Building Strong Bones: The Calcium Myth

In her book, Better Bones, Better Body, Dr. Susan Brown writes, “Over and over we are told to consume adequate calcium. What we are not told, however, is that we also need other bone building nutrients.”

milkIf you regularly follow health and fitness news, you may have seen or heard about the many, recent studies linking the use of calcium supplements to higher heart attack rates. Despite what you’ve been told, taking calcium without its companion nutrients — magnesium, vitamin D3, and vitamin K2—can be harmful.  

The problem is that calcium doesn’t really travel straight from your milk or yogurt into your bones, despite what the American Dairy Association would like you to believe. It needs companion nutrients (vitamin D, essential fatty acids, magnesium, vitamin K and silica, for example) to aid in its proper absorption, utilization and regulation in the bones and in the blood, organs and other tissues. If there isn’t enough vitamin D to drive the absorption process correctly, all the calcium intended for your bones and teeth ends up being taken in by (and hardening) the arteries.

Unfortunately, heart disease and osteoporosis aren’t the only health problems that can be attributed to excessive calcium levels. Increasing your calcium without simultaneously increasing your magnesium can lead to the formation of calcium deposits in the joints (leading to arthritis) or kidneys (leading to kidney stones).

In fact, the countries with the highest calcium intake (over 1,000 milligrams daily) have the highest osteoporosis rates.  Populations that consume only a few hundred milligrams of calcium (but plenty of other key nutrients) suffer from little to absolutely no osteoporosis. What’s up with this?  High calcium intake interferes with the absorption or utilization of many nutrients including manganese, magnesium, iron, zinc and phosphorus—minerals that bones need to become strong and remain flexible. Adding more calcium to your diet will not lead to better bone health.

calciumTo make matters worse, the milk myth has spread around the world based on the belief that this calcium-rich drink is essential for healthy bones. But as memorable as the “Got Milk?” campaign has been, it’s time to stop listening to what the dairy industry has been telling us all these years.

Milk does contain a fair amount of calcium. But so do almonds, dark, leafy greens, and fish. And several scientific studies have actually shown a number of detrimental effects linked to milk consumption. The most surprising of these is poor calcium absorption. As it turns out, we don’t absorb the calcium found in cow’s milk all that well, especially after it’s been pasteurized. In fact, milk consumption has been shown to increase calcium loss from the bones.

Like all animal proteins, milk acidifies the body which, in turn, triggers a biological correction. Calcium is an excellent acid neutralizer and the biggest storage of calcium in the body is found in the bones. So the very same calcium that our bones need to stay strong is pulled from them in order to neutralize the acidifying effect of the milk. Statistics have shown that countries with the lowest consumption of dairy products also have the lowest bone fracture rates.

That’s not to say there isn’t room in a healthy diet for milk products, especially those that are fermented like yogurt and cheese. And it’s important to keep in mind that not all milk is created equal. Raw, full-fat milk from grass-fed animals can be a nutrient-dense, whole food for those who can tolerate it. But think of pasteurized and/or homogenized milk more of a processed food.

As Chris Kresser (an internationally-recognized leader in the fields of ancestral health, paleo nutrition, and functional medicine) explains, “In a sign of nature’s wisdom, raw milk contains lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose. Pasteurization, however, kills lactase. So if you don’t produce your own lactase, you’ll have a hard time digesting pasteurized milk.” As is the case time and time again when it comes to defining what foods are “good” or “bad” for health and performance, there are no hard and fast rules.

So let’s return examining milk from a purely bone-building perspective—does it help or hurt you? It depends.

There are many people who are lactose-intolerant or otherwise sensitive to proteins in milk, which means that they have trouble digesting it and aren’t necessarily absorbing the calcium it contains. If they are not eaten along with an adequate supply of alkaline-balancing foods, we know that the acid-forming actions of dairy products do promote calcium loss. So while dairy products do contain a great deal of calcium, they don’t offer the “quick fix” to bone health many people, especially women believe they do. The bottom line? Relying solely on the calcium found in dairy products is a less-than-optimal strategy for maintaining and strengthening your bones. Here are some additional guidelines:  

Rebalance your calcium intake. There are many calcium-rich vegetables that do double-duty for the bones by alkalizing the system. If you’re concerned about maintaining healthy bones, you’re better off ensuring an adequate and balanced calcium intake from your food—fermented dairy products (like cheese and yogurt), sardines, salmon, dark leafy greens, seeds, nuts and bone broth.

If you don’t have any digestive difficulties with dairy, it can help you build and maintain healthy bones. But don’t rely on it exclusively. Salmon contains more vitamin D3 and K2 than milk. So even if you’ve “got milk,” get some salmon, too.

Let the sun shine in. Our bodies were meant to be exposed to sun, but do this in a health-enhancing way. For most women, about 15 minutes of full body sun exposure during peak daylight hours two to three times a week will allow the body to make an adequate supply of vitamin D3.

If you don’t live in a climate that allows for year-round sun exposure, supplement with some additional vitamin D3. Research has consistently shown that 1000–5000 IU per day is a safe and adequate dose. Refer to the Resources Section at the back of the book for information on at-home vitamin D3 assessments if you think you might be deficient.

Increase your intake of vitamin K. Add green, leafy vegetables and fermented foods (like aged cheese) to your daily diet. And consider the use of a vitamin K2 supplement, unless you’re taking a blood thinning medication like Coumadin or Xarelto.

Balance your hormone levels. Estrogen (in woman) and testosterone (in men) play a big role in the maintenance of bone mineral density and overall bone health, bones get weaker and lose density during menopause. A woman’s risk of osteoporosis, fractures, and other bone-related incidents skyrocket during and after her transition. So maintaining an adequate intake of bone-building nutrients becomes even more relevant then.

Strength train. And don’t underestimate the importance of doing some strength training, especially as you get older. In fact, strength training should be considered as essential for anyone over the age of 45. Most people reach a peak in their muscle mass sometime during their late 30s to early 40s. After that point, a gradual loss begins. While sedentary women can lose three to five percent of their total muscle mass each decade after the age of 30, those who stay active preserve more. And more muscle mass means more than a strong body, it means a strong metabolism.

Get rhythmic impact. Recent breakthroughs in bone health now tell us that our living bone thrives and can grow at any age when you combine rhythmic motion. While running can be helpful it does not compare to the benefits seen with rebounding. For bones to increase and maintain their density, they require the application of weight-bearing force. The best way to do this is to work against gravity. That makes jumping the natural way to build bones. When performed correctly, weight-bearing exercise puts just enough pressure on bones in order to stimulate them to produce new cells to replace old ones and absorb calcium, making them harder. This is exactly what happens on a high-quality rebounder – without the hard jolt of landing on the ground. Each fun-filled bounce can create up to four times g-force in resistance.  Just 20 minutes 3 to 4 times weekly can be highly effective to prevent and even reverse bone loss.

While rebounding is fun and inexpensive, a new technology, developed by OsteoStrong that utilizes a series of robotic musculoskeletal treatment devices that allow precise axial compression of bone to emulate the effect of impact is even more effective. Because of the robotic optimized positioning of the human body, loading forces go through the human bone that is far higher than those seen in running or rebounding.

This process can provide a force of 4.2 multiples of body weight (minimum required force to trigger bone growth) while peak forces with adults in conventional resistance exercise only show at most 1.5 multiples of body weight. While the therapy requires going to an ever-growing number of Osteostrong centers, the therapy only takes 10 minutes one time weekly.

Assess your current bone health. Bone resorption testing is becoming known as an accurate, inexpensive and more preferred way to measure the rate of bone loss than a Dexa bone density scan. Many integrative physicians now see these labs, such as the urine NTX or the serum CTX test, as invaluable in evaluating osteoporosis, since they can identify excessive bone loss before too much damage has occurred. They also allow for more regular and more frequent assessment of bone health status than do bone density scans. This means that preventive protocols can be started to slow bone loss before, in the past, it would even have been identified by a DEXA scan. And then results can be monitored much more frequently and adjusted for maximum effectiveness.

Bone loss is insidious and silent. It doesn’t become a problem until something breaks and then the road back is a long haul. In addition, bone loss is an indicator or metabolic imbalance and the calcium that is not making it too your bones will wind up in our tissues such as joints leading to arthritis or in your artery lining leading to cardiovascular disease.