My elderly mother suffers from osteoporosis and is susceptible to bone fractures. Is there anything that can be done to protect my bones for the future, since I'm told it may have a genetic component?

The word 'Osteoporosis' means 'porous bones', and typically occurs later in life when bones begin to lose density, resulting in them becoming fragile and prone to fracture. In later life - or when specific medical conditions occur in people in their middle years - the balance between old bone being broken down (resorption) and new bone being made (formation) can be lost. When there is more resorption than formation, the total amount of bone in the skeleton begins to decline and bones become more fragile.

Whilst a family history of osteoporosis is a significant risk factor for its development, there are a number of lifestyle factors that can be employed early to help minimise thinning bones in later life.

Sunlight exposure

Calcium and Vitamin D are the two most well studied nutrients associated with bone loss. Calcium is a key component of bone, and Vitamin D facilitates calcium absorption from the diet. Deficiency of either of these nutrients is a risk factor for osteoporosis.

The best way to improve vitamin D status is via sun exposure on the skin. Vitamin D can also be obtained via the diet, but very few foods contain significant amounts of vitamin D to prevent deficiency in the absence of sunlight. The best sources are fish, especially high-fat fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel. Other important sources include meat, milk and eggs. Mushrooms provide a vegetarian source.

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Getting tested can provide you with accurate information as to where your levels currently sit. In New Zealand you can do this through your GP, although it is not currently subsidized and carries a fee.

Mineralising with medicinal plants

Herbalists have long advocated for the regular use of mineral rich plants to support bone health. Certain plants are known for their ability to alkalise and mineralise the body. Including these plants in meals or as part of your daily routine of self-care can help to minimise any shortfalls in your diet.

•Horsetail (Equisetum arvense): One of the oldest plants on earth with use dating back to ancient Roman and Greek times, Horsetail has a high Silica content. This mineral has displayed positive results in a number of studies, with supplementation shown to increase bone mineral density within the spine, femur and hips. The exact mechanism by which silica exerts its effects in the bone is undetermined but appears to be in some part due to synthesis or stabilisation of collagen.

•Nettle (Urtica dioica): Classed as a 'nutritive', this plant has abundant mineral and trace-mineral content that was traditionally used to re-mineralise wasted cartilage and connective tissue in arthritis. It is also frequently prescribed to replenish mothers after pregnancy, when there is increased need for certain nutrients such as calcium and magnesium.

•Birch leaves (Betula pendula): Similar to Nettle, this plant's high nutrient content includes calcium, magnesium, flavonoids, saponins, tannins, bitters, vitamin C and essential oils.

•Oatstraw (Avena sativa): Oatstraw tea has long been recommended for degenerative conditions or those that involve muscle wasting due to its ability to nourish and regenerate. Like other restorative and mineralizing plants, it is best used regularly over the long term, and can be easily consumed daily as a medicinal tea.

Nutritional status

Whilst calcium is crucial, other minerals such as magnesium, boron, zinc, vitamin K, silica and the vitamin B family should not be overlooked. A number of studies are now showing these nutrients play key roles in bone formation and maintenance. For this reason, a balanced diet based upon the principles of variety and wholefoods is recommended.

Avoiding dietary factors that promote nutrient excretion is also important. Excessive intake of sodium, cola, coffee, tannin-containing beverages (tea, red wine) and alcohol have all been associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis.

Exercise

Finally, don't forget the importance of exercise, which has been shown to prevent bone loss. Weight-bearing exercises in which bones and muscles work against gravity, and resistance training in which muscular strength is used to improve muscle mass and bone strength, are the two forms that are most beneficial.

Simple lifestyle strategies like those listed above are the best defence to prevent osteoporosis in later life. Not only can they lower your risk for osteoporosis, but they are equally effective for lowering the risk of countless other conditions that are also influenced by diet and lifestyle. Talk to your leading healthcare professional about what might be right for you.

References
Jugdaohsingh, R., Tucker, K., & Qiao, N (2004). Silicon intake is a major dietary determinant of bone mineral density in men and pre-menopausal women of the Framingham Offspring Cohort. Journal of Bone & Mineral Research, 19, 297-307.
Yazdanpanah, N., Zillikens, M., & Rivadeneira, F (2007). Effect of dietary B vitamins on BMD and risk of fracture in elderly men and women: the Rotterdam study. Bone, 41(6), 987-994.
Kiel, D., Felson, D., & Hannan, M. (1990). Caffeine and the risk of hip fracture: the Framingham Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 132(4), 675-684.
Zehnacker, C., & Bemis-Dougherty, A (2007). Effect of weighted exercises on bone mineral density in post-menopausal women. A systematic review. Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy. 30(2), 79-88.