New research suggests that taking antioxidants may prevent bone loss in menopausal women, one of the primary health concerns associated with this condition.
Every year, 500,000 American women suffer at least one fracture of the vertebrae, and 300,000 sustain hip fractures. Fractures related to osteoporosis, or the thinning and weakening of bones, amounts to $10 billion every year in national health care costs, and approximately $977 million in Texas alone. In fact, 1.9 million Texans suffer from osteoporosis or bone loss at any given moment -- and they're not all menopausal women. That means in every city and small town -- from Dallas, to Houston, to Austin, to the Eastern plains -- someone is significantly affected by weakening bones. The repercussions this has for not only the personal health of these individuals and their families, but also on the health insurance and health care industries, are huge.
The past ten years of study have indicated that prevention early on in life is the best medicine. Menopausal women are, indeed, the most affected, and ladies in their premenopausal years do themselves a favor when they watch their calcium and vitamin D intake, as well as their levels of physical exercise and sunlight exposure -- all factors believed to affect the formation of bone. Menopausal osteoporosis, then, is the result of bone levels achieved before menopause, and the rate at which bone tissue deteriorates afterwards. The stronger and denser the skeleton becomes in youth, the more material the body has to work with later on in life.
While levels of calcium, vitamin D, exercise, and sunlight exposure are key factors affecting skeletal health, pregnancy, nursing, immobility, and low estrogen levels may also weaken bones. Contrary to appearance, bones are not inanimate structures, but are living tissues, constantly undergoing a cycle of breakdown and regeneration. This process must be balanced; if breakdown of cells occurs at a faster rate than the body can rebuild and replace them, then thinning of the tissues occurs. Therefore, processes to ensure healthy regeneration are essential.
All that hard work shoring up on bone tissue shows its greatest benefit during menopause, when estrogen levels plummet. Estrogen, or oestrogen, appears to inhibit the activity of osteoclasts, cells that reabsorb bone tissue during the process of osteoclasis. Normally, this reabsorption is an essential part of the body's inner workings. Bones cannot continually generate unchecked, after all, or we would soon literally be swallowed by our own skeletons. But once estrogen levels decrease, and osteoclast activity increases, osteoblasts cells that develop bone simply cannot keep pace.
One advantage of estrogen therapies has been to keep the activity of the osteoclasts at bay. Such therapies are controversial, though. While maintaining levels of estrogen may reduce some of the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause and decrease chances of heart disease and osteoporosis, they have also been linked with certain cancers. So what if bone loss could be minimized, or better yet halted, by a different method?
The Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Musculoskeletal Disorders, at St. George's University of London, believes it may have a way. In other tissues, estrogen "opposes the activity of reactive oxygen species," or ROS, which, in turn stimulate NfKB -- a major intracellular signal that activates osteoclasts. In experimental mice with ovariectomies, antioxidant defenses in bone marrow decreased, while administering estrogen to them increased these defenses. "What," you say. "Come again?"
The theory states that estrogen may inhibit the activity of the osteoclasts by "opposing" the activity of ROS, which stimulate NfKB, which then activates osteoclasts. By increasing antioxidant defenses in bone marrow (done through estrogen or the administration of certain antioxidants), the degeneration process of bone may be halted or slowed. In other words, antioxidants may, in the end, have the same effect as estrogen therapy. Giving ascorbate or N-acetylcysteine (types of antioxidants) to ovariectomised mice, actually prevented bone loss, a significant finding considering that most treatments can only slow bone loss, at best.
The implication is that bone loss may be treated with antioxidants, versus other synthetic therapies. While further experimentation is needed, it's a phenomenal breakthrough in Western medicine. Indeed, boneset -- a plant believed to be high in antioxidants -- has been used by Native American peoples to treat and speed the healing of broken bones. The growing friendship between natural medicine and Western science just may produce treatment options in the coming years we never would have thought possible.
Optimizing bone health in your younger years can have a tremendous affect on you later in life. How you take care of yourself will certainly affect you as you age, and eventually your wallet, as well.