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Little Things Mean A Lot – Trace elements in Osteoporosis

By Staff | Jun 24, 2009

The trace elements are essential minerals that are found in the body in such tiny amounts that if you could collect them all, they would barely fill a teaspoon. Yet a deficiency of any one of them could be fatal, and an excess of many is equally deadly. Each of the trace minerals performs some vital role for which no substitute will do.

Bill Walton, Basketball Superstar

The power of these trace elements can be seen when they are lacking or deficient. A dramatic example is the unusual story of Bill Walton, a former NBA player whose career spanned the 1970s and 80s. As a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, Walton was one of the top player in the National Basketball Association. But at the top of his game, he was benched by a series of bad breaks: broken fingers, broken toes, a broken cheek, a broken wrist, a broken leg, and a broken nose. In 1978 he broke a bone above the arch of his left foot. Soon after, another crack occurred in the same foot and wouldn’t heal. X-rays revealed that Bill Walton was suffering from osteoporosis. This was shocking in a young , male world class athlete. Walton did not fit the profile of the typical osteo porotic patient – a sedentary, little old lady.

Walton’s doctor consulted a biochemist named Paul Saltman, who suspected nutritional deficiencies since Walton had been consuming a macrobiotic diet for some time. A macrobiotic diet is a very restrictive diet, limiting many foods and causing vitamin and mineral deficiencies. A blood test revealed that Walton had a copper level that was approximately 50 percent below normal and a zinc level less than one-third of normal. Most surprising of all, he had no detectable manganese in his blood at all. There was an excess of calcium, indicating impaired bone formation. Calcium was not staying in the bone.

Walton stopped eating a macrobiotic diet and took a supplement containing the trace minerals manganese, zinc, copper, fluoride and iron, as well as three major minerals – calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. Within three days, the pain in his foot was better and in eight weeks he was back in the game. X-rays showed denser bones than before he had changed his diet and taken supplements.

Studies on Trace Minerals and Bones

Walton is only one person. His story doesn’t prove anything. But his experience might be explained by the effect that the trace minerals have on bone. A study done with rats in 1987 by Saltman and two co-researchers, Strause and Glowacki, found that a deficiency of manganese and copper reduced the activity of both osteoblasts and osteoclasts (osteoblasts are bone fo rming cells; osteoclasts remove old bone), resulting in reduced bone mass.

In a study done in 1994, Saltman, Strause and other researchers found that supplementation with calcium, zinc, manganese, and copper stopped bone loss in postmenopausal women. The addition of these trace elements to calcium was more effective than calcium alone. The amount of calcium in the supplement was 1,000 milligrams; the amount of zinc, 15 milligrams; the amount of manganese, 5 milligrams; and copper, 2.5 milligrams.

Studies done with single trace elements have found that each of them has an impact, individually, on bone health. A study published in the May 2000 European Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology found that manganese supplementation effectively prevented loss of bone mass in rats whose ovaries had been removed. Two other studies were done on rats whose ovaries had been removed. One in the November-December 2000 issue of Menopause found that copper supplementation prevented bone loss in ovarectomized rats. A study in the June 1994 Biological Pharmacy Bulletin found the same prevention of bone loss in ovarectomized rats by supplementation with zinc.

Two other studies with zinc showed that it had an impact on bone at both ends of the life span. A December 1983 study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found lower levels of zinc in the serum and bone tissue of elderly patients with osteoporosis compared to normal patients. A study in the Ju ly 1999 Journal of Trace Elements in Medical Biology found that a zinc deficiency in growing rats led to a 45 percent reduction in bone architecture.

Sources of Trace Minerals

Manganese is found in whole grains (the germ), bran, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, egg yolks, pineapples, legumes, bananas, celery. Safe and adequate intake is 2.5 to 5.0 milligrams per day. Copper, like manganese, is most abundant in the germ of whole grains. It is also found in nuts, seeds, legumes, liver, and shellfish. Among fruits, it is highest in avocadoes. The RDA for copper is 1.5 to 3.0 milligrams per day. Zinc is found in whole grains (the germ), nuts, seeds, and root vegetables. It is abundant in animal protein (beef, poultry, fish, eggs and lamb). The RDA is 15 milligrams per day. Since zinc interferes with the absorption and utilization of copper, it would be wise to balance supplementation of zinc with supplementation of copper. For example, 15 milligrams of zinc per day should probably be balanced with 2 milligrams of copper.

Mary Lou Williams, M. Ed., is a writer and lecturer in the field of nutrition. She welcomes inquiries. She can be reached at (239) 267-6480.