Medically reviewed by
Diana Morgan, MS, CISSN
6 min read
When it comes to health and wellness, the skeletal system is truly an unsung hero. All too often, bone health doesn’t receive the attention it deserves until later in people’s lives — often after the opportunity to support long-term bone health has passed.
Your bones give your body shape, produce red blood cells, store crucial minerals, protect vital organs, and enable the movement of work and play. Over the course of your life, your body will constantly break down and regenerate your bone tissue. Understanding and supporting this process is important for maintaining a high quality of life as you age.
As you probably know, calcium makes up a significant portion of your bones and teeth. Calcium is actually the most abundant mineral in the body, and well-known for its importance to bone health. Adequate calcium intake is the most important factor in building a strong skeletal system. Among its bone-supporting function, calcium also aids in muscle contraction, blood clotting, and signaling between cells.
A tall, calcium-packed glass of milk is iconic for its bone benefits. In addition to dairy, leafy greens, like kale and spinach, are other reliable sources of calcium. Soy beans and broccoli also contain significant amounts.
Not eating these foods too often? Fortunately, many cereals, breads and juices are fortified with calcium. Additionally, calcium supplements can also increase your intake and help avoid a potential deficiency.
By paying attention to calcium intake in your 20s, you can get a head start building up calcium reserves that your body will utilize well into the future.
Before reaching peak bone mass around age 30, most healthy people build more bone tissue than they break down. Osteoblasts and osteocytes are the cell types that synthesize bone, while osteoclasts break down bone. Bone resorption is the process by which osteoclasts break down bone tissue to release the mineral contents into the bloodstream.
Your bone production naturally begins to slow down around age 30, which can cause an overall loss of bone mass for some people.
Building the foundation for bone health early in life — while you can still build its strength — is an investment in your longevity and quality of life. Regular exercise is another positive step towards improving your bone density and reducing your risk of osteoporosis.
For most people, calcium intake will be the most important factor in managing bone health. However, other factors should be taken into consideration: gender, age, ethnicity, and family history all influence your unique needs.
Certain medical conditions and medications will influence your body’s ability to utilize calcium properly. Eating disorders and digestive conditions also decrease the body’s ability absorb calcium. The prolonged use of corticosteroids, acid suppressors, and several anti-seizure medications are also thought to affect bone density negatively.
Sudden changes or imbalances in hormone production can increase the risk of osteoporosis. It is widely known that menopause decreases bone density, as the body’s production of estrogen diminishes. Similarly, men with low testosterone levels may experience a decrease in bone density. Similarly, an imbalance of thyroid hormones can also lead to bone loss.
Of course, there are the usual culprits as well: heavy alcohol use, smoking, and excessive caffeine consumption all interfere with calcium intake, and thus, bone health.
It is recommended that women consume 1,000-1,200 mg of calcium per day through a combination of food and, if needed, supplements. Pro tip: take half of your daily calcium dosage at a time, since calcium supplements may cause digestive upset.
There are many studies supporting the importance of adequate daily calcium intake to support bone health. In a 1997 study, 318 volunteers over the age of 65 participated in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. This three-year study found that the group receiving calcium and vitamin D maintained healthy bones.
Though proper intake of calcium is essential, its dosage does have an Upper Limit (UL). Going past this limit can cause discomfort such as constipation or complications including kidney stones. For adults ages 19 to 50 years old, the UL for calcium intake is 2,500 mg, and for those 51 and over, the UL is 2,000 mg.
Dr. Jeffrey Gladd, an integrative physician, says, “Remember that when you read about calcium totals it almost always refers to food sources plus supplementation. Spend some time with a food/calcium amount list and estimate your average daily calcium intake from foods in order to better dial in your ideal supplement dosage.”
Vitamin D plays a crucial role in bone health — think of it as the Gayle to calcium’s Oprah. Emerging science has shown that vitamin D allows calcium to be sufficiently absorbed in the gut and used by the body.
In addition to supporting the absorption of calcium, vitamin D also aids in bone growth and remodeling.
A 2010 study showed that the combination of vitamin D and calcium did effectively support bone health.
Vitamin D does not occur naturally in many foods. The best source of vitamin D is through direct sun exposure during the brightest part of the day. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to reside in a region where this is possible year round. For this reason, supplementation is often recommended. The recommended dose range for ages 9 through 70 is between 600 and 4,000 IU per day.
Dr. Gladd adds: “Since there are so many variables involved in a person’s ability to make and use vitamin D, it is best to have your blood levels measured seasonally to make sure you are in the ranges that are optimal for bone and overall health 365 days a year. Ask your doctor for a 25-hydroxyvitamin D level regularly, or most states now allow you to order your own blood testing to monitor this, aiming for a normal level.”
Magnesium, an essential mineral for the overall health of the body, aids the body in regulating calcium levels. Approximately 50-60% of the body’s magnesium is stored in the skeletal system. Due to its importance to the skeletal system, both structurally and functionally, it cannot be left out of any discussion of bone health.
Like vitamin D, magnesium supports calcium’s functions. Specifically, it is active in the transport of calcium across cell membranes. Additionally, it supports the structural development of new bone tissue.
Magnesium is plentiful in nuts, leafy green vegetables, and beans. If you aren’t regularly eating these foods, consider a magnesium supplement, especially if you consume alcohol or caffeine, which both deplete magnesium levels in the body.
Vitamin K exists in two forms: vitamin K1 (phylliquinone) and vitamin K2 (menaquinone). Vitamin K2 supports the cardiovascular system. It also acts as a coenzyme for proteins required in bone metabolism.
These findings were expanded upon in a 2013 study that showed vitamin K2 supplements may support bone health in postmenopausal women.
Building and maintaining healthy bones is important regardless of your age or gender. It is never too early to prepare for the inevitable decrease in bone density that accompanies aging. Many factors influence your bone health, but one important aspect to focus on is getting the vitamins and minerals your body needs to feel strong at every age.
Because your bones are made up of calcium, calcium is of the utmost importance in your health routine. Recent studies show that consuming vitamin D alongside magnesium and vitamin K2, in addition to calcium, is the ticket for healthy bones. If you decide to supplement, make sure the doses, particularly of calcium and vitamin D, don’t go overboard.
To determine if supplementation is necessary based on your lifestyle and other risk factors, you can take an online lifestyle assessment. Feel the difference in your bones.