Healthy Bones The Wise Woman Way
Every woman I know is concerned about osteoporosis. Frightening stories equate it with broken hips, bent spines, wheelchairs, and death – things we all want to avoid. What can we do? Should we take calcium supplements? Hormones? Fosamax? Can we rely on our green allies?
The Wise Woman tradition maintains that simple lifestyle choices – including, but not limited to, regular use of nourishing herbal infusions, medicinal herbal vinegars, yogurt, and seaweed – are sufficient to preserve bone and prevent breaks. And, further, that these lifestyle choices produce multiple health benefits, including reduction of heart disease and breast cancer, without the problems and risks associated with taking hormones. As for supplements, as we will see, they do more harm than good.
First, we must rid ourselves of the idea that osteoporosis is important. In the Wise Woman Tradition, we focus on the patient, not the problem. There are no diseases and no cures for diseases. When we focus on osteoporosis, we cannot see the whole woman. The more we focus on disease – even disease prevention – the less likely we are to know how to nourish health/wholeness/holiness.
In fact, focusing our attention narrowly on the prevention of osteoporosis actually increases the incidence of breast cancer. The postmenopausal women with the highest bone mass are the most likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Women who take estrogen replacement to prevent osteoporosis, even for as little as five years, increase their risk of breast cancer by twenty percent; if they take hormone replacement, the risk increases by forty percent.
These risks might be vindicated if we could show a correlation between bone density and bone breakage, but there isn’t one. When I found myself at dinner in 2000 with Susan Brown, director of the Osteoporosis Information Clearing House, I asked her to point me in the direction of any study that shows a clear relationship between osteoporosis and broken bones. She smiled. “There are none.”
“In a recent study,” she continued. “Researchers measured the bone density of people over 65 who had broken bones. Twenty-five percent had osteoporosis. Twenty-five percent had high bone density. And fifty percent had normal density.” Notice that those with high bone density broke their hips as frequently as those with osteoporosis.
If osteoporosis isn’t the problem, what is? In a word: inflexibility. Flexible bones bend; stiff bones break. This holds true even if the flexible bone is thin, even if the stiff bone is thick. Think of a piece of dead pine wood. Though it may be thick, it is brittle and breaks easily. Think of a green pine twig. Even a small one is nearly impossible to break. Flexible bones, whether thick or thin, bend rather than break.
Flexibility is synonymous with health in the Wise Woman Tradition. It is created by nourishing and tonifying. Bone flexibility is created by nourishing the bones and tonifying the muscles around them. Tonifying is as important as nourishing, but because we are herbalists, let’s focus on the benefits nourishing herbs offer to women who wish to have strong, flexible bones.
Nourishing Our Bones
Old age does not make weak bones. Poor nutrition makes weak bones.
What are bones made of? Like all tissues, they contain protein. They are rich in minerals, not just calcium, but also potassium, manganese, magnesium, silica, iron, zinc, selenium, boron, phosphorus, sulphur, chromium, and dozens of others. And in order to use those minerals, vitamin D must be present and the diet must contain high-quality fats.
* Bones Need Protein
I have heard, and no doubt you have too, that animal protein leaches calcium from the bones. This is only half true. All protein, whether from meat, beans, soy, grains, or vegetables, uses calcium in digestion. Protein from soy is especially detrimental to bone health; soy is not only naturally deficient in calcium, it also directly interferes with calcium uptake in the bones. Traditional diets combine protein and calcium (eg, seaweed with tofu, tortillas made from corn ground on limestone with beans, and melted cheese on a hamburger). Protein-rich herbs such as stinging nettle, oatstraw, red clover, and comfrey leaf provide plenty of calcium too, as do yogurt, cheese, and milk (which also provide the healthy fats needed to utilize the minerals). Limiting protein limits bone health. Increasing mineral-rich proteins increases bone health.
* Bones Need High-Quality Fats
Hormones are kinds of fats, and cholesterol is the precursor to many of them. Post-menopausal bone problems do not, to my mind, arise from a lack of estrogen, but from a lack of fat. If the diet is deficient in good-quality fats, hormones will be produced in inadequate amounts. And vitamin D, a hormone-like vitamin, will not be utilized well. Further, mineral absorption is dependent on fats. A low-fat diet, in my opinion, makes it quite difficult to have healthy bones.
* Bones Need Minerals
Bones do need calcium, and they are the last to get it, so our diets need to be very rich in this mineral. But to focus on calcium to the exclusion of other minerals leads to broken bones, for calcium is brittle and inflexible. Think of a piece of chalk, calcium carbonate, and how easily it breaks. A six-and-a-half year study of 10,000 white women over the age of 65 found that “Use of calcium supplements was associated with increased risk of hip and vertebral fracture; use of TumsÔ antacid tablets was associated with increased risk of fractures of the proximal humerus.” The other minerals found in bone lend it flexibility. When we get our calcium from herbs and foods (containing a multitude of minerals) we nourish healthy bones.
* Extracting Minerals
From the Wise Woman perspective, the perfect way to maintain bone health, bone flexibility, and resistance to fracture is to use mineral-rich herbs and foods. Because minerals are bulky and do not compact, we must consume generous amounts to make a difference in our health. Just as eating a teaspoon of carrots is laughable, so is taking mineral-rich herbs in capsule or tincture form. Because minerals are rock-like, we need to break open cell walls to get at them. Raw, fresh foods do not deliver minerals to our bodies.
To extract minerals, we need heat, time, and generous quantities of plant material. I prefer to extract minerals into water or vinegar. To make a nourishing herbal infusion, I pour one quart/liter boiling water over one ounce/30 grams of dried herb in a canning jar, covering it tightly, and letting it brew overnight. In the morning, I strain out the mineral-rich liquid and drink it – over ice or heated, with honey or milk, mixed with black tea, seasoned with mint, spiked with rum, however you want it. You can drink the entire quart in one day, but do finish it within two.
My favorite nourishing herbal infusions are made from oatstraw (Avena sativa) or nettle (Urtica dioica) or red clover (Trifolium pratense) or comfrey leaves (Symphytum uplandica x). I sometimes add a little bit of aromatic herb such as peppermint (Mentha pipperata), lemon balm (Melissa off.), or bergamot (Monarda didyma) to change the flavor.
To extract minerals from fruits and vegetables, I cook them for long periods of time, or until there is color and texture change, evidence that the cell walls have been broken. Kale cooked for an hour delivers far more mineral to your bones than lightly steamed kale. Fresh juices contain virtually no minerals. Cooking maximizes the nutrients available to us, especially the minerals.
* Herbs Are Mineral Powerhouses
Eating a cup of cooked greens every day is difficult, even for the most motivated woman. But drinking nourishing herbal infusions, eating seaweeds, and using medicinal herbal vinegars is easy. They are tasty, fun to prepare and use, and add a big nutritional plus with virtually no calories attached. Nourishing herbs and garden weeds are typically far richer in minerals than ordinary foodstuffs. Not only are nourishing herbs exceptional sources of minerals, their minerals are better at preventing bone breaks than supplements.
The ability of herbs to counter osteoporosis may be more complex than their richness of minerals, however. The minerals in green plants seem to be utilized more readily by the body and to be ideal for keeping bones healthy. Dr. Campbell, professor of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, has done extensive research in rural China where the lowest known fracture rates for midlife and older women were found. He says, “The closer people get to a diet based on plant foods and leafy vegetables, the lower the rates of many diseases, including osteoporosis.”
My own experiences in helping women regain and maintain bone density and flexibility have led me to believe that life-style modifications work exceptionally well for motivated women who wish to avoid the risks and expense of long-term pill use. Nourishing herbal infusions, mineral-rich herbal vinegars, yogurt, and seaweed, combined with attention to tonification of the muscles, unfailingly increases bone density and creates flexible, healthy bones and women.
Green blessings to you all.
8 Keys to Healthy Bones
1. Good nutrition for your mother while pregnant with you.
2. Good nutrition for you during the formation of your bones.
3. Monthly menses throughout your fertile years, especially before 30.
4. Special attention to maintaining high levels of protein, fat, minerals, and vitamins from herbs and foods in your diet when menses cease during pregnancy, lactation, or after menopause.
5. Regular rhythmical movement, the faster the better, daily.
6. Consistent practice of yoga, tai chi, or any strengthening, opening, flexibility-building discipline.
7. Chop wood, carry water.
8. Eat yogurt.