Unless we break a bone or crack one, we tend to take our skeleton for granted. As we get older we can also experience problems within the structure particularly in the joints that limit our mobility and provide an excuse for not doing quite as much exercise as we should!
However, it is never too late to help your bones as our diet and our exercise levels do have an impact on the regeneration of this essential framework.
I am going to give an overview today on our skeleton and then follow that up with a closer look at the essential nutrients needed in the formation and maintenance of our bones and the precious marrow that is held inside them. This marrow is essential for our immune system and overall health. Arthritis in its various forms is likely to affect most of us as we grow older and I will cover the three most common – Osteo-Arthritis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Gout during the series. The other area that is an increasingly more prevalent problem for the elderly is osteoporosis.
We often marvel at the magnificent structures that have been built over the last few thousands of years. The pyramids remain a mystery and their complexity and their resilience to time and man’s destructive influences overawe us.
Instead of being overawed we tend to take for granted our own support structure which is actually as marvellous and as complex as any building or edifice from the ancient or civilised worlds. Buildings are in the main fixed, with the rare exception of a revolving door or floor.
Our bodies on the other hand not only have to be structurally sound but also have to move, requiring intricate and sophisticated engineering systems to maximise strength and mobility.
Every bone in our body, and there approximately 200 of them, is a particular shape because it has a specific role to play. Where flexibility is required, cartilage takes over from bone but it is the joints and ligaments that provide us with our unique ability to stand upright and move with such grace and flexibility
Obviously the skeleton provides an essential framework for our outer layer as well as supporting us as we move through life. But our bones have some vital functions that also are essential to our health and survival.
At birth we have far more bones in our body despite our small size; around 350 which over the years will fuse together into larger units. A baby’s skull has tiny bones with gaps between called fontanelles. This allows the skull to be molded sufficiently to pass through the birth canal without damage to the mother or the baby’s brain.
Not only does a baby have more bones than an adult but more cartilage, which is more flexible. As the baby grows this cartilage will harden into bone and the process continues well into a person’s late teens.
Bones lengthen in the arms and legs at each end at the growth plate, which is made up of cartilage. This cartilage slowly hardens and becomes bone and when no more cartilage is left in late teens or early 20’s, growth stops.
From a nutritional point of view these years of bone growth, fusion of the skeleton and hardening of the bones themselves is critical. Poor diet from birth into early teens can have a dramatic effect on bone health in middle age resulting in Osteo-arthritis and osteoporosis.
Bone health is not just associated with our structural skeleton because underneath this tough and solid outer layer is the soft and vital marrow where all our blood cells are produced that keep us alive. You will find more details in blood health in an upcoming series of posts.
What do we need to keep our bones healthy?
Calcium helps bone to develop. When we make new bone tissue the body first puts down a framework of a protein called collagen. Calcium from the blood then infuses the framework and when the calcium crystals have filled the entire structure the collagen and the calcium form the strength and flexibility of the bone. In a reverse process when we do not get sufficient calcium from our food or fluids, calcium is borrowed from existing bones, which of course weakens them. As calcium is not just used to manufacture bone but also to assist in neural communication and heart and lung functions, demand has to be met by taking in sufficient through diet to prevent further bone density loss.
Bone health needs to be dealt with by age group. Obviously babies, children and adolescents have a different requirement for calcium as they are in such a rapid growth phase. There are some recommendations for calcium daily requirements but because of the complex mechanism of bone development calcium is not the only requirement. Vitamin D is essential for the process as is weight bearing exercise. Other nutrients such as Vitamin K also play a role which I will cover later in the series.
Children’s’ bodies are an eating machine that is highly efficient in taking what it requires from food and metabolising it into the required components for health. There has been a great deal of research in the last few years into the role of dairy products as a source of calcium for bone health leading to some concerns that excess dairy provided calcium may lead to accelerated bone loss rather than the reverse. However, dairy products still feature high on the list of food sources for this crucial mineral and whatever the results of current research, there is no doubt that bone health requires Calcium and Vitamin D combined with weight bearing exercise.
Best food sources of calcium
The average requirement for a child is as follows:
- · 1 to 3 years – 500mg per day
- · 4 to 8 years – 800mg per day
- · 9 to 18 years – 1,300mg per day
As adults between the age of 19 and 50 we need 1,000mg per day but after 50 we need slightly more and should be taking in at least 1,200mg per day from nutritional sources. Recent research is indicating that it may be harmful to take in large doses of supplemental calcium. https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/2017/05/04/smorgasbord-health-2017-nutrients-in-the-news-can-take-calcium-supplements-damage-your-heart/
All these food sources will provide 300mg of calcium and it is important to obtain the mineral from as varied a source as possible so that you obtain not just the calcium, but the different nutritional benefits of the individual foods.
- · Dairy products. Milk 250ml, Yoghurt 175ml, Cheese including low fat varieties 50gm.
- · Fish products. Canned Salmon with bones 213gm, Canned sardines with bones 213gm.
- · These products provide 150mg of calcium per serving.
- · Fruit and vegetables. Oranges x 3, Figs x 6, Baked beans ½ can, Broccoli 250gm, Brussel sprouts x 10 large. Spinach 250gm.
- · There is also calcium in seeds and nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts and sesame seeds and in fortified drinks like orange juice.
The role of Vitamin D in bone health
The importance of this Vitamin that actually thinks it is a hormone, cannot be overstressed. It is becoming increasingly evident that this vitamin is showing signs of being deficient in many children’s diet and lifestyle resulting in far more cases of rickets or soft bones. It is essential for so many functions within the body but is difficult to source especially in the winter months and from limited foods within the diet.
Vitamin D enables calcium to leave the intestine and enter the bloodstream. It also works in the kidneys to help reabsorb calcium which might otherwise be excreted in urine.
One of the problems regarding this particular vitamin is that the best way to produce Vitamin D in the body is to get out in the sunshine, unprotected for 30 to 45 minutes 5 times a week. Exposing your hands, arms and face in this way is usually enough to satisfy the body’s requirement. In this day and age of fears about skin cancer, people are either wearing heavy sunscreens or not exposing their skins at all to sunlight. Also, as we age we become less able to utilise sun to make our Vitamin D. As we reach adulthood we tend to play outside far less than children and this limits our exposure to sunlight. Failing exposure to sunlight then we need to take in sufficient Vitamin D through our diet and this means including free-range eggs, salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, cod liver oil.
The last part of the bone health equation is weight bearing exercise
Apart from ensuring that we take in the right ingredients for the production of bone we also need to stimulate bone to continue growing and strengthening.
We all need frequent, weight bearing exercise. Bone is a living tissue and it constantly changes density, gaining and losing strength according to how often it is used. The old saying that I keep repeating ‘use it or lose it’ applies to our bones as well as most other parts of our body. Exercise stimulates calcium absorption in bone and bone also responds to an increase of blood flow during activity. This ensures that not only calcium but other vital nutrients are also absorbed.
The types of exercise that we take part in tends to differ at various ages but are no less important to bone health. Children, particularly during their incredible growth rate, need to not only take in the nutrients but also actively stimulate their bones into normal growth. Bones can also store calcium for later use during exercise, which makes it even more important. Walking and playing team sports, hiking, tennis, dance and martial arts are all good examples of weight bearing exercises suitable for children but certain activities need to be supervised to make sure that children are not exercising beyond their body’s capabilities. Bones are still not fully formed and joints are vulnerable to damage.
Other weight bearing exercises suitable for adults include walking, dancing, jogging, aerobics but these exercises will only benefit the bones being used and in this case it is the legs. To fully benefit the bones in the rest of the body we need to also take part in resistance exercise which uses muscular strength to improve muscle mass and strengthen bones.
The action of pulling on bone by the muscle actually stimulates it to grow so weight lifting and floor exercises such as push-ups will be very effective. Again these types of exercise should be supervised to maximise the benefits.
Our bones are hidden from view and we invariably only know we have a problem when we suffer a fracture. A couple of external indicators might give you a clue to your skeletal health and that is your teeth and nails. If they are strong and in good condition this should indicate that your bones will also be receiving sufficient calcium and Vitamin D.
As we get older a bone density test is a good idea, particularly for women who are going through the menopause and in the years following this natural process. Early detection of a problem will enable you to deal with the problem by making either some dietary changes or working the appropriate exercise into your lifestyle.
More on our bone health and the diseases we can impact by diet and lifestyle changes next time.