Osteoporosis — loss of the density and quality of bone1 — is a widespread and serious condition. As bones become more fragile and porous, they are at greater risk of fracturing, which is especially consequential for older people, particularly if they become bedridden. Of all individuals over the age of 50, about 50% of women and 25% of men will suffer a fracture in the years to come.2
Many factors can contribute to the development of osteoporosis from aging to smoking, to excessive alcohol consumption and a suboptimal diet, to the side effects of medications, a genetic predisposition or the loss of hormones after menopause.3
Postmenopausal osteoporosis now affects as many as 46 million women in the U.S., according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, because the menopausal years occupy one-third of a woman’s life.4
Replacement hormones and bisphosphonates, drugs that inhibit the resorption and loss of bone by osteoclasts, have been used to treat osteoporosis but, as mentioned in a study in Nutrients,5 their side effects can be so dangerous that they may outweigh the benefits. That is why it is good news that resveratrol, a phytonutrient found in red grapes and berries, has been found to fight and prevent osteoporosis.
Resveratrol Boosts Bone Density for Postmenopausal Women
In a study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research that was conducted at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, researchers detected improvements in bone density in postmenopausal women who were given resveratrol.6
In the study, called “Resveratrol for Healthy Ageing in Women (RESHAW),” women took 75 milligrams (mg) of resveratrol twice daily or a placebo for 12 months, after which researchers measured their bone density by dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry scans, commonly called DXA scans.7
“The modest increase in bone mineral density at the femoral neck with resveratrol resulted in an improvement in the study population’s T-score and a reduction in the 10-year probability of major fracture risk,” said Peter Howe, an author of the study and professor emeritus at the university.8
A T-score is used to measure your bone density.9 In a subanalysis of the study results, subjects who supplemented their resveratrol with vitamin D and calcium showed greater improvement, added Howe.
According to the researchers, resveratrol improved bone density and lowered fracture risk even in women without clear signs of osteoporosis:10
“Following 12 months of supplementation with resveratrol versus placebo, there were positive effects on bone density in the lumbar spine and neck of femur, which were accompanied by a 7.24% reduction in C-terminal telopeptide type-1 collagen levels, a bone resorption marker, compared to placebo …
The magnitude of improvement was higher in women with poor bone health biomarker status … Regular supplementation with 75mg of resveratrol twice daily has the potential to slow bone loss in the lumbar spine and femoral neck, common fracture sites in postmenopausal women without overt osteoporosis.”
Scientists Found Resveratrol-Rich Plums Aid Bone Density
The bone-strengthening benefits of resveratrol have been identified in other studies. In research published in the journal Nutrients,11 scientists found that dried plums (also known as prunes), which are rich in resveratrol,12 showed bone benefits in both animal and human studies.
The researchers removed the ovaries of rats to create an animal model of human menopause and found the “ovariectomy led to significant declines in the bone mineral density (BMD) of the 4th lumbar vertebrae and femurs, as well as a decrease in the tibial trabecular bone area.”13
However, when the rats were given a diet composed of 25% dried plum for 45 days, they didn’t lose bone, leading the researchers to conclude that “dried plum prevented bone loss, in part, by increasing the rate of bone formation, but not through inhibiting bone resorption.”14 Bone can be lost either through lack of bone formation or through bone resorption, which is caused by specialized macrophage cells called osteoclasts.15
The authors of other studies have also shown plum to be beneficial to women’s bone health, wrote the researchers.16 Older postmenopausal women given resveratrol had less loss of BMD than controls and the benefits were retained even when they had not continued eating dried plums. The researchers wrote:17
“Of the 100 women who completed the initial clinical trial, 20 came back for a follow-up visit. All participants, irrespective of group assignment, reported that they did not regularly consume dried plums.
We found that individuals that received the dried plum intervention in our previous one-year clinical trial retained BMD of the ulna and lumbar spine to a greater extent than those who received the dried apple intervention.”
Other Scientists Find Resveratrol Benefits
The authors of a study on the effect of resveratrol on the bones of rats published in the International Journal of Biomedical Science also found bone health benefits of resveratrol when given as a supplement.18
Noting that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was linked to an “increased risk of breast and possibly uterine cancer,” the researchers wrote that women often seek dietary alternatives as disease preventives, including foods that contain resveratrol, such as grapes, peanuts and wine.19
Like the previous study, rats were ovariectomized and lost bone density, just like human women in menopause.20 After treatment with resveratrol, all three groups of ovariectomized rats had bone mineral density measurements at the level of the control, non-ovariectomized rats.21
Moreover, wrote the researchers, the bone density of the ovariectomized rats after they were given resveratrol treatment was superior to comparator rats given estrogen replacement. Plus, the rats’ lumbar region density was nearly the same as the control group’s.22
The bone benefits of resveratrol may come through two separate mechanisms, wrote the researchers — the promotion of osteoblasts, which build bone, and the inhibition of osteoclasts, which cause bone resorption.23
“… trans-resveratrol may promote bone formation by enhancing the osteoblasts’ activity and stimulat[ing] osteoblasts’ proliferation and differentiation … also studies reported significant inhibitive effects of trans-resveratrol on the expression and/or production of cytokines which enhance the osteoclasts’ activities and reduce … bone resorption.”
The authors of a study published in Molecular Medicine Reports about the role of resveratrol in periodontal disease also identified cytokine-related anti-inflammatory actions.24
“… the present study is the first to demonstrate that resveratrol not only enhances the osteogenesis of hPDLSCs [human periodontal ligament stem cells] … but also exerts anti-inflammatory effects by activating this pathway. Ultimately, resveratrol decreases the TNF-α-mediated secretion of inflammatory cytokines …
Therefore, resveratrol may be a good candidate for an anti-inflammatory agent that can induce bone remodeling in response to an inflammatory microenvironment.”
A Safe Alternative for Menopausal Women
As I mentioned above, the use of HRT for menopausal treatment was well established until the Data Safety and Monitoring Board for the Women’s Health Initiative Clinical Trials determined in 2002 that it “did not provide net benefit as measured by” a “… global index … of coronary heart disease, invasive breast cancer, stroke, pulmonary embolism, endometrial cancer, colorectal cancer, hip fracture, and death due to other causes.”25
However, other researchers have argued that HRT did have one clear benefit — it was effective in preventing bone loss and related fractures.26 As HRT was losing favor with millions of women, Big Pharma rolled out the bone drugs called bisphosphonates to keep their customer base. Unfortunately, these drugs, which include the well-known brands of Fosamax and Boniva, come with side effects, some of which can be quite unpleasant (see graph below).
First of all, the very action of the drugs is ill-conceived. Rather than treating the cause of osteoporosis, the bisphosphonates just work to halt calcium loss in your bones by killing off osteoclasts, thus preventing or slowing bone density deterioriation.27
As the medications have become more widely used, there are reports of women who are taking them suffering from serious fractures in their thigh bones — an ordinarily rare occurrence. The bones, which had not been remodeled, “snapped like a twig,” according to reports,28 even during normal daily activities. Normally, the femur or thighbone is one of the strongest bones in your body.
Another serious side effect is osteonecrosis of the jaw, which not only can cause a fracture, but can be painful and sometimes infectious.29 Causing fractures, when the bisphosphonates were supposed to prevent fractures, is only one of the many harmful side effects of this class of drugs. Other side effects include:30
Serious eye inflammation, uveitis
Gastrointestinal issues, flatulence, diarrhea, nausea
Acid regurgitation and esophagitis
Hypocalcemia (blood calcium levels are too low)
These ill-conceived bone drugs are not limited to bisphosphonates. Big Pharma also markets an injectable medication to treat postmenopausal osteoporosis called Prolia.
Like so many of Pharma’s high-priced, injectable and specialty drugs, Prolia is a “biologic” medication, meaning it contains genetically engineered human proteins instead of synthetic chemicals. Some biologics, like the popular Enbrel, contain genetically-modified Chinese hamster ovary cells.31
Since Prolia works in the same way as bisphosphonates, not allowing bone to remodel, it is no surprise that its side effects are similar too. It also inhibits the immune system, inviting infections. The warnings on Prolia’s prescribing information include:32
Serious allergic reactions
Low blood calcium
Unusual thigh bone fractures
Increased fractures, including in the spine
May affect your body’s ability to fight infections
Dermatitis, rash and eczema
Bone, joint or muscle pain
The drugs’ U.S. approval, aggressive marketing and high prices reveal how much the U.S. FDA has been captured by Big Pharma.
Resveratrol Improves the Bones of Obese Men
Finding a dietary alternative that can maintain bone strength and prevent fractures without resorting to dangerous and expensive medications is good news for older women. But it is also good news, it turns out, for obese men. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism notes that people with obesity and metabolic syndrome are at particular risk of osteoporosis.33
“Obesity and metabolic syndrome (MetS) are major health problems worldwide, and due to several severe comorbidities, the health care costs related to these conditions are high. MetS is associated with low-grade inflammation, and inflammation is a major cause of both local and systemic bone loss, caused by excessive bone resorption as well as impaired bone formation.”
The authors conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled study of the effects of resveratrol (RSV) on bone and found:34
“The bone formation marker BAP increased by 16% after 4 weeks in the high-dose RSV group compared with placebo and remained elevated throughout the study … impressive considering the short intervention period of 16 weeks, and the age and phenotype of the trial subjects … we believe that a 2.6% increase over a shorter intervention period in a nonosteoporotic population of obese men makes it worth the effort to further investigate the antiosteoporotic potential of RSV.”
Resveratrol Improves Alcohol-Related Osteoporosis
There is another group that may suffer from osteoporosis in addition to post-menopausal women and those with obesity and metabolic syndrome — people who have used alcohol excessively. According to research published in the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences:35
“One factor that plays a central role in alcohol-induced osteoporosis is the excessive generation of free radicals, which in turn causes oxidative stress. The reactions … eventually lead to reactive oxygen species formation. [It can also] lead to increase in cytokine production which may induce damage in many organs including bone.”
Another way in which excessive alcohol consumption can degrade bone quality is that it can decrease testosterone in men and estrogen levels in women, while increasing cortisol levels, which can reduce bone density.36 Regardless of the mechanism of bone loss, researchers found that in aging alcoholic rats:37
“These findings demonstrate that resveratrol increases bone microstructure and bone mechanical properties in old male rats, suggesting that resveratrol might be used as anti-aging therapy to resist age-induced bone loss.”
A New Benefit to a Valuable Compound
Resveratrol has been linked to many health benefits. It suppresses brain inflammation,38 improves brain blood flow39 and protects against depression.40 It may inhibit plaque buildup,41 decrease fatigue42 and also has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.43 The identification of bone benefits adds another dimension to this wonderful compound.