I was so determined to keep the momentum going – literally. I got home, had a shower and a quick snack and within 30 minutes of walking through my door I had signed up for my first Calgary marathon – go big or go home I thought. I was nervous and excited at the same time. I had only five weeks to prepare myself, which I would later find out is not a lot of time to prepare yourself physically and mentally. I continued with my endurance program that I had made up in my head, the more the better
What does “bone health” make us think of? Maybe we think of osteoporosis or the prevention thereof; trying to prevent hip fractures as we age. But most commonly, we associate bone health with the need to consume more calcium, as if this will solve all of our aging bone-related issues, and this is a huge flaw in our health education.
Conventional calcium alone doesn’t prevent bone loss, nor is it the only mineral supplement that bones need. Supplements like calcium gluconate, calcium citrate, and calcium carbonate, slow but do not halt or reverse menopausal bone loss, whether taken alone or with vitamin D. You simply can’t force bones to take in more calcium and build more bone by taking more and more calcium.
Bone building and remodeling
Bone health – specifically bone density – is built or maintained by a continual balance of bone resorption (breakdown) by cells called osteoclasts and bone building by cells called osteoblasts. This balance is referred to as “coupling”.1 Other bone cells, called osteocytes, live within the bone matrix, watching out for the quality of bone tissue and any stress. These are the cells that orchestrate coupling.
Think of the skeleton like a tall-standing, untreated, wood deck. When you use new planks of wood, spaced appropriately and with the right support posts, the whole structure is nice and strong. Over time, some of that wood will become weathered and need to be replaced. We can preserve the strength of the deck by removing any old, weak boards of wood and replacing them with new boards.
Our bone tissue is constantly being removed and rebuilt. If you have too much bone breakdown, you’re left with a rickety structure. In reality, this equates to decreased bone density and an increase in bone fracture. To equate this to our deck, imagine we randomly removed half the wood in the deck (including support beams). Now you run the risk of falling through the cracks, or the whole deck becoming unstable and crumbling like a Jenga tower.
If we were to overbuild, continuously adding plank upon plank of wood without ever removing the old damaged wood, now we have a modified, tumor-like, structure covering the old one. With pockets of diseased wood, the deck won’t look the same and you still run the risk of instability.
Therefore, this balance of give-and-take is essential. Coupling is also physiologically programmed where osteoclasts and osteoblasts can feed back on each other and their activity is influenced by parathyroid hormone; So, by no means do they work completely independent of each other. The builders and removers need to be in constant communication with each other.
Minerals for bone building
Calcium provides some of the raw material needed to support existing bone tissue, but there are so many other factors that contribute to bone health. Other minerals, such as phosphorus, magnesium and boron, play a huge role in bone health, as do vitamins such as vitamin K.
Phosphorus is an essential nutrient, making up more than half of the mineral content of bone tissue. It’s also a crucial element in the functioning of osteoblasts, our bone-builders. Magnesium is equally important as bone tissue harbours over 60% of the body’s magnesium stores. Magnesium is like our scaffolding, binding together with phosphorus and calcium.
Boron is a mineral that supports the retention of calcium and magnesium by reducing how much we excrete in urine. Other minerals such as zinc, copper and manganese are required for the proper function of osteoblasts and enzymes that are important for bone remodelling. Think of manganese as the food that keeps your bone builders fueled to keep working, and copper is like the hammer and nails. Without fueled deck builders, nothing will get accomplished, and without nails to hold your wood planks in place, the whole structure loses its strength.
Okay, so maybe this analogy isn’t perfect but the point is that all of these minerals are necessary and they all need to be present for proper bone health. We can’t rely solely on calcium intake from standard calcium supplementation to make our bones strong, even with added vitamin D.
There is one exceptional form of calcium: Microcrystalline Hydroxyapatite Complex (MCHC). This compound is a calcium-based crystalline nutrient complex, similar to how calcium is stored in bone. It is composed of a crystalline structure with multiple peptides, growth factors, and is rich in bone matrix components including type I collagen. Additionally, when ingested as a supplement it delivers calcium in a slow-release manner without any undesirable spikes in blood calcium levels.
Keeping bones strong and healthy isn’t something we can accomplish by only taking a conventional calcium supplement. There are multiple minerals and vitamins that compose bone tissue and are essential for the function of healthy bone coupling. These are just the basics and one could argue that weight-bearing exercise plays as large a role in bone health as taking a bone-supporting supplement. Regardless, remember that bone is living tissue and is more complicated than a hardened, mineralized scaffolding in our body.
Charles JF and Aliprantis AO. (2014). Osteoclasts: more than “bone eaters”. Trends Mol Med. 20(8): 449-59