Calcium: A Beginner's Guide to This Essential Mineral
Clinical Nutrition • • minute to read • By INFS, INFS Faculty
Calcium is an essential mineral that plays a critical role in maintaining overall health and well-being. It is necessary for strong bones and teeth, as well as for proper muscle and nerve function. In this article, we will explore the function of calcium in the human body, its health benefits, and how to incorporate it into your diet.
What Is Calcium?
Calcium is a mineral that is essential for maintaining overall health and well-being. It is necessary for strong bones and teeth, as well as for proper muscle and nerve function. Calcium is involved in several bodily functions, including muscle contraction and relaxation, nerve transmission, and blood clotting. The human body cannot produce calcium on its own, so it must be obtained through the diet or supplements.
Function of Calcium in the Human Body
Calcium plays a critical role in several bodily functions, including maintaining bone and teeth health, aiding in muscle contraction and relaxation, transmitting nerve impulses, and assisting in blood clotting. When we don’t get enough calcium, our bodies may take calcium from our bones, which can lead to weakened bones over time. Here are the many ways in which calcium is important for your body:
- Calcium is primarily known for its role in maintaining strong bones and teeth. Bones and teeth are the body’s primary storage site for calcium, and calcium is necessary for the formation and maintenance of the bone structure. Calcium also plays a role in the mineralization of teeth, helping to keep them strong and healthy.
- Calcium is involved in muscle contraction and relaxation. When calcium levels in muscle cells increase, it causes the muscle to contract. When calcium levels decrease, the muscle relaxes. This process is critical for proper muscle function and movement.
- Calcium is necessary for nerve transmission. Calcium helps to regulate the flow of nerve impulses, allowing the body to communicate effectively between different parts of the nervous system. Calcium also plays a role in the release of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that allow nerve cells to communicate with each other.
- Calcium is involved in blood clotting. When there is an injury that causes bleeding, calcium is necessary for the formation of a blood clot. Calcium helps to activate the clotting factors in the blood, which then bind together to form a clot and stop the bleeding.
- When we don’t get enough calcium, our bodies may take calcium from our bones to maintain these functions, which can lead to weakened bones over time. This is because the body will prioritise maintaining normal calcium levels in the blood over maintaining bone density. Over time, this can lead to a condition called osteoporosis, which is characterised by weak and brittle bones that are more prone to fractures.
Health Benefits of Calcium
Getting enough calcium is associated with several health benefits, including a reduced risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and colon cancer. Calcium may also help reduce symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and improve insulin sensitivity.
- Adequate calcium intake is associated with a reduced risk of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition that weakens bones and increases the risk of fractures, and it is more common in women than in men. Adequate calcium intake throughout life, along with regular exercise and a healthy diet, can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis and maintain bone density.
- Getting enough calcium can also help reduce the risk of high blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a common condition that increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Studies have shown that a diet rich in calcium, especially from dairy sources, may help lower blood pressure levels.
- Adequate calcium intake has also been associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer. Colon cancer is a type of cancer that affects the large intestine, and it is one of the most common types of cancer in both men and women. Some studies have suggested that a diet rich in calcium may help reduce the risk of colon cancer.
- Calcium has been shown to help reduce symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) in some women. PMS is a group of symptoms that can occur in the days leading up to a woman’s period, and it can include mood swings, cramps, and bloating. Some studies have suggested that calcium supplements may help reduce these symptoms.
- Adequate calcium intake has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels, and insulin resistance is a common problem that can lead to type 2 diabetes. Some studies have suggested that calcium may help improve insulin sensitivity, which could help reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
Risks of Inadequate Calcium Intake
Inadequate calcium intake can have serious consequences for your health, including weakened bones, dental problems, muscle cramps and fatigue, and an increased risk of osteoporosis over the long term.
- A lack of calcium can lead to weakened bones. When the body doesn’t get enough calcium, it may start to take calcium from the bones to maintain other critical functions. Over time, this can lead to weakened bones and an increased risk of fractures. This is especially true in women, who are at higher risk for osteoporosis than men.
- Inadequate calcium intake can also lead to dental problems. Calcium is necessary for the mineralization of teeth, and a lack of calcium can lead to weak and brittle teeth that are more prone to cavities and decay.
- Other symptoms of calcium deficiency can include muscle cramps, fatigue, and numbness and tingling in the fingers and toes. Calcium is necessary for proper muscle function, and a lack of calcium can lead to muscle cramps and weakness. Fatigue is also a common symptom of calcium deficiency, as the body relies on calcium to produce energy. Finally, numbness and tingling in the fingers and toes can be a sign of nerve damage due to calcium deficiency.
- In addition to these immediate consequences, a lack of calcium over the long term can increase the risk of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition in which the bones become weak and brittle, increasing the risk of fractures. This is especially true in women, who are at higher risk for osteoporosis than men.
How Much Calcium Do Adults Need?
The recommended daily intake of calcium for adults varies depending on age, gender, and other factors. For most adults, the recommended daily intake of calcium is between 1000 and 1200 milligrams per day. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may need more calcium, as well as older adults who are at higher risk for osteoporosis.
It’s important to note that the body can only absorb a certain amount of calcium at a time, so it’s best to spread out calcium intake throughout the day. Eating calcium-rich foods with each meal, such as dairy products or calcium-fortified foods, can help ensure adequate calcium intake.
Factors That Affect Calcium Absorption
It’s also important to note that calcium needs may vary depending on other factors, such as vitamin D intake, exercise habits, and overall health. For example, individuals with certain medical conditions or who take certain medications may need more or less calcium than the recommended daily intake.
If you are concerned about your calcium intake or have questions about how much calcium you should be getting, it’s best to talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian for personalised advice.
The Role of Vitamin D In Calcium Absorption
Vitamin D plays a critical role in calcium absorption and bone health. Adequate Vitamin D intake can be obtained through sunlight, food sources, and supplements, but it’s important to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements to ensure that you are getting the right amount.
What Is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a critical role in calcium absorption and bone health. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium from the intestines and promotes calcium deposition in bones. Without enough Vitamin D, the body cannot absorb calcium properly, even if there is an adequate intake of calcium in the diet.
What Are The Sources Of Vitamin D?
Vitamin D can be obtained through three main sources: sunlight, food, and supplements. Sunlight is the most natural and efficient way to obtain Vitamin D. When exposed to sunlight, the skin produces Vitamin D3, which is then converted to the active form of Vitamin D in the liver and kidneys. The amount of Vitamin D produced by the skin depends on various factors such as the season, time of day, skin color, and location.
Food sources of Vitamin D include fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, egg yolks, and fortified foods such as milk, yogurt, and cereal. Vitamin D supplements are also available and are commonly recommended for individuals who are unable to obtain sufficient Vitamin D through sunlight or food sources.
How Much Vitamin D Should You Take?
The recommended daily intake of Vitamin D varies depending on age and other factors, but most adults need between 600 and 800 IU per day. Older adults and individuals with certain medical conditions may need more.
It’s important to note that excessive amounts of Vitamin D can be harmful, so it’s best to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements. Vitamin D toxicity can lead to high levels of calcium in the blood, which can cause kidney damage and other health problems.
Can You Consume Too Much Calcium?
While calcium is an essential nutrient for overall health, consuming too much calcium can have negative consequences, including an increased risk of kidney stones. Kidney stones are small, hard deposits that form in the kidneys and can cause pain, discomfort, and other health problems.
When the body has more calcium than it needs, the excess calcium can accumulate in the kidneys and form stones. This is especially true when there is not enough fluid in the body to dissolve the calcium, which can happen when a person does not drink enough water or other fluids.
In addition to an increased risk of kidney stones, excessive calcium intake can also lead to constipation, bloating, and abdominal pain. Consuming large amounts of calcium supplements may also interfere with the absorption of other minerals, such as iron and zinc.
It’s important to note that the risks of consuming too much calcium are generally low, and most people can consume calcium within the recommended daily intake without any negative consequences.
However, individuals who take calcium supplements or who have certain medical conditions, such as hyperparathyroidism or kidney disease, may be at higher risk for calcium-related health problems and should talk to their doctor about the appropriate intake of calcium.
Importance of Exercise For Bone Health
Exercise is a critical component of maintaining bone health and can help maximise the benefits of calcium intake. When we exercise, we put stress on our bones, which stimulates the bone-forming cells to produce new bone tissue. This process, known as bone remodelling, helps to maintain and increase bone density, making bones stronger and less prone to fractures.
Walking, jogging, and strength training are particularly effective for promoting bone health. These exercises involve bearing weight on the bones, which helps to stimulate bone growth and maintain bone density. Studies have shown that regular exercise can help reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures in older adults.
It’s important to note that exercise alone may not be enough to maintain bone health, and calcium intake is also critical. Consuming calcium-rich foods, such as dairy products and leafy green vegetables, can help ensure adequate calcium intake. Calcium supplements may also be recommended for individuals who are unable to obtain enough calcium through their diet.
How To Get Adequate Calcium From Your Diet
Dairy And Other Foods
Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt are well-known sources of calcium, but there are also many other foods that are high in calcium, including canned fish, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, and fortified foods like orange juice and cereal. Incorporating a variety of these foods into a balanced diet can help ensure adequate calcium intake.
- Dairy products: Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt are among the most well-known sources of calcium. One cup of milk contains around 300 milligrams of calcium, while one cup of plain yogurt contains around 400 milligrams of calcium. Cheese varies in its calcium content depending on the type, but many varieties are good sources of calcium.
- Canned fish: Certain types of canned fish, such as salmon and sardines, are good sources of calcium. One can of salmon with bones contains around 240 milligrams of calcium, while one can of sardines with bones contains around 320 milligrams.
- Nuts and seeds: Many nuts and seeds are good sources of calcium. Almonds are a particularly good source, with one quarter-cup of almonds containing around 95 milligrams of calcium. Other nuts and seeds that are high in calcium include sesame seeds, chia seeds, and hazelnuts.
- Beans and lentils: Certain types of beans and lentils are good sources of calcium. For example, one cup of cooked navy beans contains around 125 milligrams of calcium, while one cup of cooked lentils contains around 38 milligrams.
- Fortified foods: Many foods are fortified with calcium, including orange juice, soy milk, and breakfast cereals. The amount of calcium in these foods can vary depending on the brand and the specific product.
Fruits & Vegetables That Are Good Sources of Calcium
While dairy products are a well-known source of calcium, there are also many plant-based foods that are high in calcium.
- Leafy greens are some of the best plant-based sources of calcium. Spinach, kale, and collard greens are all excellent sources of calcium. One cup of cooked spinach contains around 240 milligrams of calcium, while one cup of cooked kale contains around 180 milligrams.
- Broccoli is another great source of calcium, with one cup of cooked broccoli containing around 60 milligrams of calcium. Okra is also a good source of calcium, with one cup of cooked okra containing around 80 milligrams of calcium.
- Sweet potatoes are a good source of calcium, with one medium-sized sweet potato containing around 40 milligrams of calcium. Other root vegetables, such as carrots and turnips, also contain some calcium.
- Many fruits are also good sources of calcium. Oranges are a particularly good source, with one medium-sized orange containing around 50 milligrams of calcium. Figs are also high in calcium, with two dried figs containing around 50 milligrams of calcium. Other fruits that contain calcium include apricots, kiwifruit, and blackberries.
Other Plant-Based Foods For Getting Calcium
- Sesame seeds: Sesame seeds are a good source of calcium, with one tablespoon containing around 90 milligrams of calcium. They are often used in Indian cuisine to make tahini, which is a paste used in dishes such as hummus and baba ghanoush.
- Amaranth: Amaranth is a grain that is commonly eaten in India and is a good source of calcium. One cup of cooked amaranth contains around 116 milligrams of calcium.
- Ragi: Ragi, also known as finger millet, is a staple in South Indian cuisine and is a good source of calcium. One cup of cooked ragi contains around 100 milligrams of calcium.
- Tofu: Tofu, made from soybeans, is a good source of calcium and is commonly used in Indian vegetarian dishes. One half-cup of tofu contains around 250 milligrams of calcium.
Incorporating these foods into a balanced diet can help ensure adequate calcium intake.
How To Maximise the Benefits of Calcium Intake
While getting enough calcium is important for maintaining strong bones, there are other steps you can take to maximise the benefits of calcium intake.
One of the most effective ways to promote bone health is through regular exercise, particularly weight-bearing exercises like walking, jogging, and weightlifting. These types of exercises put stress on the bones, which stimulates bone-forming cells to produce new bone tissue. This process, known as bone remodeling, helps to maintain and increase bone density, making bones stronger and less prone to fractures.
Getting enough Vitamin D is also important for bone health. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium from the intestines and promotes calcium deposition in bones. Without enough Vitamin D, the body cannot absorb calcium properly, even if there is an adequate intake of calcium in the diet.
Some good food sources of Vitamin D include fatty fish like salmon and tuna, egg yolks, and fortified foods like milk and cereal. However, it can be difficult to obtain enough Vitamin D through diet alone, particularly for individuals who live in areas with limited sunlight. In these cases, Vitamin D supplements may be recommended to ensure adequate intake.
Healthy Lifestyle Habits
In addition to exercise and Vitamin D, there are other lifestyle factors that can affect bone health. Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can both negatively impact bone density, so it’s important to limit these habits. Additionally, getting enough sleep and managing stress can also promote bone health, as chronic stress and sleep deprivation have been linked to decreased bone density.
Regular weight-bearing exercise, adequate Vitamin D intake, and healthy lifestyle habits like limiting smoking and alcohol consumption, getting enough sleep, and managing stress can all help promote bone health and reduce the risk of fractures and osteoporosis.
Do I Need Calcium Supplements?
Who Needs Calcium Supplements?
If you’re not able to get enough calcium from your diet alone, you may want to consider taking a calcium supplement. It’s important to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements and to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Which Calcium Supplements Are Good?
Calcium supplements come in many forms, including calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, and calcium gluconate. These supplements are widely available over-the-counter and can be a convenient way to ensure adequate calcium intake.
However, it’s important to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements, as too much calcium can increase the risk of kidney stones. The recommended daily intake of calcium for adults is 1000-1200 milligrams per day, and it’s generally recommended that adults get no more than 2500 milligrams per day.
It’s also important to note that calcium supplements may not be appropriate for everyone. Individuals with certain medical conditions, such as kidney disease or hyperparathyroidism, may be at higher risk for calcium-related health problems and should talk to their doctor about the appropriate intake of calcium.
When taking calcium supplements, it’s important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and not exceed the recommended dosage. Taking more calcium than the body needs can lead to constipation, bloating, and abdominal pain. Calcium supplements may also interfere with the absorption of other minerals, such as iron and zinc, so it’s important to space out supplements throughout the day and not take them at the same time as other mineral supplements.
Q: How much calcium do I need each day?
The recommended daily intake of calcium for adults is 1000-1200mg.
Q: What happens if I don’t get enough calcium?
Not getting enough calcium can lead to weakened bones, dental problems, and an increased risk of osteoporosis.
Q: Are there any risks associated with consuming too much calcium?
Consuming too much calcium can increase the risk of kidney stones.
Q: Can I get enough calcium from plant-based sources?
Yes, many plant-based foods are high in calcium, including leafy greens, broccoli, and sweet potatoes.
Q: Do I need to take a calcium supplement?
It’s best to try to get enough calcium from your diet, but if you’re not able to do so, a supplement may be necessary. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.
Q: Can calcium supplements be taken with other medications?
It’s important to talk to your doctor before taking calcium supplements with other medications. Calcium supplements may interfere with the absorption of certain medications, such as antibiotics or thyroid medication. Your doctor can advise you on the best way to take calcium supplements to avoid any potential interactions.
Q: Can taking too much calcium cause heart problems?
There is some evidence to suggest that excessive calcium intake, particularly from supplements, may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between calcium intake and heart health. It’s generally recommended to get calcium from food sources whenever possible and to not exceed the recommended daily intake of calcium.
Q: Can children take calcium supplements?
Calcium is important for bone health throughout the lifespan, including childhood. However, children typically require less calcium than adults, and excessive calcium intake can interfere with the absorption of other important nutrients. It’s generally recommended that children get their calcium from food sources, such as dairy products, leafy greens, and fortified foods. Parents should talk to their child’s doctor before giving them any supplements.
Q: Are there any foods that can interfere with calcium absorption?
Certain foods, such as those high in oxalic acid (such as spinach and rhubarb) or phytic acid (such as beans and grains), may interfere with calcium absorption. However, the effect of these foods on calcium absorption is generally small and can be offset by consuming enough calcium from other sources. Additionally, Vitamin D can help increase calcium absorption, so getting enough Vitamin D is important for optimising calcium absorption.
Q: Can exercise reverse bone loss in individuals with osteoporosis?
Exercise can be an effective way to maintain and increase bone density, even in individuals with osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercises like walking, jogging, and weightlifting can help stimulate bone-forming cells to produce new bone tissue, which can help strengthen bones and reduce the risk of fractures. However, it’s important to work with a healthcare provider to develop a safe and effective exercise plan for individuals with osteoporosis.
- “Calcium and vitamin D supplementation in the prevention of osteoporotic fractures” by Michaelsson et al. published in The Journal of Internal Medicine in 2015. This systematic review and meta-analysis found that calcium and vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of osteoporotic fractures in older adults.
- “Dietary calcium intake and risk of fracture and osteoporosis: prospective longitudinal cohort study” by Warensjö et al. published in The BMJ in 2011. This large prospective study found that higher dietary calcium intake was associated with a lower risk of fracture and osteoporosis in women.
- “Calcium supplementation and cardiovascular risk: a rising concern” by Bolland et al. published in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2013. This systematic review and meta-analysis found that calcium supplementation, particularly from supplements alone, may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- “Exercise and bone health across the lifespan” by Kohrt et al. published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2019. This review article provides an overview of the benefits of exercise for bone health across the lifespan, including in older adults and individuals with osteoporosis.
- “Calcium and bone health: position statement for the Australian and New Zealand Bone and Mineral Society, Osteoporosis Australia and the Endocrine Society of Australia” by Daly et al. published in The Medical Journal of Australia in 2012. This position statement provides recommendations for optimal calcium intake and supplementation for bone health.
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