The Story of Calcium: Benefits and Indications

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body. It is essential for the development and maintenance of strong bones and teeth, which is where nearly all calcium is found in the body. Calcium also helps the heart, nerves, muscles and other body systems work properly. It is probably best known for helping to prevent osteoporosis. The body needs several other nutrients to absorb and use calcium properly, including magnesium, phosphorous and especially vitamins D and K.

The best way to get calcium is through the diet. Many foods are fortified with calcium, but some people may still need to take calcium supplements. It is especially important for children to get enough calcium as they are forming bone, and for older people who are starting to lose bone. Postmenopausal women, people who consume large amounts of caffeine, alcohol or soda and those who take corticosteroid medications may also need calcium supplements. Calcium deficiency is seen in people who don't absorb enough calcium, as can happen with Crohn's disease, celiac disease and as a result of some intestinal surgeries.

Getting enough calcium in the diet may help to treat or prevent the following conditions:

  • Osteoporosis - the body needs calcium to help build and maintain healthy bones and strong teeth. People start to lose more bone than their bodies can make in their 30s, and the process speeds up as they get older. Studies have shown that calcium, particularly in combination with vitamin D, may help prevent bone loss associated with menopause. It may also help prevent bone loss in older men.

  • Hypoparathyroidism - people with this condition have underactive parathyroid glands and should follow a high-calcium, low-phosphorous diet. Often, they will also need to take calcium supplements.

  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) - women who took 1,200 mg of calcium daily were shown to reduce their symptoms of PMS by 50% - including headache, moodiness, food cravings and bloating. Calcium may also help to reduce menstrual pain.

  • High blood pressure (BP) - people who do not get enough calcium may be at higher risk for high BP. However, researchers aren't sure whether calcium supplements are likely to have any benefit in lowering BP.

  • Obesity and weight loss - some studies have shown that eating low-fat dairy products may help lose weight or stay at a healthy weight. However, researchers aren't sure whether the calcium in the dairy products affects weight, or whether it's some other nutrient or even a combination of nutrients. In addition, not all studies have been positive. Clearly, more research is needed.

  • High cholesterol - preliminary studies suggest that calcium supplements, along with exercise and a healthy diet may be better at keeping cholesterol at normal levels than at lowering already high cholesterol.

  • Rickets - Rickets causes softening and weakening of bones in children. Researchers thought rickets was caused by a vitamin D deficiency. However, a study in 2000 showed that taking calcium supplements is an effective treatment.

  • Stroke - in a large population-based study, women who consumed more calcium both through food and supplements were less likely to have a stroke over a 14-year period.

  • Colon cancer - some studies show that people who have higher amounts of calcium, vitamin D and milk in their diets are less likely to develop colorectal cancer than those who have low amounts. But researchers are not sure whether calcium supplements would necessarily benefit, or even whether calcium itself is making the difference.

The richest food sources of calcium include cheeses, low-fat dairy products such as milk and yogurt, tofu and blackstrap molasses. Other good sources of calcium include almonds, brewer's yeast, bok choy, Brazil nuts, broccoli, cabbage, dried figs, kelp, dark leafy greens, hazelnuts, oysters, sardines and canned salmon. Foods that are fortified with calcium, such as juices, soy milk, rice milk, tofu and cereals, are also good sources of this mineral.

Many forms of calcium are available as dietary supplements. The two most popular forms are calcium citrate and calcium carbonate. Calcium citrate is easily absorbed and digested by the body. It does not contain as much elemental calcium - the form the body actually absorbs - as calcium carbonate and is more expensive than calcium carbonate. Also, calcium citrate should not be used with aluminum-containing antacids. Calcium carbonate is less expensive than calcium citrate and contains more elemental calcium. It requires a certain amount of stomach acid to be absorbed, so it is usually taken with a glass of orange juice. Many antacids contain calcium carbonate.

Total calcium intake should not exceed 2500 mg per day. Side effects can include constipation and stomach upset, while very high doses can cause nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, increased urination, kidney damage, confusion and irregular heart rhythm. People suffering from hyperparathyroidism, kidney failure, sarcoidosis or cancer could be at risk for high levels of calcium and should not take calcium supplements. People with a history of kidney stones should also not take calcium supplements. Some population studies suggest that getting high amounts of calcium through the diet may increase the risk of prostate cancer. Some studies have suggested that consuming amounts higher than 1000-1200 mg/day may be associated with an increased risk of heart attacks, but right now it's unclear whether high calcium actually causes an increased risk.

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