Probiotics, widely recognized for their positive effects on gastrointestinal health, can also increase bone mineral density and potentially help prevent osteoporosis—a fact that has been largely overlooked by American clinicians for almost a decade.
Back in 2003, Japanese researchers studied the impact of a probiotic formula called OM-X, on the radial and ulnar BMD of 157 men and women, ranging in age from 20-70 years. Of the total, 27 men and 17 women took the product—a fermented vegetable compound containing dense populations of Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and other ‘friendly’ organisms.
Doses ranged from 1,200-4,000 mg, depending on body weight. Subjects took the supplement daily for at least 2 months, with some continuing for 2 years.
Controlling for duration of treatment, the investigators found that among the men, mean BMD was 18% higher in those taking the probiotic versus controls; among the women, the difference was 12% Kawakami M, et al, J Applied Nutr. 2003; 53 (1)). The effect was most pronounced in women over age 40, a group most in need of bone support & osteoporosis prevention.
This research team, led by Dr. Masayuki Kawakami at the Kurashiki University, previously showed that daily intake of lactic acid bacteria increases hemoglobin in red corpuscles. Both studies underscore the fact that maintenance of good digestive function has far ranging physiologic effects.
They attribute the observed bone-building effect to improved absorption of dietary calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, the B vitamins and other key co-factors—a natural consequence of improved digestion.
The study also sheds light on the seeming paradox that osteoporosis is relatively rare in Japan despite the fact that people there consume far less dairy and take far fewer calcium supplements, while the disorder is quite prevalent in the US, where people gobble calcium and calcium-containing foods.
The difference? Probiotic-rich fermented foods have always been and continue to be staples in the Japanese diet, and Japanese people are also much more inclined to take probiotic supplements than Americans. In short, Japanese people on average may have healthier digestive systems, and therefore they absorb more of the key bone-building nutrients from their diets.
It’s little use to take calcium pills or drink fortified milk if your digestion is so compromised that very little of what you take gets absorbed.
The OM-X probiotic formula used in this study—available in the US from Essential Formulas –also contains significant amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and amino acids. These other factors could certainly have contributed to the observed effects on BMD. It is possible that other probiotic formulas would have bone-support benefit, but this has not yet been shown in clinical trials.