You can rebuild thin bones if you're determined enough, says Dr Annemarie Colbin.
Annemarie Colbin, PhD, an award-winning leader in natural health, founded the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York. She is the author of several bestselling books, including Food and Healing and The Whole-Food Guide to Strong Bones.
Lost bone can be regained, but it will take some work. If you doubt it, consider the case of Nina Merer, a New York City stress-management consultant and licensed acupressure practitioner who took some classes with me in the early 1980s.
She was diagnosed with osteopenia (lower than normal bone mineral density; considered a precursor to osteoporosis) in 1985 at the age of 40. Her condition was considered rather advanced and her bones 'almost breakable'. Initially, she tried prescription calcium supplements, but finding herself with too many unpleasant side-effects such as intestinal bloating and headaches, she decided to go the holistic route. Her doctor was doubtful but supportive.
Why did she have such brittle bones while still premenopausal? She had a number of risk factors: she was quite slim and Caucasian; she had no children; and her mother had osteoporosis. Nina also felt that her hard work and hard play while in her 20s and 30s had stressed and depleted her. She had an untreated thyroid condition, numerous digestive difficulties and food sensitivities, and a persistent feeling of exhaustion. She also had an achy 'arthritic' sort of pain and she felt as though her bones "were falling apart", which finally prompted her to seek professional help.
"It was a depressing diagnosis," she told me in 1997, "but it really served me. I began to think more deeply and decided to take responsibility, prevent further bone loss and replace what I'd already lost."
After examining her lifestyle, she created a four-point programme for herself that had physical, mental, emotional and spiritual components.
Nina's physical programme included five elements: exercise, acupressure, herbs, dietary changes and hormones.
Exercise.Having done moderate weight-training for many years, Nina committed herself to a more systematic and intense programme. She also began running and, after being a marathoner, she eventually settled into running five miles about four times a week, a moderate distance in a runner's world. She also spent quite a bit of time stretching, as she always felt better afterwards.
Acupressure.Nina used various forms of daily self-help acupressure and had regular sessions from a practitioner to stimulate her body's energy points. She found it invaluable for both reducing stress and increasing energy.
Herbs.Working with a practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine, Nina started a regimen of herbs to strengthen and tone her system.
Food.Nina's well-rounded approach to diet was twofold. She eliminated calcium drainers (caffeine, nightshades, spinach, alcohol and sugar, including fruit juices) and foods she had developed sensitivity to (wheat, oats, barley, rye, corn, dairy, eggs, red meat, vinegar, and fried and fermented foods), and focused on a healthy whole-food balanced diet, eating organic whenever possible. Her meals consisted of gluten-free grains (buckwheat, rice and millet), fish, organic chicken, some tofu, a few fruits and, as she put it, "vegetables, vegetables, vegetables".
Following the advice of her mother, Ella, she had one to three glasses every day of a mineral-rich blended vegetable drink made with romaine lettuce, carrots, parsley, radish and celery (seeNina's bone-building drinkbelow)
As calcium enrichers, she regularly consumed seaweed and dark leafy greens, and chewed on the bones of chicken and fish, eating the marrow whenever possible. She also consumed lots of toasted sesame seeds as well as chia, sunflower and fennel seeds.
She got healthy fats in the form of daily borage oil supplements (helpful for bones and easing arthritis), walnut or canola oil for her salads and saut'eed vegetables, and soy oil, sesame oil and the occasional avocado. She'd always had trouble digesting fats, even olive oil, so for a long time she excluded them from her diet, but then she started feeling bad in new ways, with more arthritis pain, muscle pain, loss of muscle strength and size, unpleasant menopausal symptoms and memory loss. When she reintroduced healthy fats into her regime, most of these complaints disappeared.
Nina realized that stress was a major problem in her life. To reduce it, she put her professional skills to work and designed a serious stress-management programme for herself, which later became the foundation of her professional work. In addition to the physical approaches of acupressure and exercise, her programme also included affirmations, visualization, meditation and breathing exercises.
Her goal was to simplify and streamline her life, and get her priorities in order. All of this helped her become clear and focused, feel better and, she says, "think straight, which was a major turning point."
Nina found that the physical and mental parts of her programme were also beneficial emotionally. In addition, she used a system called 'reframing', where she learned to see obstacles as opportunities for learning. She found that another way to reduce her stress was to focus on solving only solvable conflicts instead of dwelling on things she could do nothing about.
For attending to her soul's needs, Nina found that meditation gave her deep satisfaction in new and profound ways. It helped her see the big picture for better clarity and planning, and helped her find creative solutions to her challenges.
Nina's remarkable results
Although Nina's four-point programme involved some major lifestyle changes and seemed like a radical approach, the results were well worth it-and astonishing to her doctor.
After following her programme for 12 years, at age 52 and already well into menopause, Nina's wrist bone measured over the 100 per cent level for her age group. Her spinal bone density was a bit lower and her hips were low normal-"fragile but not breakable". She estimates having gained at least 10 per cent in bone density and is now classified as only mildly osteopenic.
"If I hadn't done something, I would have serious osteoporosis," she said. "It took a serious commitment, but I was willing to take a long time to correct a condition that took a lifetime to develop. This was a case of crisis-driven creativity. There are no quick fixes. Once you decide to take charge, it's doable."
Annemarie's six strategies for better bones
The programme Nina developed for herself led to remarkable results and represented one idea. Even so, it wouldn't necessarily be appropriate for everyone, but here are six main strategies to bear in mind if you'd like to support or regain your bone health and strength.
1 Avoid sugar and other refined sweeteners,white flour, hydrogenated fats, soft drinks, caffeine and excessive amounts of nightshade vegetables, and don't follow a low-fat or fat-free diet.
2 Go easy on dairy,but if you choose to have it, stick with organic products. Even if you're able to tolerate dairy fairly well, it's still better to limit yourself to organic butter, plain organic whole yoghurt and unpasteurized cheeses, including Parmesan in small amounts on occasions.
3 Every day, eat some greens and vegetables,healthy fats, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and some good sources of protein like animal products and beans.
4 Always cook with good-quality stock,preferably homemade, for its high mineral content.
5 Engage in some form of activity on a regular basis.Walk and lift things, stretch, or do formal exercises or weight-training three or more times per week-or better yet, do all three.
6 Take a look at the rest of your life.You're the person best qualified to determine what may be missing, where you need help, and which parts of your life need support and strengthening.
Nina's bone-building drink
This is my version of the calcium-rich vegetable drink that Nina Merer took daily to strengthen her bones. Ideally, all of the produce should be organically grown for both higher nutrient value and better taste. Lots of variations are possible, like adding half an apple, lemon or lime juice, a couple of slices of fresh ginger root or a clove of garlic.
1 carrot, chopped
1 small head romaine lettuce, bottom cut off
2 large bunches of parsley, washed and coarse stems removed
1 stalk celery, chopped
6 cups water
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (optional)
8 tsp flaxseed oil
1 Process the carrot, lettuce, parsley and celery in batches in the blender, filling it to just under half full and adding about 1 1/2 cups of water each time.
2 Process each batch until smooth, then combine all the batches in a large bowl and mix well. Stir in the orange juice.
3 Just before serving, add 1 tsp of flaxseed oil to each portion.
Makes about 8 cups. Drink 1 or 2 cups every day. Stored in an airtight container in the fridge, this will keep for three days.