What you need to know about calcium
If you are going to try any sort of supplement, always discuss with your doctor and nutrition professional first. This post is for general information purposes only, is not meant to diagnose or treat, and is in no way a replacement for consulting a medical professional.
When most of us think about calcium, we immediately think of drinking milk and having strong bones. However there is so much more to this important mineral that just that! Plus, making sure your body has enough calcium depends on many more factors than just whether you are consuming enough of it in your diet.
Calcium is a mineral – and our body is around 4% made up from minerals. Minerals aren’t something our bodies can produce; we need to get sufficient quantities from our diet. Our body’s supply of minerals is mainly stored in our skeletal system, calcium being the most abundant, and 99% of our calcium is found in our bones.
Benefits of Calcium
In addition to its major function as a key component of our bones and teeth, calcium also helps facilitate the movement of nutrients across the cell membrane. It also initiates the clotting process of blood when needed.
Calcium is one of the key nutrients for our body to maintain the pH level of the blood (meaning it shouldn’t been too acidic nor too basic). If our blood becomes too acidic, then calcium is released from the bone to counterbalance this. And vice versa if our blood becomes too basic. This is an entirely natural process, as our bones are continuously breaking down the old and remodelling it to create the new.
Calcium provides the means for electrical impulses to move along the nerves, it’s what our nervous system uses to conduct electricity and is therefore necessary for neurotransmitter activity.
It provides the electrical energy for our muscular system; the changes of calcium levels in the cells (in opposition to magnesium) is what causes our muscle contractions. It’s what is required by our heart for proper contraction.
Depletion, Deficiency, and Toxicity
There are quite some additional factors that play into whether calcium is being properly absorbed and used in the body. Someone may consume enough calcium on its own, but could still see signs of depletion due an issue with one of its cofactors. Proper absorption and use of calcium relies on the following factors:
Proper digestion: calcium is absorbed primarily in the first section of the small intestine (duodenum) and the environment needs to be properly acidic for this to happen. If we aren’t producing acidic enough stomach acid, this process can be affected and calcium can move along without being absorbed.
Healthy fats: fatty acids from healthy fat sources are needed to move calcium across the cell membrane and help increase the calcium levels of our tissues. (Read more about healthy fats here)
Hydration: consuming enough liquids ensures our blood is fluid enough to transport the calcium around the body
Other minerals & electrolytes: making sure calcium is in balance with other minerals / electrolytes is key to ensuring calcium can move properly in and out of cells.
pH level of the blood: calcium needs to be moved in and out of the blood to balance the acidity of our blood in opposition to phosphorus. Because the body is always trying to keep the pH level in balance, the last place you are likely to see a calcium deficiency is through a blood test.
Hormones: many hormones can affect our calcium levels, through different processes like the management of our bones or the pH level of the blood, or the interplay with other nutrients that can affect calcium levels. Parathyroid hormone, thyroid hormone (calcitonin), our adrenal hormones, and sex hormones can all affect calcium.
Vitamin D: vitamin D works with the parathyroid hormone to increase the level of calcium in the blood when needed. Therefore we need sufficient vitamin D levels in order to effectively use our calcium.
When we don’t have enough calcium our muscles can feel weak and tired. Too little calcium can mean that it is leeched out of the bones for buffering our blood pH and over the long term this can result in conditions like osteoporosis. Deficiency is also linked to issues like periodontal disease, hyperactivity, anxiety, and insomnia.
Our ability to absorb calcium also decreases with age, so keep in mind the cofactors above, as well as vitamins A and C which can help support the normal transport of calcium into our cells. Adequate protein can assist with absorption (although too much can inhibit it), as well as lactose and the protein-fat combination in milk products (so long as they are not low fat). Exercise can also improve absorption and stress can lessen it.
In general, overconsumption or calcium toxicity (excess of 3000mg per day) is fairly rare, generally only occurring with over supplementation and not through a whole foods diet. Too much calcium can cause imbalances with other minerals, especially magnesium. It can also result in too much calcium in the blood, a condition called hypercalcemia. This can lead to calcium being stored in places where it shouldn’t creating soft tissue calcification, bone spurs, or kidney stones.
Dietary Sources of Calcium
Most of us are well aware that calcium can be found in dairy products, and there are a lot of calcium-fortified products out on the market (most notably the non-dairy milk products). But you can also find calcium in the following sources:
- Leafy greens: like spinach, kale, collard greens, turnip greens, beet greens, etc.
- Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
- Broccoli, cauliflower
- Green beans
- Brussels sprouts
- Almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts
If you don’t (or can’t) consume dairy, it is definitely possible to get enough calcium from other sources – although it does take being mindful of what you are eating to ensure you are getting enough.
The recommended dietary allowances for calcium for adults between the ages of 19 and 50 is 950mg per day. (In Belgium, country-specific recommendations can vary.)
If you are taking a calcium supplement it is best to take it between meals when the stomach is more acidic to improve its absorption. Always discuss supplementation with your primary healthcare provider.
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