Osteoporosis tends to affect women more than men, thanks to declines in sex hormones—particularly estrogen—during menopause. Other risk factors include advancing age, family history, small body frame and lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise and proper bone-building nutrients, excessive alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking.
The Life Cycle of Bone
Understanding the life cycle of bone tissue helps explain how and why osteoporosis happens in the first place.
Bones are naturally designed to undergo a complete renovation every three to six months. This continuous cycle helps prevent bones from becoming weak and developing fractures.
The process begins with cells called osteoclasts, which are responsible for breaking down old, weakened bone tissue. Next, cells called osteoblasts take over. Osteoblasts produce collagen fibers and other substances to replace the bone that dissolved away. These new materials also repair microscopic damage to your bones and help them stay strong, flexible and resilient.
As we age, however, this process tends to fall out of balance, leaving bones more porous and therefore weaker and more vulnerable to breaks. This imbalance is the primary cause of osteoporosis.
There are several ways to tip the scales back in favor of faster bone building—and newly published research shows that the sleep hormone melatonin may play an interesting role.
Melatonin’s primary role is to regulate the circadian rhythm, or your sleep cycle. However, just as sex hormones decline with age, melatonin levels fall too.
Science indicates this loss in melatonin may contribute to imbalances in the bone remodeling process. So researchers aimed to find out whether supplementing with melatonin could improve bone mass and rebalance the buildup/breakdown cycle of bones.
In this study, they randomly assigned 81 postmenopausal women with osteopenia (the precursor to osteoporosis) to receive 1 mg of melatonin, 3 mg of melatonin or placebo every night for one year.
They measured bone mineral density (BMD) before the start of the study and again after one year. BMD describes the amount of minerals—such as calcium—per square centimeter of bone. The higher your BMD, the lower your risk of osteoporosis.
Results showed that, compared to placebo, femoral neck BMD increased 0.5 percent in the 1 mg/day group and 2.3 percent in the 3 mg/day group. Furthermore, the people who took the higher dose exhibited a 2.2 percent increase in trabecular thickness in the tibia bone. (Trabecular thickness is a key measurement that analyzes bone structure.) Their volumetric BMD in the spine was 3.6 percent higher as well.2
Researchers noted, “Further studies are needed to assess the mechanisms of action and whether the positive effect of nighttime melatonin will protect against fractures.”
Bone health aside, low melatonin levels have been linked to a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers and endocrine/metabolic disorders such as diabetes.3-6
Moreover, taking 3 mg of melatonin is perfectly safe—and an effective way to not only achieve better sleep, but possibly prevent some serious health concerns, including osteoporosis. The benefits of supplementing with melatonin—especially if you’re postmenopausal—far outweigh any drawbacks. You can find melatonin at almost all health food stores and pharmacies.
Other Ways to Improve Bone Mass
As the saying goes, prevention is the best medicine—and osteoporosis is no exception. And there are two tried-and-true things you could do every single day to dramatically lower your risk of osteoporosis and fractures: Exercise regularly and take bone-supportive supplements.
Weight-bearing exercise is crucial for building bone because it forces you to work against gravity, which puts pressure on your bones. Your bones respond by creating fresh new tissue much more quickly.7-8
Good examples of weight-bearing activities include walking, jogging, jumping rope, stair climbing, yoga, tai chi and tennis and other racquet sports.
Strength/resistance training is also important. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder; lifting light weights and/or doing body-weight movements such as pushups, lunges and squats are all you need to benefit your bones (and muscles!).
You also should provide your body the raw materials necessary to create bone. You probably already know that calcium is the main mineral/nutrient required to build bone. But it’s definitely not the only one.
For instance, vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption and bone growth. Magnesium helps convert vitamin D into its active form so that it can do its job properly. Magnesium also stimulates the production of a hormone called calcitonin, which draws calcium out of the blood and deposits it into the bones.
Fat-soluble vitamins such as A and K have important functions, too. Vitamin K2, in particular, can increase bone mineral density in people with osteoporosis and cut fracture rates. And healthy levels of the beta-carotene form of vitamin A influence the activity of osteoblasts.
Talk to your doctor about appropriate dosing. If you already have low bone mass or osteoporosis, your dosages will be higher than those for someone whose current goal is prevention.
If you smoke, quit now. Smoking triggers several harmful changes to bones. It messes with production of hormones such as estrogen, generates free radical damage throughout the body, destroys bone-building osteoblast cells and impedes the work of calcitonin.
And finally, if you drink, do so in moderation. Long-term, heavy alcohol consumption can interfere with bone remodeling, which can negatively affect bone density. Specifically, it inhibits the actions of osteoblasts. Fortunately, research indicates that occasional drinking may actually decrease the risk of fracture in postmenopausal women. So a glass or two a couple times a week seems to be fine—just don’t overdo it!9
- National Osteoporosis Foundation. http://nof.org/news/2948.
- Amstrup AK, et al. J Pineal Res. 2015 Sep;59(2):221-9.
- Hardeland R. Aging Dis. 2012 Apr;3(2):194-225.
- Zou DB, et al. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2015;16(14):5835-42.
- McMullan CJ, et al. JAMA. 2013 Apr 3;309(13):1388-96.
- Hansen J. Epidemiolgy. 2001 Jan;12(1):74-7.
- Mosti MP, et al. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Oct;27(10):2879-86.
- Gomez-Cabello A, et al. Sports Med. 2012 Apr 1;42(4):301-25.
- Sampson HW. Alcohol Health Res World. 1998;22(3):190-4.