Getting weaker is no fun. Astronaut Sunita Williams knows that unless she exercises for 2 and a half hours every day that she is in the Space Station she will lose bone mass and muscle strength.
Back here on Earth we lose muscular and bone strength much slower than that because we have the power of gravity pulling on us 24/7 and the body tissues automatically strengthen as a result.
And we all know that we need to exercise to get stronger muscles but when it comes to getting stronger bones we come unstuck – what should we do?
We also know that our bones will generally get weaker as we age, so is there really anything we can do to reverse the process short of getting a time travel machine?
Or are we doomed to bone disease in old age?
Is This What YOU Think Of?
We all have mental pictures of what it is like to be old and when you think of that now… does it compare to what is brought to mind by this road sign?
Elderly people road sign
I used to see this road sign a few years ago when I was working as an Osteopath.
What it instantly said to me is "Backache !" And I promise you that there is no need for backache or any ache simply because you are a particular age. In any case backache is generally due to postural issues and overstrain which have no connection with bone health and can usually be fixed very quickly.
This road sign used to infuriate me because it so clearly stigmatises age and connects it to disease to which it is not connected. We can be just as healthy when elderly as we were earlier in our life, or even healthier.
But before we jump into bone health and whether we can do anything to help ourselves get stronger as we age we need to pause a moment and ask ourselves an important question.
What Is A Bone Anyway?
We think of bones in terms of our memories of school biology lessons in which we saw pictures or full scale models of human skeletons.
Skelly picture here
The major difference between a model of a skeleton you saw at school or in a museum and a real living skeleton is the fact that our own skeleton is made up of living bones.
Bones are the organs that make up the skeleton.
And like all other organs they are made up of living cells with their own blood supply and drainage and between our bone cells is a mesh made up of long spiral chains of collagen proteins.
Filling in the gaps between the long fibrous collagen proteins and making the bone rigid are the minerals calcium carbonate, calcium phosphate and other minerals.
And in the middle of the bone is the marrow where red blood cells are formed.
So that, in a nut shell is a bone – a living vital organ and not a dry dead and lifeless museum exhibit!
Now we've briefly looked at what a bone is we turn to what makes them strong.
And we'll look at 7 Steps you can take to halt the decline in the strength of your bones and even to reverse it and help them get stronger.
These Bones Are Made For Walking
We started this article with an astronaut exercising in the International Space Station. Astronauts "float" in that environment as if they are balloons. They cannot walk on the floor of their cabins and the so called "Space Walk" really would better be called a Space Float.
When they get down to earth at the end of their mission they are taller and have much weaker muscles and bones.
By experience they know that unless they strap themselves onto a treadmill with bungee cords while in space they will lose massive bone mass and muscle strength.
It is like they have rapidly aged and suffered catastrophic Osteoporosis. In this disease sufferers lose bone mass and frequently experience fractures.
Walking on the treadmill in space avoids or at least reduces this problem.
Astronauts know that our bones are strengthened by walking and in fact any "Weight bearing" exercise – like hiking, jogging and weight lifting and sports like tennis or basketball.
Weight bearing exercise is essential to help us make our bones healthier and stronger and walking is the best!
All exercise is good for us but swimming, cycling and other sports that don't have us in contact with the ground are not weight bearing and won't have much effect on our bones.
The Calcium Fad
Reading about how our bones get weaker in space you might have been wondering why they don't just pop a pill?
Well if it was that easy then those clever folks at NASA and other astronaut training centres would have their astronauts take a Calcium tablet and forget all that hard slog of treadmill and other tough exercises for hours every day.
The thing is that bones are complex organs – they are not just chunks of calcium. Taking a few tablets of calcium might be OK but it would not solve the problem of bone loss – it would only partially solve the problem of calcium loss.
And think of this; American drink the most calcium rich milk of any nation on earth and they also suffer from an epidemic of Osteoporosis – bone loss.
Whether they do or don't drink milk and whether they take Calcium tablets American still suffer an astonishing amount of bone disease and bone loss.
It ain't the Calcium that makes our bones healthy, so let's move on to something else that starts with a letter C.
Why Does Vitamin C Make Us Stronger?
Remember the chains of collagen in our bones? They also weave their way through our tendons and ligaments and our, skin and hair and even strengthen the walls of our blood vessels.
These long protein chains give strength to body tissues and act like strong ropes or steel chains. Speaking of which collagen is stronger per unit weight than steel. (http://web.mit.edu/3.082/www/team1_f02/collagen.htm)
Bones are strong due to their strong collagen and weak due to their weak collagen – and every stage in the formation of collagen involves using vitamin C. Adding vitamin C to our diet or supplements program allows the body to make all the collagen it needs to keep our tissues strong.
If we are Vitamin C deficient then our skin, ligaments and bones will suffer as a consequence and extreme Vitamin C deficiency leads to scurvy.
Governments around the world say that we need a tiny fraction of a gram of vitamin C to keep us healthy; expert Naturopaths and Nutritionists around the world advise us generally to take at least 1 gram of vitamin C per day and I take around 4 grams a day, preferably using what we call a balanced form of the vitamin!
How much vitamin C should you take? That depends on whether you trust the advice of governments or experts!
Sunshine Makes Bones Strong Too
There's no faster way to raise our spirits than to go out and enjoy the sunshine. Sunshine makes us happy but it also makes our bones stronger when it hits our skin.
The way that happens is down to some alchemical magic going on in our skin! There is cholesterol, yes cholesterol in our skin and it is the raw material the body needs to make important hormones, one of which is vitamin D. So although we call it "Vitamin" D, really it turns out that it is a hormone.
Cholesterol in our skin turns into Vitamin D when triggered by sunlight.
So if you avoid the sun because scare stories about getting cancer keep you indoors or you slather your skin with Sun screen which is suspected by many of causing cancer, then you are at risk of bone disease.
We all need vitamin D but we do have a choice in how we get our daily dose. If we don't get sunshine daily then we need to take a vitamin D supplement.
Food is not a good source.
I don't advise taking cod liver oil or eating fish because I consider them risky so for all of us not living in a tropical climate I think a healthy dose of vitamin D3 as a supplement is the best way to protect our bones.
And even if you live in a Sunny climate such the Southern states of the US or the countries around the Mediterranean or Australia or South Africa for example you will still probably avoid the sun so much that you too need to take a Vitamin D3 tablet.
The dose we need is not easy to fix because it depends on our individual chemistry. The best dose is found from a blood test. Unless we do that we just guess and I advise 1000 iu a day as a minimum and raising that to about 3000 to 5000 iu in the Winter if like me you live in a cloudy country like Britain.
The vitamin D Council advises 5000 iu daily.
You Mean Stinky Old Sulphur?
What has stinky old sulphur / sulfur got to do with bones? Simply that 3 of the most frequently used and research remedies for sore joints and bones all have sulphur in them.
The remedies are Chondroitin sulphate, Glucosamine Sulphate and methylsulphonylmethane which mercifully is called msm. And there is much argument about them and their effectiveness.
My take on this is that are all different ways of giving the body sulphur. If you have plenty of sulphur anyway supplied by your diet provided you eat onions, garlic or eggs then you don't need them.
Hot Springs can be found in countries all round the world. Many of them have the characteristic smell of sulphur springs and have been used for centuries for bathing and became centres of healing.
The famous Epsom salts were first discovered in a spring in the small English town of Epsom. It rapidly became a Spa centre attracting thousands of overfed and undernourished people from London who benefited from the minerals in the spring water.
Epsom salts is the name given to the white powder found in the Epsom spring water. Chemically it is magnesium sulphate and is hardly at all stinky!
It is marvellously relaxing when enjoyed as a bath salt and is a very simple pleasing and effective way to get your sulphur fix!
Are You Eating a Bone Disease Diet?
Not everybody gets lung cancer who smokes cigarettes; some smokers can smoke for decades and get away with it. Similarly not everybody who eats a typical junk food diet, what I have called a Bone disease diet will get Osteoporosis or Arthritis.
But eating such a nutrient deficient diet and not exercising is a pretty good preparation for pain and disability.
Everything we eat has an effect on the body. It may encourage the body to store energy and it may provide some vitamins and minerals but the most important effect is whether it acts as an anti-inflammatory or as a pro-inflammatory.
A healthy diet contains generous amounts of anti-inflammatory vitamins such as vitamins C and E which are essential to keep us healthy and to fight the inflammation which is at the heart of all serious disease.
Arthritis, Diabetes, Cancer and Heart Disease are all inflammatory at their root and show the body needs treatment with anti-inflammatories. Whether you get those from pharmaceutical medicines or from natural medicines is a matter of choice.
And you need accurate information to help you make those choices.
In this article and in this blog I love to point out helpful action steps you can take to achieve abundant health. Not just "healthy" meaning not in pain but feeling really healthy and energetic and optimistic.
So yes we need some nutrients to help us but the overall diet also matters a lot.
Eating a diet that includes meat increases inflammatory factors in the blood and eating a vegetarian diet decreases factors such as C reactive protein and decreases pain and disability too.
It is very clear that a Bone Healthy diet is a vegetarian diet and should be an automatic response to arthritis whether it be Osteoarthritis or Rheumatoid arthritis.
Or gout come to that.
Whether or not you include eating fish in your diet is a personal choice. It is absolutely true that omega 3 oils in fish are helpful anti-inflammatory ingredients and very welcome for anyone suffering from an inflammatory disease
But you can get omega 3 oils from flax seeds and other healthy plants. There's no need to risk pollution and infection from foods found in our horribly polluted seas.
Either way what we need is an anti-inflammatory diet to best help our bones and joints. And when we add some healthy nutrients to give an extra boost of bone friendly vitamins we further boost our chances of escaping the plague of disability we see all around us
We've looked at 7 steps we can take to boost the health of our joints. The more of these steps we take the more we increase the probability of aging healthily. The side effects of these bone friendly steps is that they are heart and brain healthy too. Helping our joints helps the entire body.