What Is It?
The most abundant mineral in the human body, calcium has long been recognized for its ability to keep bones healthy and strong. New research indicates that it may also be an effective weapon against high blood pressure, heart attack, PMS (premenstrual syndrome), and colon cancer. Unfortunately, most Americans consume only about half the dietary calcium their bodies require.
For people who find it difficult to incorporate calcium-rich foods into their diet, there are a number of supplements widely available, including calcium carbonate, calcium gluconate, calcium citrate, calcium citrate malate, calcium lactate, and calcium phosphate. The amount of elemental (pure) calcium in a supplement depends on the compound it’s combined with. Calcium combined with carbonate supplies 40% elemental calcium, for example, while calcium combined with gluconate provides only 9%. Recent findings indicate that the amount of elemental calcium you ultimately absorb (and use) differs from compound to compound as well. Most people appear to better absorb the elemental calcium in calcium citrate supplements, for example, than the elemental calcium in calcium carbonate.
Most of the body’s calcium is stored in the bones and teeth, where it is instrumental in keeping them strong. The small amount of calcium circulating in the bloodstream helps to produce the hormones and enzymes that regulate energy release, digestion, and metabolism. Calcium also facilitates the movement of nutrients across cell membranes. In addition, this mineral helps nerve cells to communicate normally, aids muscle contraction, and promotes blood clotting. To perform these essential functions, the body simply takes as much calcium as it needs from the bones. Unfortunately, if there’s too little calcium in your diet to replenish this supply, your bones will eventually suffer, and become porous, weak, and prone to breaking.
Calcium is often taken in supplement form in combination with vitamin D and magnesium. The body actually makes vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight; vitamin D is also readily available through food (fortified milk is an excellent source). Between 200 and 400 IU of vitamin D are needed daily to ensure that calcium will be properly absorbed and used. And because calcium can inhibit the absorption of magnesium–an important healing mineral in its own right–many conditions, from depression to anxiety, should be treated with a calcium and magnesium combination.
Specifically, calcium may help to:
Maintain healthy bones and prevent or slow osteoporosis. Getting enough of this mineral every day, over a lifetime, will help prevent this bone-thinning disease, which can gradually lead to bone fractures, stooped posture, and loss of height. Although the body is best equipped to absorb calcium and establish adequate bone mass (mineral content) before age 35, everyone can benefit from high calcium intake to maintain the health of bones (and teeth). In fact, studies of people over age 65 show that adding calcium-rich foods and calcium supplements to their diet reduces their risk of bone loss and fractures.
Relieve back pain. If you suffer from back problems, try calcium, alone or in combination with magnesium, to help strengthen your bones and cartilage.
Treat high blood pressure. Some studies have found that calcium supplements can keep blood pressure in check. A few studies even indicate that a diet rich in calcium derived from low-fat dairy products, fruits, and vegetables may be as effective as some prescription medications at lowering high blood pressure. Because calcium helps muscles to contract, it also keeps the heart and blood vessels performing efficiently.
Prevent colon cancer. Recent studies suggest that individuals who are susceptible to colon cancer are less likely to develop the disease if they follow a calcium-rich diet or take calcium supplements. The mineral seems to reduce the irritating effects of bile acids and fatty acids in the colon, which, if left unchecked, can cause abnormal cell growth.
Ease the symptoms of PMS and endometriosis. A growing body of research indicates that calcium supplements may relieve irritability, mood swings, depression, and other PMS symptoms. The theory is that low calcium levels contribute to PMS-related hormonal imbalances. A recent study of hundreds of women reported that daily calcium supplements (two 750 mg tablets twice a day) reduced the severity of PMS symptoms by nearly 50%, compared with only a 30% reduction for women taking a placebo. And for women who suffer from painful cramps as a result of endometriosis, research indicates that taking magnesium along with calcium during menstruation may bring some relief.
Reduce heartburn. Taking calcium carbonate in the form of antacid tablets such as Tums can neutralize gastric acid and relieve the burning sensation and other symptoms of heartburn. The chewable tablets provide the fastest relief.
Fight insomnia. Some people experience sleep problems due to low levels of calcium. Supplementing the diet with calcium as well as magnesium–another nutrient that may be depleted in insomnia sufferers–may ultimately lead to sounder slumber.
Prevent migraines. Taking calcium and magnesium on a long-term basis may thwart these debilitating headaches. Both minerals help to maintain healthy blood vessel function throughout the body, including the brain. Note: Calcium has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Calcium.
The government recently established new goals for the daily intake of calcium for men and women. Called AI (Adequate Intake), the figures below supplant the old RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) and represent the amount of daily calcium that all individuals in the following age groups should try to meet:
For men and women ages 19 to 50: 1,000 mg a day.
For men and women ages 50 to 70: 1,200 mg a day. For more information on Adequate Intake and other dietary guidelines, see Government Dietary Guidelines.
If You Get Too Little
Over time, a calcium deficiency can cause thinning of the bones, which can result in osteoporosis or other bone problems.
Insufficient amounts of calcium in the blood can provoke muscle spasms.
If You Get Too Much
Even at daily doses as high as 2,500 mg from both food and supplement sources, calcium appears to be safe.
The absorption of zinc, iron, and magnesium may be hindered by calcium, particularly when calcium is taken in high doses. Take a multimineral supplement to ensure balanced absorption of these other nutrients.
Very high doses from calcium supplements (in the range of 2,500 mg a day) can cause kidney stones, a complication apparently due to dehydration. Be sure get plenty of fluid when taking calcium at any dosage level.
Calcium carbonate may cause gas and constipation in some cases. If this happens, switch to calcium citrate. This should resolve the problem.
General Dosage Information
Special tips: Your body can’t absorb more than about 500 mg of calcium at a time, so divide a daily dose of 1,000 mg, for example, into two doses of 500 mg and take them at different times of the day.
In addition, when calculating your dose, make sure to look at the amount of “pure” or “elemental” calcium, not just the weight of each pill. The packaging will usually provide this information. For example, a 600 mg calcium carbonate tablet contains 240 mg of elemental calcium.
For osteoporosis: Take 600 mg elemental calcium twice a day.
For the prevention and treatment of the majority of conditions mentioned: Every day, get 1,000 to 1,200 mg of elemental calcium from foods, supplements, or a combination of the two. Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Calcium, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance. Dosages for calcium/vitamin D and calcium/magnesium combinations are listed as well.
Guidelines for Use
Make sure to get l,000 to l,200 mg of elemental calcium daily.
Take calcium with food–it’s best absorbed that way. Orange juice and other foods with calcium citrate mixed right in can now easily be found on grocery store shelves.
Avoid calcium supplements made from bone meal, oyster shells, or dolomite; they may contain high levels of lead.
People over age 65 are advised to use calcium citrate because they may not have enough stomach acid to absorb calcium carbonate.
Don’t consume calcium within one to three hours of taking an antibiotic such as doxycycline, minocycline, or tetracycline. It may decrease the absorption of the drug.
If you use thiazide diuretics, consult your doctor before taking calcium supplements. When taken together, they can cause dangerously high calcium levels in the body, possibly resulting in kidney failure. Note: For information on interactions with specific generic drugs, see our WholeHealth Chicago Drug/Nutrient Interactions Chart.
If you have thyroid or kidney disease, consult your doctor before taking calcium supplements.
Cancer Prevention 1,000 mg a day
Gum Disease 600-1,200 mg daily, depending on individual need Heartburn 250-500 mg calcium carbonate 3 times a day
Kidney Stones 500-1,000 mg a day
Muscle Aches and Pains 500 mg twice a day
Osteoporosis 500-800 mg twice a day
Thyroid Disease For hypo and hyper: 1,000 mg a day
David Edelberg, M.D.
These two important minerals are needed throughout the body not only for healthy bones, but also for properties important for muscle contraction, transmission of nerve impulses, and chemical reactions within cells.
HOW IT HELPS BACK PAIN
People with back problems need to work on strengthening their bones and cartilage. This is particularly important if the cause of their chronic back pain is the slow degeneration of bone called osteoporosis. This age-related condition can lead to compression fractures, where over time the bones of the spine don’t break (like most fractures) but instead slowly get squashed, or compressed. Taking calcium and magnesium is a good preventive measure: Not only do these minerals help head off osteoporosis, they can also help maintain the maximum health and well-being of your spine.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Many people (and actually doctors, too) get confused when faced with the vast array of magnesium/calcium combination products now available, wondering which is “best.” Overall it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference, as long as the minerals get absorbed into your body. I prefer products that include three or four different forms of both calcium and magnesium–just in case you’re a person who has trouble absorbing one specific type of either mineral. These products may include a combination of any of the following: Calcium forms: Carbonate, citrate, or malate Magnesium forms: Citrate, aspartate, or carbonate
The only product to avoid (athough it tends to be economical) is calcium derived from ground-up oyster shells. This is simply because of the possibility of contamination.
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