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If you haven’t heard of Forteo® yet, get ready. It’s the latest “miracle” on the patent medicine scene, so I have no doubt the media frenzy is on its way. Especially since the mainstream just hasn’t found many options for osteoporosis, the condition for which Forteo supposedly works wonders.

In November 2002, news of Forteo’s approval hit and it was immediately touted as the first patented formulation designed to “stimulate the growth of new bone.” Well, part of that is true: It is the first patented substance designed for that purpose. But what about calcium, other vitamins and minerals, and identical-to-natural hormones? These items obviously stimulate bone growth. After all, they’re the materials our bodies use to grow from infant to adult size. And I’ve seen women and even a few men increase their bone density by very significant margins when they supplement with these natural items. But somehow, they’re not considered “scientifically proven.”

And, truth be told, none of the presently sold patent medicines for osteoporosis actually stimulate new bone growth. They all “work” by slowing the destruction of bone, technically called “inhibiting bone resorption.”

At any rate, there are some distinct and serious risks involved with Forteo. After singing its praises, the media also reported that “FDA officials said the drug, given by injection daily, will carry a special warning because in laboratory tests it caused cancerous bone tumors in rats.” Of course, the “consolation” is that the cancerous tumors hadn’t yet been seen in the 2,000 people injected with the drug in clinical trials.

So much for drug safety!

Fortunately, there’s a much, much safer natural mineral alternative that stimulates the growth of new bone. It’s been around for millions of years. And one of the first favorable clinical trials on this mineral and osteoporosis was reported from the Mayo Clinic way back in 1959. Strontium is in the same mineral family as calcium and magnesium, and it’s been shown to promote bone growth in both animals and people.

Before you get nervous, let me clarify something: I’m not referring to radioactive “strontium 90” that many of us were forced to hide from under our schoolroom desks in the 1950s during “A-bomb drills.” This kind is all-natural and very, very safe.

A bone-building timeline

The first studies on strontium in relation to bone density were done in the early 20th century. In 1910, one German researcher reported that strontium appeared to be uniquely effective in stimulating rapid formation of bone.1 Ten years later, another German researcher concluded that strontium and calcium were superior to calcium alone in mineralizing bone.2 Following these publications, there were conflicting reports about the effects of strontium until a 1952 report from Cornell University concluded the same thing as the second German study: that calcium and strontium work better together than calcium alone for rebuilding bone.

Now on to that clinical trial I mentioned earlier. In 1959, Mayo Clinic physicians reported they had asked 22 individuals with severe, painful osteoporosis to take 1,700 milligrams of strontium daily. Another 10 people took the same amount of strontium along with estrogen and testosterone. In the hormones plus strontium group, nine of 10 experienced marked improvement of their symptoms, and the other one had moderate improvement. In the strontium-only group, 18 of 22 had marked improvement and the other four had moderate improvement. That means that every single person had some improvement using strontium.

Unfortunately, after that, things died down in the strontium/osteoporosis world. Why, you might wonder? Well, my guess would be that the patent medicine industry tried its best to come up with a synthetic version of strontium that they could trademark and make a profit from. But when they couldn’t find one, they gave up. Unpatentable substances just aren’t researched by patent medication companies, which pretend to be interested in your health but really are only interested in you if they can sell you a patent medication. So research on strontium (as well as any other natural substance) has been woefully neglected.

Twenty-two years elapsed between the Mayo Clinic report and the next bit of published strontium research in humans. In this study, patients with cancer metastatic to bone achieved improved bone density and a lessening of pain in cancer-affected areas.

Then, in 1985, researchers reported results of strontium supplementation on bone formation in six humans. Bone biopsies were done before and after six months of strontium supplementation. The researchers wrote: “Following strontium therapy, all [measurements] of bone formation increased, while bone resorption remained unchanged.”6 Sixteen years later, a research group led by the same individual wrote a review of strontium activity. They stated: “In addition to its anti-resorptive activity, strontium was found to have anabolic (tissue-building) activity in bone.”

The principal author of these research papers had his volunteers take strontium carbonate. His predecessors used strontium lactate and strontium gluconate. It’s important to note that all these forms of strontium had a favorable effect, which means that the strontium itself-not the combination-is doing the work. It may not sound like much, but knowing this little tidbit could end up saving you a lot of money. You see, the most recent strontium-osteoporosis research used a patentable strontium combination. Strontium itself isn’t patentable, but it was combined with a patented, synthetic substance called ranelic acid, which makes the combination patentable. So far, it’s been available only in Europe under the trademark Protos,® but remember, it’s the strontium doing the work! The patent medicine companies and the media aren’t going to tell you that, though. Since this new combination has a good deal of profit potential and other allnatural forms of strontium don’t, I’d be willing to bet that before too long we’ll start hearing that this new combination is the only form of strontium “approved” to help rebuild bone. Just keep in mind that all “approval” means is that forms have been filled out and money has changed hands. It doesn’t mean a substance is safe, or that it’s the only form of treatment.

One natural cure finally gets the attention it deserves

But all of the attention focused on patenting strontium has done one good thing-it’s sparked interest and funding for more strontium/osteoporosis research. True, most of the current studies have been done on the patentable combination. But as noted above, it’s the strontium itself that’s doing the work, not the substance with which it’s combined. So these results are still good news.

In a three-year, randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study using 680 milligrams of strontium daily, women suffering from osteoporosis experienced a 41 percent reduction in risk of a vertebral fracture, compared with placebo. And, overall vertebrae density in the strontium group increased by 11.4 percent but there was a 1.3 percent decrease in the placebo group.

In a second study published last year, 353 women who had suffered at least one vertebral fracture due to osteoporosis took varying levels of strontium ranelate or a placebo. The women who took 680 milligrams of strontium daily had an increase in lumbar bone mineral density of approximately 3 percent per year, significantly greater than placebo. By the second year of the study, there was a significant decrease in additional fractures in the strontium group as compared with the placebo group.

A final 2002 publication examined the effects of strontium on early postmenopausal bone loss. In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 160 women whose menopause had occurred naturally six months to five years previously and who did not have osteoporosis were asked to take placebo or varying amounts of strontium daily. Compared to the placebo group, women who took 340 milligrams strontium a day had a significant increase in bone mineral density in two years’ time. All groups also took 500 milligrams of calcium daily, but no hormones or vitamin D.

Let me re-state that: Post-menopausal women without osteoporosis who took no replacement hormones (or vitamin D) but only calcium still had an increase in bone density with the use of strontium! So not only can strontium repair existing damage, it can actually help prevent you from suffering with osteoporosis in the first place. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s strontium ranelate, strontium gluconate, strontium lactate, or strontium carbonate. As long as it’s strontium, it’s good for you!

Stontium is even safer than placebo

Of course, I’m sure you’ve heard the warning: “Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.” The medical mainstream loves to toss this one around. While that’s true, it’s also true that the odds are in favor of nature: If you placed bets on the safety of natural substances vs. patent medications, you’d win money nearly every time. But even so, it’s still important to examine the evidence.

I’ll start with the new patentable strontium combination, strontium ranelate. In the two-year study with recently postmenopausal women using 340 milligrams of strontium, the researchers reported more “adverse events” in the placebo group than in the strontium group. The most common complaints in both groups were diarrhea, nausea, gastritis, and indigestion.

In the two-year study of women who previously had one vertebral fracture (obviously in worse health than the early postmenopausal group), there was no significant difference in side effects in either the strontium group or the placebo group, with the sole exception of an elevation of the muscle enzyme creatinine phosphokinase (CPK), which the researchers termed mild, transient, and of “no clinical significance.” But since strontium ranelate is the semi-synthetic, patentable form, I’m not sure I trust the synthetic part of the combination. So, if you decide to take this formulation, be sure to have your CPK levels checked regularly.

In the human studies reported prior to 2002, quantities of up to 1,700 milligrams of strontium per day were taken with no reports of significant side effects.

However, there is a caution from animal studies. Animals deliberately given a low calcium diet and then supplemented with relatively high doses of strontium developed bone deformities. From a purely scientific standpoint, this is a predictable result: Bones contain much more calcium than strontium or any other mineral, so depriving them of what they need, then trying to “make up” for it with only one part of the equation is bound to present problems. Fortunately, there’s much more calcium than strontium in any human diet–so I doubt it would ever happen. But to absolutely safe, follow this simple rule: Always take more calcium than strontium.

Strontium sources you can trust – without resorting to Forteo

Now for a bit of bad news: There’s not enough strontium in our food to have a significant effect if you have osteoporosis already, so if you’re suffering from this condition, you should take strontium in supplement form. But if you don’t have osteoporosis, it’s a good idea to eat foods that contain more strontium to prevent it from occurring. The largest amounts of strontium are found in spices, seafood, whole grains, root and leafy vegetables, and legumes.

Until recently, the only source of supplemental strontium was Osteoprime, the osteoporosis formula put together by Alan Gaby, M.D., and me. But now there are more sources for you to choose from. One of these is called Strontium Support and is made by the company Advanced Orthomolecular Research (AOR) of Calgary. Each capsule of Strontium Support contains 227 milligrams strontium. Check your local natural food or vitamin store to see if they carry this supplement. They can contact AOR at www.AOR.ca. (I have no connection, financial or otherwise, with AOR.) If you can’t find it locally, you can purchase Strontium Support through the Tahoma Clinic Dispensary (see page 8 for contact information).

A final note: Please don’t take injections of Forteo. You really don’t want to be the first non-rat to develop a cancerous bone tumor from taking it. Instead, take the (much safer) road less traveled and add strontium to your supplement program. Take one 227-milligram capsule three times a day. For those without osteoporosis but higher risk (family history, immobility, etc.) one capsule daily is probably adequate for preventive purposes. And make sure you’re taking even more calcium- 1,200-1,500 milligrams a day is a good general range-along with magnesium and other “backup” minerals and other nutrients.

-Jonathan V. Wright, MD