No Bones About It: The Ayurvedic Approach to Healthy Bones

              A doctor touching a fake, educational spine.

Our bones are the deepest tissue of the body and all 206 of them are constantly remodeling themselves throughout our lifespan. They are a reservoir of minerals encasing the marrow that makes our blood, and they quite literally give us form to carry us through life. It is perhaps this endurance that makes them so fascinating, but as we get older and their resilience deteriorates, we must reciprocate the energy to keep them strong as they have for us all these years. Fortunately, our bones, like the rest of our body and mind, are always ready to heal and be restored when given the proper care. In ancient times, many different cultures had much more complex associations with bones than simply their structure. For instance, in Traditional Chinese medical systems, as well as Ayurveda, bones were associated with courage, or when imbalanced: fear. Moreover, both systems considered bones an outgrowth of the most vital energy sources that animate us and were directly associated with the health of this primal energy. Suffice to say, in the West, bones are not as commonly associated with anything beyond their physical functions. As a result, treatment options are more limited than they are from an Ayurvedic approach". The Ayurvedic understanding of bones and how to best heal them is full of unique strategies and approaches that can be extremely useful and work wonderfully with conventional standards of care. .

 How Ayurveda Views the Bones

In Ayurveda, our bones are collectively known as the Asthi dhatu which literally means bone tissue. They are a product of the digestion of earth and air energies found within foods and are associated with the Vata dosha. Unsurprisingly, the Vata dosha is the aspect of ourselves that governs all movement, so naturally, the bones would be a necessary tool for movement. However, when the Vata dosha is imbalanced, the mind becomes unsteady and the emotion of fear/anxiousness will result in bone damage. Interestingly, the link between chronic stress leading to high amounts of circulating cortisol which may affect bone health over the lifespan is an active area of research.[i]   Beyond Vata disorders, Ayurveda also acknowledges how the other two doshas, Pitta and Kapha, also interplay with the bones. For instance, Kapha is associated with physical growth, but when it is imbalanced, a Vata-Kapha condition can arise where the bone grows incorrectly, such as in bone spurs. Meanwhile, Pitta governs metabolism and heat of the body, therefore inflammatory bone conditions such as osteomyelitis. Lastly, in the case of bone cancers, it is considered tridoshic, wherein the bone grows incorrectly (Kapha) and there is rapid metabolism and bone destruction (Pitta).  

The Gut / Bone Connection

As mentioned earlier, Ayurveda sees the bones as a product of the Earth and Air energies found within food, these two energies must be balanced, and the digestion must be strong enough to properly digest these foods. Some examples of foods that contain the earth energy are foods with a subtle sweet flavor such as grains and nuts. The astringent flavor is also associated with the earth energy needed to form healthy bones and a classic example of astringent foods in Ayurveda are the legumes. Meanwhile, foods rich in air energy are bitter and pungent foods such as our classic dark leafy greens as well as many culinary spices. It becomes evident that the proper prescribed diet for bone health is indeed a perfect balance of high mineral-containing foods as well as healthy fiber. This is interesting as we now know that fiber-rich foods are essential to a healthy functioning gut microbiome, as modern science uncovers the role of the gut microbiome and healthy bone metabolism.[ii]  Interestingly, the Vata dosha is said to concentrate in the colon, once again demonstrating Ayurveda’s unique ability to recognize patterns the West would not elucidate in their research for millenia.

Moreover, the foods discussed earlier may be useful in revitalizing bone health, but in Ayurveda, they will not improve the bones unless the digestive fire is correctly balanced. This is an important consideration because oftentimes, individuals find themselves “eating the right foods” but still having the same problems, which can be disheartening. Ayurveda anticipates this scenario and will move to treat digestion, with each treatment being tailored to the unique individual and their unique digestive systems.

The Importance of Yoga

In Ayurveda, healing the bones focuses on two main principles: restoring the earth and air energies so they are balanced and adequate, and normalizing movement and going twith the flow of life. Again, Vata is associated with all aspects of movement, bodily movement, the breath moving in and out, our thoughts moving around our mind, and even electrolytes as they enter or exit the cell. Therefore, healthy movement nourishes the Vata aspect of ourselves. What comes to mind of course is Yoga since it combines physical movement, mindful deep breathing, and calming of the mind. Multiple clinical trials support yoga for its ability to improve bone health, support better mood, and also improve balance which reduces fall risk.[iii] Explore the eight ancient principles of yoga to enhance its benefits on the body, mind, and spirit

Herbal Strategies

Several herbs are popular in Ayurveda for supporting healthy bones through their various effects on the Dosha of the body. One excellent herb that is useful for all people is Amla (Emblica officinalis). Amla is said to balance all three dosha, so it is helpful for virtually all types of people and their unique doshic makeup. It is also a potent antioxidant herb. Another excellent herb Ayurveda prescribes for bone health is Guggul (Commiphora spp.). It was also considered an anti-aging herb which makes it doubly useful for those looking to support healthy bones as they age.  Not to be forgotten, Turmeric (Curcuma longa), and its key constituent curcumin, have been studied in humans and repeatedly found to support joint health, bone health, and improve physical comfort. In Ayurveda, Turmeric is uniquely described as balancing Vata and Kapha with its hotness, but because of its pungent and bitter aspects, it balances Pitta as well, thus making it useful for harmonizing all three dosha and promoting ease of movement. Lastly, Ashwagandha was famously used as a Rasayana, that is, an herb that restores vitality and allows us to live longer. It is another herb that balances all 3 dosha and assists the body, mind, and spirit to stay in harmony. Today, Ashwagandha has been studied in a plethora of human trials and has been found to improve sleep quality, aid in muscular strength and endurance, and promote a sense of calm focus. It’s an excellent herb to assist those who are trying to add weight-bearing exercise into their routine which will also protect the longevity of the bones. 

Similarly, often compared to Ashwagandha is Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus). It is popularly known for its ability to promote all aspects of women’s health from tonifying the reproductive system to supporting healthing bones in post-menopausal women. [iv] In Ayurveda, the uses are also tied to women’s health, and in addition, it promotes gastric comfort by pacifying the Pitta dosha but also we see it’s tailored to working with the Vata dosha, which governs the bones making it an excellent choice for promoting lasting bone health throughout the lifespan. 

Beyond maintaining the bones, another Ayurvedic herb, Hadjod (Cissus quadrangularis), is garnering interest from researchers for supporting the formation of new and remodeled bone, though these results are still preliminary. Once again, in Ayurveda, the plant is listed as a bone-healing herb that balances the Kapha and Vata. It can only be expected as botanical research expands its body of evidence, these herbal classifications, and historic uses will continue to be validated by modern science. 

In Conclusion

There is so much we can do to heal and nourish our bones. Ayurveda has refined its strategies for thousands of years and made many important associations that we continue to understand and find evidence for in the modern era. By recognizing and harnessing Ayurveda and its holistic approaches to health, including bone health, we will be able to take our health to a new level. So often diseases like osteoporosis are considered very hard to treat conventionally, and it can feel discouraging, by including Ayurvedic strategies that complement these standard treatments, perhaps we can see real change and lasting, vibrant health that you may even feel all the way down to your bones!

[i] Chiodini, I., Francucci, C. M., & Scillitani, A. (2008). Densitometry in glucocorticoid-induced osteoporosis. Journal of endocrinological investigation, 31(7 Suppl), 33–37.

[ii] Huidrom, S., Beg, M. A., & Masood, T. (2021). Post-menopausal Osteoporosis and Probiotics. Current drug targets, 22(7), 816–822.

[iii] Field T. (2016). Yoga research review. Complementary therapies in clinical practice, 24, 145–161.

[iv] O'Leary, M. F., Jackman, S. R., Sabou, V. R., Campbell, M. I., Tang, J., Dutton, J., & Bowtell, J. L. (2021). Shatavari Supplementation in Postmenopausal Women Improves Handgrip Strength and Increases Vastus lateralis Myosin Regulatory Light Chain Phosphorylation but Does Not Alter Markers of Bone Turnover. Nutrients, 13(12), 4282. 

[vii] Altaweel, A. A., Baiomy, A., Shoshan, H. S., Abbas, H., Abdel-Hafiz, A. A., Gaber, A. E., Zewail, A. A., & Elshiekh, M. (2021). Evaluation of osteogenic potential of Cissus quadrangularis on mandibular alveolar ridge distraction. BMC oral health, 21(1), 491. 

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