Osteoporosis - Osteopenia

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Finding a good herbalist

Much of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

It can get better

The following article has been developed from my working with actual patients with actual osteoporosis or osteopenia. These are serious problems and I have most certainly gone by the numbers (i.e. x-ray before and afters) over what is usually a period of some years to see that the approach I am advocating here actually works -- this is a condition that can get better.

By the way I should make it clear at the outset that I am not personally against the Fosamax type drugs that are used by pharmaceutical medicine for osteoporosis and, so long as they are able to tolerate them ok, I would encourage my own patients to use them within a holistic approach if that is what they want to do...

Get tested

At the time of writing the gold standard for testing for osteoporosis is still dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (usually abbreviated to DXA -- used to be called DEXA).

There are now some less expensive and less invasive methods (i.e. without the x-rays) that are gaining traction in this area but until we have a much better consensus about what constitutes best evidence I think you should stick with the mainstream on this one and go through the conventional channels.

Even if you are understandably wary about the danger of too many x-rays you simply have to have the ‘numbers’ on how good or bad things are because, whatever you do or don’t do, there will probably be no other way of knowing if it is making a truly positive difference unless you can compare the ‘before’ with the ‘after’ x-ray of your bones.

This knowledge is vital. If what you are doing is not working, face that music and try a different approach. If it is working then I can assure you that you equally need to know.

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Vitamin D

Good vitamin D levels are as essential for the health of your bones as they are for the rest of you. Conventional medicine has finally caught up with this and do now routinely test for vitamin D. However when it is at a sub-optimal level they are still usually stuck with the old method of giving one massive dose of it once a month. This is not ideal. You will get much better results for your bone health by getting your vitamin D levels up more naturally and consistently.

By far the best way to improve your vitamin D status is by getting plenty of your skin exposed to the sun for a safe period of time between the hours of 10am and 2pm. This time is when the UVB waves that help you to make the best kind of vitamin D from the sun are at their highest.

For a light skinned person the best amount of time is typically around just 10 to 20 minutes or until your skin colours up just one shade from where it normally is. A darker skinned person needs longer but again can use their skin tone to tell when the sun has done its job. Obviously you must avoid burning your skin in any instance but this regular exposure to midday sunlight can be of tremendous importance to arresting the decline of your bone health and assisting with its regeneration.

If you have some say in your testing then try to make sure that you are getting the test that is usually called 25(OH)D (its full name is 25-hydroxyvitamin D). If you have osteoporosis or osteopenia then I recommend you get your levels up to at least 60 ng/ml and preferably even higher into the 70s or 80s (100 ng/ml is the upper safe limit but you really have to be getting above 200 ng/ml to be running any real danger of toxicity and it is extremely rare to get even close to those levels)

If your levels are only moderately low then using Cod-liver oil can be the best way to lift up vitamin D. Not so long ago that would be a tough prescription for all but the most iron-cast of stomachs but modern filtration methods have now made Cod-liver oil supplements in both liquid and capsule form that are easily taken and readily tolerated. There are other good food sources of vitamin D as shown in the picture below but I would say that if your levels are very low and especially if you cannot get good sun exposure because of where you live then you should get a vitamin D3 supplement and use enough of a dose of it to get the results you need.

Much of the commercial supplements on the market are just too low in strength to make a big enough difference to someone who has a marked deficiency (the reason for this is that Vitamin D can be toxic if not used responsibly so there are strict limits set on how much vit D a commercial supplement can contain.

In my own practice I get around this by using a liquid form of Vit D3 that lets me give much higher doses than would otherwise be possible if I was using pills with only 1000 ius per capsule. The one I personally use is an American product with 1000 ius per drop but you may need a prescription or a practitioner to get something of similar strength.

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Calcium - not by itself!

We (in the natural health world) have been saying this (don't take calcium by itself) for years but the medical profession and the media seems to have only recently caught up with it.

Calcium is obviously important but taking it by itself is worse than useless, it’s unnatural and positively harmful. Given recent studies showing the bare facts of this you would think that all Doctors would have already stopped prescribing calcium by itself to their patients with osteoporosis -- but prescribing habits die hard. If you are taking Calcium by itself then stop, change direction.

If you are someone who wants to take a supplement then you can be certain that there are good and well balanced 'bone support' supplements readily available in the commercial marketplace. I cannot recommend any one product in particular but given that you are probably going to need to take one or two of these each day for a very long time I suggest you carefully look around at what's available before you choose. It certainly will have some calcium in it but it will also have just as much of an emphasis on equally important bone nutrients such as Boron, Zinc, Vitamin B6 and Magnesium. etc.

In my own practice I am more likely to recommend to my patients to get the extra minerals they need from their diet but this might depend on them being open and willing to eat more slow-cooked meat, and things like bone-broths etc. than they have been used to doing and I know that this kind of thing will not be to everyone's taste! However if they are open to it then I suggest that this approach will achieve a better result than supplementation, I have no hard evidence to support that, it's just my gut feel from long practice - I think that food works better than pills that contain foods...

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Liver health

Your liver has so many jobs to do in your body that if it were a factory it is estimated it would need to cover the size of at least 3 city blocks to do its daily jobs! As well as the detoxification that the liver is famous for it is also the manufacturing plant of the body and many of the enzymes and proteins that are essential to healthy bone formation are initially made in the liver.

I call the liver 'the herbalist's favourite organ' -- we have some superb remedies in Nature to support and strengthen the liver and you can see that it clearly makes an enormous difference to a person's health when their liver gets better (which it pretty much always does) with these tried and true health allies. The problem is that most people don't know when their liver needs help because it hardly ever hurts...

Feeling Liverish?
People who have a liver that is under stress typically feel more tired and grumpy than they would normally -- though of course this can be put down to a million other reasons so you may need to have a look in the mirror.

Have a good look with plenty of light. If the whites of your eyes have a yellowish tinge and/or the back of your tongue has a coating that looks thick and has a creamy yellow colour then consider it may be a strong possibility that your liver needs some love. Another thing to consider in this area is that if you do need to take a drug such as Fosamax for osteoporosis then you should probably assume that your liver will need some cleansing from time to time -- these drugs can be very helpful but they are also somewhat toxic!)

Detoxification is a big subject with many myths and misconceptions. If it is something that you need to direct your attention to then start with my article that gives an overview here. Again I do recommend you to work with a good herbalist if at all possible but if this is not an option then the economic and very effective Juniper & Celandine cleanse will reliably help - detailed info on what this involves here. It is also very important to keep the diet clean and light when doing this sort of work - more detail on that side of things here.

If you have reason to believe that drugs you are taking for osteoporosis (or other problems) are giving you some unwelcome side-effects or you can just feel that they are hard on your body then I strongly recommend you look for the best quality St Mary's thistle (also called Milk thistle) product you can find and take a daily dose of it for as long as you are taking the drugs. There is nothing better than St Mary's to support a liver that is struggling to deal with the toxicity of a drug - more on it here.


Silybum marianum (St Mary's thistle)

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Tonic herbs

I mention this at the end as well and, it's not a rule, but it is certainly a frequent phenomenon that people who get osteoporosis have a constitutional nature that is both 'cool and dry'. Particularly if you do have this constitutional nature or if you feel that you are genuinely tired and depleted in yourself then I most warmly recommend that you look into the world of herbal tonics. These are remedies that have an uplifting, nourishing and energising effect on people. In all the old cultures of medicine they have been the most revered of the remedies.

There are many 'tonics' around and available and again I suggest you consider going to the most reliable source possible to get your medicine. Two of the very best and ones that I have seen make a tremendous difference to a great many people over the years are:

~ Withania: read more about this revered tonic herb from the subcontinent of India here
~ Panax Ginseng: read more about the 'Emperor tonic' from Chinese medicine here


Panax ginseng

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Food matters

Osteoporosis is not only a condition involving deficiency but it is certainly greatly influenced by it. I suggest you ask two questions of yourself in this rather vital area.

1) Have I lost too much weight for my bones to keep their strength?

A number of women whom I have met with osteoporosis at various stages have been actively keeping their weight down all their lives. Obviously it is not good to be overweight but being underweight is even more hazardous to your health, especially as we get older.

2) How healthy is my diet in general -- i.e. what would I score myself out of 10?

I find that people are in fact rather honest when you ask them to give themselves a score out of 10 for the overall quality of their nutrition. Anything below a 7 means you have to give attention to this area-- read more here

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Mind & body

You will read a lot about the importance of weight-bearing exercise if you delve into the subject of osteoporosis. My observation in practice is that it is really easy to take this too far and overdo exercise to the point of stressing the skeleton further.

Gentle exercise that is enjoyable and easy to sustain is going to do you much more lasting good than the alternatives. A good rule of thumb is that if you are happy to do tomorrow whatever you did today then you didn't overdo it!

As it also just so happens, we are more than just our bodies --there's a thing called a mind in there, also known as a personality, this is an inescapable part of being a human being and there is no such thing as a problem that is purely physical, or psychological. It's always both.

Osteoporosis is a condition of contraction and of loss so it certainly makes sense to strengthen and open your body through exercise but don't forget to likewise exercise and stretch your mind!

I encourage my own patients with osteoporosis or osteopenia to give equal emphasis to exercise their brains as well as their bodies and I am sure that I can see a much better recovery in those that do. How you might usefully exercise your brain is only limited by your imagination but, for example, the online brain game program Lumosity could be an excellent place to start but there are many other equally valuable ways to stimulate the brain (reading books, crosswords, learning a new craft, travel, learning a new language or a musical instrument! You are only as old as you feel - and keeping your brain alive will help keep you and your body feeling young!

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Constitutional Health Note

Finally, you might benefit from learning about your constitution to know what kind of foods, herbs, exercises etc. will work especially well for your health in general as well as what might potentially help your joint and bone health. As it happens the majority of the patients I have personally worked with who have had problems with osteoporosis have been the dryer constitutions, sometimes the Eagles & especially the EBs (Elephant/Butterflies) but in any case there is a brief introduction to this great subject here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here.

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd