One of my favorite nutritional laughs came when I saw a clever cartoon in a magazine where a doctor was talking to a new patient, only the patient sitting in the chair was an amorphous, unidentifiable blob of goo with a pretty hat and confused eyes. The doctor looked at the blob and said “Mrs. Jones, I believe you need more calcium in your diet.” These days, it seems like the subjects of women, bone loss and calcium are forever wedded. The ladies of the world are constantly being sold on the supposed importance of calcium pills, added calcium to orange juice, and the seemingly holy necessity for the calcium in milk and other dairy products. But there’s way more to the story of bone health than mere calcium intake alone. Did you know that our inner world has a rather profound impact on bone health?
We all know calcium supplements can help build bones, but have you heard of the power that inner peace has to build bones? Research has shown an unmistakable effect of stress on bone density. Mice exposed to a three-week period of living in overcrowded cages showed significant bone demineralization—loss of calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, and iron. (City dwellers take note). They also showed significant losses in micromineral concentrations associated with bone health—zinc, boron, chromium, and cobalt.
The glucocorticoids, a class of stress hormones that includes cortisol, are largely responsible for the bone-wasting effects of stress. These hormones actually block the assimilation of calcium in the intestines and severely restrict the amount of calcium available for bone growth. Excessive secretion of glucocorticoids, as seen in chronic stress, will cause urinary calcium loss, interfere with the growth and division of specialized precursor cells in the ends of your bones, and will even increase the rate at which bone tissue is broken down. These bone-crushing effects of stress have been most clearly observed experimentally in female monkeys subject to everyday stresses. We also see it in people with Cushing’s syndrome (a disease in which cortisol is hyper secreted), and in patients who are treated with massive doses of glucocorticoids for a disease condition.
So if you think that a calcium supplement is all you need to protect against your bones skipping out on you, think again. America has one of the highest rates of calcium intake in the world and still has one of the highest rates of osteoporosis. Something’s wrong with this picture. The successful equation for bone density is not about getting more calcium. It’s about excreting less. We literally lose calcium in the urine within minutes of feeling stress; this is the same calcium that moments before was in your bones. One study conducted by the National Institutes of Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that past or current depression in women is strongly associated with bone loss. Depressed females had bone density measurements as much as 13 percent lower than nondepressed subjects. This study conclusively demonstrated that bone health and mental health go hand in hand.
It’s instructive to note that stress isn’t the only factor that would cause us to excrete urinary calcium. Other calcium excretors include caffeine, alcohol, air pollution, cigarette smoke, excess sugar, excess animal protein, and phosphoric acid (found in many cola-flavored sodas). Wrap these all up into the typical office-worker lifestyle and we’re pissing away a most precious mineral at an alarming rate. So if you’ve been bombarded with the message to “take more calcium,” it’s time to look at the big picture.
A woman who attended one of my workshops approached me afterward anxious to tell me her story. Despite a lifetime of exercise, a healthy high-calcium diet, and no family history of disease, Arlene had recently been diagnosed with osteoporosis at age forty-two. Her doctors were stumped and she was devastated by her diagnosis because it didn’t seem to make sense. Upon hearing me mention the connection between stress and bone loss, Arlene had a personal revelation. Her job had made her sick. She had been working with an intensely high-stress, high-demand publishing job for over sixteen years and it consumed most of her life. For the first time she realized she could make a change to a more satisfying job, a change that could be as important as taking her medication.
True to her word, Arlene soon left her job with the publisher she’d been with for most of her career. She found a magazine that offered a more sane working environment, a healthier schedule, and a real lunch break. She still had her share of job stress, but she also had more nourishing relationships with her co-workers and some precious moments of relaxation during her day. When we spoke over a year later, Arlene had this story to tell.
“I always accepted a high-stress work life because I didn’t think I had a choice. At some point it just became normal. I’ve been fanatic over the years about diet and exercise, but I see now that I chronically ate under stress, and I know it took at toll on me. . . . I’m happy at work now for the first time ever, and I make sure to eat when I’m relaxed. . . . The proof that it’s all working is I’ve reversed my osteoporosis when no other approach was succeeding. I know it’s more than the calcium. It’s me.” When Arlene first had her “aha” experience about stress and bone disease she did something she hadn’t done enough of before—she tuned into her body wisdom and let her inner knowing speak. She gave herself the luxury of believing she had a choice and a voice in the world she created for herself.
Can you see the amazing metabolic changes we can make by empowering ourselves in all our life choices, large and small? Do you understand to build bones depends not only on the calcium in your food but on the feelings in your heart and the thoughts in your head? Bones need more than nutrition. They need to be nourished.
Are there any important “aha’s” have you had around stress that you would like to share. We’d love to hear your experiences!
My warmest regards,
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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