Can Yoga Reverse Osteoporosis?
As many of you know, I am a certified yoga therapist (C-IAYT) and help my clients to manage various physical and mental conditions with yoga, including breathing, movement, mindfulness, and lifestyle.
Since yoga therapy is a relatively new field, and people often confuse it with yoga classes, I decided to write a series of short blog posts about specific conditions in which yoga therapy can help.
I work a lot with mature adults, and the topic of bone health comes up a lot in our conversations. So, let me shed some light on how yoga therapy can prevent and (yes!) even reverse osteopenia and even osteoporosis.
The bad news is that about 50% of the U.S. population over 50 is at risk of osteopathic fracture. And it's not just women, as some people think; men get osteoporosis less often than women but are not excluded.
The weakening of the bones is dangerous because it can cause bone breakage. Osteopathic spine fractures happen in the United States every 3 seconds! That means about 20 people have experienced a spine fracture since you started reading this article. Another common fracture with this condition is a hip fracture.
DEXA scan, a low-dose X-Ray, is the most common way to determine your bone health. Usually, it scans the lumbar vertebrae, the total hip, and the neck of the thigh bone- all bones which are often fractured. The scan compares your bones to those of an average healthy woman of your age, height, and weight (Z-score) and an average 25- to 30-year-old healthy woman (T-score). However, a DEXA scan result doesn't give a person the complete picture; it shows how mineral-dense the bones are, and bone mineral density correlates with the fracture risk. Since there are many other factors determining the fragility of the bones, it's not a perfect descriptor of the bone-health, but it's the most commonly used and about 90% accurate.
According to the DEXA scale, a T-score of -1 and above considers your bone density normal. A score between -1 and -2.5 is a sign of osteopenia, a condition where bone density is below standard and can lead to osteoporosis, and a T-score below -2.5 indicates osteoporosis.
I have to stress that even though this diagnosis often hits when we are older, we affect our bone health through the decisions we make as early as our teens.
The good news is that it's not difficult to prevent, and that you can also improve or even reverse the condition when the milk has already been spilled. Of course, prevention is always preferable, but we can't turn back time, and it's good to know that a bad DEXA scan is not a life sentence, but more like a service engine light telling you it's time for maintenance. You can start your bone TLC at any age and DEXA score.
One of the more important factors in improving your bone health is proper nutrition. Whether you already have osteopenia or osteoporosis or want to prevent them, exposing yourself to at least 20 minutes of sunlight and a diet with adequate amounts of Protein and Calcium is essential. Making sure that you get proper amounts of Magnesium, Copper, Zinc, and vitamins D, B, C, and K from food or supplements is also paramount. But it's critical to remember that overdosing on these vitamins and minerals can be as dangerous as their deficiency.
There are also lifestyle choices that you should consider. Smoking, drinking soda, having more than two alcoholic drinks a day, and having more than one cup of coffee negatively affect our bone health. Also (surprise!), consuming more than 5-6 ounces of protein causes the body to lose calcium!
So we can see that nutrition is essential, but what else?
When diagnosed with osteoporosis, there are a few options for medication, and there are situations when people need to take them. Unfortunately, the meds available today are not perfect and are often contraindicated for some comorbid conditions. Also, the meds can be only taken for a specific period, usually a year or two. Then if you don't take any other actions, your bones will start deteriorating again. Lastly, medications may have unpleasant side effects. Some side effects include gastrointestinal problems, bone and muscle pains, osteonecrosis, hypertension, and spontaneous bone fractures!
Remember that taking meds needs to be discussed with your physician, and that they are not for everyone.
So what is for everyone?
Of course, not every yoga class is equal, and you can do specific yoga routines (asanas) for years and still develop osteoporosis. What's more - some of the postures, like forward bends and a few others, can be dangerous and cause injuries. General group yoga classes are not recommended for people with osteoporosis, as most teachers need more training to work with contraindications. They are not included in general 200- or 500-hour yoga teacher training courses.
The secret is doing specific postures in a particular way and holding them for at least 30, but at most 72 seconds. Dr. Loren Fishman, M.D. from Columbia University Medical School, one of the pioneers of yoga therapy, developed a method based on Iyengar Yoga and researched it successfully for many years. With over 200,000 yoga hours, none of his participants got injured, and 83% improved their bone quality and the DEXA scores.
His method applies Wolff's Law, which states that by applying pressure load to the bones, the bones can become denser and stronger. Thus, Dr. Fishmans method consists of a series of postures where you engage different muscles and build up the hold in order to strengthen the bones.
According to Dr. Fishman, you can start at any age and stage of osteoporosis. His most challenging patient has a -5.7 DEXA score, and her condition has improved significantly. Most of the time, the participants don't have to take meds; yoga is effective on its own. The beauty of strengthening the bones through yoga is that it doesn't have any side effects, you don't need any equipment, and unlike the meds, you can do it forever. Depending on your abilities, there are many modifications of the postures. With time, you can build up your practice to more challenging variations- however, these postures can even be done with the assistance of a chair.
Besides building up mineral density, yoga improves your balance, which is crucial in fall prevention. By taking care of those two aspects, you are setting yourself up for success.
To start reversing your osteoporosis or osteopenia through yoga, you don't need previous yoga experience, and you don't need to be flexible. The sequence itself is not only very doable physically but also requires little time. Of course, the more you do it, the stronger your bones become, but 12-15 minutes 4-5 times a week is recommended, effective, and possible for everyone!
You start reversing your condition on the first day you start practicing correctly.
I said it's never too late to start, but it's also never too early. Now that you know it's possible, it's time to take action and give your bones some loving care.
"Marta is a beautiful person who radiates peace and love.No matter how you feel when you begin her class, you will leave feeling wonderful and relaxed. I firmly believe in yoga as a great tool for both body and mind. I never tried yoga until about three years ago when I heard about Marta's class at the Jefferson Valley Mall. I tried it, and I was hooked. It has helped me both mentally and physically. Two years ago, my bone density test showed I had osteoporosis, and medication was recommended. I chose instead just to continue with yoga and the other exercises I had been doing. Now two years later, my exam showed I now have osteopenia and recommended no medication. I truly believe it is the yoga that helped me."
To work with me on reversing osteoporosis or osteopenia or preventing bone density loss, please get in touch with me through email or schedule a 15-minute complimentary phone consultation. I offer private Zoom sessions, or we can meet in person if you live locally.
Stay healthy, and take good care of your bones!