What is osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis literally means porous bones. This condition affects mainly older women and involves thin and fragile bones, which increase the risk of fractures, mainly of the wrist, spine and hip.
In South Africa, approximately 33% of women and 20% of men will develop osteoporosis during their lifetime.
Osteoporosis is often referred to as the “silent epidemic” because there are no symptoms until a fracture occurs. The best way to check how healthy your bones are is by means of a bone mineral density test.
Bones mainly consist of calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and the protein collagen. Calcium makes bones hard, allowing them to support the body.
Famous people with osteoporosis include the late Joan Rivers, Sally Fields and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Modern, or allopathic medicine, has a standard approach to osteoporosis. Although the cause of osteoporosis is not entirely understood, doctors know that the bone-building process is no longer functioning as it should and bone tissue is lost faster than it is replaced.
Read: New bone tricks for oldies
According to “western” doctors this happens especially in older women because of lower levels of oestrogen after menopause. (Oestrogen is important for maintaining bone strength in women.) This does, however, not entirely explain why men also develop osteoporosis – the male hormone testosterone may be involved.
Besides lack of oestrogen, other putative causes of osteoporosis are:
- Family history and body type. Osteoporosis runs in families and small-boned people are also more susceptible to loss of bone density.
- Health and lifestyle factors. Drinking and smoking raise the risk for osteoporosis. Certain medications (e.g. corticosteroids) and diseases like coeliac disease, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis may also be contributing factors.
- Lack of exercise. Lengthy periods of inactivity cause considerable loss of bone mass.
- Lack of calcium. Calcium and vitamin D are crucial for maintaining strong and healthy bones.
Complementary or alternative medicine like homeopathy, acupuncture, and Ayurvedic or Chinese medicine is generally not recognised by “western” medicine because it is not based on scientific, empirical evidence. This may be true, but “today’s heresy is tomorrow’s dogma”, as the saying goes, and alternative medicine is becoming more popular by the day.
Read: Alternative Medicine
The two main differences of opinion between allopathic medicine and alternative approaches involve the value of dairy products as a source of calcium and the role that pH levels play in the development of osteoporosis.
Dairy may actually be a cause of osteoporosis
Cow’s milk contains approximately 300mg of calcium per cup, so it’s logical to assume that dairy products can add to the body’s calcium stores or replace lost calcium. Many alternative health practitioners however believe that the calcium found in dairy products is not easily absorbed by the human body and that because of the “acidic” nature of dairy products minerals like calcium are actually leached from the bones to neutralise these acids in the body.
In fact, Amy Lanou Ph.D., nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., states that: “The countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis are the ones where people drink the most milk and have the most calcium in their diets. The connection between calcium consumption and bone health is actually very weak, and the connection between dairy consumption and bone health is almost nonexistent.”
Read: Which foods have calcium?
Adding to the problem is the fact that milk which was drunk “raw”’ or unpasteurised until a century ago is now pasteurised and homogenised, increasing its acidifying effect.
Treating osteoporosis with the 'alkaline diet'
Many years ago America’s “sleeping prophet” Edgar Cayce advocated “a daily diet composed of 80 percent alkaline-producing foods to 20 percent acid-producing foods”.
Nowadays the term "alkaline diet" is widely used by practitioners of alternative medicine who claim that most diseases are caused by an over-acidic body and claim to be able to treat diseases like cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis with an alkaline diet.
Because of lack of empirical evidence the principle of the alkaline diet is not supported by modern allopathic medicine.
Read: Body pH: A delicate balance
The theory is that a diet consisting mainly of animal-based foods like meat, dairy and eggs increases the acidity of your blood, and that most plant-based foods, like fresh salads, vegetables and fruit promote a more alkaline body.
The pH of human blood is carefully regulated by the body to stay within the narrow range of 7.35 to 7.45, making it slightly alkaline. Too much acid damages the organs and leads to degenerative diseases, and in order to keep the blood at the correct pH level the body uses its mineral reserves (found to a large extent in the bones) to neutralise excess acid.
On his website Dr Oz lists the following 25 alkaline-producing foods:
- Draft beer (most neutral)
- White wine
- Mineral water
- Red wine
- Green beans
- Raisins (most alkaline-promoting)
The symptoms of osteoporosis
Exercise your bones, it’s never too late
Image: Female pelvis from Shutterstock