By Dr. Mercola
In most people, sometime during yours 30s your bone mass will start to gradually decline (there are steps you can take to slow, or stop, this from occurring, which I'll discuss below).
For women, that bone loss speeds up significantly during the first 10 years after menopause, which is the period when osteoporosis often develops.
Many are under the mistaken impression that a prescription drug combined with megadose calcium supplements is the answer to strong and healthy bones.
In reality, as new research has once again revealed, nature has provided some of the best substances for preventing bone loss right in the foods you eat. Fermented vegetables using special starter culture designed to optimize vitamin K2 is one of your best strategies for maintaining healthy bones and preventing bone loss, in combination with vitamin D.
But before I get to that, recent research also suggests that one often-overlooked vegetable in particular can be of benefit, and if you've never had fennel, now might be a good time to give it a try.
Fennel May Prevent Post-Menopausal Bone Loss and Osteoporosis
Scientists looking for natural compounds to counteract postmenopausal bone loss believe they may have found the answer in fennel, a much under-appreciated vegetable that is native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean area.
In a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Medicine,1 it was found that eating the seeds of the plant had a beneficial effect on loss of bone mineral density, as well as bone mineral content.
Healthy bones maintain their strength through a continual process of bone breakdown and bone rebuilding. Osteoclasts are the cells that break down weakened bone, and osteoblasts are the cells that build it back up. The fennel appeared to work by reducing osteoclast differentiation and function, thereby slightly decreasing bone turnover markers and offering a protective effect on the bones.
Researchers indicated that fennel seeds show potential in preventing bone loss in postmenopausal osteoporosis. This vegetable, which has a celery-like base topped with feathery green leaves, has a long history of medicinal use, and has been valued since ancient times as a breath freshener, digestive aid, and for helping expel phlegm from the lungs.
It's now known that the plant is a treasure trove of nutrients, including vitamin C, folate (the natural form of folic acid), calcium, magnesium, and more, as well as phytonutrients and antioxidants that may help reduce inflammation, boost immune function, and even help prevent cancer.
Eating Plenty of Vegetables is Key for Bone Health
Fennel is just one example of a veggie that's excellent for your bones. High vegetable intake has been associated with positive effects on bone mineral status for years.2 Eating high quality, organic, biodynamic, locally grown veggies will naturally increase your bone density and strength, and will decrease your risk of developing a fracture at virtually any age.
One reason why this is so important is because it supplies your body with nutrients that are essential for bone health, like vitamin K1 and potassium.
Your body needs potassium to maintain proper pH levels in your body fluids, and optimize your sodium to potassium ratio which also affects your bone mass. If you eat a diet loaded with processed foods, there's a good chance your potassium to sodium ratio is far from optimal, which is typically done by consuming a diet of processed foods, which are notoriously low in potassium while high in sodium.
An imbalanced sodium to potassium ratio can contribute to a number of diseases, including osteoporosis. To ensure you get these two important nutrients in more appropriate ratios, simply ditch processed foods, which are very high in processed salt and low in potassium and other essential nutrients.
Also eat a diet of whole, unprocessed foods, ideally organically grown to ensure optimal nutrient content. This type of diet will naturally provide much larger amounts of potassium in relation to sodium, which is optimal for your bone health, and your overall health. If you find it difficult to eat the recommended amount of vegetables you need daily, give vegetable juicing a try.
Vitamin K2 is Critical for Bone Health
Vitamin K2, also called menaquinone, is made by the bacteria that line your gastrointestinal tract. The biological role of vitamin K2 is to help move calcium into the proper areas in your body, such as your bones and teeth. It also plays a role in removing calcium from areas where it shouldn't be, such as in your arteries and soft tissues. It's critical for keeping your bones strong and works in conjunction with a number of other nutrients, most important of which are vitamin D, calcium and magnesium.
The optimal amounts of vitamin K2 are still under investigation, but it seems likely that 180 to 200 micrograms of vitamin K2 should be enough to activate your body's K2-dependent proteins to shuttle the calcium where it needs to be, and remove it from the places where it shouldn't.
As I've discussed on numerous occasions, vitamin D is a critical nutrient for optimal health and is best obtained from sun exposure or a safe tanning bed. However, many are taking oral vitamin D, which can actually be problematic unless you're also getting sufficient amounts of vitamin K2. In fact, this is a really crucial point that has not been emphasized enough in the past: If you opt for oral vitamin D, you need to also consume in your food or take supplemental vitamin K2.
Because when you take vitamin D, your body creates more vitamin K2-dependent proteins—the proteins that help move the calcium around in your body. But you need vitamin K2 to activate those proteins. If they're not activated, the calcium in your body will not be properly distributed and can lead to weaker bones and hardened arteries.
In short, vitamin K2 ensures the calcium is deposited and removed from the appropriate areas. By taking vitamin D, you're creating an increased demand for K2. And vitamin D and K2 work together to strengthen your bones and improve your heart health.
How Can You Tell if You're Lacking in Vitamin K2?
There's no way to test for vitamin K2 deficiency. But by assessing your diet and lifestyle, you can get an idea of whether or not you may be lacking in this critical nutrient. If you have osteoporosis, heart disease or diabetes, you're likely deficient in vitamin K2 as they are all connected to K2.
If you do not have any of those health conditions, but do NOT regularly eat high amounts of the following foods, then your likelihood of being vitamin K2 deficient is still very high:
- Grass-fed organic animal products (i.e. eggs, butter, dairy)
- Certain fermented foods such as natto, or vegetables fermented using a starter culture of vitamin K2-producing bacteria. Please note that most fermented vegetables are not really high in vitamin K2 and come in at about 50 mcg per serving. However, if specific starter cultures are used they can have ten times as much, or 500 mcg per serving.
- Goose liver pâté
- Certain cheeses such as Brie and Gouda (these two are particularly high in K2, containing about 75 mcg per ounce)
Fermented vegetables, which are one of my new passions, primarily for supplying beneficial bacteria back into our gut, can be a great source of vitamin K if you ferment your own using the proper starter culture. They're definitely FAR better than fennel for counteracting bone loss.
We recently had samples of high-quality fermented organic vegetables made with our specific starter culture tested, and were shocked to discover that not only does a typical serving of about two to three ounces contain about 10 trillion beneficial bacteria, but it also contained 500 mcg of vitamin K2. Note that not every strain of bacteria makes K2. For example, most yogurts have almost no vitamin K2. Certain types of cheeses are very high in K2, and others are not. It really depends on the specific bacteria. You can't assume that any fermented food will be high in K2, but some fermented foods are very high in K2, such as natto.
Why Nutritional Interventions are Superior to Drugs
Your bones are made up of minerals in a collagen matrix. The minerals give your bones rigidity and density, but the collagen gives your bones flexibility. Without good flexibility, they become brittle and break easily. So bone strength is MORE than just bone density -- which is why drugs such as biphosphonates have failed so miserably. Drugs like Fosamax build up a lot of minerals and make the bone LOOK very dense on an x-ray called a DEXA scan, which specifically measures bone density, or the degree of mineralization of your bones. But in reality, they are extremely brittle and prone to fracture, which is why there have been so many cases of hip fracture among people taking these damaging drugs.
Biphosphonate drugs are poisons that destroy your osteoclasts, which interferes with your normal bone-remodeling process. You are much better off building your bones using exercise and nutritional therapies, hormones like progesterone and vitamins D and K.
Natural Strategies for Preventing Age-Related Bone Loss
You need a combination of plant-derived minerals for strong bones. Your bones are actually composed of at least a dozen minerals. If you just focus on calcium, you will likely weaken your bones and increase your risk of osteoporosis as Dr. Robert Thompson explains in his book, The Calcium Lie.
It's more likely your body can use calcium correctly if it's plant-derived calcium. Good sources include raw milk from pasture-raised cows (who eat the plants), leafy green vegetables, the pith of citrus fruits, carob, sesame seeds and wheatgrass, to name a few. But you also need sources of silica and magnesium, which some researchers say is actually enzymatically "transmuted" by your body into the kind of calcium your bones can use. This theory was first put forth by French scientist Louis Kevran, a Nobel Prize nominee who spent years studying how silica and calcium are related.
Good sources of silica are cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and a number of herbs including horsetail, nettles, oat straw, and alfalfa. The absolute best source of magnesium is raw organic cacao. Yes, healthy high quality chocolate is extremely rich in magnesium!
A great source of trace minerals, which are important for many of your body's functions, is Himalayan Crystal Salt, which contains all 84 elements found in your body. In addition, you need to make sure you're eating plenty of vitamin K2, which is found in fermented foods like homemade sauerkraut. Osteocalcin is a protein produced by your osteoblasts (cells responsible for bone formation), and is utilized within the bone as an integral part of the bone-forming process. However, osteocalcin must be "carboxylated" before it can be effective. Vitamin K functions as a cofactor for the enzyme that catalyzes the carboxylation of osteocalcin.
Vitamin K2 has been found to be a far more effective "activator" of osteocalcin than K1 because your liver preferentially uses vitamin K1 to activate clotting factors, while most of your other tissues preferentially use K2. Further, vitamin D, which your body produces in response to sun exposure, is another crucial factor in maintaining bone health as you age.
The bottom line?
One of the best ways to achieve healthy bones is a diet rich in fresh, raw whole foods that maximizes natural minerals so that your body has the raw materials it needs to do what it was designed to do. In addition, you need healthy sun exposure along with regular, weight-bearing exercise.
To sum it up:
- Optimize your vitamin D either from natural sunlight exposure, a safe tanning bed or an oral vitamin D3 supplement. Check your blood levels regularly to make sure you're within the optimal range.
- Optimize your vitamin K through a combination of dietary sources (leafy green vegetables, fermented foods like homemade sauerkraut and a K2 supplement, if needed. Remember, if you take supplemental vitamin D, you need to also increase your intake of vitamin K2.)
The optimal amounts of vitamin K2 are still under investigation, but it seems likely that 180 to 200 micrograms of vitamin K2 might be enough to activate your body's K2-dependent proteins to shuttle calcium to the proper areas. If you're taking high doses of supplemental vitamin D, Dr. Kate Rheaume-Bleue, a naturopathic physician and author of Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox, suggests taking 100-200 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin K2 for every 1,000 IU's of vitamin D you take. The latest vitamin D dosing recommendations, which call for about 8,000 IU's of vitamin D3 per day if you're an adult, means you'd need in the neighborhood of 800 to 1,000 micrograms (0.8 to 1 milligram/mg) of vitamin K2.
- Make sure you do weight-bearing exercise, which has profound benefits to your skeletal systems. My favorite is Peak Fitness but it is also very important to do strength-training exercises to produce the dynamic peizoelectric forces in your bones that will stimulate the osteoblasts to produce new bone.
- Consume a wide variety of fresh, local, organic whole foods, including vegetables, nuts, seeds, organic meats and eggs, and raw organic unpasteurized dairy. The more of your diet you consume RAW, the better nourished you will be. Minimize sugar and refined grains.