Simply put, osteoporosis occurs when your body absorbs more bone than it produces. In other words, your bones lose density, become weak, and are prone to fractures. This process isn't the sole cause of osteoporosis; there are other factors that contribute to and exacerbate the onset of the disease.
Your diet has a significant impact on the health of your bones. Certain foods and nutrients promote healthy bone growth, while others don't.
Below are nutrients that are essential for healthy bones:
- Calcium: This mineral is necessary for bone growth and maintenance.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. You can read more about the importance of calcium and vitamin D.
- Other vitamins and minerals: Magnesium, phosphorous, vitamin K, vitamin B, and vitamin B12 all support bone health. You'll likely get enough of these nutrients from the food you eat, but if you don't eat a balanced diet, you should take a multivitamin or supplement.
Below are nutrients that may harm your bones when taken in very large amounts. You don't have to completely remove these foods and nutrients from your diet—in most cases, it wouldn't be healthy—but you should consume them in moderation:
- Protein: Protein is an essential part of a healthy diet, but a diet very high in animal protein may cause calcium loss.
- Caffeine: High caffeine intake (more than four cups of coffee per day) inhibits calcium absorption and leads to calcium loss through the urine
- Sodium: Consuming too much salt causes loss of calcium through the kidneys.
Exercise is an essential defense against osteoporosis. Exercise builds and maintains strong bones, so if you are inactive, your bones are likely weaker than they should be. Weak bones are more susceptible to fractures than strong, conditioned bones.
Low Sex Hormones
When women reach menopause, their estrogen levels drop significantly. Estrogen is important to new bone production because it supports osteoblasts, which are bone-producing cells. Without estrogen, osteoblasts can't produce enough new bone, and eventually, osteoclasts (bone-absorbing cells) overpower them. That's why post-menopausal women are at a high risk for osteoporosis.
In men, testosterone protects bone. When testosterone levels drop, it can lead to bone loss.
There are medical problems that can lead to osteoporosis. Below are some of those conditions:
- Intestinal problems: Celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease, for example, can interfere with normal calcium and vitamin D absorption.
- Kidney disease: This condition causes decreased activation of vitamin D.
- Parathyroid and Thyroid problems: Hyperparathyroidism, which is caused by too much parathyroid hormone, can cause osteoporosis because the excess hormone extracts calcium from your bones.
On that same note, hyperthyroidism, or an overproduction of thyroid hormone, may also lead to bone loss.
Certain medications may cause osteoporosis. You don't need to avoid these medications—many are vital for their respective conditions—but you will need to take extra care to prevent bone loss while taking them.
Below are some medications that may contribute to bone loss:
- Glucocorticoids: Including cortisone and prednisone, are strong medications to relieve inflammation.
- Antiseizure medications
- Aromatase inhibitors— these medications are used for breast cancer
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): These medications, such as Prilosec and Prevacid, are used for a variety of conditions, namely indigestion.
- Coumadin—used for blood thinning.
Smoking and Alcohol
The chemicals found in cigarettes make it more difficult for your body to use calcium. They also impact estrogen's ability to protect your bones.
Excessive alcohol consumption also negatively impacts your body's ability to effectively use calcium.
Osteoporosis may be caused by many things—and there are also risk factors that will increase your chances of developing the disease. Fortunately, many of the causes of osteoporosis can be prevented.
- Mayo Clinic Osteoporosis Causes page. Mayo Clinic Health Information Web site. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/osteoporosis/DS00128/DSECTION=causes. Accessed April 27, 2009.
- Osteoporosis: What It Is and Who Is at Risk. In the National Osteoporosis Foundation’s Boning Up on Osteoporosis, Second Edition. 2008: 5-15.