Since returning to the Pilates studio, osteoporosis has definitely become a more prominent condition on my mind. I see a wide variety of clients, but there has seemed to be a particular focus on clients with osteoporosis. These are smart clients, knowing that exercise has been proven time and again to be effective in helping to support bone health. In a future blog, I’ll talk more about some key exercises I’m using with my clients to help them sustain and possibly even build bone. But, before jumping to exercises, let’s discuss how calcium is absorbed in the body and how you can better support this process.
Despite all of the calcium rich foods we are consuming, the US has among the highest rates in the world for osteoporosis. Often when we learn we have osteopenia (the pre-cursor to osteoporosis) we are told to take more calcium, more vitamin D and to exercise. But, if this were the answer, we wouldn’t still be struggling so much with osteoporosis.
The challenge is that bone building within the body is a complex process and requires more than just a little extra calcium. Calcium on its own needs 7 co-factors in place to be properly assimilated. And bones are comprised of at least 12 minerals that need to be in balance with one another. If we just take calcium without checking the co-factors or assessing full mineral status of the bones, we might not be helping or we might even be making it worse.
Here are 7 tips to help you assimilate your calcium and ultimately build stronger bones:
- Chew Your Food
I know, total broken record here. But, this can’t be overstated. Calcium needs appropriate levels of stomach acid to be properly broken down and assimilated. One of the best triggers to stimulate your own stomach acid production is to chew your food, and chew it thoroughly. Chewing stimulates the production of more saliva, digestive hormones such as gastrin and ultimately digestive secretions such as HCl and pancreatic enzymes. In order to access the nutrients in our food, we must have appropriate levels of the digestive secretions to chemically break down the foods into their chemical make-up. This is particularly true for calcium.
- Eat Fat
Best news ever, right?!? Ok, I know there are skeptics out there still about eating fat so let’s talk through this. Every cell membrane within the body is comprised of a phospholipid bilayer. In short, that means fatty acids. You need healthy fatty acids to make structurally sound cell walls. Fats, such as coconut oil, organic butter, beef tallow, avocadoes, olive oil, fish oils etc. The primary function of the cell wall is to keep pathogens and toxins out of the cell and to allow vitamins and minerals in. If you don’t have structurally sound cell walls due to insufficient fats or high levels of soybean oil, canola oil, hydrogenated oils or other highly processed vegetable oils then the cells can’t hold onto the calcium even if it is available. So, go eat that avocado to build strong cell walls and release the guilt!
- Enjoy the Sun
Vitamin D does two things for us, it helps increase absorption of calcium through the GI tract and it also helps to decrease the loss of calcium through the urine and feces. Vitamin D also has an important role in pulling calcium out of the bones and tissues to help modulate blood pH. (Did you notice that? Vit D also helps pull calcium FROM the bones.) When we get vitamin D naturally from the sun (Safely! At appropriate times and with non-toxic sunscreen on – more on that here.) we have mechanisms to naturally modulate how much we need. When we take vitamin D artificially, we want to be cautious not to take too much, because then we could have the inverse effect we are going for. Vitamin D requires a very delicate balance amongst other fat-soluble vitamins as well as calcium and magnesium, I wrote more about this here.
- Eat a mineral-rich diet.
Each mineral in our body dances with every other mineral in our body. When we take one mineral without acknowledging the status of the other minerals, we throw off the entire dance. To support bone health, eat a mineral-rich diet filled with bone broths, sea salt, sea veggies (kombu, dulse, etc) as well as high quality proteins and organic greens.
- Stay Neutral
Calcium is the major mineral used in buffering blood pH. Of all the fluids in the body, blood is THE most tightly regulated. Your body works very hard to keep pH and vitamin and mineral levels at a homeostatic level within the blood, and will do so at the expense of other tissues in the body. When your blood becomes too acidic, calcium gets pulled from your bones to bring the blood back to a more neutral level – even if this means weakening your bones. What causes the body to become more acidic? Processed foods and sugar.
- Check Your Hormones
Many of your hormones have a role in either supporting bone-building or bone break-down, we need a balance of each. The thyroid hormone calcitonin inhibits osteoclastic (bone break-down) activity, estrogen inihibits osteoblastic (bone-building) activity and progesterone promotes it. Unfortunately, one common struggle in our society is estrogen dominance (due to xeno-estrogens and challenges with eliminating old estrogens appropriately) then your body is likely inhibiting bone-building activity. If your hormone balance is off, it is safe to say your calcium and bone density is also affected.
- Drink Water
Water impacts blood volume, pure and simple. If we are dehydrated, then our blood is going to be more sluggish and won’t be able to get nutrients delivered around the body in a timely manner. Hydration also impacts electrolyte status, in particular potassium and sodium. Sodium and potassium directly impact the levels of calcium that will be needed in the blood, therefore maintaining a healthy balance of electrolytes is critical.
As a rule of thumb, strive to drink half your body weight in ounces each day. If you drink 8 ounces of coffee in the morning, add an additional 12 ounces of water to your day. An easy electrolyte beverage is to pour 4-6 ounces of coconut water in a glass, fill the rest with filtered water and add a pinch or two of sea salt.
As you can see, there is more to the story than just simply taking a calcium supplement and calling it a day. But, if you have been struggling to absorb calcium and strengthen your bones, I hope this gives you some insights and possible next steps to support stronger bone health.