Nutrition for Bone and Joint Health
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
Many of us take our bones and joints for granted until something goes wrong – like a fracture or sprain – that forces us to pay attention. But there are many things we can do today to prevent future weakness or injuries.
If your bones or joints are weak or inflamed, don’t believe there is nothing you can do. Bones and joints are alive! They can be rebuilt and strengthened. One of the most powerful tools we have is nutrition.
Please keep reading to learn more about bones and joints, and their connection with nutrition, hormones, and more. Plus, five tips for preventing and healing from bone issues and finding joint pain relief.
Let’s dive in!
Bones, Joints, and Aging
Bones are alive. They are constantly remodeling by breaking down and building back up. As we age, we begin breaking down more than we can quickly rebuild. It’s hard to maintain balance, and many people experience some bone loss. In addition, we may experience more inflammation and chronic conditions that affect the health of our bones and joints over time.
Issues with bone and joints include:
- Joint pain and stiffness
- Ligament sprains
- Bone fractures
- Rheumatoid arthritis – autoimmune inflammation of the joints
- Osteoarthritis – a joint disorder, the most common form of arthritis
- Osteomalacia – bone softening due to vitamin D deficiency
- Osteopenia – low bone density, a warning sign for osteoporosis
- Osteoporosis – even lower bone density, higher risk of bone fracture
Osteoporosis affects both men and women; however, women are more likely to suffer the consequences of low bone density, especially after menopause. This bone loss is linked to hormones, notably estrogen, which plays an active role in the regulation of bones.
As estrogen levels decline with age, the risk for osteopenia and osteoporosis increase. Women may also experience more joint pain and less lubrication of joints when they reach menopause and stop having periods. Not having periods for other reasons, like undereating or over-exercising, may affect hormone levels and the protection of bones.
As we get older, our hormones and metabolism shift. Many of us begin losing muscle mass, especially when we aren’t actively working to preserve it. Muscle loss and bone loss go hand-in-hand.
Beyond age and sex, however, lifestyle factors play a significant role in the health of our bones, joints, and muscles. The good news is that lifestyle factors are largely within our control. Simple changes now may lead to stronger bones down the road.
Nutrition for Bone and Joint Health
What we eat profoundly influences bone and joint health. The food we eat provides the physical structure of bones and joints. Nutrition also affects underlying causes of bone and joint issues, such as hormone imbalances, inflammation, and oxidative stress.
When thinking about bone health, calcium comes to mind first. Calcium is an essential mineral integral to the structure of bones. However, when it comes to calcium, more isn’t always better. Too much calcium through supplementation or a deficiency in other nutrients like vitamin K2, may cause calcium to deposit in the joints or arteries instead of in the bones.
Instead of only focusing on calcium, we need a wide range of nutrients, including:
- Vitamin D – allows for calcium absorption from the gut into the body
- Vitamin K2 – directs calcium to the bones
- Vitamin C – for collagen formation and antioxidant protection
- Bioflavonoids – colorful antioxidant compounds found in plant foods help protect bones from damage
- Minerals - magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, boron, and otherminerals provide structure and support for bones and joints
- Omega-3 fats - decrease inflammation, favorably influence bone metabolism, and support joint lubrication
- Protein – protein builds the structure of bones and joints
- Collagen – a specific protein required for the structure of bones, tendons, and joints
Out of the 28 or so collagen types in the body, just a few are the most abundant. Type 1 collagen is the most prevalent in connective tissue, type 2 is largely found in cartilage, and type 3 is abundant in skin and organs. Type 2 might be the most beneficial for bones and joints, particularly when it comes to osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Research shows including collagen in the diet:
- Stimulates collagen regeneration in tissues, including bones and joints
- Reduces or prevents joint pain
- Improves joint function
- Improves recovery from injury or surgery
- Improves bone density
- Improves body composition
- Improves muscle recovery
A well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet supports bones, joints, and overall health.
How to Improve and Protect Bone and Joint Health
with Diet and Lifestyle
Let’s talk about some specific diet and lifestyle habits you can use to keep your bones and joints healthy. This information is intended for educational purposes and not medical advice; always discuss your situation with a trusted healthcare provider for personalized guidance.
Eat a whole food diet and focus on foods for bone and joint health. These include:
- Whole dairy products for minerals, vitamin D, and protein. If you don’t tolerate dairy, choose non-dairy sources of calcium including bone broths, seaweed, fish with bones, greens, lentils, tahini, and almonds.
- Dark leafy greens for minerals and antioxidants. Good options include kale, collard greens, bok choy, broccoli, chard, and greens powder.
- Colorful produce for antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Eat the rainbow! Include red peppers, strawberries, oranges, sweet potatoes, summer squash, onions, blueberries, purple cabbage, etc.
- Herbs and spices for antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Keep your spice rack stocked with turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, thyme, rosemary, mint, oregano, cloves, mustard seed, and more.
- Legumes for minerals. Lentils, black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, and others are all good choices.
- Fish for omega-3 fats and protein. Try including wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, and other small, cold-water options. Eat the bones when possible.
- Bone broths for minerals and collagen. Add a couple tablespoons of vinegar to a long-cooking stock to help pull minerals out of the bones.
- Nuts and seeds for minerals and healthy fats. Almonds, sesame seeds, walnuts, cashews, and pumpkin seeds are good to include.
- Fermented and cultured foods for vitamin K2. This one can be challenging to get in the diet, but natto (Japanese fermented soybeans), cheese, butter/ghee, and cured meats contain vitamin K2.
Reduce inflammatory foods contributing to bone and joint inflammation and other issues. Foods that may cause inflammation include processed foods made with added sugars and refined vegetable oils. Read labels and look for ingredients you recognize and use in your kitchen.
Incorporate resistance training into your exercise routine. Lifting weights is not just for building muscle; it helps build stronger bones and joints. The mechanical stress from bodyweight exercise, resistance bands, and weightlifting improves bone density and strength. This type of training is important for people of all ages, but especially as we get older. For women, it can help offset bone loss associated with hormonal changes. Get started with resistance training here.
Prioritize stress reduction and self-care. Stress affects the whole body, including the bones and joints. Therefore, it’s no surprise that chronic stress is a risk factor for osteoporosis. Working on stress management and self-care now helps to protect bones in the future. Different strategies work for different people, so it’s less important how you manage stress just to find something that works and practice it consistently. Some strategies include:
- Dance, yoga, and movement
- Time in nature
- Regular screen-free time
- Time with supportive friends and family
- Massage, acupuncture, and other bodywork
- Consider supplements to support bone and joint health.
- Vitamin D and vitamin K2. Ideally, have your blood levels of vitamin D (25-hydroxy vitamin D) tested and then supplement to achieve optimal levels for you. Many vitamin D supplements also contain vitamin K2. If you are taking a multivitamin, you may already be getting these important vitamins.
- Omega-3 fats. Supplementing with omega-3 fats that include EPA and DHA reduces inflammation and supports healthy bones. This supplement may be particularly helpful for people who don’t eat fish regularly and those experiencing inflammatory symptoms.
- Collagen protein. Collagen protein powder helps meet your daily protein needs and provides this key protein for bone and joint structure. Twenty2 Nutrition’s Collagen-Egg Protein is a complete protein that is easily incorporated into meals or post-workout smoothies.
- Joint formula. For those experiencing joint inflammation, certain botanicals, including curcumin (from turmeric), Boswellia, and ginger, help cool inflammation.
Twenty2 Nutrition’s Joint Pill pairs these anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich herbs along with type 2 collagen (for joint structure), black pepper (for improving curcumin absorption), cinnamon (for antioxidants), and calcium fructoborate (a safe form of supplemental boron). The synergistic formula offers a solution to improve joint health and mobility while providing joint pain relief.
An overall diet and lifestyle strategy helps to support bones and joints from many angles. If you are ready to act, remember that it doesn’t all have to happen today. Consider one strategy that you can begin to implement after reading this article. Maybe you can commit to eating greens every day or fish a few times per week. Perhaps you can take a break or talk to someone if you feel stressed or overwhelmed. Perhaps you are ready to commit to resistance training and can take an action step toward that.
Small habits over time lead to significant results, and consistency is more important than perfection. Doing your best is enough to lay the foundation for strong, healthy bones and joints.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.