©2001, Susun S. Weed
Every woman I know is concerned about osteoporosis. Frightening stories equate it with broken hips, bent spines, wheelchairs, and death–things we all want to avoid. What can we do? Should we take calcium supplements? hormones? Fosamax? Can we rely on our green allies?
The Wise Woman tradition maintains that simple lifestyle choices– including, but not limited to, regular use of nourishing herbal infusions, medicinal herbal vinegars, yogurt, and seaweed — are sufficient to preserve bone and prevent breaks. And, further, that these lifestyle choices produce multiple health benefits, including reduction of heart disease and breast cancer, without the problems and risks associated with taking hormones. As for supplements, as we will see, they do more harm than good.
First, we must rid ourselves of the idea that osteoporosis is important. In the Wise Woman Tradition, we focus on the patient, not the problem. There are no diseases and no cures for diseases. When we focus on osteoporosis, we cannot see the whole woman. The more we focus on disease, even disease prevention, the less likely we are to know how to nourish health/wholeness/holiness.
In fact, focusing our attention narrowly on the prevention of osteoporosis actually increases the incidence of breast cancer. The postmenopausal women with the highest bone mass are the most likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Women who take estrogen replacement to prevent osteoporosis, even for as little as five years, increase their risk of breast cancer by twenty percent; if they take hormone replacement, the risk increases by forty percent.
These risks might be vindicated if we could show a correlation between bone density and bone breakage, but there isn’t one. When I found myself at dinner last year (2000) with Susan Brown, director of the Osteoporosis Information Clearing House, I asked her to point me in the direction of any study that shows a clear relationship between osteoporosis and broken bones. She smiled. “There are none.”
“In a recent study,” she continued. “Researchers measured the bone density of people over 65 who had broken bones. Twenty-five percent had osteoporosis. Twenty-five percent had high bone density. And fifty percent had normal density.” Notice that those with high bone density broke their hips as frequently as those with osteoporosis.
If osteoporosis isn’t the problem, what is it? In a word: inflexibility. Flexible bones bend; stiff bones break. This holds true even if the flexible bone is thin, even if the stiff bone is thick. Think of a piece of dead pine wood. Though it may be thick, it is brittle and breaks easily. Think of a green pine twig, even a small one is nearly impossible to break. Flexible bones, whether thick or thin, bend rather than break.
Flexibility is synonymous with health in the Wise Woman Tradition. It is created by nourishing and tonifying. Bone flexibility is created by nourishing the bones and tonifying the muscles around them. Tonifying is as important as nourishing, but because we are herbalists, let’s focus on the benefits nourishing herbs offer to women who wish to have strong, flexible bones.