Osteoporosis is a condition in which the density of bones reduces, leaving them more prone to breaking. It affects one in three women and around one in 12 men in the West. The reduction in bone density in women occurs when levels of the female hormone oestrogen diminishes from about the age of 35, at a rate of one percent bone mass a year. Oestrogen stimulates the growth of bone cells called osteoblasts, which help to build bone. Often there are no symptoms until the disease is in its more advanced stages, which is why is has been called the ‘silent killer’.

It is the cause of thousands of fractures in women every year. Around 15-20 per cent of women will die as a result of fractures. As it has hereditary links, women whose close family members have suffered from the disease are automatically at a higher risk. Women who begin menstruating relatively late – 15 and over – are at a higher risk of osteoporosis as are women who go through the menopause early – before the age of 45 – as they will have had less oestrogen exposure. Women who are tall and slender are at additional risk as are yo-yo dieters. Eating disorders increase the risk of osteoporosis. The onset of osteoporosis can be prevented by taking bone-building food supplements.

There are a whole battery of tests for anyone who is not sure whether they have symptoms. These include: DXA (Duel X-ray Absorptiometry) tests, the most common, are available throughout the UK; X-rays can detect and assess any minute fractures or hairline cracks; Bone Turnover Tests (BTT) for testing bone density, carried out over a period of a year. Hormone tests check levels of hormones important to building bone strength. Calcium metabolism tests will show up abnormalities in blood calcium levels.

As far as drugs are concerned the most commonly prescribed drug is Didronel, which is used in combination with a programme of calcium tablets, and can restore bone, though not all that has been lost. HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy), can also reduce the incidence by between 50-75 per cent by raising oestrogen levels.

There are a number of preventive steps that can be taken including: Diet – Calcium, essential for building strong bones is found in dairy foods, beans, nuts and fish, preferably consumed with their bones, such as salmon or sardines. The suggested daily intake for women between 20 and 45 and women over 45 on HRT is 1,000mg. Adding vitamin D, helps the body absorb the mineral/ In addition, other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, zinc and sodium all make up our skeleton and therefore must be included daily in our diet. You also need to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Vitamin C is also vital for healthy bones and can be found in citrus fruits and berries and vegetables such as broccoli and potatoes. Vitamin K is present in cauliflower, spinach and olive and soya bean oils.

As well as diet exercise also plays a crucial role in reducing the likelihood of developing osteoporosis because bones need regular load-bearing impact to stimulate the bone to grow. Swimming and cycling are not as good as jogging or step aerobics. You also need to do strengthening exercises and stretches.

Drinking excessive alcohol ie more than seven drinks a week interferes with the bone building activity of your cells because the toxins from the alcohol will prevent your bones from absorbing the maximum nutrients from food. In addition drinking more than four cups of coffee a day doubles the risk of hip fractures because it is a diuretic and removes water present in lubrication fluids for joints. Also women who smoke have significantly lower bone density because smoking reduces oestrogen levels.

Alternative treatments

The wild yam contains a compound called diosgenin, which is used to manufacture oestrogen and progesterone and may help replenish bone density on the same principle as HRT. The herb horsetale is sold as a tea or tincture and is rich in silicic acid providing silicon, which contributes to the formation of cartilage and bone.


The risk for men is much lower as they have a 25 per cent larger bone mass than women. This is because testosterone, the male sex hormone, also stimulates bone growth. But in common with women, their oestrogen levels fall in their late 30s and they start to loose bone mass at about 0.3 per cent of bone annually. The symtoms are the same as are the tests which should also include testosterone levels, Usually, low estosterone is a natural consequence of ageing. Indicators include a reduced libido or impotence, decreased facial and body hair and enlarged ‘breasts’. Also, men with a light frame and low weight have a higher risk of osteoporosis and medications such as steroids and diuretics may put men in a higher risk category.

For more information, contact the Women’s Nutritional Advisory Service on 01273 487366; www.wnas.org.uk and the National Osteoporosis Society helpline on 01761 472721; www.nos.org.uk