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  • Writer's pictureJenny Whitfield

Bone Health and Why It Matters

It’s easy to take the 206 bones in our perfectly engineered skeletons for granted, until they fracture. Fractures have an enormously negative effect on quality of life, particularly for older people, and are incredibly costly for the NHS. Bone health is so important that the International Menopause Society made it their theme for World Menopause day 2021.

As we age, our bones become less dense and therefore more susceptible to fractures. This is true for men and women, but when oestrogen levels drop during the menopause the way that bone cells renew is changed, meaning that menopausal women are at greater risk of osteopenia (reduced bone density) and osteoporosis (severely reduced bone density), and therefore at greater risk of painful and debilitating fractures. Crohn’s disease, coeliac disease, taking high levels of corticosteroids for a long time and breast cancer medication can also increase the risk of bone density decreasing.

But there are things we can do to protect our bone health, and the earlier we start the better. This isn’t just an issue for perimenopausal and menopausal women – to live healthy, happy lives we all need to care for our bones.

An important thing to think about is calcium. All the cells in our bodies need calcium to perform their function. Without it our hearts can’t beat and our muscles can’t move. Calcium is stored in bone, which has the dual function of providing us with a strong, stable structure. When required, calcium is released from the bone to the blood stream to be used.

So if we don’t get enough calcium from our diet – and many people don’t – calcium is released from our bones without being adequately replaced. Add this to the inevitable loss in density with age and menopause and you can see why this would be a problem.

Eating a calcium rich diet, at any age, is important for maintaining strong, healthy bones. Dairy is an obvious source, but there are many plant-based sources of calcium, such as kale, which are important for vegans. Calcium is more easily absorbed from food, so it’s better to get it this way, but you could supplement if you think your diet is lacking. If you have kidney disease, kidney stones or you are taking prescribed medication speak to your GP about the right calcium intake for you.

Vitamin D is an essential part of the process by which calcium is absorbed and stored, but many of us do not have high enough levels of vitamin D. Although it is produced in the body via a process using UVB radiation from sunlight, realistically this does not happen sufficiently in the UK, especially during the autumn and winter.

Red meat, egg yolks, oily fish and fortified foods such as bread and cereals are natural ways to get vitamin D, but it is recommended that everyone of any age takes a supplement. They don’t have to be expensive and are easy to get hold of. My recommendation for a top quality vitamin D supplement, which also contains fish oils for brain health is available from Emma’s Nutrition and is produced by Newson Health.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include unexplained bone pain, muscle ache, fatigue, anxiety and insomnia. If you are worried you can request a test via your GP.

Protein is equally important for building and maintaining healthy bones. And, you guessed it, many of us aren’t getting enough. To protect our bones as we age and go through the menopause we should be eating 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight, every day. So for a woman who weighs 10 stone this is 63.5 grams of healthy protein per day.

Animal protein is an easy and obvious choice, but whether we’re vegan or not, we should all be aiming to increase our intake of protein from plant-based, unprocessed sources. There are many delicious ways to add more protein into your meals.

Exercise is also very important for increasing bone density. Research shows that 30 minutes of weight bearing exercise, such as walking, jogging, Tai Chi or aerobics, every day, helps slow bone loss and can even build denser, stronger bones, reducing the risk of developing osteoporosis in later life.

Muscle mass also decreases with age – it actually begins at 30! This is known as sarcopenia and is often found alongside osteoporosis, which greatly increases the risk of falls and fractures. Sarcopenia can be combatted with resistance and strength training, such as workouts using resistance bands, kettlebells or weights, and body weight exercises like squats and press-ups, 2 – 3 times a week. Furthermore, exercise that improves balance, such as yoga, also reduces the risk of falling. Exercise is important for everyone, at every age, and at every level of fitness.

Research shows that smoking, alcohol and excessive caffeine are detrimental to bone health because they all disrupt natural processes in the body. They disrupt calcium release and uptake, contributing to osteoporosis and slowing the rate of healing in fractures. They also disrupt hormones, which negatively effects the balance of release and renewal in bones. Stopping smoking and limiting alcohol and caffeine consumption will help protect bone health. Speak to your GP if this is something you feel you need support in doing.

Your reflexology treatments are also a powerful part of the way you look after your body and bones. The main aim of reflexology is to rebalance the body so that it can maintain homeostasis and optimally perform its natural functions, including bone growth. During a treatment, I work the reflexes for the parathyroid glands - they release the hormone that regulates the amount of calcium being released into the blood from the bones so their healthy function is key to bone health. I also work the reflexes for the joints – shoulder, elbow, knee, hip – to help keep them strong and healthy. Reflexology consultations and the chats we have during treatments are also a great opportunity to think about your health, diet and wellbeing. Just by deciding to book a treatment you are prioritising your health and taking steps to care for yourself and your body.

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