When most people think of the health of their bones, the first – and only – nutrient that comes to mind is the calcium. In fact, bones require a complex array of vitamins and minerals, plus exercise, to stay healthy. I think one of the reasons we misunderstand bones is because we think of them as a dry white chalky ox skull or cattle bone in the desert, surrounded by blowing sand and a tumbleweed or two.
Living bone is actually incredibly complicated, and is nothing like the dried bones most of us have seen. They are a living, vital tissue full of blood vessels and nerves, continuously being built up and broken down by the body. Bones are attached to every muscle in our body, and they make most of our blood cells. The scaffolding or “skeleton” of bone is not minerals at all but rather protein, mostly in the form of the connective tissue collagen. The hard bony part of bone is made up of minerals that our body layers onto this pliable connective tissue.
And those minerals in bone are a lot more than just calcium. The mineral structure of bone contains nearly every mineral substance in the human body.
After calcium, the second most abundant element in bone is magnesium – probably the most overlooked mineral in human nutrition. In addition to being absolutely essential to healthy bones, magnesium is a natural muscle relaxer; helps maintain normal blood pressure; prevents type II diabetes; and is essential for a healthy heart and blood vessels. Over 300 different essential chemical reactions in the body are dependent on magnesium. You, and your bones, can’t be healthy without an adequate supply of magnesium. Among the best dietary sources of magnesium are whole grains, nuts, beans, and green leafy vegetables. Canned fish with bones, like canned salmon, is an excellent source of both calcium and magnesium.
While calcium and magnesium make up the lion’s share of bone minerals, several other minerals are needed in smaller quantities to make healthy bones: boron, manganese, copper, zinc, and silica are all important to strong bones.
It’s not just minerals, either – several vitamins are crucial to bone metabolism. The obvious one is vitamin D, since it is the vitamin that helps you to absorb calcium from your food, but the fat soluble vitamins K and A are also important. Folic acid, a B vitamin, is necessary for bone metabolism, and vitamin C is crucial in collagen formation.
You probably don’t need to keep track of all these different nutrients as a balanced diet should cover most of these basics. However, it’s difficult to get enough calcium if you don’t regularly eat dairy, and most people don’t get enough magnesium from their diets. And, if you already have some bone loss, as is the case in osteopenia or osteoporosis, you may need additional amounts of bone-building nutrients. Consulting with a nutritionally oriented doctor or health care professional is advisable if you think diet alone may not be enough to keep your bones healthy.