Osteoporosis rarely announces its arrival. The first inkling you have it may be a fractured bone that happens when you’re doing something routine, like bending over to pick something up. People with osteoporosis can even suffer a bone fracture by coughing too hard. Here’s another example of how fragile the bones of people with osteoporosis are. One osteoporosis sufferer fractured her wrist while resting her hand on it!
What is Osteoporosis and Why Is It So Common?
Osteoporosis is the pathological loss of bone density. Bone mass peaks by the beginning of the third decade of life. After that, it’s a matter of maintaining what you have. Between the ages of 30 and 50, bone density doesn’t change a lot, but after menopause, bone loss increases around the same time muscle loss speeds up. So, you’re fighting a double battle after menopause, the fight to preserve muscle and bone.
Some people are at high risk of osteoporosis because of genetics and factors like the size of their frame, but lifestyle can help preserve bone health. The sooner you start, the better. Getting enough high-impact exercise early in life, when bone mass is still increasing, is one strategy. But there are things you can do later in life to preserve and, under some circumstances, modestly boost bone density. For example, it is wise to avoid a deficiency of calcium and vitamin D, continue to exercise and don’t smoke or use alcohol. Hormone replacement therapy also lowers the risk of osteoporosis, although there are other health risks of using hormone replacement therapy longer-term.
We know that probiotic bacteria support gut health, but early studies also suggest that probiotics could play a role in keeping bones healthy. Probiotics are bacteria that support gut health. Some people take a probiotic supplement, but you can also get a diversity of gut-friendly bacteria by consuming fermented foods, like yogurt with active cultures, kefir, kombucha, and fermented vegetables. Fresh sauerkraut is the most popular fermented vegetable. Be careful though. If it’s not in the refrigerated case at the supermarket, it doesn’t contain probiotics.
The Impact of Probiotics on Bone Density
In one study of 90 elderly women, researchers asked subjects to consume either a probiotic powder or a placebo powder. The probiotic powder contained colonies of Lactobacillus reuteri, a common bacterium that most healthy people have in their gut. The study was randomized and controlled so that the researchers and the participants were unaware of who got what powder.
After a year of using these powders, the researchers measured the bone density of the participants and compared it to measurements before they used the powders. The results? The participants who took the probiotic powder lost half as much bone as those who took the placebo. They also experienced few or no side effects from the treatment. The most common complaints were mild digestive upset and bloating.
What Other Research Shows
To further support a role of probiotics in bone health, research shows that in mice, the gut microbiome plays a key role in bone metabolism. So, it’s not a stretch that probiotic bacteria impact bone health. However, you can’t extrapolate from mice to humans. That’s why the human study is exciting. It suggests that probiotics could curb bone loss in humans too.
How might probiotics reduce bone loss? It’s not clear what the exact mechanism is. Some possibilities are that probiotic bacteria impact calcium metabolism in a way that favors bone preservation. Since estrogen has a major impact on bone metabolism, it’s possible that probiotic bacteria alter estrogen metabolism.
Should You Take Probiotics for Your Bones?
It’s too soon to recommend taking probiotics for bone health. However, there are other benefits to eating more probiotic-rich foods. Research suggests that the probiotics in fermented foods may improve digestive and immune health. They also aid in nutrient absorption. Plus, eating more foods rich in prebiotics, the fiber that healthy bacteria feed on, supports a healthy gut microbiome.
Until researchers know more, probiotic-rich foods are the best way to get the possible bone-protective effects of probiotics. Probiotic supplements are not regulated in the way prescription medications and you don’t always get what’s listed on the label. If you gamble on probiotics, buy from a reputable manufacturer and research beforehand.
Other Ways to Lower Your Risk of Osteoporosis
Don’t forget about other healthy lifestyle habits that keep your bones healthy. Exercise that stimulates bone building, such as heavy resistance training and high-impact movements where both feet leave the ground can benefit the health of your bones. The key is to do these activities regularly. You need these activities to reduce age-related muscle loss too. In contrast, exercises where your body is supported, like swimming and cycling, don’t preserve bone mass. One study in cyclists even found that, over time, they lost bone mass. If cycling or swimming is your favorite form of physical activity, balance it out with strength training and weight-bearing exercises.
Also, check your bone density on the schedule your physician recommends. You can have osteoporosis with no symptoms. In fact, the first symptom could be a bone fracture. Know your family history too. If you have a first-degree relative, like a parent or sibling, with osteoporosis, your risk is higher too. Likewise, if you’re small boned and of Caucasian or Asian descent.
The Bottom Line
It’s too soon to suggest taking probiotics for bone health but stay tuned for further research. Keep exercising too. It’s one of the best ways to stimulate your bones and keep them healthy.
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