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Lynne Brown
BSc Hons, HDE, Dip Clin Nutr

The epidemic of osteoporosis has made many women think seriously about the health of their bones. It is the thief that may rob up to 25 per cent of your skeleton by the time you reach 50. Osteoporosis has been presented to the public as a disease merely dependent on estrogen and calcium. In response to this menopausal women are treated with Hormonal Replacement Therapy (HRT) and megadoses of calcium. But is this really the solution?

Will megadoses of calcium help?

Analyses of skeletal remains of our ancestors and across cultures, show that increased risk of osteoporosis cannot only be linked to calcium intake. For example, the African tribes have an average calcium intake well below the recommended intake for post-menopausal women, yet osteoporosis is virtually unknown. By contrast, the Eskimos consume a large amount of calcium yet have a high rate of osteoporosis. The reason there is so much osteoporosis among Westerners could be due to their excessive consumption of animal protein. As calcium is needed to metabolize protein, a high protein diet means calcium is constantly leeched from the bones. 

Magnificent magnesium

So the prevention of osteoporosis is far more complicated than wolfing down glasses of milk or calcium pills. Nearly half of the body’s magnesium stores are found in the skeleton and American researcher, Dr Guy Abraham, has demonstrated that magnesium is perhaps even more crucial to bone health than calcium. Magnesium helps calcium get into the bones and also converts vitamin D into its active form in the body. In his own study he gave magnesium to women taking HRT. After 8 months the bone mineral density of the majority of these women had increased by 1-11% compared to no increase in women on HRT alone.

Calcium supplements

If you do take a calcium supplement then be sure it also offers magnesium and that the calcium is in a form that can be easily absorbed by the body. Calcium carbonate is one that is not, whereas calcium citrate and lactate are. If you are in any doubt about your calcium tablets, place one in a cup of vinegar.  If the tablet has not dissolved within half an hour, it will not dissolve in your stomach either.  The daily calcium requirement for a menopausal women would be around 1200 mg daily. However, what research is beginning to show is that if you still insist on a high protein diet, no amount of calcium will correct the imbalance.

What else is needed?

Women with osteoporosis are found to be low not only in magnesium but also zinc, copper, manganese and vitamin C, so these need to be included in any prevention program. You also need vitamin K, essential for the production of bone protein and vitamin D3 which increases the uptake of calcium in the diet .

Where to find these?

Look first to your diet to provide these micronutrients. Calcium rich foods include low-fat yoghurt, broccoli, green vegetables, sardines, salmon (including bones), sesame seeds and almonds.  Magnesium is found in all fruits and vegetables. Vitamin K is found in dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach. If you cannot meet the suggested requirements from your diet then there are wholefood supplements such as AIM’s Barley Life that contain a combination of all the right vitamins and minerals in the correct ratios.

Check your digestive function

Also be sure to get your digestive function checked since low stomach acid can be responsible for low absorption of calcium. You can do the following test at home: On an empty stomach, drink one teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda in a glass of water. If you burp or have any gurgles in your stomach during the next 15 minutes then you probably have sufficient stomach acid.

It is really not a good idea to use antacids as these suppress the essential action of hydrochloric acid in breaking down calcium compounds so that the calcium can be absorbed into the blood stream.

Does estrogen play a role?

Although many believe that Eostrogen Replacement Therapy can slow the progression of osteoporosis, it may do more harm than good. In 1997 the New England Journal of Medicine reviewed several studies involving women who took estrogen replacement therapy for more than 5-10 years. The results revealed more than a 40% increase in breast cancer and in the light of these studies, Britain has banned the use of ERT for the treatment of osteoporosis.

What else will help?

Regular weight-bearing exercise has consistently been shown to stave off bone loss even in women past the menopause.

Cigarette smoking accelerates the destruction of estrogen and so hastens the onset of menopause and osteoporosis.

Also avoid caffeine, sugar, fizzy drinks and salt.

Try to be in the sun for an hour every day before 9 am or after 3 pm, with your face, arms and legs exposed and preferably no sunglasses or sunblock. This will ensure sufficient vitamin D, essential for calcium metabolism.  This could well be the reason why the Eskimos have low bone densities – not enough exposure to strong sunlight to satisfy the body’s requirements. In sunny South Africa we have no excuse, so get out there and claim your place in the sun and calcium in your bones!

Disclaimer: All information here is for educational purposes only and is not meant to cure, heal, diagnose nor treat. This information must not be used as a replacement for medical advice, nor can the writer take any responsibility for anyone using the information instead of consulting a healthcare professional.  All serious disease needs a physician.

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