Osteoporosis: Why Calcium Supplements are Not Enough!

The following is a reproduction of a Millennium Health Centre editorial article which appeared in the Seaway News newspaper in Cornwall, Ontario, Canada. The content is shortened to accommodate a newspaper space allotment. As such, it is not academically cited with references. These are available, so please feel free to email your questions.


Dr. Stephen F. Jones B.Comm., N.D.
Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine

A common health concern faced by all health care providers is osteoporosis. Patients are looking not only for treatment options, but ideas on how to prevent this disorder from occurring, especially in those who have a family history of the condition. The popular response, as the television commercial depicts, is to recommend calcium supplements ' at any age'. The suggestion is that your bones are made of calcium and increasing the supply of this mineral will reduce the amount of bone density loss.

Well, allow me to examine a pet peeve with this particular marketing and, hopefully, clear the air on this common condition. Osteoporosis is not a disease of calcium deficiency ! There you have it. Calcium deficiencies cause a softening of bones, a condition known as osteomalacia. Osteoporosis is a condition whereby bone density is lost, creating fragile, but not softened, bones. Further, calcium deficiencies affect the outer shell of your bones, whereas osteoporosis is a condition whereby the inner matrix of the bone is decreased.

So, why have calcium supplements been so widely touted as the answer to this condition. Well, the answer is that calcium supplementation has, indeed, been shown to assist in reducing the incidence of age-related bone loss. This point has been discussed in such medical journals as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1981. As such, many doctors merely advise use of calcium and leave the discussion at that point.

What is absolutely critical to know, however, is that the inner matrix of your bones is made up of a great many minerals, of which calcium is actually a relatively small player (it primarily deposits on the outer shell of bones). Why would we supplement merely one of several critical minerals? The analogy is using just flour when trying to bake a cake, leaving out the baking powder, sugar and other key ingredients. In fact, more recent medical studies have definitively shown that calcium supplementation only works to improve bone density when it is administer with other trace mineral ( see the Journal of Nutrition, July, 1994).

So what should you or your loved one take to assist in preventing or treating osteoporosis. The answer is that it depends on your individual health status and medication usage. We're all individuals and using the same treatment as others will not address your personal needs adequately. However, several key minerals and natural products should accompany your calcium supplement.

First, trace minerals such as Manganese, Zinc, Boron and Strontium are important considerations. In fact, a 1981 Canadian Medical Association Journal described how supplementation with strontium alone caused a 172% increase in bone formation, with no other interventions used. This is contrary to such conventional medical treatments such as hormone replacement therapy which seeks only to reduce bone loss, failing to address new bone formation.

Second, ensure your supplement has enough magnesium. One half of our body's magnesium is actually inside the bone matrix (vs. calcium which is mainly on the outer shell). A recent clinical trial demonstrated that while magnesium deficiencies were associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis fracture, calcium deficiencies were not (International Journal of Epidemiology, 1995).

Thirdly, consider the use of what is called Ipriflavone. Over 60 human studies have been conducted showing that this soy derivative inhibits the resorption of bone by inhibiting your parathyroids (which serve to break-down bone via hormone secretion).

Lastly, take your calcium! Just ensure the calcium has these other critical ingredients as well. Health food stores may carry products which have these varied minerals. Ideally, however, you should consult a trained physician, such as a licensed Naturopathic Doctor, who can examine your bone scans, blood work and overall health and tailor a plan for your particular health needs. Other critical osteoporosis issues, such as the role of a blood protein called homocysteine, could then be discussed. Good luck!