Can you prevent osteoporosis by just increasing your calcium intake?
We all grew up listening to “drink your milk if you want to grow big and strong!”. But is plain old milk the magic answer to all bone-related concerns?
There are many who vouch that increasing calcium intake by having around 3 glasses of milk is the best way to prevent osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a bone disease characterised by bone loss or weakened bones. People suffering from osteoporosis break their bones easily, sometimes even with a sneeze or cough.
There are also many who believe that just increasing the intake of milk or other dairy products does not have any significant impact on the rate of fractures. In fact, they believe that this intake could be harmful to the body causing problems such as heart disease.
While we may not know the exact answer to this conflict of opinions, let us explore what we actually know about osteoporosis and how our calcium intake affects it.
What is osteoporosis?
The term osteoporosis translates to “porous bones”. Bones affected with osteoporosis look porous or like a honeycomb when viewed under a microscope. It is a condition of the bone which is a result of an imbalance between the rate of bone being built and bone being destroyed.
Osteoporosis is a relatively common condition, becoming more prevalent with age. Ensuring that you have the necessary amount of calcium intake when the rate of bone development is greater (up to the age of 30 years) creates a strong foundation for your bone health in the future. This will not, however, prevent bone loss later in life.
Bone loss due to ageing depends on several factors such as genetic predisposition, physical inactivity and hormone imbalances.
What is calcium and where is it found?
Our body needs a number of minerals and vitamins to function properly. Of these, calcium is important for building and maintaining bones and teeth, blood clotting, transmitting nerve impulses and regulating heartbeats. The bones and the teeth account for 99% of the calcium in the body. The remaining can be found in blood, muscle and tissue.
The body gets calcium either from our daily diet or from sources of calcium in the body, namely bones and teeth. Hence, it is important to have calcium-rich foods such as dairy products with high concentrations per serving of absorbable calcium, leafy vegetables (spinach etc), beans, soy etc.
If our body does not get or is unable to absorb enough calcium from natural sources, it starts “borrowing” calcium from the bones. If this is not replaced, it can have harmful and long term implications.
Why do we need calcium even after we stop “growing”?
While to the naked eye, we might seem to have stopped growing, our bones are in a state of constant flux. New bone is made while the old one is broken down. Osteoblasts are bone cells responsible for building bones while osteoclasts are cells that break down old bones.
Ideally, till the age of 30 years, the rate of bone being built is greater than that of it being broken down. Hence, you generally reach the peak of your bone mass by the age of 30 years. However, if your body does not have enough calcium, osteoclasts will break down the bone faster to make up for the deficiency, making your bones weak and brittle.
The likelihood of developing osteoporosis increases if you have lower bone mass (difference between bone being built and broken down).
Can calcium intake prevent or cure osteoporosis?
In most of us, bone is rapidly deposited by osteoblasts up to the age of 30 years. During this time we must make sure we have an adequate supply of calcium and vitamin D so that we have more reserves in the future.
However, this will not prevent bone loss due to other factors such as ageing, hormone imbalance and other conditions.
Are there other ways to slow down osteoporosis?
There are two key things to keep in mind to slow down the onset of osteoporosis.
The first and foremost is to build the healthiest, strongest and densest bone possible in the first thirty years of your life.
You can also prevent or minimise bone loss as you age by:
- Exercising regularly. Focus on weight training and muscle-strengthening exercise. This is known to put stress on the bones helping them retain and sometimes even gain density throughout life.
- Don’t overlook vitamin D intake. Vitamin D plays an important role in helping the body absorb calcium. It is found in milk, fortified foods, vitamin supplements and is made by the skin when it is exposed to sunlight. If you stay largely indoors and your exposure to sunlight is low, take vitamin D supplements.
- Make sure you take adequate calcium either through diet or with supplements. While there may be a debate regarding milk and dairy products being an adequate source of calcium, one thing for certain is that calcium is essential. Your calcium intake should increase with age. Your orthopaedic doctor would recommend your ideal calcium intake based on your general health and requirement.
- Consume lots of green leafy vegetables as they are rich in vitamin K. Low levels of vitamin K have been linked to low bone density.
Apart from the above, you can also limit your caffeine intake, get enough vitamin A and protein in your daily diet to keep your bones healthy and strong.
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