By Susan Tretakis – Lately, whenever my friends and I get together, there is always one, but usually more than one, who has been put on an additional supplement by their doctor. Some of my friends are taking up to six different supplements a day – in addition to prescribed medications to keep illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure in check.
I’ve watched the supplement aisle in supermarkets triple in size in just two years. Every day I receive emails and texts about an innovative supplemental product. Everyone I know seems to be taking something to make up for a lack of something they are not eating or drinking.
Now – full disclosure: I take prescriptive drugs to control my chronic high blood pressure. I am not against taking prescribed medicines when they are warranted. While I do not believe that every health problem can be solved by a pill, there are times when I can understand the need for pharmaceuticals. But what does make me wonder is that every single one of my friends over the age of 60 – including myself – have been told our bone density tests show “mild osteopenia” and we need to immediately begin calcium supplements. What does baffle me is the range of prices of these supplements – and what disturbs me even more – is the recent literature questioning the effectiveness of these supplements.
Americans love their supplements; we can rattle them off by name and dosage faster than we can remember the day’s date. It does not surprise me that it has been estimated that 75% of Americans who take supplements would take them even if there was no direct proof to benefit health. Also, not surprising, is the fact that Americans spend over $12 billion a year on supplements.
Osteopenia is a condition that is often treated like osteoporosis. Treatment means stopping bone loss and rebuilding bone to prevent breaks. Of the estimated 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, over 80% are women. My general practitioner, always a source of sunshine in my life, explained to me that one in two women over the age of 50 will break a bone because of osteoporosis. Ending with the cheery fact that a women’s risk of breaking a hip is equal to her combined risk of breast, uterine and ovarian cancer, she gave me list of recommended calcium supplements, told me I would be retested in 2 years – and cautioned me not to fall.
Does anyone actually wake up in the morning and hope to fall?
Because I do not want to wait two years to know what’s going on with my bones, I turned to my doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine. He – and my study of Traditional Chinese Medicine – have shown me that many of my chronic health problems – from my digestive issues, anemia, joint pain, and vertigo – are directly related to how I live – what I eat and drink, what I don’t eat and don’t drink and how I move or don’t move. So, after leaving my general practitioner’s office – paying special attention to not falling – rather than drive directly to my local health food store, I came home to research – and what I found is surprising.
“In February, 2013, New York Times reported that the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended that post-menopausal women refrain from taking supplemental calcium and Vitamin D. After reviewing more than 135 studies, the task force said there was little evidence that these supplements prevent fractures in healthy women. Moreover, several studies have linked calcium to an increased risk of heart attacks and death from cardiovascular disease. Others have found no effect, depending on the population studied and when calcium supplementation was begun. The one indisputable fact is that the safest – and probably the most effective source of calcium for strong bones and overall health is diet, not supplements”.
Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a holistic approach to preventing bone disease. My acupuncturist explained to me that the kidneys are the governor of the bones. Essentially, the skeleton’s growth, development and repair – as well as one’s teeth – are closely related to the energy of the kidneys. A strong, unblocked kidney promotes the growth of marrow and the flow of qi through the skeleton.
“Post-menopausal women experience both bone loss and kidney weakness. Studies performed at the Traditional Medicine Research Institute in China have found that “the increase of bone mass in amount and density and the increase of age have a close relationship with the abundance of, or decline of, kidney qi. Individuals suffering kidney failure will also experience lower bone density, according to the study. The second factor that contributes to bone disease is blood flow. Blood flow and qi circulation throughout the body are directly related. Promoting blood circulation may remove such stasis and encourage the production of new bone material”.
For thousands of years, Chinese medicine practitioners have treated osteoporosis with acupuncture. Researchers have found that both acupuncture and Chinese herbs are extremely effective for increasing bone strength and preventing bone loss. For example, in a six-month German study of postmenopausal osteoporosis patients, all participants took calcium and vitamin D supplements. Half of the participants also received acupuncture treatments. Documented results show that the women whose treatment included acupuncture recovered more bone mass than the supplements-only group.
In a laboratory investigation, electro acupuncture significantly enhanced outcomes by increasing the efficacy of physical therapy procedures. The application of electro acupuncture significantly improved bone density and strength when engaging in load-bearing exercises and treadmill running exercises. Based on the results of the study, the researchers conclude that acupuncture significantly increases bone strength and density, stimulates peripheral nerve repair, and increases the effectiveness of physical therapy procedures.
So, I was thinking of letting my acupuncturist do “his thing” – balance my kidneys and liver and mix my herbs and all would be well. Just as I was checking all of this from my mental “To Do List”, he interrupted my lazy thoughts to remind me that I needed to increase weight bearing exercises. He went on to explain that weight bearing exercises allow my muscles to get stronger and for me to become more coordinated, which would prevent those dreaded falls. Additionally, working muscles stimulates bones into becoming stronger.
Like Western medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine promotes vigorous exercise for general well-being, and weight exercises for bone strength and health. An American study concludes that athletic and active women maintain bone mass longer later in life. Further, a study in 2017 at the Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver suggested that, “Moderate physical activity in people with osteoporosis can reduce the risk of falls and fractures, decrease pain and improve fitness and overall quality of life. It may also stimulate bone gain and decrease bone loss.”
As much as I wanted a quick fix, I had to remember that a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and regular exercise all contribute to better bone health. For me, this was another reminder of the mind/body connection – and the realization that I can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
And, if it keeps me from falling – I’m okay with it!
- Dr. Landon Agoado, Care Wellness Center