Osteoporosis is a condition characterized decreased bone density, affecting approximately 1 in 4 of all women—including osteoporosis in young women.
Moreover 50% of these women will suffer from an osteoporosis-related fracture at some point in their lifetime, and another 1 in 2 of all women experience decreased bone mass (osteopenia) before reaching an osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis In Young Women: Is it reversible?
Our bones are in a constant state of renewal — new bone is made and old bone is broken down. When we’re kids and teens, our body makes new bone faster than it breaks down old bone and our bone mass increases (“growing pains”). Most people reach their peak bone mass by their early 20s, and as people age, bone mass is lost faster than it’s created.
In osteoporosis in young women, this presentation is exaggerated as bone mass breaks down and density decreases.
Women, including young women, are at an increased risk for osteoporosis related to estrogen levels if they:
- Have had their ovaries removed
- Are going through menopause
- Are of Caucasian ethnicity (1 in 2 women with osteoporosis)
- Began having their periods at a later age during puberty
- Have a history of disordered eating/eating disorders
- Experience irregular periods or amenorrhea (lack of period for 3+ months)
- Have a lower body weight
- Keep a highly active lifestyle or overexercise
- Have an overactive thyroid (hypothyroidism, or you take too much thyroid medication)
- Have a health diagnosis of arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, low Vitamin D status, autoimmune condition, GERD or IBS
- Keep a vegetarian or vegan diet
- Low fat intake (particularly low intake of fat soluble vitamins: Vitamin A, D, E, & K; and saturated fats)
Unlike a runny nose during a cold or experiencing joint pain with arthritis, osteoporosis in young women symptoms are silent and often go under the radar until a more serious injury, like a fracture or stress fracture occurs.
Common symptoms to look out for that may suggest your likelihood of having the disease include:
- Easily get stress fractures (in feet or hips)
- Shin splints
- Back pain (caused by an undiagnosed collapsed vertebrae or fracture)
- Loss of height over time
- A stooped posture
- Digestive distress (chronic bloating, constipation, IBS, GERD)
Osteopenia is a precursor to osteoporosis in young women, and both are diagnosed using bone mineral density scanning using a DEXA machine.
Osteoporosis is NOT Just an “Old Lady Disease”
While osteoporosis is a disease most often associated with “older women” over age 50 (due to the decline in estrogen—the “bone building” hormone), osteoporosis in younger women is not uncommon—particularly thinner females.
Osteoporosis in Young Women: It DOES Happen
Been there, got the t-shirt.
As a 23-year-old, fresh out of college, the words, “You have osteoporosis,” were not what I wanted to hear. After spending 15 years of my life following hundreds of food rules, dieting, overexercising, and in and out of eating disorder treatment programs, my lifestyle caught up to me, explaining the countless stress fractures I suffered from the miles I put in on Lady Bird Lake Trail, and the hip pain I felt every time I squatted in the gym.
“More than likely irreversible,” the doctor said, adding, “We typically don’t see osteoporosis in young women, and there’s not a ton of research, but the outcomes don’t look good. The best I think you could do is stop the condition from worsening.”
“Drink lots of milk and dairy. Refrain from high intensity exercise. And we may consider putting you on birth control, Fosamax or Boniva.”
Unfortunately, I am lactose intolerant, don’t love resorting first to medications, and stubborn. Very stubborn. Tell me the words, “You can’t” and I will find a way to prove, “I can.”
One year later, at my followup osteoporosis bone density scan appointment: Reversed to osteopenia—the stage of thinning bone before official bone loss (osteoporosis) is diagnosed. Seven years later, my osteoporosis condition only continues to improve and I no longer have the disease.
5 “Secret Sauce” Strategies for Supporting Bone Health at All Life Stages
The secret sauce?
Ironically, reversing osteoporosis did not come with the doctor’s original orders, but these 5 secret sauce strategies for supporting bone health at all stages of life:
1. Nutrient-Dense Diet
Bone health is built from solid nutrition—the “medicine” for making a healthier body over all. Beyond the standard prescription of “increased Calcium” intake (most Americans actually get enough Calcium in their diet), the bigger nutrient deficiencies include: Fat soluble vitamins (Vitamin A, D, K2 & E) and saturated fats in particular to help absorb that Calcium in the first place. Good “bone building” foods with healthy fats include:
- Cod Liver Oil (an excellent source Vitamins A & D)
- Pastured egg yolks
- Ghee and grass-fed butter
- Organ meats
Coconut oil and coconut butter
- Pastured and organic meats
- Raw nuts and seeds, soaked
- Extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil
Couple these foods with a balanced plate consisting of color-rich vegetables and organic and pastured proteins (meats and fish) at the majority of your meals and you have a winning combination.
2. Grain-Free & Dairy-Free Lifestyle
Along with putting good things in the tank, minimizing nutrient-depleting foods is recommended for those looking to optimize their bone health. Two staples in the Standard American Diet include grains and conventional dairy.
Grain-based foods contain “anti-nutrients” called lectins and phytates on their outer shells, meant to protect grains in the wild from predators and weather, making them harder to digest in the human gut—even when cooked. In addition, the anti-nutrients on grains bind to other nutrients we eat in our diet, inhibiting us from completely absorbing the Vitamin K2 in our egg yolks when we eat our oatmeal for breakfast, and our Vitamin E from our chicken salad with olive oil on it at lunch when paired with those croutons or crackers.
High or frequent consumption of these grains also is highly correlated with gut conditions (like “leaky gut” and IBS), as we will later find out (point 4), sets the stage for nutrient malabsorption and osteoporosis in young women.
As for dairy, contrary to popular belief, dairy is not the only source of calcium, a mineral connected with bone health.
Other sources with just as much, if not more include:
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- Sesame Seeds, 1/4 cup- 350 mg
- Sardines & Fatty Fish (with bones), 4 oz.- 200-350 mg
- Collard Greens, 1 cup-268 mg
- Yogurt, 1 cup-300 mg
- Turnip Greens, 1 cup -200 mg
- Molasses, blackstrap, 1 tbsp. – 180 mg
- Mustard Greens, 1 cup- 165 mg
- Beet Greens, 1 cup- 165 mg
- Bak Choy, 1 cup- 158 mg
- Almonds, 1/4 cup- 150 mg
- Milk, 1/2 cup- 150 mg
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- Swiss Chard, 1 cup- 100 mg
- Kale, 1 cup- 100 mg
- Cabbage, 1 cup- 60 mg
- Broccoli, 1 cup, 60 mg
- Brussels Sprouts, 1 cup- 56 mg
- Green Beans, 1 cup- 55 mg
- Oranges, 1 medium- 50 mg
- Cinnamon, 2 tsp- 50 mg
- Summer Squash, 1 cup- 50 mg
- Asparagus- 40 mg
- Celery- 40 mg
- Cumin, 2 tsp- 40 mg
- Basil, 1/2 cup- 40 mg
- Garlic, 6 cloves- 33 mg
- Oregano, 2 tsp- 32 mg
I generally recommend my clients get a minimum of 600-800 mg of calcium daily from their food, that their body can digest and absorb.
Unfortunately, most dairy sold in grocery stores is conventional, highly-pasteurized, low-fat/fat-free and equally stripped of absorbable nutrients necessary for building stronger bones (healthy fats help us digest our calcium, and low-pasteurization retains the nutrients).
Although calcium is not a bad thing, if we can’t absorb and digest that calcium in the first place, these dairy products are useless. In addition, if you are lactose intolerant (approximately 65% of people), your body loses more nutrients than it gains by eating these foods.
If you do choose dairy opt for:
- Full-fat, grass-fed, raw milk (Milking sold at Wheatsville)
- Hard Grass-fed Cheese
- Full-fat, grass-fed yogurt (no sugar)
3. Weight Training, Yoga, Walks & HIIT
Variety is the spice of life, particularly in the gym. Repeat exercises and pounding wreaks havoc on our body due to wear and tear. This was the case in my osteoporosis in young women diagnosis: spending at least 2 to 3 hours working out most days, slugging away day in and day out on running trails, treadmills and StairMasters. While most people correlate osteoporosis-inducing exercise with marathon training, any form of exercise done in excess strips our bodies of nutrients and inhibits the optimal “repair” process of both muscle and bone tissue—be it running, CrossFit, spin, bootcamp or anything else we do in excess.
Additionally, overtraining both elevates cortisol (our stress hormone), decreases estrogen production and suppresses stomach acid (essential for absorbing our nutrients from food), setting the stage for weakened bone health. The good news? If you love running, you don’t necessarily have to give it up. Unless, of course, you are running with stress fractured hips or feet at the present.
Instead, mix it up: Weight lifting, yoga, fresh air walks and HIIT (CrossFit) were game-changers in my personal osteoporosis-healing journey, and stunned the doctors when I told them, I hadn’t just been doing down dogs or lifting 5 pound pink dumbbells at every one of my check ups (I can now squat 200 pounds on a barbell).
4. Loving Your Gut
The gut is the gateway to your health, including your bone health.
What organ in your body is responsible for absorbing, digesting and “feeding” every other body system, organ, hormone, cell and tissue in your body throughout your lifetime? Your gut!
Hence, your gut health is like a domino for all-around health. If it’s healthy, ALL the other dominos fall in line, in perfect order. If it is unhealthy, then none of your other body systems are nourished properly for optimal health. Couple a healthy gut with a healthy diet and you have a winning combination.
Approximately 3 in 4 people have some sort of GI dysfunction (leaky gut, low stomach acid, bacterial overgrowth or imbalance). Unfortunately, most gut conditions go undiagnosed as many people do NOT “feel” bloated or constipated as their symptoms. Since your gut health is responsible for the health of other body systems, related conditions to GI dysfunction include: allergies, skin breakouts, autoimmune disease, arthritis, thyroid dysfunction, hormone imbalances and, yes, osteoporosis. In fact, a 2017 study evaluating the bacterial composition of individuals with osteoporosis vs. “normal controls” found those with osteoporosis had less healthy gut bacteria diversity than normal controls in all samples, concluding that “gut microbiota may be a critical factor in osteoporosis development” (Wang et al, 2017).
Support a “healthy” gut by implementing a daily practice of “gut maintenance” like you would brush your teeth including:
*If pregnant, currently taking NSAIDS or PPI’s, opt for Apple Cider Vinegar instead
In addition, assessing your personal gut health with a practitioner skilled in knowing how to diagnosis and treat—not just manage symptoms—can be an additional game changer in not only healing your gut, but also reversing osteoporosis in young women. Healthcare practitioners trained in functional medicine (including some Medical Doctors, Nutritionists, Health Coaches, Physicians Assistants, Nurses) approach gut health by addressing the roots of disease, rather then simply managing or band-aiding symptoms.
5. Listening to Your Body
Last, but not least, simple connection—to your body. Given osteoporosis in young women connection because they tend to: overtrain, suffer from amenorrhea, have an underlying gut condition, or nutrient deficiencies, intuitiveness with your body is essential for healing. It was in my own healing.
For instance, “getting over” the obsession I had with overtraining, NOT running on my stress fractures and giving myself “permission” to eat butter were big steps in not only caring for my body, but listening to my body (more than the rules I had concocted in my head). Give yourself permission to be at home in your own skin, and compassion to accept your body as it is, rather than the “shoulds” you “should” do to “be healthy,” as mainstream media, Instagram bloggers and your FitBit tells you you should do.
The Bottom line
Osteoporosis is a condition that affects 80% more women than men, and is a condition that 1 in 4 reading this article (and 1 in 2 Caucasian women more specifically) may encounter during her life time. However, osteoporosis in young women is both reversible and preventable, using these 5 Secret Sauce ingredients as a baseline.