Calcium Conundrum

I have a confession to make. I am the worst pill taker. I am always so impressed when I ask people if they take supplements and they proceed to rattle off a list about a mile long. I am lucky if I can remember to take one supplement, let alone two. It is not that I mind swallowing pills, because if I have to, I can take 10 pills at once. No, it is really a matter of remembering to take them. I am lost if I have to remember to take something two or more times per day. However, as we age I know there are certain vitamins and minerals that I should be taking or at least making sure they are found in the foods that I am eating as part of my daily diet. One of these important nutrients that everyone “should” be including is calcium. Most people think of calcium for bones or that only women need to be taking it, but calcium is not just for women and not just for bones!

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body and one of the most important. Calcium and magnesium work together in the body on blood, nerves, muscles and tissues. In particular, they work to regulate heart and muscle contraction, as well as nerve conduction. Heart function, in particular the regulation of the heartbeat, is aided by calcium because of its ability to stimulate contraction of muscles. The way that calcium aids the nervous system is through nerve transmission. It influences nerve and cell membranes and the release of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine. This is often why calcium is said to have a calming effect on the nerves and in higher concentrations tends to decrease nerve irritability. If there is not enough calcium circulating in the blood to aid in these functions, the body naturally pulls the calcium from the bones, weakening them and possibly causing osteoporosis.

Calcium is the primary mineral needed to build bones, but it also needs other vitamins and minerals to aid in its absorption and function, such as magnesium, boron and vitamin D. Women are not the only group susceptible to osteoporosis, although it is most common in elderly, white women. Calcium deficiency is common in adults, often because their dietary intake of calcium is reduced. This deficiency is also common among pregnant and nursing women and supplementation of this important mineral may help leg cramps during pregnancy as well as fatigue and depression after delivery.

Other problems that are often solved with calcium supplementation include: leg cramps in children; menstrual problems such as menstrual cramps, irritability, and muscle cramps that occur around menstruation; PMS; generalized muscle cramps or leg or foot cramps; loose teeth, gingivitis, and periodontal disease; and regulating the contraction and relaxation of the heart, which may in turn aid in congestive heart failure.

In order for enough calcium to be available in the body for all of these functions, it is important to look at the general absorption of the mineral and what factors aid or reduce it. Most likely, 50-70% of the calcium ingested will get absorbed into the body. Vitamins D, A and C can help support normal membrane transport of calcium. Protein intake helps absorb calcium, but too much may reduce it. The same may be found with fats, some dietary fat may aid it, while too much may reduce it. Having good stomach acids will also help in calcium’s absorption, as will exercise. (This is why taking TUMS as a calcium supplement is not a good idea – calcium needs the stomach acid for absorption so while TUMS may contain calcium it is also reducing the absorption by decreasing the acids in the stomach.)  Calcium absorption may also be reduced by phosphorous rich foods, such as soda, diet sodas, processed foods such as lunch meats and cheese spreads.

There are two options for increasing the consumption of calcium in your diet:

1. Take a supplement, or

2. Eat more calcium rich foods.

When looking into a supplement, it is important to look at what form of the calcium is being supplied, how many milligrams is in the supplement, as well as what other vitamins and minerals are in the supplement to aid with its absorption. There are many different forms of calcium to choose from and the appropriate form depends upon your specific needs. Calcium citrate malate (CCM) is well absorbed by the body and may be more effective in keeping bones strong than some other forms. Calcium carbonate absorbs as well as the calcium in milk, it’s inexpensive, and also requires the fewest number of tablets to reach an appropriate level, which makes it a popular choice for many people. Calcium carbonate is the main ingredient of coral calcium supplements and also antacids, such as Tums®, which is why some people rely on those as a calcium supplement. Calcium amino acid chelates have not been well studied, though they appears to be well-absorbed by the body. Microcrystalline hydroxyapatite is a bonemeal variation that has been shown to build bone mass in people with certain conditions.

It is important that you are getting the most for your money, so look for a supplement that contains at least 300-500mg per capsule, depending on how much you need to take daily. The recommendation daily allowance (RDA) has increased in the last several years. Doctors and nutritionist are now recommending that children get at least 800mg per day while women and men should have between 1000-1300mg/day depending upon the age.

It is also important to make sure that there is at least Vitamin D and magnesium in the supplement, along with the calcium in order to insure the proper absorption of calcium. Most doctors prescribe calcium with vitamin D because they are unaware of the importance of magnesium. Since magnesium and calcium compete for the same absorption site, taking one without the other will lead to an imbalance, which then will lead to unwanted symptoms, depending upon which is out of balance. Avoid this by taking a complete formula. If you have been diagnosed with osteopinea or osteoporosis, look for a formula that has even more absorption boosters and other vitamins and minerals that will help with bone formation. When in doubt, ask your health care practitioner for help in choosing the best formula for you.

Personally, since I am not a consistent supplement taker, I try to get most of my nutrients from the food that I eat. Foods that contain dairy are good sources of calcium, but sometimes not the most absorbable. Surprisingly, there are many foods that are probably already part of your normal diet which also supply a good amount of this bone-building nutrient. For example, almonds, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, figs, collard, dandelion, beet and turnip greens, broccoli, buckwheat (kasha), parsley and many more. Click here for a more complete list.  So, if you also have a bad memory when it comes to taking pills, try incorporating more calcium rich foods into your daily menu.  Here is a recipe for a great snack to have on your desk or to carry in your purse!

sweet nut mix

Sweet Nut Mix

1 c. nuts and seeds (almonds, brazil nuts, sesame seeds plus any other favorites)

1/3 c. maple syrup

¼ tsp. Cinnamon (optional)

In a small bowl, coat the nuts and seeds evenly with the maple syrup.  Spread on a sprayed cookie sheet, sprinkle with cinnamon and bake at 350oF for 15-20 minutes.  Remove from oven and immediately place the nuts on a plate to cool.  Nuts should become crunchy.  Toss on salads or straight in your mouth.

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About acunut

Acupuncturist, Nutritionist and co-director of Wellspring Holistic Center with Anita Bondi

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