Omega-3s Build Strong Bones

Healthnotes Newswire (May 10, 2007)—A type of omega-3 fatty acid, found primarily in cold-water fish, helps to build strong bones, reports the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Most people associate osteoporosis with women, but the disease can also occur in men. Osteoporosis causes the bones to become weak and brittle, making them more prone to fractures. Whites and Asians are more likely to suffer from the disease. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, one in four men over age 50 will develop an osteoporosis-related fracture at some point in their lives.

Bone is a living tissue; the body constantly makes new bone and removes old bone. During early childhood and adolescence, the body produces new bone faster than it removes the old. By about age 30, bones reach their peak mass.

Many lifestyle choices influence bone health. Smoking, alcohol abuse, physical inactivity, a diet low in calcium and vitamin D, and certain drugs can lead to bone loss, while proper nutrition and regular weight-bearing exercise can help strengthen bones. Recent research suggests that certain fats in the diet contribute to bone loss, while others may help new bone to form.

Omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), have powerful anti-inflammatory actions and can be useful in treating conditions like asthma, heart disease, depression, and allergies. Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, and mackerel are the richest dietary sources of DHA.

The new study examined 78 16-year-old boys to see what effect different fatty acids had on their bone growth. The young men’s bone density was measured at the beginning of the study, and again at ages 22 and 24. When they were 22, the levels of fatty acids in their blood were analyzed.

Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids were associated with greater bone density at age 22 and with gains in bone density in the spine between ages 16 and 22. DHA seemed to contribute most of the bone-building effect.

“We found that concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, were positively associated with peak bone mineral density in young men,” the authors said in their conclusion. Other omega-3 fatty acids are present in plant foods like soybeans, walnuts, and flaxseeds. The fatty acids in these foods can be partially converted to DHA, but the conversion may not be enough to have the same beneficial effects as DHA from fish oil.

While some risk factors for osteoporosis can’t be changed—such as gender and ethnicity—diet is one thing that can be controlled. By eating a diet rich in calcium and fatty fish, and getting plenty of physical exercise and vitamin D, young people may be able to build strong bones that can last a lifetime.

(Am J Clin Nutr 2007;85:803–7)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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