Calcium is an essential mineral. Although the body doesn’t produce calcium on its own, calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, as 99% of calcium is found in our bones and teeth.
6 Potential Benefits of Calcium
- Improves Bone Strength
- Prevents Osteoporosis
- Reduces Inflammation
- Reduces Blood Pressure
- Helps with Fat Loss
- Reduces Risk of Colon Cancer
Calcium is also found in the bloodstream, where it’s vital for the regulation of muscle contractions, blood clotting, nerve signals, and the release of hormones such as insulin.
Food Sources of Calcium
Calcium is readily available in food sources (in both dairy and non-dairy products). The following foods have high amounts of calcium:
- Dairy products such as cheese, milk, and yogurt
- Leafy vegetables such as kales, spinach, and broccoli
- Calcium-fortified foods and beverages such as milk substitutes, cereal, fruit juices, and soymilk.
- Beans and Lentils
- Soft-boned fish such as canned salmon
Vitamin D and calcium are the two most essential nutrients for bone health. Vitamin D helps in the absorption of calcium into the body and supports our muscles and plays a vital role in bone protection. You can obtain Vitamin D through sun exposure as well as from foods such as canned salmon, tuna, beef liver, and egg yolks.
Calcium supplements are especially useful for people who cannot get enough calcium from their diet alone. Although it is possible to get sufficient amounts of calcium through food, research shows that children and adults aged 50 years and older are at risk of not getting enough calcium in their diets.
Furthermore, consider that 37% of skeletal bone mass is formed during puberty; therefore, an adolescents’ total calcium intake is likely to be insufficient.
Calcium supplements are available in a wide range of products, including chewable, capsules, tablets, and powders. Calcium supplements are made up of different kinds of calcium compounds. Each of these compounds has a varying amount of mineral calcium (elemental calcium).
The two primary supplement forms of calcium are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate.
Calcium carbonate is cheap and the most widely available calcium supplement. Calcium carbonate contains approximately 40% elemental calcium.
However, calcium carbonate has been associated with various side effects, such as bloating, constipation, and gas. For optimal absorption of calcium carbonate, you are advised to take calcium carbonate with food.
Calcium citrate contains 21% elemental calcium and is more expensive than other calcium. However, calcium citrate is easily absorbed and can be taken with or without food.
Calcium citrate is ideal for people taking medications for acid reflux as well as people with irritable bowel syndrome. Other forms of calcium supplements include calcium gluconate (9% calcium) and calcium lactate (13% calcium).
Inflammation and Blood Pressure
Vitamin D plays a significant role in the absorption of calcium. Research published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine shows vitamin D can be used together with calcium supplements to reduce inflammation and improve blood pressure.
Studies done on pregnant women found that taking calcium supplements affects their children’s blood pressure at age seven. It was discovered that these children have lower blood pressure than children whose mothers did not take calcium supplements.
For overweight and vitamin D deficient women with Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), taking calcium and vitamin D supplements improved inflammation, insulin, and triglyceride level metabolic markers.
Calcium and Fat Loss
Calcium intake has been associated with a high body mass index (BMI) and high body fat percentage. Research published in the Nutrition Journal discovered that obese and overweight college students who took 600 mg of calcium per day and 125 IUs of vitamin D are likely to lose more body fat than those who didn’t take calcium.
Prevent Bone Loss in Postmenopausal Women
Menopause is associated with a decline in estrogen, which leads to a loss in bone mass in postmenopausal women. However, taking 1,000 mg/day of calcium helped postmenopausal women reduce bone loss by 1-2%.
This is especially seen in women with low calcium intake who take vitamin D supplements in the first two years. However, research shows taking large doses of calcium supplements don’t provide any additional benefits.
Reduced Risk of Colon Cancer
Studies show that calcium consumption in the form of dairy products and supplements reduces the risk of colon cancer.
Should You Take Calcium Supplements?
Calcium deficiency can lead to weak and brittle bones. However, certain groups of people are, despite eating a balanced diet, more likely to find it difficult to get enough calcium and may require additional calcium supplementation:
- People who follow vegan (no animal products) and ovo-vegan (eat eggs but no dairy products) diets.
- Postmenopausal women, since they are at a higher risk of osteoporosis and cannot absorb calcium well. Taking calcium supplements can slow the rate of bone loss.
- People with lactose intolerance; which makes it challenging to digest natural sugar in milk. These people can consider taking supplements or calcium-rich dairy products such as yogurt and cheese, which are low in lactose.
- People who have high protein and sodium-rich diets. This type of food causes the body to excrete more calcium.
- Individuals who have health conditions such as Crohn’s disease. This limits calcium absorption by the body.
Calcium supplements can help fill the gap for people not getting enough calcium from their food. However, despite calcium’s availability as a supplement, you should consult your doctor first before taking a calcium supplement.
The Right Calcium Supplement
The following factors should be considered when taking calcium supplements:
Amount of Elemental Calcium
Elemental calcium is the actual amount of calcium in the supplement. This is the amount of calcium that your body will absorb for bone growth. For instance, calcium carbonate contains 40% elemental calcium; thus, taking 1,250 mg of calcium carbonate means you get 500 mg of elemental calcium.
As mentioned earlier, calcium supplements help fill the gap between the amount of calcium you source from food and the amount of calcium you need per day. This should be based on the recommended daily intake.
Therefore, if you get 700 mg of calcium per day through food and need 1,200 mg/day, you should take one 500 mg/day of calcium supplement. You can determine the amount of calcium in one serving by checking the Supplement Fact label on the package.
Calcium supplements are known to interact with various prescription medications, including antibiotics, blood pressure medicine, bisphosphonates, and synthetic thyroid hormones.
Calcium competes with other minerals such as iron, magnesium, and zinc for absorption. Therefore, people with a deficiency in these should consider taking calcium supplements in between meals.
Other factors you might consider:
- Your body’s tolerance to some of the side effects such as bloating and constipation.
- The supplement form; for people having trouble swallowing pills, you can go for chewable or liquid supplements.
- Quality, cost, and absorbability.
Safety and Side Effects
Research shows that dietary calcium is generally safe. However, taking too much calcium is dangerous. Contrary to common belief, taking excessive calcium will not provide extra bone protection. It is more likely to lead to an increase in the levels of calcium in the blood.
This leads to hypercalcemia, a condition characterized by depression, irritability, nausea, and stomach pains. This condition is also caused by taking excessive vitamin D supplements since this encourages the absorption of more calcium from your diet.
Hypercalcemia can lead to vascular and soft tissue calcification, hypercalciuria, and kidney stones.
Furthermore, too much calcium puts you at risk of kidney stones. A study done on postmenopausal women taking 1,000 mg/day of calcium and 400 IU/day of vitamin D found that these supplements increased their risk of kidney stones.
Besides, this risk is also known to increase when your calcium intake exceeds 1,200-1,500 mg/day. In addition, the Institute of Medicines advises that taking more than 2000 mg/day of calcium will increase your risk of kidney stones.
Research on the other potential health problems associated with calcium supplements has provided mixed results. Therefore, there is a need for more conclusive research.
Some of these problems include:
- Increased risk of heart diseases such as heart attack and stroke. Researchers have opposed this suggestion, with some suggesting combining calcium with vitamin D is likely to negate the risk of heart disease.
- Increases the risk of Prostate Cancer. Some observational studies have linked excessive calcium to prostate cancer. However, other randomized controlled studies have proved the contrary, showing that people who took the supplement had a lower risk of prostate cancer.
The amount of calcium intake per day depends on factors such as age and gender. The body’s efficiency to absorb calcium decreases with age; hence, people over 70 years should have higher intakes.
According to the Institute of Medicine, the average recommended dietary allowances of calcium by age are as follows:
- Women aged 50 years and younger – 1,000 mg/day
- Women aged 51 and older – 1,200 mg/day
- Men aged 70 years and younger – 1,000 mg/day
- Men aged 71 and older – 1,200 mg/day
It is worth noting that a lack of calcium leads to the body drawing calcium from your skeleton and teeth to compensate for any calcium deficiencies.
In children, inadequate calcium may lead to them not reaching their full potential adult height. On the other hand, adults are likely to have a low bone mass, which ultimately leads to weak bones causing osteoporosis.
Effectiveness of Calcium
Calcium supplements have multiple health benefits, including bone health, lowering blood pressure, preeclampsia, and weight loss. Although there are suggestions linking calcium supplements to heart disease, the implications are not clear. Besides, this risk is only observable when calcium is taken in large doses.
Therefore, it is advisable to supplement (if necessary) in small doses while getting most of your calcium from calcium-rich foods. Keep in mind that calcium supplementation is most likely unnecessary, and you should consult with your doctor first before supplementing with calcium as the side effects can be quite serious.