~Osteoporosis

~Osteoporosis
Reprinted with permission of Life Extension®.



Osteoporosis is a debilitating, costly, and difficult-to-treat decline in bone density that occurs primarily in postmenopausal females. It causes a progressive marked reduction in bone mineral density that often results in fractures of a serious nature. Most commonly these are spinal and hip fractures. Osteoporosis is a major public health issue for more than 28 million Americans, 80% of whom are women. It is estimated that in the United States today, 10 million individuals already have osteoporosis, and 18 million more probably have a low bone density, placing them at increased risk for osteoporosis in later years. Half of the women over the age of 50 will have an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetime. Although osteoporosis is often thought of as an old person's disease, it can affect younger people who have hormonal difficulties, particularly women with anorexia, bleeding, or menstrual abnormalities in their 20s. Osteoporosis also occurs in men. Osteoporosis is responsible for more than 1.5 million fractures annually, including 300,000 hip fractures, 700,000 vertebral fractures, and 250,000 wrist fractures (Riggs et al. 1995). The estimated cost for osteoporosis and associated fractures is $13.8 billion a year (Iqbal 2000).

Peak bone mass is achieved by both men and women in their 20s and 30s. After that time there begins a period of the net bone loss. With the onset of menopause, women begin an accelerated period of bone loss that may increase by tenfold so that they may lose bone at the rate of 3-6% per year (Christiansen 1994). Osteoclasts, the bone cells that break down bone, are activated by a loss of estrogen and a subsequent elevation of inflammatory factors that stimulate bone resorption (removal of bone from the body with transport to the blood).

Known risk factors for osteoporosis are:

  • Being female
  • Thin or small frame
  • Family history of osteoporosis
  • Postmenopausal, including surgical menopause (i.e., hysterectomy including ovariectomy)
  • History of anorexia or bulimia
  • Prolonged amenorrhea (absence of menstrual periods)
  • Low calcium diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Excessive caffeine use


Detection of Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis usually has no symptoms, although loss of height and pain can be involved if there are fractures. An awareness of the potential for osteoporosis from a healthcare provider or media advertising may be the only warning for some women. Osteoporosis is detected either by inadvertent fracture, which is too late, or by regular bone density measurements in a period of increased risk.

Standard testing for bone loss will measure levels of deoxypyridinoline (Dpd), a cross-link of type 1 collagen that provides tensile strength to the collagen matrix of bone. Dpd is released into the circulation during bone resorption and is excreted unmetabolized into urine. Because Dpd levels are not affected by diet or physical exercise, urinary Dpd concentrations reflect the true rate of bone turnover. The following reference ranges show normal bone resorption rates determined after laboratory testing:

Normal Range
(nmol Dpd/mmol creatinine)


  • Women: 2.3 - 7.4
  • Men: 2.3 - 5.4


Levels of Dpd above the normal reference range are consistent with bone loss. The name of this simple blood test that measures bone loss is "Pyrilinks-D."

All postmenopausal women, particularly in the early years after cessation of menses, should have bone density studies--preferably the quantitative computed tomography (QCT) test. These bone density tests should be performed about every 1-2 years in the first 5 years after menopause. At this point, any significant bone loss should be treated to prevent further loss. The bone densities of patients are compared to a standard 35-year-old population of the same gender, and osteoporosis is defined as a patient with a spinal bone density 2.5 or greater standard deviations (SD) from the mean of that population. This is called the T-score. There is an exponential increase in fractures with decreasing bone mineral density. For every 1 SD decrease in bone mass, there is a twofold increase in risk of fracture.

Once detected, there are a number of treatments available, both alternative and standard. However, the most significant "treatment" is prevention and awareness of the possibility of osteoporosis. The likelihood of osteoporosis occurring can be reduced significantly by following these general guidelines:

  1. Stay active. Back extension exercises are particularly important as are weight-bearing exercises.
  2. Eat a diet that is high in calcium and other important trace minerals (including magnesium) and low in phosphorus (see Vitamin/Mineral Treatments and Bone Loss).
  3. Reduce caffeine and alcohol and eliminate cigarette smoking.
  4. Balance hormones.


Postmenopausal Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a metabolic disease affecting the skeleton which causes a reduction in the amount of bone tissue. Bones are weakened as these tissues are resorbed or taken up by local cells. At the core, trabecular bone becomes less dense. On the perimeter, cortical bones lose thickness. Osteoporosis increases the bones' susceptibility to fracture because of thinner bone tissue at the perimeter and more porous bone tissue at the core. Type I, Postmenopausal Osteoporosis, usually occurs in women following menopause. Type II, or Age-Related Osteoporosis, afflicts both women and men aged 70 or older.

Postmenopausal osteoporosis usually occurs in women several years after menopause. At this time, women's ovaries produce less estrogen (a female sex hormone). In the absence of estrogen, bone resorption increases, dropping overall bone mass below the maintenance density level and risking fracture. (Anatomical Chart Company 2002, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins)

Bone Formation & Restoration

Bone is composed of 30% organic and 70% mineral substances. The organic portion is called osteoid and acts as the matrix or framework for the mineral part. Osteoid is produced by bone cells called osteoblasts. The mineral part consists of calcium and other valuable minerals and hardens upon the osteoid matrix. Osteoclasts are large bones which reshape mature bone by resorbing the mineral and organic components. Bone formation and resorption are normal, continuous processes.

In osteoporosis, there is an overall decrease in bone mass because resorption by osteoclasts exceeds bone formation. Osteoblasts continue to produce bone, but not to the same extent that it is being resorbed.

During the last two decades, a number of valuable treatments for osteoporosis have become available and are reviewed in this protocol. It is important to note that most treatments, at best, provide minimal increases in bone density. The most significant treatment is still prevention of bone loss, particularly for postmenopausal women. Primary prevention, before there is any actual bone loss, can probably be accomplished at first with only diet, supplementation, and exercise changes as described below.

Secondary prevention, when there has been some loss but the goal is to prevent further reduction or to increase bone density, will most likely require hormonal replacement therapy. Much of this is discussed in the Female Hormone Replacement Therapy protocol, particularly with regard to progesterone and estrogen and to concerns about estrogen side effects. Below we discuss various interventions that can be used.

Osteoporosis and Hormone Metabolism

  • Estrogens and Progesterones
  • Estrogen Receptor Modulators
  • Soy Products
  • Bone Loss
  • Other Hormones


Estrogens and Progesterones

The primary cause of osteoporosis is hormonal imbalances that interfere with the bone-forming cells. The osteoblasts are specialized bone cells that function to pull calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus from the blood in order to build bone mass. Osteoblasts require the hormone progesterone to maintain youthful bone-forming capability during and after menopause. Young women with amenorrhea (absence of menstrual cycle), short luteal phases, or other ovulation disturbances show an increased bone density when given synthetic progesterone (medroxyprogesterone) (Prior 1990; Prior et al. 1994). Studies have also demonstrated increased bone mass and decreased fracture rate with synthetic estrogen therapy (Zarcone et al. 1997; Castelo-Branco 1998). As a result, there have been huge advertising campaigns promoting the use of Premarin, a synthetic estrogen derived from horse urine, as a treatment for osteoporosis.

However, estrogen therapy has significant risks that include an increased risk of uterine and breast cancer. It used to be thought that if synthetic progesterone were given with synthetic estrogen in a cyclical fashion that the increase in cancer risk from estrogen alone would be diminished. However, the well-known Nurses' Health Study, conducted at Harvard Medical School, reported that women had a 23-67% increase in their risk of breast cancer while using estrogen alone or estrogen and a synthetic progestin. This study showed that the carcinogenic risk of estrogen-progestin replacement therapy became most pronounced when it was used for 10 or more years (Colditz et al. 2000).

However, data from the Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Project suggest that relative risk is increased by 20% even after 4 years of use compared to no hormone treatment and that surprisingly there was a 40% increased risk of breast cancer using both estrogen and progestin combined, compared to only 20% increase for estrogen alone. (Schairer et al. 2000). This latter finding goes against theoretical beliefs and prior research that combining estrogen with progesterone would mitigate against an increased risk due to the "anti-proliferative" effect of progestin. Other side effects of estrogens include vaginal bleeding, breast tissue tenderness, and deep vein thrombosis.

Because of the worrisome side effects of estrogen replacement, alternative physicians have recommended the use of progesterone in a natural form and the use of other forms of estrogen rather than estradiol, both of which can be compounded by pharmacists into creams that bypass the liver. Dr. John Lee, working in California, demonstrated an increased bone density in women using progesterone cream. Since natural progesterone cannot be patented, there is little economic incentive to conduct the kind of extensive clinical trials that have been done with FDA-approved progestin drugs. Dr. Lee has studied the clinical outcomes and found them positive, however. For those contemplating hormone therapy, there are reasonable alternatives provided that bone density is followed closely. If bone densities are increasing or remaining the same on natural estrogen or progesterone regimes, then this is a reasonable course to follow. Women often find that natural progesterone and estrogens are easier to take. Natural progesterone and estrogen certainly have less impact on the liver, especially if absorbed through the skin.

Natural progesterone may be obtained in several different forms. The safest route of progesterone administration is via a topically applied cream that absorbs directly through the skin and into fat cells. It is important to apply natural progesterone cream to different parts of the body (face, breasts, abdomen, and thighs) so the fat cells under the skin in any one particular area required to assimilate the hormone into the body are not oversaturated. The topical application of progesterone enables it to enter the body without first going through the digestive system. If progesterone were to be taken orally, it would have to first pass through the liver, which degrades and excretes much of the hormone into the bile. Natural progesterone is available in topically applied creams that contain between 900-1400 mg of natural progesterone per 2-oz jar.

In using progesterone cream, pre- and postmenopausal women should start with 1/4-1/2 tsp a day. Those with severe osteoporosis should use 1/2 teaspoon morning and night for the first jar, followed by 1/4 tsp a day for the second jar onward. Premenopausal women who have premenstrual syndrome (PMS) may consider taking 1/8-1/4 tsp of progesterone on days 15-26 of their menstrual cycle.

It is advisable for women to ask their doctors to measure blood or saliva levels of the various hormones to best individualize the correct dosage, although natural progesterone has been safely used by millions of women by individually adjusting the dose to reflect alleviation of PMS or menopausal symptoms. In other words, if hot flashes, night sweats, headache, and depression are alleviated by using 1/4 tsp of natural progesterone cream daily, then a woman may be able to safely stay at that dose. While it is prudent to consider progesterone blood or saliva testing, the safety of natural progesterone is such that a pregnant woman will naturally secrete large amounts of progesterone without encountering toxicity. In an ideal setting, hormonal blood or saliva testing would be done routinely, but since most pre- and postmenopausal women produce very little progesterone, these women have historically safely self-administered topical progesterone cream according to how well it corrects their menopausal symptoms. With the advent of lower-cost saliva and blood testing, it should be possible for more women to target their ideal progesterone level. While relief of postmenopausal symptoms is possible, the actual effect must be measured by QCT bone density testing to see if there is a positive effect on osteoporosis.

Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators [SERMS]

More recently other hormonal treatments have been developed that include selective estrogen receptor modulators or SERMS. Raloxifene (Evista) was the first member of this family of drugs, which have now been shown to have a positive effect on a woman's bone density (Fontana et al. 2001). Raloxifene is related to tamoxifen (Nolvadex), which has been used to treat breast cancer for many years. These drugs selectively bind to estrogen receptors, and it is the selectivity of these drugs that has set them apart from other synthetic hormones. Thus, raloxifene will bind to estrogen receptors in bone osteoclasts thereby decreasing the resorption of calcium into the blood.

Studies have found significant increases in bone density with raloxifene and subsequent drugs of this type. They are not without risk and should not be taken by people with liver disease, nor will they help with postmenopausal hot flashes. Currently, raloxifene is the only SERM with FDA approval for postmenopausal osteoporosis. Lasofoxifene, a newer and more potent SERM, is currently undergoing clinical trials in postmenopausal women. Similar to raloxifene, lasofoxifene does not appear to stimulate uterine tissue, a negative effect associated with other SERMs. The drug is presently in Stage III FDA review and possibly may launch in 2002 or 2003.

Soy Products

The low incidence of some cancers in Asian countries has led researchers to suggest that the consumption of soybean products could have some beneficial health effects. We now know that the main ingredients in soy, the isoflavones genestein and daidzin, bind loosely with estrogen receptors and that high quantities of soy in the diet may well protect against estrogen-induced cancers. Soy may also have an impact on bone health.

A 6-month study on 66 postmenopausal women was conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to investigate bone density and bone mineral content in response to soy therapy (Potter et al. 1998). In this study, postmenopausal women received on a daily basis either phytoestrogens derived from soy protein or milk-derived protein (that contained no phytoestrogens). The results showed significant increases in bone density and bone mineral content for the lumbar spine in the women receiving the phytoestrogens derived from soy protein diets compared to the control diet. Increases in other skeletal areas also were noted in the women on the soy diets. Dr. J. W. Erdman, Jr., the lead scientist, concluded that soy isoflavones show real potential for maintaining bone health.

Kenneth D. Setchell, Ph.D. of Children's Hospital and Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, confirmed the estrogenic activity of the principal soy isoflavones daidzin, genistein, and glycitein. Setchell (1997) conducted research on the chemical structure and metabolism of soy phytoestrogens and concluded that consuming modest amounts of soy protein results in relatively high blood concentrations of phytoestrogens and that this could have a significant hormonal effect in many individuals. Theoretically, there are enough phytoestrogens in the newer soy extracts for many women to derive effective estrogen replacement therapy. However, this has not been tested.

A soy supplement called Mega Soy Extract provides 110 mg of soy phytoestrogens in two tiny capsules. This is more than two times the amount in the typical Japanese diet. Since the phytoestrogen genistein is water-soluble, it is suggested that one capsule of Mega Soy Extract should be taken in the morning and one capsule should be taken in the evening. While women should benefit from Mega Soy Extract, some women may need to consider direct, natural hormone replacement depending on family history, severity of osteoporosis if already present, and other considerations.

Ipriflavone and Bone Loss

Early reports on the synthetic isoflavone, known as ipriflavone, were positive for the prevention of bone loss, certainly in early menopause. This synthetic isoflavone is synthesized from daidzein and has generated considerable interest in the hormone and bone loss research community. Agnusdei et al. (1997), in a multicenter, double-blind 2-year trial, tested women 65-79 years of age with multiple forearm fractures: 111 women received 200 mg of ipriflavone 3 times a day with meals or 1 gram of oral calcium daily. After 2 years, a significant increase in forearm bone density measured by dual photon absorptiometry was obtained after ipriflavone treatment. Women receiving the calcium showed limited bone loss during the treatment. In addition, urinary hydroxyproline, a measure of bone loss, was significantly decreased, suggesting a reduction in bone turnover rate. In addition, there was a reduction in the incidence of vertebral fractures in the ipriflavone-treated group as compared to placebo. Gennari et al. (1998) also studied whether ipriflavone could prevent bone loss occurring shortly after menopause. In the study, 56 women with low vertebral bone density and postmenopausal symptoms for less than 5 years were randomly selected to receive either ipriflavone, 200 mg 3 times a day, or placebo. All subjects received 1000 mg of elemental calcium daily. After 2 years, vertebral density declined in the women taking only calcium, but did not change in those receiving ipriflavone. Gennari et al. (1998) concluded that ipriflavone prevents the rapid bone loss following early menopause.

Agnusdei et al. (1997) also reported that to date almost 3000 patients have been treated with ipriflavone in 60 clinical studies from three countries. The incidence of adverse reactions in the ipriflavone-treated patients was similar to that observed in subjects receiving placebo. The researchers suggest that long-term treatment with ipriflavone may be considered safe and may increase bone density and possibly prevent fractures in elderly patients with established osteoporosis.

Halpner et al. (2000), writing in the Journal of the Women's Health and Gender Based Medicine, found that urinary N-linked telopeptides, another marker of bone breakdown, declined by 29% in those receiving ipriflavone supplements. Nozaki et al. (1998), in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Kyushu University in Japan, tested conjugated estrogens and ipriflavone together. They reported that in ovariectomized women, bone mineral density was reduced 48 weeks after treatment by the use of placebo, conjugated estrogen alone, and ipriflavone alone. However, a combination of conjugated estrogen and ipriflavone resulted in much less acute short-term bone loss following ovariectomy.

Contrary to the majority of trials, a large-scale trial by Alexandersen et al. (2001), testing ipriflavone in a total of 474 osteoporotic participants, showed no changes over placebo in terms of bone loss or biochemical markers of bone metabolism. This group also found that ipriflavone caused lymphocytopenia (reduction in the number of lymphocytes in the blood) in a significant number of women, although this appeared to be reversible. This latter side effect had not been reported before and could represent a significant negative factor in considering ipriflavone treatment (Alexandersen et al. 2001). The research on this product is presently in fairly early stages.

Other Hormones

Other hormones to consider are DHEA and melatonin. DHEA has been shown to stimulate osteoblast activity to help prevent bone loss. The recommended dose for most women is about 25-50 mg a day (DHEA is contraindicated in certain hormone-related cancers; before taking DHEA, refer to the DHEA Precautions in the DHEA Replacement Therapy protocol).

Women over the age of 35 or 40 should consider taking melatonin in the range of 500 mcg-3 mg every night to help prevent osteoporosis and reduce the carcinogenic risks associated with estrogen replacement therapy.

Additionally, it is important for pre- and postmenopausal woman to consider testosterone. Women have less testerone than men do, but it is just as important to them as it is to men. Why? It contributes to stamina, proper female muscle mass, sex drive, and preventing and treating osteoporosis.

Growth hormone therapy has been shown to increase bone mass and muscle strength including hand grip in elderly women with osteoporosis (Sugimoto et al. 1999). As an added bonus, abdominal fat was also reduced. In addition, bone mineral density continued to improve in test subjects 48 weeks post-treatment. Growth hormone injections are available from many innovative physicians. Regular blood testing and physical evaluation are necessary while on growth hormone therapy to prevent unwanted side effects.

Continued . . .


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