Renowned for preventing – or at least minimising – the devastating effects of osteoporosis, Calcium is now thought to lower high blood pressure and prevent colon cancer.
Unfortunately, this important mineral is often seriously lacking in the modern Australian and New Zealand diet.
What it is
Although calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, most adults get about half the amount they need each day. Eating enough calcium-rich foods may be difficult, but you can prevent a deficiency by taking supplements.
A wide array of products is available. The most common forms are calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, calcium hydroxyapatite, calcium gluconate, calcium phosphate and calcium lactate.
A supplement’s elemental (or pure) calcium depends on its accompanying compound. Calcium carbonate (useful in antacids to relieve heartburn) provides 40% elemental calcium, while calcium gluconate supplies 9%. The lower the calcium content, the more pills you need to meet recommended amounts.
What it does
The majority of the body’s calcium is stored in the bones and teeth, where it provides strength and structure. The small amount circulating in the bloodstream helps move nutrients across cell membranes and plays a role in producing the hormones and enzymes that regulate digestion and metabolism.
Calcium is also needed for normal communication among nerve cells, for blood clottig, for wound healing and for muscle contraction. To have enough of this mineral available in the blood to perform vital functions, the body will ‘steal’ it from the bones. Over time, many calcium ‘withdrawals’ leave bones porous and fragile. Only an adequate daily calcium intake will maintain healthy levels in the blood and provide an ample reserve for the bones.
Getting enough calcium throughout life is a central factor in preventing osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease that increases the risk of hip and vertebrae fractures, spinal deformities and loss of height.
The body is best equipped to absorb calcium and build up bone mass before the age of 35, but it’s never too late to increase your intake. Several studies show that, even in people over the age of 65, taking calcium supplements and eating calcium-rich foods help to maintain bone density and reduce the risk of fractures.
By limiting the irritating effects of bile acids in the colon, calcium may reduce the incidence of colon cancer.
Other research indicates that diets that include plenty of calcium – as well as fruits and vegetables – may actually help to lower blood pressure as much as some prescription medications do.
- Maintains bones and teeth.
- Helps to prevent progressive bone loss and osteoporosis.
- Aids heart and muscle contraction, nerve impulses and blood clotting.
- May help to lower blood pressure in people with hypertension.
- Eases heartburn.
How much you need
The RDI is 800 mg for adults, and 1000 mg for women after menopause. Many nutritionists, however, would recommend a minimum intake of 1200 mg for all adults.
If you get too little: A prolonged calcium deficiency can lead to bone abnormalities, such as osteoporosis. Muscle spasms can results from low levels of calcium in the blood.
If you get too much: A daily calcium intake as high as 2500 mg from a combination of food and supplements appears to be safe. However, taking calcium supplements may impair the body’s absorption of the minerals zinc, iron and magnesium. And very high doses of calcium from supplements might lead to kidney stones. Calcium carbonate may cause wind or constipation; in this case, switch to calcium citrate.
How to take it
Be sure to get the recommended amount of 800-1000 mg of elemental calcium a day from foods, supplements or both. When taking supplements, it’s vital that the additional calcium be balanced by magnesium (or at least helf the dose of calcium), zinc, silicon and, preferably, boron. Combined formulations containing these mineral are available.
Guidelines for use
To enhance absorption, divide your supplement dose so that you don’t consume more than 600 mg of calcium at any one time, and be sure to take the supplements with food.
While dairy products (preferably low-fat) are usually recommended as the most plentiful sources of calcium, some nutritonists think that the pasteurisation process may reduce the absorption of calcium.
Yoghurt, being predigested, may be the best dairy source of ‘bioavailable’ calcium. Good nondairy sources include canned salmon and sardines (eaten with the soft bones), broccoli and almonds.
People who have thyroid or kidney disease should check with their health practitioner before taking calcium. Also, calcium may interact with some drugs, particularly tetracycline antibiotics.
Summing up: In order to maintain optimum levels of Calcium you should make sure to:
- Exercise regularly, especially weight-bearing and muscle strengthening exercise
- Obtain adequate Vitamin D, whether through diet, exposure to sunshine, or supplement
- Obtain enough Calcium to reduce the amount the body has to borrow from bone
- Obtain adequate Magnesium and Vitamin K, found in green-leafy vegetables
- Do not overindulge in alcohol, caffeine, sugar or soft drinks
Calcium deficiency is usually due to either an inadequate intake of Calcium or a failure of metabolism. When blood Calcium levels drop too low, the vital mineral is "borrowed' from the bones and It is returned to the bones from Calcium supplied through the diet as long as there is adequate intake of Calcium rich foods or supplementation.
The average person loses 400 to 500mg of Calcium per day. If an individual's diet is low in Calcium, there may not be sufficient amounts of Calcium available in the blood to be returned to the bones to maintain strong bones and total body health, thus giving rise to risks of osteoporosis and heart disease.
Signs of deficiency can include extreme nerve sensitivity muscle spasms, and leg cramps (called tetany) or symptoms of osteoporosis