Sunday January 20, 2013
Rebuilding brittle bones
By FIONA HO
Emerging studies are indicating that tocotrienols can help strengthen brittle bones, thus assisting those suffering from osteoporosis.
MANY overlook the importance of bone health, but as we age, our bones become thinner and start to lose their density. If left untreated, the decrease in bone density could lead to osteoporosis, a condition that is characterised by brittle bones and skeletal weakness.
Because the disease often progresses without any symptoms or pain, it is often not discovered until weakened bones cause painful fractures, usually in the spine, hip or wrist.
Fractures are the most dangerous aspect of osteoporosis as they can be debilitating and can lead to chronic pain and disability, especially in the elderly. Unfortunately, once you have had an osteoporotic fracture, you are likely to develop another.
The increased likelihood of falling due to old age further exacerbates the risk of incurring a fracture.
Although osteoporosis can affect anyone at any age, women are at the greatest risk of developing the disease after they hit menopause. This is largely due to the decreased oestrogen levels in a woman’s body after menopause. Oestrogen plays an integral role in helping to prevent bone loss.
Genetics plays a huge role in determining one’s risk in developing the disease. Women of Asian descent are particularly susceptible to developing osteoporosis after menopause. This is because Asian women above the age of 50 who are post-menopausal, have significantly lower bone density than any other group.
As such, Asian women have the highest incidence of osteoporosis. Recently, the United States National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) reported that up to 20% of Asian women over the age of 50 display symptoms of osteoporosis, compared to only 10% of non-Asian white females.
Meanwhile, only 5% of African American women who were examined showed any symptoms of osteoporosis.
In any case, in the first five to seven years following menopause, a woman can lose up to 20% of bone mass.
Despite its reputation, osteoporosis is not just an “old woman’s disease”. Other causes of osteoporosis include hyperthyroidism, and calcium and vitamin D deficiency. Prolonged immobility could also lead to the onset of the disease.
In men, androgen deficiency can also increase their risk of osteoporosis.
Prevention of osteoporosis begins with adequate calcium intake in youth, when bone mass is built. Building strong bones and reaching peak bone density with regular weight-bearing exercises and a healthy diet before the age of 30 is probably your best defense against developing osteoporosis.
Current treatment of the disease typically involves medications, an increased calcium and vitamin D intake, as well as increased participation in regular physical activity.
While there is no magic bullet cure for this disease (or to prevent all fractures), emerging studies suggest that there could be new hope for osteoporosis patients.
According to a study done by researchers from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), tocotrienols, which are a part of vitamin E, can help strengthen brittle bones, thereby reducing the complications of osteoporosis.
The term vitamin E encompasses eight natural compounds: four tocopherols and four tocotrienols – each named alpha, beta, gamma and delta.
While most available vitamin E supplements in the market contain only mixed tocopherols, or alpha, beta, gamma and delta tocopherols, they only make up half of the vitamin E family.
Since the 1980s, awareness of alpha, beta, gamma and delta tocotrienols have been rising steadily in the scientific world.
Emerging evidence has shown that vitamin E tocotrienols are more potent in their antioxidant and anti-cancer effects than tocopherols.
These health-enhancing properties make tocotrienols an ideal addition to existing anti-ageing supplements.
Food sources rich in vitamin E include vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. However, tocotrienols are most abundantly found in palm oil fruit. About 75% of vitamin E from palm oil comprises tocotrienols.
Professor Dr Ima Nirwana Soelaiman, UKM’s deputy dean for research and innovation in the Faculty of Medicine, who led the 15-year study on the effects of tocotrienol on osteoporosis, says their research has shown that tocotrienols are superior to tocopherols in helping to prevent, as well as treat, osteoporosis.
Prof Ima, who is also the head of the university’s Bone Metabolism Research Group, explains that her research team had experimentally induced osteoporosis in laboratory rats and treated them with tocotrienols derived from palm oil.
“So far, our research has shown that vitamin E tocotrienols are effective in helping to prevent the onset of osteoporosis, as well as to help treat the symptoms of osteoporosis in these rats,” she says.
“In fact, we have found that vitamin E tocotrienols can help restore osteoporotic bones it to their original condition.”
In her studies, Prof Ima also discovered that tocotrienols can help improve bone integrity and structure in normal, healthy rats.
These findings suggest that regular doses of these palm oil-derived tocotrienols can be administered to healthy young adults to help increase their peak bone mass. This could help prevent osteoporosis later in life, she says.
“Tocotrienols may also be beneficial to patients with fractures resulting from osteoporosis, as they have been shown to accelerate fracture healing,” she added.
Besides menopausal women, other individuals who may benefit from regular tocotrienol intake include elderly men and bed-ridden patients.
However, Prof Ima notes that these findings are still preliminary. She adds that her team in UKM hopes to conduct clinical trials in humans in the near future to confirm the effects of tocotrienols on bones.