You have probably seen the recent headlines about a study just released that correlated calcium supplementation with an increase risk of heart attacks and strokes. This certainly confuses people because it has been drilled into us through the media and many doctors that calcium can only be good for us. I find that some people are afraid to stop taking calcium because of what they have learned. When I suggest to my patients that they stop taking calcium because it is probably causing their digestive issues and constipation their response is usually “where am I going to get my calcium?” A very understandable response given what we have been told.
There are a couple of problems with the mantra of “take a calcium supplement”. One is the form of the calcium. A large number of people buy calcium from GNC or CVS and it is most often partially (or fully) comprised of calcium carbonate. This can be a gastrointestinal nightmare for some. Also it isn’t the best way to get the calcium to where it needs to go? You may have read it is very absorbable, but is it bioavailable? Most likely it is not very usable by the body except for the most calcium deficient individuals which is often the elderly. Sure research shows taking calcium is beneficial, but it is not without its unwanted side effects.
The second problem is taking calcium unopposed. Any time you take a high dosage of a nutrient in isolation you will create imbalances in the body. Too much magnesium depletes calcium, too much calcium depletes magnesium, too much zinc depletes copper, too much magnesium deplete Thiamin, Vitamin D can deplete Vitamins K,A and E..the list goes on and on. Also is this really the best form to take these supplements? There are many concerns about taking isolated nutrients without food cofactors.
I have increased patient’s bone density (determined via standard bone scan) without giving them any calcium, but rather other minerals in low doses and vitamin D. The bottom line is that our health is a concert of nutrients, not a solo. It isn’t about X vitamin/mineral for Y disease. It is about the interplay of all the known nutrients (and unknown) and the balance within our individual bodies. Using synthetic nutrients to course correct for short periods of time or using low dosage of synthetic nutrients for a longer period of time may be a safe option. Or if you prefer to use whole food based vitamins then there are retail brands such as New Chapter and professional brands such as Right Foods. However using calcium alone or just a calcium magnesium product because you heard it was good may not be a wise option.
If you have known osteopenia or osteoporosis or a high risk then you should most likely take an extra calcium supplement that is a form of Hydroxyapatite (sometimes written MCHC). There is a good retail brand called BoneUp and there are also several professional brands. This is a much smarter way to increase calcium levels in the body as it has other bone density cofactors. Of course Vitamin D supplementation will also increase calcium absorption and can thereby improve bone density. There is also a relatively new supplement popular the last 5 years called strontium which has been shown to increase bone density (this is taken between meals away from calcium). There are other conditions whereby calcium and magnesium supplements may be helpful such as pre-eclampsia during pregnancy and migraine headaches. Certainly you can try these and use them for the short term.
Great food sources of bioavailable calcium are of course many dairy products such as yogurt and milk and some cheeses. Chicken broth made from bones and beef broth also contain calcium and many other beneficial minerals. And of course sardines with bones and canned salmon are great sources of calcium.
So take a calcium supplement if you need it (at risk or currently have bone loss). But take it in a form with other nutrients not just calcium by itself. Also take the correct form of calcium in one of the better products mentioned above or just eat canned fish with bones, broccoli and don’t drink things that compete with calcium such as phosphates in sodas.
Yours In Health,
Certified Nutrition Specialist
Diplomat Oriental Medicine