Is Calcium a Patriot or a Traitor?
By: Holly L. Thacker, MD • Posted on May 28, 2012
Calcium Supplements in the News
As we celebrate and remember the fallen this Memorial Day, we pause to focus on what has made America great. We cherish our liberty and our freedom and we deeply respect those who have served our country and were willing to lay down their life to protect our great nation.
So why am I asking this Memorial Day if calcium is a patriot or a traitor? In the news this week, there have been reports that calcium supplements “may double the risk of heart attack”. Sounds like a traitor? Heart disease is the leading killer of American men and women and thus remains a deep threat to one’s pursuit of health and happiness.
Calcium nearly ranks as high as baseball, apple pie and Mom in terms of its American favorability rating. So what is the real story? Calcium is one of the most abundant and important minerals in the human body. Calcium is not only critical to bone and dental health but plays a critical role in many other parts of the body:
- regulation of muscle contraction
- blood vessel function
- transmission of nerve impulses
- regulation of many enzymes throughout the body
How Does Calcium Work in the Body?
Most of all, calcium is stored in the skeleton and if blood levels drop, calcium is released from the bone to maintain critical levels in the blood stream. Over time, folks with poor dietary calcium intakes, poor gut absorption, or people who have ‘leaky’ kidneys and urinate out too much calcium, develop a negative calcium balance. It’s like overdrawing on your checking account - not a good thing! Conversely, too much calcium in your blood stream is not like having an extra stash of cash, rather elevated blood calcium levels can be a dangerous medical problem.
You cannot just check a calcium blood level to see if you have enough calcium as calcium will always be ‘stolen’ from the bone to maintain normal calcium levels. Because many people are ‘lactose intolerant’ meaning intolerant to the milk sugar lactose and lack the lactase enzyme to break down the milk sugar lactose, which causes gas and bloating, many times physicians will thus prescribe calcium supplements to people who avoid dairy in their diet. Estrogen deficiency and vitamin D deficiency also impedes the gut absorption of calcium. People with histories of calcium oxalate kidney stones should have urinary levels checked and generally should only take calcium CITRATE supplements if needed and avoid too much sodium/salt which promotes calcium loss in the urine.
Should Women Take Calcium Supplements?
It is best to obtain calcium in your diet, just like it is best to obtain your nutrients from your diet and not in some pill or supplement. The consensus is that calcium does NOT cause heart attacks; however, it is important to discuss your diet, supplement use, and lifestyle habits with your physician.
So on this Memorial Day, as you gather with friends and family to remember our American heroes, celebrate with calcium-rich foods that strengthen your bones:
- Yogurt topped with fresh blueberries and strawberries.
- Salmon on the grill.
- Dark leafy greens in your salad.
- A scoop of ice cream along that slice of Mom’s apple pie!
-Holly L. Thacker, M.D.