For many years osteoporosis has been a mystery disease, striking most frequently in old age, often crippling and always bringing pain. When it strikes, bones gradually lose density and become more porous. They break easier, and are proportionately harder to mend. Osteoporosis attacks 20 to 30 percent of post-menopausal women, and between 5 to 10 percent of men more than 50 years old.
For a long time nothing was known of its cause. It was considered an unavoidable part of aging. Researchers now know that the bones of the body are continually "shedding" cells and being rebuilt. Osteoporosis results when the shedding or breaking down and resorbing of the bone occurs faster than the building-up process.
Here are several theories for-why this takes place. One is that the building blocks of the bone-calcium, vitamin D, etc.-are lacking. Sometimes, dietary supplements of these elements can reestablish a normal balance so that the bone is replaced as quickly as it is resorbed.
Studies have also shown that prolonged lack of exercise can cause deterioration of the bone. In these cases, a simple exercise program along with adequate dietary therapy can block the disease's progress.
A more recent finding is that osteoporosis can be caused by overproduction of adrenal steroids and large doses of corticosteroids. At the same time, certain other hormones (estrogens) appear to combat osteoporosis.
All of the facts have been jangling around in the files of medical researchers for months and years- making no sense to many of them, and leaving osteoporosis as much a mystery disease as ever. Now Dr. Lewis B. Barnett, a retired orthopedic (bone) surgeon living in Center, Colorado, whose work we have cited in previous chapters, has advanced a theory that takes into account and explains all these random facts. What's more, Barnett has successfully tested his theory.
In a personal interview at his Colorado home, Meadow Ranch, Dr. Barnett told us, "One of the most important aspects of the disease osteoporosis has been almost totally overlooked. That aspect is the role played by magnesium."
Dr. Barnett first became interested in the role of magnesium in bones and osteoporosis in 1950. At that time he began a series of investigations in Hereford and Dallas, Texas. One purpose of the study was to find out why people in later years frequently have fractures of the cervical neck of the femur, and why in certain areas these heal with great difficulty. These fractures rarely occurred in the Hereford area but were common in Dallas.
When the fractures did occur in the Hereford area, at an average age of 82.5, the healing time was eight weeks. In Dallas, the fractures occurred at the average of age 63, and, if they healed at all, took in the vicinity of 6.3 months.
Barnett analyzed the soil and water content of the two areas, and concluded the major factor in bone health was the mineral content of the water supply. Analysis of the water showed that calcium alone could not be the element responsible for combating osteoporosis. The Hereford water contained only four parts per million of calcium while the Dallas water contained 23 p.p.m. There were only slight differences in the fluorine, iodine, and phosphorus content of the water. Barnett considered these differences statistically insignificant.
The one really outstanding difference was in the magnesium content of the two water supplies. The Dallas supply contained eight p.p.m. of the mineral, while the Hereford water contained 16 p.p.m.
Although the medical literature then contained very little on the virtues of magnesium, Barnett did locate some reports on the subject. In the publication, Vital Facts About Foods, by Otto Carque (1933) is the statement. "Bones average about 1 per cent phosphate of magnesium and. teeth about 1% per cent phosphate of magnesium. Elephant tusks contain 2 per cent of phosphate of magnesium and billiard balls made from these are almost indestructible. The teeth of carnivorous animals contain nearly 5 per cent phosphate of magnesium and thus they are able to crush and grind the bones of their prey without difficulty."
Barnett decided to analyze the bone content of people in Dallas and Hereford. He chose for his study 500 women, average age 55. All were his patients, undergoing lumbar and cervical vertebrae surgery. Except for slipped disks and related problems, they considered themselves healthy individuals.
The findings bore out the results of the previous studies: the major difference was in the magnesium content of the bone. In the Dallas area where bone weakness was evident because of the high number of cases of osteoporosis, the magnesium content of bone was .05 percent; in Hereford, 1.76 percent.
Still Barnett was not satisfied. He decided on another study. He examined the bone content of healthy people and compared it with the content of people suffering from severe osteoporosis. Again he found there was little difference among the calcium, phosphorus, and fluoride content of the bones of the individuals. The magnesium content of the healthy people, however, was 1.26 percent. That of the osteoporosis victims was .62 percent.
'The mechanism whereby magnesium functions to strengthen bone and combat osteoporosis is, like many functions of the body, quite complex," Dr. Barnett explained. "Our studies, however, have convinced us that the mineral is important-perhaps the most important single element-in bone health."
The theory behind it is that magnesium is needed, by the pituitary gland. This gland regulates all the other glands of the body, and to do this regulating it uses magnesium. This mineral acts as a sedative, counteracting the stimulant effect of the adrenal glands. These glands must be restrained in their production, or else their secretions will speed up the breaking down and resorption of bone tissue.
Another function of magnesium is to act as an enzyme or catalyst. In effect, it acts as the glue that binds calcium and fluorine to build bone. Thus, even though calcium and fluorine may be abundant in the diet, they cannot be used and are flushed out of the system unless the binding element, magnesium, is also present.
"A test we conducted on 5,000 people found about 60 percent of them deficient in magnesium," Barnett told us.
"Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea, since they are adding things to the water supply anyway, if they considered magnesium." At any rate, Barnett does not consider osteoporosis a necessary accompaniment of old age. A diet high in magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and fluorine is definitely an important preventive measure.
There is no official recommendation on how much magnesium one should get in his daily diet. Not only is magnesium the mystery mineral, but it is also, to a large degree, the ignored one. However, Dr. Barnett advocates that 600 mg. a day will provide a safety margin and will not be wasted.
This page was first uploaded to The Magnesium Web Site on January 3, 2001