Bones are made of hardened connective tissue and calcified minerals. There are two main types: cortical bone, which accounts for around 80 per cent of our bone mass and is found in long bones and in the skull, and trabecular bone, which accounts for the other 20 per cent and is found in the ends of the long bones, the spine and pelvis.
Throughout adult life, small amounts of bone are lost and replaced, although bone loss increases with age. Trabecular bone is lost more rapidly than cortical bone, especially in women after the menopause. Lack of exercise, poor diet, and hormonal and genetic factors can all affect bone strength and contribute to bone thinning, known as osteoporosis.
Useful tips for healthy bones
* Eat a diet high in calcium, which is found in nuts, seeds (especially sesame), soya produce, wholegrains, vegetables, fish and dairy produce.
* Increase your intake of essential fatty acids (EFAs) as these facilitate calcium absorption and may slow down calcium excretion and bone loss. EFAs are found in oily fish and various nut and seed oils .
* Limit your intake of fizzy drinks, tea, coffee, sugar and bran, which can all inhibit calcium absorption. Animal protein and salt can also increase calcium loss in urine.
* Calcium absorption requires the presence of other minerals, especially vitamin D, magnesium and phosphorous. These are abundant in nuts, seeds, soya produce and wholegrains. If taking a calcium supplement, check that other minerals (especially magnesium) are also present.
* Include lots of phytoestrogens in your diet. These plant oestrogens help to slow bone loss and are found in soya produce, sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, linseeds, alfalfa and the herb red clover.
* If you’re taking a calcium supplement, take it in the evening. Calcium has a soporific effect and the uptake of calcium into the bones is greater at night.
* Get regular exposure to sunlight. This increases production of vitamin D, which aids calcium absorption (but remember to use protection against UV rays). Vitamin D is also found in wholegrains, nuts and seeds, eggs and dairy produce.
* Take regular weight-bearing exercise. Walking, skipping, rebounding, racket sports and jogging are ideal. Swimming increases flexibility and tones muscles, thereby improving bone support, but doesn’t build bone strength as no weight bearing is involved. Make sure you don’t overexercise, though.
* Limit alcohol intake and stop smoking, as both contribute to nutrient loss.
Our bones are linked together to form joints by means of ligaments, which are short bands of tough, flexible fibrous connective tissue. Tendons, cords of strong fibrous tissue, connect muscles to the bones; contraction and relaxation of these muscles enables the bone to move. The joints are lubricated by synovial fluid and cushioned by cartilage.
Stiffness or misalignment of the joints and muscular tension can result in pain and discomfort and affect ease of movement. Musculoskeletal problems, such as arthritis and back pain are common.
Osteopaths and chiropractors believe structural imbalance and misalignment can affect internal organ function and other body systems. They use a range of manual techniques to rebalance the spine and joints, increase the range of movement of the joints, and stretch and relax the muscles.
Massage and naturopathic techniques, including hydrotherapy and compresses, may also be beneficial. Nutritional therapy can be used to maintain healthy cartilage and soft tissue.
Useful tips for healthy joints
Self-help techniques to improve joint mobility and flexibility include the Alexander technique, yoga, Pilates, t’ai chi and qigong.
Other simple self-help measures for maintaining mobility and flexibility include:
* Start and end the day with some simple stretches.
* Always warm up before exercise with muscle stretching.
* Always have a ‘cool-down’ period with further stretches at the end of exercise.
* Vary the type of exercise you do, to avoid repetitive strain on a particular joint.
* Ensure good posture when working at a desk or on a computer.
* Take regular breaks from desk work to walk around and stretch.
* Use both sides of the body evenly; for example, switch sides when sweeping or carrying bags.
* Vary your sleeping position.
* Follow a healthy diet.
* Take a supplement of glucosamine and/or chondroitin, key components of synovial fluid and cartilage.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.