Can Osteoporosis Be Reversed? This Is My Story
At age 23, I was diagnosed with osteoporosis after 23 years of malnutrition from both the steady processed foods that I ate as a kid, as well as the disordered eating and anorexia I struggled with during my teens and early 20’s.
Unfortunately, Dr. Guerra told me there was not much I could do to reverse osteoporosis.
“More than likely your osteoporosis is irreversible,” Dr. Guerra said, adding, “We typically don’t see osteoporosis in younger 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.”
Mic drop. No hope to reverse osteoporosis?
Furthermore, Dr. Guerra’s prescription was not the best solution for my body.
According to conventional treatment to reverse osteoporosis, I needed to: “Drink lots of milk and dairy. Refrain from high intensity exercise. And take birth control pills (estrogen) along with a ‘bone building’ medication like Fosamax or Boniva.”
Unfortunately, I am lactose intolerant, I knew the bad side effects of birth control and I am very 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, my results revealed: Reversed osteoporosis to osteopenia—the stage of thinning bone before official bone loss (osteoporosis) is diagnosed. Ten years later, my osteoporosis condition only continues to improve.
Are you wondering, can osteoporosis be reversed, you’ve come to the right place.
When I became a functional medicine practitioner and clinical nutritionist, I’d soon discovered 4 essentials to help me reverse my osteoporosis (and hopefully these 4 essentials to reverse osteoporosis can help you too).
Moreover 50% of these women will suffer from a bone-loss 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 by age 70 (as 3 in 4 women will).
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, this presentation is exaggerated as bone mass breaks down and density decreases.
Osteoporosis Risk Factors
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
- Experience irregular periods or amenorrhea (lack of period for 3+ months)
- Have a lower body weight
- Keep a highly active lifestyle or overexercise
- Have a history of disordered eating/eating disorders
- 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)
Common Symptoms of Osteoporosis
Unlike a runny nose during a cold or experiencing joint pain with arthritis, osteoporosis 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)
Osteoporosis & Osteopenia Diagnosis
Osteopenia is a precursor to osteoporosis, and both are diagnosed using bone mineral density scanning using a DEXA machine.
Disclaimer: 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 or those with a history of malnutrition (including processed foods), disordered eating, anorexia and/or chronic dieting.
My story is a perfect example of this!
Understand the Root Causes of Osteoporosis
A big key to “unlocking” the reversal of osteoporosis is to first understand the root causes of osteoporosis.
Can Osteoporosis Be Reversed? What really drives osteoporosis in the first place?
There are a handful of common themes or “root causes” I see in clinical practice underlying the diagnosis of osteoporosis, including:
- Estrogen deficiency and decline. Hint: This is why post-menopausal women are often more susceptible.
- Mineral and nutrient deficiencies. In studies, when test subjects are deprived of a nutrient dense diet, bone density decreases, along with their offspring’s bone density too! Minerals go far beyond calcium. Uber important nutrients for bone density include: balanced phosphorus, silica, potassium, sodium, magnesium, copper, manganese, zinc (Zn), Vitamin K, Vitamin D.
- Leaky gut, gut dysbiosis and gut malabsorption. If you’re not absorbing your minerals and nutrients, then your bones suffer.
- Upregulated auto-immunity. Osteoporosis is currently being studied for its parallels as an autoimmune disorder—the body is attacking its own bone tissue.
- Excess stress and cortisol. If you continually have inflammatory cortisol circulating throughout your body (from chronic overexercise, sleep deprivation, frequent caffeine or alcohol consumption, lack of ‘downtime’ in your schedule , social isolation, etc.), excess cortisol ‘fires away’ against bone density.
Once we understand the key drivers behind osteoporosis, in my clinic, we can then develop a “game plan” for reversing osteoporosis naturally.
Read on to find out my 4 essentials for answering your question: Can Osteoporosis Be Reversed?
4 Essentials to Reverse Osteoporosis
Essential #1: Nourish to Reverse Osteoporosis
Bone health is built from solid nutrition—the “medicine” for making a healthier body over all.
The famous Pottenger’s Cats experiment (1932-1942) illustrates how health degeneration can happen simply as a by-product of modern day living and a lifestyle and environment not conducive to our innate human wiring. In the experiment, physician Dr. Francis Pottenger studied how diet and lifestyle affected four generations of cats. He divided the cats into two separate groups.
- Cat Group #1: Ate a processed food, pseudo-healthy diet—the equivalent to eating dry salads with chicken breast every day for lunch, artificially sweetened protein powders, and the whole grain cereals and boxed organic crackers sold at Whole Foods Market (read: not nutrient-dense)
- Cat Group #2: Ate an ancestral diet with nutrient-dense foods that cats had thrived upon for years (including raw milk, raw meats, and cod liver oil)
The findings: the cats fed the all-raw diet were healthy while the cats fed the cooked-meat diet developed a slew of health problems. By the end of the first generation the cats started to develop degenerative diseases like osteoporosis and became quite lazy. By the end of the second generation, the cats had developed degenerative diseases, teeth and bone loss by mid-life, and started losing their coordination. By the end of the third generation, the cats had developed all sorts of issues early on in life, including: blindness and weakness, shorter life spans, infertility, gut issues, skin diseases, allergies, arthritis, osteoporosis, and the inability to jump. Case in point: modern day eating, along with its many stressors is not conducive to optimal health.
Beyond the standard prescription of “increased calcium” intake, there are several other key nutrients that we need to help both prevent and reverse osteoporosis.
[In fact, did you know that most Americans actually consume enough calcium in their diets naturally?! The minimum daily calcium requirement—1,000 milligrams (mg) a day for ages 50 and younger and 1,200 mg for the over 50 crowd—is not the issue].
The bigger nutrient issues I commonly see underlying osteoporosis include:
- Fat soluble vitamins (Vitamin A, D, K2 & E) and saturated fat deficiencies (to help absorb your calcium and other vitamin and minerals 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
Coconut oil and coconut butter
Cold water fatty fish
Pastured and organic meats
Raw nuts and seeds, soaked
Extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil
- Veggie intake deficiency
Only 1 in 10 Americans eats the recommended number of veggies daily—rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
- Grass-fed and pasture raised meats deficiency
- The plant-based movement has turned meat into the ‘enemy’ over the past 15 to 20 years. However, contrary to popular b belief, meat—especially organ meats and grass-fed, grass-finished beef and bison—are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet! An animal-based diet is crucial for maintaining bone health because quality meats contain three essential (absorbable and bioavailable) nutrients that dramatically slash the risk of osteoporosis, including: zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, and absorbable amino acids. Add in organ meats or capsules to the mix, and you are on a whole ‘nutha level for improved bone health! Organ meats contain a variety of nutrients that support bone health, including: magnesium (50 to 60% of the magnesium present in the human body is found in the bones), copper, B vitamins, phosphorus, CoQ10 and Vitamin K. While you can find these nutrients in nuts, grains and beans, they are less bioavailable than animal sources, due to the presence of mineral-binding lectins and phytates.
High intake of grains and conventional dairy
Oh yes, lectins and phytates…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. 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:
- 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
- Grass-fed, raw milk, 1/2 cup- 150 mg
- 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
Hard Grass-fed Cheese
Full-fat, grass-fed yogurt (no sugar)
Essential #2: Supplement to Reverse Osteoporosis
Nutrients are king in osteoporosis treatment. However, there are several helpful supplements as well to support your nutritional needs. Contrary to yet another popular belief, most calcium supplements are not absorbable or beneficial for folks as they are absorbed in the blood stream, NOT the bone (ie. Read: clogged arteries). This is why increased calcium supplementation is linked to an increased risk for heart attacks. If you are going to take calcium, I recommend a “whole bone” calcium supplement + highly-absorbable magnesium + vitamin d3/k drops, along with trace minerals (added to your water for the day).
Additionally, given that nutrients (and absorbing them) is crucial, I tend to recommend more gut-based supports rather than tons of multivitamins, etc. included a HIGH QUALITY probiotic (most probiotics on shelves do not contain the probiotics they claim), plus digestive enzymes and HCL (stomach acid support) to enhance nutrient absorption.
Overall the supplements I recommend include:
- Bone Marrow (like this one or this one)
- Vitamin D/K2 drops
- Magnesium (Upgraded Formulas is my favorite)
- Mineral Drops
- Organ meat capsules (sort of like a multivitamin but better!)
Essential #3: Exercise to Reverse Osteoporosis
Movement is medicine for reversing osteoporosis. However, chronic overexercise and pounding is the opposite—provoking oxidative stress, hormone imbalances and leaky gut. This was the case in my osteoporosis diagnosis: I spent at least 2 to 3 hours (up to 6 to 8 hours) working out on running trails and treadmills, fitness class hopping, weight lifting and climbing up StairMasters. Couple this with significantly under eating, and my bones could not keep up.
While most people correlate exercise-induced with osteoporosis, with a history of marathon or cardio training, ANY form of exercise done in excess (and/or without proper recovery) strips our bodies of nutrients and inhibits the optimal “repair” process of both muscle and bone tissue.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). Simply just mix it up!
Personally, I love to move, BUT there is a fine line. I had to develop a new relationship with fitness and be ok with a “less is more” approach. My run-at-10-miles-per-hour-on-a-treadmill and daily spin workouts became a mix of strength training, yoga, walking, dancing, HIIT and occasional group fitness classes. I focused on dialing back the stress and challenged myself to go at 60 to 70% capacity (versus 90 to 100%) during my CrossFit workouts. The result? Several months later, I was squatting 200 pounds on a barbell! (My doctors were shocked).
A “solid” osteoporosis reversal plan includes the “just right” exercise challenge at threshold beneficial for improving your fitness, building up muscle and bone and boosting mitochondrial function, while avoiding “crushing” every workout (or letting it crush you).
I encourage my patients to incorporate strength training 3 to 5 days per week, along with walking and yoga, and if they are into cardio or HIIT, including a short metabolic conditioning piece (8 to 20 minutes) at that 60 to 70% capacity in the end of their strength training session to get the hear rate up without overwhelming the body.
At my virtual clinic, I include fitness programs for patients seeking support in this area as well, and also occasionally refer out to Osteostrong and ARX style training if there is a gym with access in your area.
Essential #4: Heal Your Root
Last, but not least, “healing your root” entails addressing the root causes of osteoporosis, versus simply just treating symptoms (ie. Taking calcium supplements, hormone pills and bone building medications with ill side effects, eating more yogurt and milk—especially if you are lactose intolerant like 70% of all people)!
While treating symptoms can help in some cases, “healing your root” asks the question: “What is driving the osteoporosis and how can we fix that?”
As previously mentioned, some of the common ‘drivers’ or key mechanisms behind osteoporosis include:
- Hormone imbalances
- Gut dysbiosis and leaky gut
- Chronic stress (ie. Cortisol and mitochondrial dysregulation)
Thankfully, there are solutions to improve bone health naturally.
Contact the Thrive Wellness virtual functional medicine clinic to set up an initial intake appointment today.