It’s common knowledge that our bones become more brittle as we age. But, does that have to be the case? Turns out, there is quite a bit you can do to help maintain strong, healthy bones throughout your lifetime. Adding a little cannabis treatment to the mix may be on the list. In this Better With Age segment, we dive into a crucial question: does cannabis strengthen bones?
How bones age
Your bones constantly change size and shape. The way your bones form and take shape are partly due to genetics, but environmental factors play a huge role as well. After your bones cease to grow, the day-to-day changes in your skeletal structure are considerably dependent on your lifestyle and the kinds of things that you do with your bones.
Each day, simple stress from living and moving causes tiny amounts of damage to your skeleton. While you sleep, your body takes the time to repair this damage by breaking down old bone cells and replacing them with new ones. In order for your bones to stay healthy and strong, this normal repair process needs to continue.
Unfortunately, the primary growth period for bones happens during childhood. How thick your bones develop largely depends on how active you were in your youth. The more you run around, climb trees, and engage in physical play, the stronger your bones develop to sustain healthy levels of activity. Active children go on to develop thicker bones.
Your bones will have completed a substantial part of their growth by the time you’re in your early twenties. After this point, your skeleton won’t become much thicker. In fact, by the time you reach your mid-thirties, you will slowly (or not so slowly) start to lose bone mass for the rest of your life.
Risk factors for bone loss
- Genetic predispositions for conditions like osteoporosis
- Nutrient-deficient diets
- Lack of vitamin D (those in extreme northern or southern climates take heed)
- Sitting for long periods of time (office workers be aware)
- Lack of daily movement or exercise, especially during childhood and adolescence
Cannabis and aging bones
If lifestyle and environmental factors have such an impact on bone health, how can cannabis help? The answer to this question is a little surprising. Recent research has shown that cannabis may help facilitate bone metabolism as we age.
Bone metabolism (also called bone remodeling) is the process of clearing away old bone cells and replacing them with new ones.
As you age, bone metabolism slows down. The body spends less and less time growing new bone material and more time on repairs. A 2009 study from Scotland’s University of Edinburgh found that cannabis may impact bones differently as people age.
Using rodent models, the researchers found that cannabinoids may have a negative effect on young, growing bones. Yet, they found positive effects in older mice.
In older mice, the same compounds that caused trouble for youngins actually decreased bone loss and decreased excess fat accumulation in bones. Fat accumulation contributes to bone diseases like osteoporosis.
Another 2012 review published by the same university articulated that the body’s natural endocannabinoids, the human version of psychoactive THC, regulate bone mass, bone loss, and bone cell function.
In this review, they cite research explaining that non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) inhibits bone resorption, the process in which bone cells are broken down and reabsorbed as calcium in the body.
The review also cites another 2007 study which found that THC and other cannabinoids stimulated bone nodule and collagen production in cells cultured outside fo the body. Using only animal models and cell cultures, these studies are a long way off from telling us exactly how cannabis interacts with bones in humans.
Yet, it’s enough evidence to inspire further research. Back in 2008, teams in Edinburgh began recruiting 200 cannabis consumers to test the results of the herb on bone disease. Results have not yet been published.
Cannabis and estrogen
Another way cannabis may engage with bone diseases is through its interaction with the sex hormone estrogen. Many post-menopausal women struggle with osteoporosis, a condition which causes weak and brittle bones.
Turns out, estrogen is key to building healthy bones. Estrogen controls the actions of both bone-removing cells (osteoclasts) and bone-building cells (osteoblasts). After menopause, the body stops producing estrogen which increases your chances of developing a bone disease.
Many women turn to hormone replacement therapy for this reason. However, hormone replacement has gotten a lot of flack for being potentially harmful. It increases your risk of several cancers, including breast, liver, and lung cancer. It also has been linked to a greater likelihood of developing dementia, heart attack, and stroke.
For the record, insufficient estrogen is a problem for men, too. Estrogen is also needed for bone metabolism in men, but a man’s body makes estrogen from testosterone inside the bone. As testosterone levels decrease, men can also experience bone loss. However, the severe bone loss caused by osteoporosis is most common in women.
Here’s where cannabis comes in. Certain compounds found in the cannabis plant are phytoestrogens. Meaning, it is a natural, plant-based compound that can engage estrogen receptors in the body.
A study completed in the 1980s found that both CBD and a common flavor molecule Apigenin both engaged estrogen receptors in rats. However, the study used young rodents and did not find direct estrogenic effects. While compounds in the herb seem to do something to estrogen receptors, there’s still a lot to be discovered.
Though little research has been done on the long-term impacts of either CBD or THC and menopause, we do know that the herb has some sort of interaction with estrogen and has also shown positive effects in combatting age-related bone loss.
A 2009 review even cited evidence that cannabinoid receptors have a part to play in postmenopausal bone degradation. So, while we don’t have clear answers on how this works in humans, there seems to be some potential for investigation. (Looking at you, scientists.)
Age-related bone diseases
While there is some promise that cannabis may strengthen aging bones or potentially slow down the bone decay process, there is more evidence that the herb may have an impact on age-related bone diseases directly.
Below is a brief summary of recent findings. Yet, for more detailed information on how cannabis treatment affects bone diseases, take a look at our article here.
During osteoporosis, your bones gradually waste away. This makes them brittle and prone to breaks and fractures. Basically, your body is tearing apart your bones faster than new bone cells can be created.
The studies highlighted above show why cannabis holds potential in osteoporosis treatment. Compounds in the herb help regulate bone metabolism, slowing down the rate at which your bone is broken down and reabsorbed into the body.
Yet, there’s also some evidence that cannabis may be helpful to those who experience osteoporosis bone fractures. In 2015, researchers at Israel’s Tel Aviv University found that CBD treatment after fracture actually enhanced bone repair by building stronger repair materials, and making the bone less likely to break again.
Unfortunately, the study was done in rodents. However, the team discovered that CBD improved bone cells’ ability to respond after injury. This information could prove useful in treating osteoporosis in humans.
In an interview with Live Science, lead study author Yankel Gabet explains,
All the current clinical treatments for osteoporosis [have] been successfully tested in rodents prior to clinical settings. While there is no certainty, these findings hold promise for the potential clinical applicability of using CBD for fracture healing in humans. – Gabet
There’s also some interesting research out there about cannabis as a possible treatment for osteoarthritis. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage protecting joints wears down. This causes joint bones to rub together over time, creating huge amounts of pain and inflammation.
Research from earlier this year found cannabinoid treatments may actually slow down the progression of the disease. The team treated cells with a synthetic, THC-like cannabinoid outside of the body. The cells they used were human cartilage cells with osteoarthritis.
They found that the cannabinoid seemed to slow the breakdown of cartilage in this cellular model of osteoarthritis. If this finding translates to cells actually inside the human body, it’s a good indicator that cannabinoids may slow the progression of the painful condition.
The results of this cellular study are supported by earlier rodent research published in 2000. A team of British scientists tested the power of CBD in mice induced with osteoarthritis. CBD was given to the rodents after they began to show clinical symptoms, and the cannabinoid effectively blocked the progression of the disease.
For more information on cannabis and arthritis, check out our full article here.
Tips to maintain and strengthen bones
There are a few things you can do to help your skeleton age well. Other than cannabis, here are the two most important ways to keep your bones strong:
To build strong bones, you have to use them. While you may not be able to grow thicker bones after your early twenties, regular stress on your bones keeps them strong. As mentioned earlier, daily physical activity causes minor strains and damage to your bones. This damage then kick-starts your body’s natural repair process.
While you sleep, your body takes the time to replace damaged bone with stronger, newer materials. Without strain, nothing signals your body’s repair process.
It’s important to stay active and give your bones adequate amounts of stress, but too much stress can also cause issues. The old adage “use it or lose it” is very true when it comes to long-term bone health. Consuming a little cannabis alone will not overcome the need for daily exercise.
Here are a few moderate-impact activities that maintain bone strength in aging adults:
- Walking and hiking
- Intermural sports
- Weight lifting and strength building activities
- Full-body stretching and movement routines like yoga or pilates
Diet is another major contributing factor to bone diseases. Having any sort of nutritional deficiency increases your risk of developing just about any chronic illness. In bone diseases specifically, adequate calcium and vitamin D are crucial for maintaining strength and skeletal repair.
Here are a few foods thought to be good for bone health:
- Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna)
- Grass-fed, raw dairy and pastured eggs
- Turnip greens
Research on cannabis and bone diseases may be in experimental phases right now, but the evidence is compelling. Compounds in the herb may be able to regulate bone repair and slow the progression of age-related bone loss.
Coupled with the fact that cannabis has shown potential in protecting the aging brain, as well as preventing stress-related damage, the herb’s impact on old bones is yet another reason why cannabis just keeps getting better with age.
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