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  • Writer's pictureCynthia Chin-Lee

No bones about it

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Diagram of the spine from coccyx through lumbar, thoracic and cervical vertebrae
The L1 to L4 area of my spince improved 8.1 percent in the last 2 years

I had a great report on my bone density test (called a dexa scan) in September 2023. The bone density in my spine (region L1 to L4) improved by 8.1% from my last scan two years ago in Aug 2021. Some of you might have the same problem I have: osteoporosis, weakening of the bones as you age. According to Wikipedia, osteoporosis is a “system skeletal disorder of low bone mass, microarchitecture deterioration of bone tissue leading to bone sterility and increase in fracture risk.”

Your bones begin to look like Swiss cheese with lots of holes where it once was solid and firm. I first found out my bones were bad in 2016 when I twisted my ankle. I was carrying a 2 gallon jug of water from my kitchen to the garage, one step down. I thought I had only sprained my ankle so I continued walking on it for several days, using a cane once in a while. But my foot and ankle turned purple and my pain dramatically increased.

My husband Peter said, “Maybe you should get that checked out at the doctor’s?” Wise fellow.

I went to urgent care and they x-rayed the ankle. Broken. They put me in a stabilizing boot and gave me crutches and the doctor predicted it would be at least 6 weeks to recovery. Lesson 1: if you think you might have broken a bone, get it checked and don’t dismiss the pain.

My kind and thoughtful sister-in-law Devin Chin-Lee suggested I get a bone density scan, too. As a petite Asian woman who weighs less than 127 pounds (57.6 kg), I fell into the category of people “more likely to have bone weakening.” Evidently NASA found that 127 pounds is the magic number. Over that weight and your bones get enough stress from bearing your body weight but under that weight, and you’re more likely to have bone loss.

Astronaut floating in space
Turns out that gravity helps build bone density. Astronauts who live in space with lower gravity can have bone loss according to NASA

My Stanford primary care physician doubted that I needed a bone density scan, but I pressed her to order one for me, reminding me that all of us have to advocate for our own health care and outcomes. The results: osteoporosis. I took calcium and vitamin D from my favorite warehouse store (Costco) and drank lots of cow’s milk. Back then I was an omnivore and I believed what the doctors told me about dairy. (I no longer believe dairy is good for your building bones because it makes your body more acidic and thus not conducive to growth. There are plenty of plant-based sources of calcium including kale, mustard greens, bok choy, swiss chard, brussel sprouts and carrots.)

My doctor also prescribed a biphosphanate (Fosomax specifically) to help me build bone. But I was skeptical because I had read the reviews about biphosphonates causing spontaneous fractures of the femur and the jaw.

Although I had no digestive problems taking Fosomax, I told my doctor that I wanted to stop taking it after 3 months and she was OK with that. Fast forward to 2020, I had a second dexa scan and my results just kept getting worse, -3% worse. I didn’t really panic about that because I was trying to do light weights at the gym, yoga, and some cardio like Zuumba and swimming. I twisted my other ankle (walking on uneven pavement). At least this time I asked my husband to take me to urgent care immediately. (I can learn!) Another broken foot.

Then in 2021, I got the biggest health news of my life: breast cancer found on a routine annual mammogram. I’ve seen some of my friends (SuAnn Kiser with breast cancer and Zunaid Vania with Crohn’s disease) question conventional standard of care treatments. They both used thoughtful, integrative approaches such as diet and meditation to reverse their issues. Inspired by them and others, I carefully researched and thought about what I would do, especially when it came to invasive procedures like cancer surgery or radiation.

However, for my cancer, I did ask for hormone blocking drugs (Letrozole) because I had estrogen-positive breast cancer and I had heard anecdotally from fellow breast cancer patients how dramatically Letrozole can reduce a tumor. The bad part of taking Letrozole was that it would worsen my osteoporosis. My oncologist wanted me to take another biphosphonate called Zometa but she needed my dentist’s approval. Like other biphosphonates, Zometa had a list of side effects that scrolled for six screens. I said no to it.

I wanted to address the osteoporosis risk of taking Letrozole, but I didn’t want to chase it with more drugs with their possible side effects. Another breast cancer patient and a member of my church, my friend Nancy Patterson suggested AlgaeCal. She had great results with the AlgaeCal bone booster pack, which includes another element strontium. So even though AlgaeCal calcium was more expensive than Costco’s, I decided to take it. I had a baseline dexa scan in August 2021 at UCSF (as they didn’t accept the ones taken at Stanford because they used a different machine) and it confirmed my osteoporosis.

I started taking AlgaeCal, two tablets at breakfast, two tablets at lunch and then strontium (citrate) at night when I go to bed. For two years I took the supplements faithfully and finally got the second scan in Sep. 2023. Hooray! An increase in 8.1% of bone density in the L1 to L4 spine and my osteoporosis downgraded to osteopenia.

What have I done differently in the last two years?

  • Taking AlgaeCal bone booster pack (algae-based calcium with K2, magnesium, D) and strontium (citrate)

  • Replaced my short bike rides with jogging to increase high impact exercise

  • Overhauled my diet from omnivore to a plant-based because the plant-based diet will make your body more alkaline and thus more conducive to building bone. Meat and dairy make your body more acidic and less conducive to bone building. (You can test your pH by getting pH strips from your pharmacy and taking a sample of the first urine of the day.)

  • Eating prunes (one study shows that eating 6 prunes a day helped people build bone density) and it’s great for your regularity.

  • Taking supplements from Nutritional Oncology Research Institute (NORI) that also probably helped: pH compensator (makes the body more alkaline)

  • Drinking hibiscus tea. I drink a cup of hibiscus tea for lowering my blood pressure but I noticed it helps keep me more alkaline.

What do I continue to do? Exercise (walking), exercise (yoga, thank you LindaGrace Frost and Joy Lee), exercise (dance, biking, swimming). exercise (light weights).

Note: Taking strontium may overestimate bone density results, anywhere from 8.5-11.2%. This is a very small amount. Seeing that my latest DEXA results showed an 8.1% increase compared to my previous scan IF there was an 11% overestimation due to strontium, what would my true bone density increase be?

Possible overestimation due to strontium:

8.1% (reported increase) x 11% (possible overestimation) = 8.1% x 0.11 = 0.891

So out of the 8.1% increase, 0.891% is overestimated due to strontium.

True increase, after adjusting for the overestimation:

8.1% - 0.891% = 7.2%

For more info, see the AlgaeCal blog: Is Strontium Safe and Effective for Bone Health?

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1 Comment

Cynthia Chin-Lee
Cynthia Chin-Lee
Nov 28, 2023

From Nancy N of Rockville, MD: Great post! Thanks!

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