Everything You Need To Know About Calcium

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Most people know about calcium’s bone-building properties, but this important mineral actually has quite a few health benefits you may not know about. Furthermore, there are many lesser-known sources of calcium aside from cow’s milk that can help you increase your intake to the appropriate daily amount. Additionally, your body needs certain essential nutrients to be able to absorb and process calcium properly.

What Does Calcium Do in the Body?

Calcium is widely known for its ability to help build and maintain strong bones and teeth. Because calcium is stored in the bones and teeth, it helps them to maintain a strong, hard structure. Bones are constantly changing and using the calcium stored within them, so it's important to always get a sufficient amount of calcium in your diet.

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As you age, your bones break down more rapidly, which means you'll need more calcium in order to prevent bone loss. That's why calcium is used to prevent osteoporosis, which is especially problematic for post-menopausal women.

Aside from bone strength, calcium helps with several other functions in the body. Calcium helps the heart, nerves and muscles work properly. It also plays a role in several metabolic functions, such as nerve transmission, intracellular signaling, secretion of hormones, and blood flow. Additionally, calcium may help to prevent certain diseases and conditions, including osteoporosis, obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

It's important to note that without certain minerals and vitamins, calcium cannot be properly absorbed or utilized by the body. Make sure you are also getting adequate amounts of magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin D, and vitamin K in your diet to ensure that your body can take advantage of your calcium consumption.

Sources of Calcium

Dairy products are the richest source of calcium. Foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese have a higher calcium content than any other foods. However, there are several non-dairy sources of calcium as well, including tofu, beans and lentils, Brazil nuts, cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, almonds, dried figs, turnips, collards, mustard, kale, and Swiss chard.

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Some seafood dishes, including oysters, sardines and salmon, are also good sources of calcium. In addition to foods that naturally contain calcium, you can also purchase several types of foods which are fortified with calcium. Look closely at labels on fruit juice, soy milk, and cereals to see if they have been fortified with this mineral.

Vitamin D plays an essential role in improving calcium absorption and can be obtained through daily sun exposure and/or by eating fatty fish (tuna and salmon), mushrooms, cheese, and eggs. To maximize your body’s calcium absorption, make sure you are also getting an adequate amount of vitamin D as well.

Because calcium is so important for proper body functioning, many people also take a calcium supplement. Of the different types of calcium supplements, calcium citrate and calcium carbonate are the two most popular forms available. Though calcium carbonate is less expensive, calcium citrate is generally easier to absorb and digest. Because some calcium supplements also contain magnesium or vitamin D, you should check with your physician to ensure you are taking the proper supplement while avoiding medication or condition cross-reactions.

Are There Side Effects to Calcium Supplements?

When individuals get the recommended amount of calcium each day through a balanced diet, there are generally no negative side effects present. Side effects tend to present themselves when too much calcium is ingested, which is more likely to occur when an individual takes calcium supplements. Excess calcium can lead to constipation and upset stomach in milder cases. When very high doses of calcium are consumed, more severe symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, confusion, kidney toxicity, or irregular heart rhythms may appear.

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In rare cases, people may suffer from a medical condition which results in the body having too much calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia). This typically occurs in people with hyperparathyroidism, kidney failure, cancer, or sarcoidosis. Individuals with these conditions should not take calcium supplements.

Additionally, there are certain medications which should not be combined with calcium supplements without consulting a physician's. These medications include antacids, blood pressure medications, cholesterol-lowering medications, estrogens, diuretics, anti-seizure medications, and antibiotics.

Symptoms of Calcium Deficiency:

Though many people do have a calcium deficiency, it is typically very minor and does not result in any immediate symptoms. However, over the long term, a minor calcium deficiency may lead to more serious health problems, most commonly osteoporosis. A calcium deficiency in children could lead to slower bone growth and possibly a shorter stature than is expected.

Post-menopausal women, vegetarians, vegans, and people who are lactose-intolerant are especially at-risk for developing a calcium deficiency. Individuals who fit into one or more of these groups should ask a physician about whether they should be taking calcium supplements.

Daily Dosage Recommendations

The recommended daily intake of calcium generally increases with age, with a slight peak in required intake occurring during adolescence. From birth to 6 months of age, babies should consume about 200milligrams (mg) daily, then 260mg per day from 7 months to 1 year of age. Children ages 1 to 3 should have 700mg of calcium daily; from ages 4 through 8, 1,000mg daily; and from ages 9 to 18, 1,300mg daily.

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Adults between 19 and 50 should consume 1,000 mg of calcium per day, and those over the age of 51 should aim for a daily intake of 1,200mg. As with any vitamin or mineral, certain conditions may warrant a higher or lower intake of calcium per day. For example, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consume between 1,000 and 1,300mg of calcium per day depending on their age.

Generally, people can get a sufficient amount of calcium each day from a healthy, balanced diet. When calcium supplements are used to supplement dietary calcium intake, they should be taken in doses no greater than 500mg at a time. Supplements should also be taken with plenty of water to avoid constipation.

Medical content reviewed by Dr. Samantha Miller, MBChB.

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