Milk Isn't the Key to Healthy Bones

It was the sandwich that cost him $10,000...

Just after the Mozart piece playing on the radio ended with a dramatic flourish, he folded his open-faced peanut-butter sandwich in half – NYC-slice style – and crammed it into his mouth. He had gotten it halfway down when the phone suddenly rang.

It was the radio announcer cold-calling him with the $10,000 trivia question: Who shot Alexander Hamilton in the famous duel? And he happened to be surrounded by Alexander Hamilton paraphernalia... from sculpted busts to the fatal bullet in question.

But his correct answer – Aaron Burr – came out too garbled for the host to understand. His time was up... all because he had run out of the perfect solvent for the gluey peanut-butter sandwich that had cemented his mouth nearly shut.

Airing in 1993, this was the first TV commercial in the "got milk?" campaign that lasted for nearly a decade. (It was directed by Michael Bay... the guy behind those over-the-top, big-budget action movies.)

It was also government dollars at work... Uncle Sam had been trying to get Americans to drink more milk for a century – just to help dairy farmers.

Ads backed by federal-government funding touted milk as a cure-all that gave you vitality and quenched your "summer thirst"...

Lots of Americans grew up on the myth that you just need to drink milk and eat dairy to build strong bones. After all, these foods are loaded with calcium, and that's what you need for bone health, right?

Well, dairy alone doesn't guarantee healthy bones. We need more than just that calcium...

Vitamin D helps our body absorb calcium. Phosphorus, ranked No. 2 in terms of abundance (with calcium being No. 1), is another essential ingredient to bone tissue, along with magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Don't forget protein, too – it's needed for bone development. Not to mention, you need it to build muscle...

Weight-bearing exercises put stress on the bones, which triggers bone-building cells to ramp up their activity that also decrease the number and activity of cells that break down old and damaged bone in a process called bone resorption. That's important because studies show activity of these bone-resorption cells increases when we age. And we typically start losing bone density in our 50s.

Since female bones tend to be on the smaller side, bone problems hit women especially hard like...

Osteopenia: having lower-than-normal bone density. It's estimated to affect 54 million Americans.

Osteoporosis: having really low bone density that causes your bones (especially of the hip, spine, and wrist) to weaken. They become so fragile that they may break or fracture from even just a minor fall. More than 10 million Americans aged 50 and up have osteoporosis. It's estimated that 70% of American women aged 80 and up have osteoporosis.

But other than getting the necessary nutrients and enough exercise, is there anything else you can do for better bones?

Well, in recent years, more research has emerged, showing a link between improved bone health and having a happy gut... specifically, having a diverse population of "bugs," or microbiota, living in harmony.

We already know the far-reaching influence gut health has... especially when it comes to promoting inflammation. And too-much-for-too-long inflammation is the culprit behind a bevy of chronic illnesses. So scientists think imbalanced gut microbiota could be linked to a bevy of illnesses, from Type 2 diabetes and cancer to autoimmune, cardiovascular, and respiratory diseases.

Plus, there's the gut-brain axis, or a two-way communication between your brain and belly. Not many folks associate bone health with gut health, though. But these two seemingly unrelated body systems are interconnected in some unique ways. Some examples include:

  • Folks with osteoporosis and osteopenia have been observed to have altered gut microbiomes.
  • Some gut microbes also produce chemicals that make their environment more acidic, which makes it easier for calcium to be absorbed into our bloodstream and transported for bone formation.
  • Our gut microbes have a hand in regulating estrogen levels. And this hormone bumps up activity of bone-building cells. Since estrogen levels drop during menopause, it's a big reason why older women have a high risk of osteoporosis.
  • Some probiotics (or live "good" bacteria found in food or taken as a supplement) have been shown to improve absorption of vitamins and minerals to make bone. For instance, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium delayed bone loss in rats that were low on estrogen (similar to menopause in humans) and had osteopenia by boosting vitamin D absorption, increasing the number of bone-forming cells, and stopping the creation of bone-resorption cells.
  • Probiotics strengthen the gut walls. This keeps any harmful substances that may be in the gut from leaking into your blood, preventing inflammation in bone marrow which can lead to bone loss.

A small study published earlier this month followed 40 postmenopausal women diagnosed with osteopenia for 12 weeks. Only half of the women were given a blend of probiotics (with more than one type of bacteria) and inulin (a type of prebiotic, or dietary fiber that probiotic bacteria love to chow down on). At the end of the trial for each group, scientists found no significant change in blood levels of a marker of bone formation. But the women who boosted their gut bacteria had significantly lowered their blood levels of an indicator of bone resorption, while the placebo group saw little change.

Now rather than popping expensive supplements each day, I prefer to get my probiotics and prebiotics a different way. And that's by eating whole foods. Not only do you get all that fiber and good bacteria, but you also get a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and nutrients that you can't cram into a single pill.

Unless your doctor recommends you take a probiotic and prebiotic supplement, go au naturel. A favorite snack of mine containing both "P's" is some plain, low-fat Greek yogurt with fresh fruit.

Other fermented foods pack a probiotic punch, too, like...

  • Sauerkraut: I go for raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut to capture all of the probiotic goodness. Try halving an avocado and adding a generous dollop of sauerkraut in the center. The salty, acidic tang pairs well with the creamy, rich fruit.
  • Kimchi: Don't be afraid to explore non-cabbage versions of this spicy, fermented side dish, too... Try cucumber or radish kimchi for two crunchier alternatives.
  • Kefir: It adds a tangy, almost yogurt-like twist to my prebiotic-packed overnight oats or bowl of whole-grain cereal in place of milk.

Fortifying your gut microbiome happens to be one of my Top 12 ways to hone a trait that's crucial to health and happiness. And that's resilience, or the ability to bounce back from whatever stressors might come your way. I shared it all in my most recent issue of Retirement Millionaire that went out to subscribers yesterday. To get the full details – along with my recommendation on a company I've been tracking for a long time – click here.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
February 15, 2024