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Women: 10 surprising things that affect your bone health

lady with dog
Lady posing with dog during a walk in the bush.

You may know that calcium is good for your bones but there are a few other things that can affect your bone health too.

Generally speaking, women have smaller skeletons than men, but there are only small differences when it comes to bone density. Different life stages unique to women such as pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause can all affect bone density. But lifestyle choices, diet, some medications and health conditions can also play a part in a women’s bone health.

Your bones are actually being broken down and replaced continuously, in a process called bone turnover. That’s why it’s important that you look after them. Here are 10 surprising things that can affect the health of you bones.

1. Physical activity

Just keep moving: yes, regular physical activity and exercise play a role in maintaining and improving bone density. It’s not surprising that maintaining strong muscles helps to support your bones and reduce the amount of stress that is placed on them over a lifetime.

In particular, women should be doing weight bearing exercise. This just means moving your body bearing your own weight. Brisk walking, dancing or skipping are great examples of ways you can move your body every day.

Weight training or resistance training is just as important as moving. This is because the ability to build bone, and maintain bone density, depends on the way that stress is applied to the bone. It’s important that your weight training increases in difficulty over time.

Find out more about the types of exercise that benefit your bone health from Osteoporosis Australia. If you are exercising for the first time or you’ve got any concerns about becoming more active, talk to your GP about the best and safest way to begin exercising.

2. Puberty

There are a lot of changes that happen to the body during puberty. A teenager’s brain becomes more advanced and their decision making, and self-control is improved. They do however, become clumsier and this is because they are growing so fast it takes a while for the brain to adjust.

Not only will their organs get bigger and stronger, but their bones will increase in thickness. In fact,approximately half of a person’s bone mass is accumulated during adolescence.

It’s important to eat plenty of foods with calcium to help support bone growth at this time. You can find more information about the number of serves of different food groups a teenager should eat from Eat for Health.

3. Pregnancy and breastfeeding

A developing baby needs a lot of calcium. In fact, if the mother doesn’t get enough calcium, her baby will draw what it needs from the mother’s bones. The good news is that your body will make changes during pregnancy to help protect your bones. You’ll be able to absorb calcium from foods better than women who are not pregnant, and you’ll produce more oestrogen which helps to protect bones.

To help support your bone health during pregnancy and breastfeeding it is important to include at least two to three serves of dairy products or equivalent high-calcium foods every day.

Calcium is also important for your baby’s bone development, so if you’re breastfeeding, it’s important that you eat a healthy, varied diet with high-calcium foods which will help to make your breastmilk nutrient dense. You may have bone loss while feeding which could be due to the baby’s increased need for calcium, which is drawn from the mother’s bones.

Any bone mass you lose during pregnancy or breastfeeding is typically restored within several months after the baby’s delivery (or several months after breastfeeding is stopped). There is a rare condition called pregnancy associated osteoporosis where a woman’s bones break easily during pregnancy, or in the weeks after giving birth. It’s important you speak to your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms.

Find out more about healthy eating during pregnancy and breastfeeding from Eat for Health .

4. Menopause

Menopause isn’t just about your menstrual cycle stopping, there are a lot of other changes that occur in the body. Menopause happens when your oestrogen and progesterone production begin to slow down, which, you guessed it, can affect your bone health.

Oestrogen plays a role in your bone health and during menopause your oestrogen levels rapidly decline. When oestrogen levels decrease, bones lose calcium and other minerals at a much faster rate.

A woman’s bone loss is approximately 2% per year for several years after menopause. Because of this, women are in fact at a greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis due to the loss of calcium and other minerals.

Osteoporosis is a disease that causes a decrease in the amount of bone in the skeleton and deteriorates the bone structure. Following the tips in this article can help you prevent osteoporosis from developing.

5. Smoking and alcohol

Long term smoking can cause a significant reduction in bone density leading to an increased risk of fracture. If you are a smoker, you may also go through menopause 1.5-2 years earlier than the average woman, and this will increase your risk of developing osteoporosis earlier than most.

Repeated and regular high alcohol consumption can cause serious long-term health consequences like damage to muscles and bones.

To look after your bone health, it’s best to avoid smoking and follow the Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. The proposed new draft guidelines state that you should limit alcohol to no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day.

6. Ageing

It’s no surprise that age is a factor when it comes to your bone health. Most of your bone growth will happen when you are a child and teenager, but you are never too young or too old to improve your bone health. Your bones will stop growing and increasing in strength in your  twenties and from 30 you can only maintain your bone mass.

As we age, we can start to lose strength and you may start thinking about falls and fractures.It’s from this time that you are at a greater risk of osteoporosis and fractures, but it doesn’t have to be a normal part of getting older. In order to maintain bone density as an aging woman, Osteoporosis Australia recommends varying the types of exercise you do, including some weight bearing exercise and some resistance training.

Maintaining a healthy diet, performing weight bearing exercises and talking to your GP about your bone health are all important steps for healthy active ageing and protecting your bones.

7. Diet and vitamins

Eating a healthier diet and maintaining a healthy weight is important in reducing the risk of bone disorders. It’s not just about calcium and dairy; you should include food from all 5 food groups.

Dairy or dairy alternatives is an essential food group, but why do you need it? It’s important to include calcium in our diets as the human body cannot make its own calcium and it’s constantly being lost through your hair, skin and nails. Find out exactly how much calcium you need for your age.

You may know that dairy foods have lots of calcium, but calcium is also found in leafy green veggies, tinned fish, baked beans and nuts! National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that women age 50 and younger get 1,000 mg of calcium from all sources daily and that women age 51 and older get 1,200 mg.

The amino acids found in protein are important for maintaining your bone structure. Dairy, meat, fish, lentils, beans and nuts are all good sources of protein. You should also include leafy greens such as kale and spinach which contain vitamin K and magnesium. Vitamin K is the second most abundant protein in bone after collagen while magnesium plays an important role in bone formation.

Zinc plays a role in bone tissue renewal and mineralisation. Good sources of zinc include lean red meat, whole grain cereals, pulses and legumes. Talk to your GP about any nutritional concerns you may have.

You may know that dairy foods have lots of calcium, but calcium is also found in leafy green veggies, tinned fish, baked beans and nuts.

8. Your Vitamin D levels

You might have heard of people in other countries needing to seek sunlight to get vitamin D,but in Queensland deliberately seeking sun exposure significantly increases your skin cancer risk due to our year round high UV environment. Most Queenslanders will generate sufficient vitamin D through their day to day outdoor activities, like hanging out the washing or walking to the bus stop. Using sun protective behaviours, including wearing sunscreen does not stop your body synthesising vitamin D.  Talk to your doctor if you have concerns that you may be vitamin D deficient.

A lack of sun exposure can mean you are not getting enough vitamin D which your body needs to absorb calcium. Daily exposure to the sun is important maintaining vitamin D levels.

Aim to get a few minutes of sunlight most days of the week by walking to the bus stop or mail box. As always you should be sun safe by avoiding peak UV times and using sunscreen. Using sun protection including sunscreen does not stop your body generating vitamin D.

You should always talk to your GP about your individual needs for calcium and vitamin D.

9. Thyroid problems

Thyroid conditions are more common in women than men. High concentrations of thyroid hormones can lead to more bone breakdown than bone formation, which affects bone density and causes osteoporosis.

Some medications used to treat thyroid conditions such as Oroxine and Eutroxsig, could also have an impact on your bone health. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about the impact your condition or treatment could be having on your bones and what you can do to prevent damage.

10. Medication and treatments

Some treatments and medication can increase the risk of developing osteoporosis. For example, medicines for breast cancer, prostate cancer, epilepsy and some antidepressants can affect your bone health.

The use of long-term (more than two months) corticosteroid therapy can also reduce bone formation and density. You might be prescribed these medicines for conditions like chronic airways disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases or some skin conditions.

Similarly, there are some medications that can help reduce the risk of broken bones. If you have any concerns about your bone health, you should talk to your GP.

Other bone health blogs:

How to keep your bones healthy at any age

Osteoporosis - are you at risk?

More information:

Osteoporosis Australia

National Osteoporosis Foundation

Bone Health Foundation

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Last updated: 2 June 2020