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 Integrative Medicine: Osteoporosis, Heart Disease, and Breast Cancer 

As a result, adequate calcium supplementation is of major importance to prevent bone loss. The type of calcium used must be considered, also. The main type of calcium used in supplements has been calcium carbonate. This is an alkaline form of calcium and isn't absorbed well by some women. In contrast, calcium citrate, an acidified form of calcium, is well absorbed and a good source of this nutrient for women. Be sure to check the label of any calcium supplement to make sure the dosages and the type of calcium used are optimal for your needs.

Phosphorus. Phosphorus is the second most abundant mineral in the body, found in bones and soft tissues. A major structural mineral of bone, it is present in a specific ratio of 2.5 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus. This balance is important for both minerals to be used efficiently by the body. Because the American diet contains abundant phosphorous in foods such as meat, eggs, grains, seeds, nuts, and soft drinks, phosphorus deficiency is relatively rare. In addition, phosphorus is easily absorbed from the digestive tract, with an absorption rate of approximately 70 percent. The RDA for phosphorus is 800 ma.

Magnesium. This is another important mineral for healthy bones. While not as prevalent as either calcium or phosphorus in bone, it is equally important. Magnesium is needed for bone growth, as well as for proper calcium absorption and assimilation. If the body has too little magnesium available, it deposits calcium pathologically in tissues and organs, so calcium accumulates in the muscles, heart, and kidneys. In susceptible women, calcium deposited in the kidneys can cause kidney stones. Therefore, a woman who increases her calcium intake should also increase magnesium intake in a ratio of 2:1 or 10:4 calcium to magnesium. Other minerals, like zinc, copper, manganese, and silicon, are also needed in trace amounts for healthy bone growth and regulation of bone metabolism.

Vitamin D. This fat soluble vitamin can either be ingested in the diet or formed on the skin by exposure to sunlight. Sunlight activates a type of cholesterol found in the skin, converting it to vitamin D. Vitamin D is usually included in multivitamin products and is also found in fish liver oil supplements, along with vitamin A and fortified milk.

Vitamin D helps prevent osteoporosis by aiding in the absorption of calcium from the intestinal tract. It is needed for the synthesis of enzymes found in mucous membranes, which are, in turn, needed for the active transport of calcium. It also helps break down and assimilate phosphorus. A deficiency of vitamin D causes inadequate absorption of calcium from the intestinal tract and retention of phosphorus by the kidneys. This causes an imbalance in the calcium-phosphorus ratio, leading to faulty mineralization of the bones. Menopausal women should be sure to take the RDA of 400 IU per day of vitamin D.

Herbs for Prevention of Osteoporosis
Herbs as Mineral Sources. While they are not the primary source of calcium and other minerals for most women, herbs can still provide a valuable source of minerals along with other foods in the diet. Certain plants like kelp and other sea vegetables, as well as dandelion root, horsetail, and oat straw, are good sources of calcium, magnesium, and trace minerals needed for strong and healthy bones. Kelp and the other sea vegetables can be used as condiments to flavor food such as soups, casseroles, and salads. The other herbs may be taken in capsule form as supplements.

Vitamins and Minerals for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention
Beta Carotene. Oxygen-related damage to LDL cholesterol has been linked to the development of cardiovascular disease. Laboratory testing and a few clinical studies suggest that beta carotene can prevent this oxygen-related damage and, thereby, help protect the blood vessels from the disease process. It does this by inactivating singlet oxygen, a form of oxygen that is unstable and attacks cells in the body to gain a second electron. While the protective benefits of beta carotene have not been definitively proven, the studies to date suggest that its use may be beneficial in preventing heart disease. The U.S. Physicians' Health Study found that in a group of 333 participants with chest pain but no prior history of heart attack, beta carotene appeared to have a protective effect (with 50 percent fewer major cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks, strokes, and cardiac related deaths). I recommend the use of beta carotene or beta carotene-containing foods because of its many benefits for good health, aside from any possible cardiovascular protection.

Vitamin C. Like beta carotene, vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin that appears to be helpful in preventing LDL cholesterol oxidation, a process which can initiate atherogenesis (the destruction of the blood vessel wall and the formation of plaque) and eventually, major incidents like heart attacks and strokes. In the recent Nurses' Health Study, sponsored by Harvard University, in which over 87,000 women between the ages of 34 and 54 were tested, the association between dietary intake of vitamin C and the risk of developing coronary artery disease was evaluated. The risk of developing heart disease was at least 42 percent lower for women who took high doses of vitamin C than for women with a low vitamin C intake. Another study done in the Boston area found that both male and female users of vitamin C supplementation had lower levels of blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol, and higher levels of HDL cholesterol (the type of cholesterol that confers protection against coronary artery disease) than participants with a lower vitamin C intake. Vitamin C is also necessary for the regeneration of vitamin E in the body, another important antioxidant nutrient. These results make a good case for vitamin C's cardiovascular protective effects.

Vitamin E. This nutrient completes the triumvirate of antioxidant vitamins that appear to confer protection against cardiovascular disease. Vitamin E is the main fat-soluble antioxidant nutrient in the body. It lodges within the membranes inside and surrounding the cells, protecting the body against attack by singlet (unstable) oxygen and other free radicals that cause cell destruction. As mentioned earlier, singlet oxygen or other free radical destruction of LDL cholesterol may be one of the early steps leading to atherogenesis and ultimately, cardiovascular disease. Vitamin E, along with beta carotene and vitamin C, provides protection for both the water compartment as well as the fat compartment of our cells. This is necessary for the most complete protection against oxidative damage. Vitamin E also has a beneficial anticlotting effect on the blood. While a diet high in saturated fat tends to make blood cells become sticky and clump together, vitamin E causes the cells to disperse. This helps prevent blood clots from forming, an advantage for women past midlife who are at higher risk of stroke and heart attack.

Essential Fatty Acids. The supplemental use of Omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish oils like mackerel, salmon, and halibut, as well as plants like flax seed, pumpkin seed, and soybeans, have protective effects against cardiovascular disease. A number of studies have shown that these fatty acids can relax and dilate the blood vessels, as well as inhibit platelet cell aggregation (important in preventing clot formation). In addition, the Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglyceride level. This is beneficial because the elevation of triglycerides is a risk factor for coronary artery disease. However, the evidence for reduction of LDL cholesterol is not as conclusive. Also, since fish oil consumption can impair insulin secretion and increase blood glucose, its intake should be monitored in diabetics. Otherwise, the use of Omega-3 fatty acids may be a good idea for women wanting to prevent cardiovascular disease.

Herbs for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention
Anticlotting Herbs. Garlic and ginger are two delicious herbs which are used commonly as flavoring agents. They are also tremendously beneficial in reducing the risk of heart disease. These two plants should be used frequently as part of your preventative program if you have a strong family history of heart disease with early mortality (parents or siblings dying in heir 50s or 60s of heart disease.) They should also be used if you have many risk factors yourself, such as hypertension or elevated cholesterol. Both garlic and ginger have been researched for their ability to prevent aggregation or clotting of the blood. This is important for the prevention of strokes and heart attacks. In addition, both herbs help reduce cholesterol levels. Garlic has the additional benefit of reducing blood pressure.

If you find these foods too spicy for your taste, they can be taken in capsule form or as a liquid tincture. Women taking these herbs for cardiovascular disease prevention may want to eat several raw cloves of garlic a day or as many as 6 capsules of the herb used as a supplement. I also recommend as many as 4 capsules of ginger per day, if you do not use it as a food favoring. These are maximum dosages; you may find that 1 to 2 capsules per day suit your needs better.

Vitamins and Minerals for Breast Cancer Prevention
Vitamin A. Beta carotene, the provitamin A found in fruits and vegetables, has been cited in a number of studies as an important nutrient in breast cancer prevention. In the Nurses' Health study mentioned earlier, beta carotene proved protective against breast cancer for more than 87,000 women. A study published in 1992 by the State University of New York compared 310 women having breast cancer to 316 women without the disease. The study found that the cancer-free group ate many more beta carotene-containing fruits and vegetables than he women with breast cancer. In addition, the National Cancer Institute studied 83 women with breast cancer and found that they had lower blood levels of beta carotene. Beta carotene both in supplemental form and in foods like fresh fruits and vegetables should be included in your diet if you are interested in breast cancer prevention.

Vitamin C. In a 1991 review of 46 studies of the protective effect of vitamin C on cancer, in 33 studies vitamin C helped safeguard against the development of many cancers. This included nonhormone-dependent breast cancer. Vitamin C did not appear to confer any protection against hormone-dependent (including estrogen-dependent) breast cancers.

Fruits and vegetables are rich sources of both beta carotene and vitamin C. Supplemental vitamin C is helpful for women who want to lower their cancer risk for all types of cancer (including certain breast cancers).

Herbs for Breast Cancer Prevention
Anticancer Herbs. Many herbs show promise in the prevention and treatment of many human cancers, although their specific role in treating breast cancer is not clear. Herbs with possible anticancer activity include garlic, burdock root, alfalfa, and a host of others. One herb, in particular, may hold some promise for breast cancer prevention. This is red clover, an herb traditionally used by several different cultures to treat cancer. Research done at the National Cancer Institute has found anticarcinogenic compounds in red clover, including several bioflavonoids, genistein and daidzein, which are both weakly estrogenic and antiestrogenic (as described earlier in this book). Women who have preexisting breast cancer may want to check with their own physicians to see if red clover can be used safely as a nutritional adjunct to their regular medical program.

Two compounds that have been linked to a lower risk of breast cancer are bioflavonoids and lignans. Both are natural plant sources of very weak estrogens. Rich sources of biofavonoids include soy, buckwheat, alfalfa sprouts, the inner peel of citrus fruits, and many berries. Lignans are particularly abundant in raw ground flax seed and are also found in whole grains and legumes. Diets that are rich in these foods seem to be a factor in preventing the development of breast cancer in women. There is also evidence to suggest that such a diet may help decrease the mortality rate of men from prostate cancer. In Asia, most notably in Japan, the rates of hormone-dependent cancers are significantly lower than those in Western Countries.

(Excerpted from The Women's Health Companion ISBN: 0890877335)
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 About The Author
Susan Lark MDDr. Susan M. Lark is one of the foremost authorities on women's health issues and is the author of nine books. She has served on the faculty of Stanford University Medical School...more
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