reduced progesterone levels. Progesterone is essential for healthy menstruation and also plays an important role in stimulating the creation of new bone tissue. Progesterone levels start to decline shortly before menopause begins, and researchers have shown a direct correlation between reduced progesterone and accelerated bone loss. Once menopause occurs, the corresponding drop in estrogen levels hastens the depletion of bone mass, as well.
While conventional physicians typically use synthetic estrogen replacement to combat this problem, they ignore the loss of progesterone, which is far more important because, although estrogen helps to prevent bones loss, it is progesterone that helps to build new bone and sustain overall bone health. Moreover, synthetic estrogen treatments can cause a variety of negative side effects.
Note: One possible sign of hormone imbalance is vaginal bleeding. If you experience this symptom, consult with your physician or gynecologist immediately.
Hysterectomy: Hysterectomy is a medical procedure that removes the uterus and, sometimes, a woman's ovaries. Even when the ovaries are not removed, however, up to 57 percent of all women who have a hysterectomy experience diminished ovarian function, which can lead to the rapid bone loss that is characteristic of osteoporosis. Compounding this problem is the fact that 90 percent of all hysterectomies performed in the United States are unnecessary.
Lack of Exercise: In order for the body to properly continue producing new bone tissue, regular exercise, especially exercise that stimulates the bones, is essential. Such forms of exercise include weight training, brisk walking, and running. In addition to helping promote new bone growth, regular exercise also enhances blood flow to the bones, supplying them with oxygen and essential nutrients that can protect against bone loss. People who do not engage in regular exercise or other forms of physical activity have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis.
Low Body Fat: A lack of body fat due to excessive exercise and/or weight loss diminishes the body's ability to adequately produce progesterone and estrogen, hormones that are necessary to produce new bone tissues and protect against bone loss, thus setting the stage for osteoporosis to occur.
Smoking and Exposure to Secondhand Smoke: Smoking cigarettes and regular exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke can cause or exacerbate osteoporosis symptoms because of how the ingredients in cigarette smoke interfere with the body's production of estrogen. Cigarette smoke also diminishes the ability of estrogen to properly interact with bone cells known as osteoclasts, which help to prevent and heal bone fractures. In addition, cigarette smoke increases the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood, causing the body to release its calcium stores, further increasing the risk of osteoporosis.
Other Risk Factors: Other risk factors for osteoporosis include absent or irregular menstruation, being short in height and/or having a small bone structure, celiac disease (sensitivity to gluten), early menopause, gastrointestinal disorders (bloating, flatulence, and/or indigestion), genetic predisposition, hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, kidney and liver disease, and lack of regular exposure to sunlight. Women of Asian or Caucasian descent, as well as women with blonde, red, or prematurely graying hair, also have a higher than normal risk of developing osteoporosis, as do women with freckles and women who have never had children.
Eliminating or minimizing your alcohol intake to no more than one glass of red wine per day, avoiding aluminum and aluminum products such as aluminum cookware and commercial antacids and antiperspirants, getting enough sunshine each and every day, and regular exercise.