Minerals

Calcium: The Most Popular Pill You Dont Need

Date: 18 March, 2005
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Advertisers spend millions driving home the message you need more calcium for stronger bones and teeth.

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Advertisers spend millions driving home the message you need more calcium for stronger bones and teeth. Supermarket shelves are loaded with a confusing array of calcium supplements. Yet will any of these calcium pills really help your teeth and bones?

Its true that calcium is an essential nutrient. But getting calcium in our altered modern environment is tricky. Some calcium can interfere with the absorption of other important minerals. The evidence on those much-touted calcium supplements may surprise you.

Lets look at just how much calcium you really need and the best way to get it. Well begin by looking at what other nutrients you need to help you absorb and use calcium. They are part of a more effective strategy to build and keep robust, fracture-resistant bones to last a lifetime.

Something Has Gone Wrong with Our Bones
Nearly 3 million people in the UK have osteoporosis, which affects one in three women (it is most common in post-menopausal women) and one in twelve men over the age of fifty costing the NHS a staggering 5 million pounds each day. We suffer more than 1.5 million broken bones per year with 300,000 broken hips. You want to do everything you can to avoid fracturing or breaking your bones… especially your hip bone which is extremely dangerous. More than one-quarter of people with broken hips develop complications and die within one year of their injury. But is this problem caused by a lack of calcium?

Examining the Evidence for Dietary Calcium
Calcium supplement proponents use maximum retention studies. They measure bone density before and one year after calcium supplementation. These studies show an average increase of 1 to 2 percent in bone density with calcium supplementation. They have used these studies to set the optimal level of calcium at 1,200 mg for men over 50 and 1,000 mg for men under 50. Unless you consume a lot of dairy, its not possible to get this much calcium without supplements. 

There are four significant problems here.

Problem No. 1: These studies are of inadequate duration. We need to measure bone strength over a much longer period to gauge an authentic outcome.

Problem No. 2: They have no control. In fact, there are no large, long-term trials that compare a calcium supplement to a placebo.

Problem No. 3: When we correlate dietary calcium intake and fractures in various countries, we find countries with the highest average calcium intake tend to have higher, not lower, hip fracture rates.

Problem No. 4:  The United States, England, and Sweden have completed seven long-term population studies that do not show reductions in the risk of broken bones with increasing calcium intake. In a large study of nurses, those with higher calcium intakes were at least as likely to break a hip or forearm as those with lower intake. The same was true for men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.

These findings show that calcium supplements have no proven effect to maintain strong bones. Calcium supplements can also interfere with the absorption of magnesium, selenium, chromium, and zinc.

The Role of Hormones in Maintaining Strong Bones
Its true that calcium gives your bones their strength. You lock 99 per cent of it in your bones. The remaining calcium dissolves in your blood and cell fluids. Calcium also helps conduct nerve impulses, regulate your heartbeat, and maintain cell membranes. But calcium absorption is highly regulated. You dont necessarily increase absorption with calcium supplements. Furthermore, calcium deposition in bones is also controlled. The controllers, like most elements of metabolism, are hormones.

Your bones are continuously wearing down and building back up in a dynamic balance. The stress of movements and lifting stimulates hormones to direct new bone growth. Later in life, your sex hormones DHEA, androstenedione, and especially testosterone decline. These hormones maintain bone building. A mans hormones decline more gradually than a womans, yet there is still a shift from bone growth to bone loss. Your bone density declines as you age not because you started eating less calcium but because your hormones direct your body to put less calcium into new bone.

And while most people dont realise it, vitamin D is also a hormone. It directs your calcium metabolism. Your skin makes vitamin D in response to ultraviolet light from your exposure to sunlight. Few foods naturally contain vitamin D, except dairy products and eggs. A recent study showed that sufferers of broken hips frequently had a vitamin D deficiency.

A New England Journal of Medicine article recently concluded, a widespread increase in vitamin D intake is likely to have a greater effect on osteoporosis and fractures than many other interventions.

Take Control of Bone Building
The good news is that there are easy lifestyle changes you can make to help you build strong bones. Here is a comprehensive plan to do just that without calcium pills.

  • Get your calcium in your diet. Eating a variety of small fish; dark, leafy green vegetables; almonds and cashews; or dairy products like milk, cheese, and yoghurt at least twice daily should give you enough calcium to meet your needs.
  • Exercise. Heres a sure way to make your bones stronger and denser. The best way to increase bone density and reduce fractures is body-weight exercises and resistance training. Make a habit of doing these exercises two or three times a week.
  • Check your hormones. They are important to direct calcium to build bones. Monitor testosterone and DHEA to determine your need for supplementation.
  • Take a vitamin D supplement. I recommend 400 IU per day. It helps your body absorb calcium and maintain bone density. You will not be able to get that much from your diet alone.
  • Get vitamin K in your greens. It regulates calcium while stabilising bones. It also regulates blood clotting. Eat at least one serving of green vegetables like spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts, or broccoli every day. One study found people eating just 0.1 milligrams of vitamin K daily (about one large serving of greens) were 30 percent less likely to break their hips than people who ate less than that amount.
  • Eat foods rich in B-complex vitamins. Your body also uses a variety of B vitamins in bone building. The best sources are liver, eggs, lean meats, yeast, fish, raw nuts, asparagus, broccoli, and bananas.

References used in this article include:

1. Whyte J. Osteoporosis Prevention: What Kind of Exercise Is Best? Consultant 2004: 1,002-1,004

2. Willett, Walter. Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001, p. 141

3. ibid.

4. ibid, p. 143.

5. Mercola, J. Do You Really Need Calcium To Build Strong Bones? Dr. Joseph Mercolas eHealthy News You Can Use (http://www.mercola.com/), 6/7/03

6. Willett, Walter. Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001, p. 150.

7. Gaby, Alan, M.D.. Preventing & Reversing Osteoporosis. California: Prima Publishing, 1994.

8. Mercola, J. Do You Really Need Calcium To Build Strong Bones? Dr. Joseph Mercolas eHealthy News You Can Use (http://www.mercola.com/), 6/7/03

9. Willett, Walter. Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001, p. 150.

10. Heinerman, John. Heinermans New Encyclopedia of Fruits and Vegetables. West Nyack, NY: Parker Publishing Company, 1995.

11. Gaby, Alan, M.D.. Preventing & Reversing Osteoporosis. California: Prima Publishing, 1994.

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