The secret to longevity lies in your bones, literally. Your skeleton is your core. How you move, the quality of food and supplements you ingest, and your sleep cycle all matter to bone health — immensely. It’s like a “trifecta” for building a better framework: diet, exercise, and sleep. But it’s also not quite that simple.
To better understand how to build healthy bones, let’s first look inside to understand your physical infrastructure. As part of the skeletal system, the bones and cartilage perform three basic, but essential functions: to support the body, protect the organs, and allow for movement that works in tandem with the tendons and muscles.
Marrow is found at the center of the bones and this is where the magic happens. The bone marrow assists in the formation of blood cells — both red and white — along with storing a vast amount of fats and minerals that act as reserve tanks when the body needs a top-up. Bones are also considered a growing, living tissue that turn over every seven years, so given the right environment, the term “reverse aging” isn’t out of reach. Think trifecta.
Bones are comprised of collagen, a protein that offers the “soft framework” along with calcium phosphate, a mineral that strengthens and hardens them. Together these make up your bones — all 206 of them. And, more than 99% of the body’s calcium is found in the bones and teeth.
Okay, the anatomy lesson aside, let’s look at diet. But you can’t really talk about diet without including digestion: this is a vital partnership for bone health. You need nutrient-dense foods and a healthy microbiome to ensure you’re absorbing all those vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. If you’re not absorbing these, your bone marrow isn’t able to stock-up for future use, so you have little to no reserves.
Without these reserves, the body begins to pull the nutrients stored in the bones, which over time, leads to diminished bone mass. Remember, the body will maintain balance at all costs – even if that means “robbing the bones to pay the muscles.”
To help rebalance the microbiome and jumpstart healthy absorption, include unpasteurized fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, fermented vegetables, kimchi, miso and kombucha. You can also supplement your diet with pre/probiotics, in capsule form, if you’re rebuilding your gut.
When we consider high-calcium foods, there’s an old expression, “if you want healthy bones, eat your greens and beans.” This seems simple enough, but not all greens are created equally. You also have to consider the soil in which they’re grown as the plants are only as “nutrient-dense” as the soil.
Microgreens, such as sunflower sprouts, offer an unsurpassed amount of nutrients when compared to leafy greens. These tiny, but mighty plants offer more protein, ounce for ounce, than spinach. They also provide ample amounts of iron, calcium and phosphorus, plus vitamin D – rarely found in plants. The seeds are easy to germinate and produce ready-to-eat sprouts within two weeks — in your own kitchen! If you’re not a gardener, they’re usually available at your local health food store, often supplied by a local grower.
These days, a container of organic, local sprouts costs less than a head of organic romaine lettuce that’s imported from California or Mexico! All things considered, go for the sprouts.
Since bones are comprised of collagen, there’s a reason why “bone broth” has risen to the forefront as a healthy drink alternative. For a super-charged snack, try mixing a scoop of collagen in a mug of warm bone broth, plus a dash of rosemary, sage or thyme. Alternatively, add a scoop of unflavored powdered collagen to your smoothie, water bottle, juice or drink of choice. Both are excellent options: sip, savor and feel the love from the inside-out!
Primary minerals that support bone health include calcium, magnesium, copper, boron, phosphorus and zinc; along with vitamins C, D and K. Most of these work synergistically for maximum absorption and benefit. Vitamin D, boron, magnesium and zinc improve calcium uptake and absorption. Vitamin K is essential for bone protein and it directs calcium to areas that need a top-up. Copper helps in bone formation.
Additionally, amino acids such as L-lysine and L-arginine assist in calcium absorption and connective tissue strength. Yes, it’s tough to get all the nutrients from diet alone, so consider a quality supplement that offers a blend of vitamins and minerals — not just calcium and magnesium.
Meanwhile, get outside, go to the gym — just get moving! When it comes to building bone density (mass), you need both resistance and weight-bearing movement. Resistance exercise includes lifting weights, resistance bands and kettle / medicine balls. Likewise, weight-bearing movement works against gravity and includes walking, jogging, hiking, dancing and like motion.
With both forms of exercise, you need to exhaust the muscles to near fatigue — without the risk of injury — followed by periods of rest to allow the body to recover, and ultimately grow stronger. Even short bursts of exercise are proving to be beneficial provided you’re working to fatigue and allowing for rest and recovery.
And finally, the importance of sleep. This aspect of the bone-health trifecta is just as important as diet and exercise, and possibly, the easiest to achieve when you foster a healthy sleep schedule. Just like your commitment to exercise and eating well, sleep is equally as important. The body needs deep rest to repair itself and typically, this occurs when we sleep.
The next time you find yourself sitting in front of your phone or tablet — well past your bedtime — think about your bone marrow for just a moment, and the vital role it plays in your longevity. Now, turn off that device, go to bed and show your bones the respect they deserve.
Eat this, not that
Sunflower sprouts, leafy greens, collard, fresh spinach, swiss chard, brussels sprouts, tofu, chickpeas, most beans, kelp, sea vegetables, almonds, sesame seeds, oats, wheat bran, buckwheat, dried figs, prunes, dates, raisins and oranges.
Refined sugars, excessive salt, alcohol, caffeine and soft drinks.
Ask a Biologist, Arizona State University
Balch, Phyllis A., Prescription for Dietary Wellness, New York, Penguin Group Inc, 2003
Balch, Phyllis A., Prescription for Nutritional Healing, New York, Penguin Group Inc, 2006
Marieb, Elaine N., Essentials of Human Anatomy and Physiology, New York, Pearson, 2015
Mary Savage is a Certified Holistic Nutritional Practitioner. She is a Wellbeing Counselor for a national grocery store chain, a nutritional consultant, journalist and life-long learner. She was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder in 2006 – prompting her to study nutrition. Follow her on instagram @savvynutritionist.
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