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While we tend to think of calcium as a supplement for healthy bones, new research suggests that our need for calcium goes way beyond bone health. In this article, we will discuss the new research, our calcium needs, the benefits, the risks and how to get the proper amount of calcium safely.
A Lesson in Calcium from our Ancestors
Since early in the evolutionary process, our ancestors ingested significant amounts of calcium in their diets. Hunter-gatherers would eat all parts of the animals they caught, including chewing on or sucking the calcium-rich marrow from the bones. Once the domestication of animals took hold some 10-15,000 years ago, calcium-rich dairy products fed our genetic need for a calcium-rich diet. Even without meat or dairy in the diet, hunter-gatherers foraged plenty of calcium-rich greens, fruits and tubers, legumes and grains – this is one mineral we were not meant to be without!
How Much Calcium Do We Need?
Most of the negative concerns about calcium is due to overuse of calcium supplements. The risks of over-supplementing with calcium may include kidney stones and cardiovascular issues. So, getting the right amount is important. (3)
Unlike other minerals, calcium is abundant in the foods of a healthy diet, and even folks not tuned into nutritional health likely get enough calcium from all the calcium-fortified foods on the market. I suggest doing a quick check of your regular diet to make sure you are getting enough calcium from your foods (see the calcium food chart below). The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults is 1000-1200mg/day. (14) Reaching the RDA should be pretty easy for most folks to accomplish solely from their foods. Fortified foods are typically highly processed and I suggest avoiding them if possible.
A serving of yogurt, salmon, cheese, beans, and a couple servings of veggies each day gets your calcium in the daily “safe zone.” For those of you who do not trust the FDA to make dietary recommendations, in this case, there are numerous studies suggesting that the RDA is pretty accurate – you don’t want more and you don’t want less. (14,15)
Support Your Colon
New research is suggesting that adequate calcium from supplementation and calcium rich foods may support healthy cell division of the cells that line the colon and rectum. In a large meta-analysis, findings supported what many previous studies have also found: that a higher calcium intake is mechanically linked with colon rectal health and the healthy timing for cell replication, division and death. (1)
Calcium seems to support colon health by attaching to bile acids in the colon that are attached to toxic fat-soluble chemicals. The calcium may protect the colon from these chemicals that may irritate or adhere to the intestinal lining. Calcium has also been shown to slow the rate of division of the epithelial cells of the colon and rectum and promote healthy cell replication. (1)
The Power Couple: Vitamin D and Calcium
Without vitamin D, the calcium is not able to leave the intestinal tract. (7) Clearly, it is the combination of vitamin D and calcium that team up to deliver the calcium benefits I discuss in this article. With vitamin D levels being deficient in more than half the population, both calcium and vitamin D levels must both be optimized to make best use of the benefits listed below. Click here for more on vitamin D.
More Calcium Benefits
Here are a few of the well-documented benefits of maintaining healthy calcium levels in the blood:
- Supports healthy bones (2)
- Buffers excess acid in stomach (2)
- Supports healthy weight loss (2)
- Support menopausal transition (2)
- Supports healthy cell replication (2)
- Supports healthy blood clotting (12)
- Supports healthy blood pressure (2)
- Healthy muscle contractions
- Supports healthy circulation (11)
- Supports efficient transmission of nervous system messages (10)
- Secretion of hormones (9)
- Secretion of enzymes (8)
Do I Need To Supplement With Calcium?
The question that asks why rural women in China or India compared to American women have greater bone density as they age without every taking calcium supplements has challenged researchers for years. According to the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda, healthy bones are a part of a very elaborate digestive process that takes up to 30 days to complete.
Today, research is suggesting that the lack of microbial diversity (beneficial bacteria) in the gut may be responsible for the bone density issues we see in the west. (6) This could explain why women in traditional and rural cultures have healthy bone density without supplementation. According to Ayurveda, healthy digestion is a requirement for healthy bones and we now know it is a requirement for the microbial diversity that we lack in the west.
As a maintenance strategy for your bones it is important to get and maintain 1000-1200mg of calcium per day in your diet. (14) Check your diet against the list below. Make sure your vitamin D3 is optimized or the calcium will be ineffective. The Vitamin D Council recommends testing vitamin D3 levels regularly and maintaining levels of 40-80ng/mL of vitamin D3 year round. (13) If you do not have access to vitamin D testing, see our at-home vitamin D test kit.
To support healthy microbes in the intestines, make sure you are addressing any underlying digestive issues. Just avoiding a food you do not seem to tolerate is not enough. While that might help you not experience the digestive symptom, it is a sign of a digestive imbalance that may be altering the very delicate intestinal environment required for healthy microbial diversity.
Consider adding small amounts of fermented foods to your diet such as, kimchi, natto, yogurt, cheese, fermented veggies, olives and others; but be sure to take these in small amounts (condiment size). Also, consider a colonizing, rather than a transient, probiotic. Colonizing probiotics adhere to the gut wall and proliferate new strains of microbes that become productive permanent residents. While research on these is rare, one such strain is Bifidobacterium lactis HN019 (learn more here).
Supplements for Bone Support
While most folks do not need to supplement with calcium, when trying to build healthy bone, the right kind of calcium supplementation is important. The concept of supplementing with forms of calcium-rich bone meal has been used successfully for years. The body seems to absorb the calcium better when it is delivered with a host of other nutrients, minerals and proteins also found in natural bone. A well-researched form of this bone support is called microcrystalline hydroxyapatite (MCHC). The MCHC delivers calcium, phosphorous, trace minerals, peptides, growth factors, collagen and amino acids that support healthy bone function and are naturally found in healthy bones. (5)
Vitamin K2 helps support healthy bones by activating the bone-building osteocalcin protein, which helps attach calcium to the mineral bone matrix. It also protects the bone from being reabsorbed by the body. (3) Vitamin K2 is naturally manufactured in the large intestine by microbes, however, many folks do not have the microbial diversity to supply the body with adequate vitamin K2.
Vitamin K2 is converted from K1 which found in veggies, but not in very large amounts. It is also found in cheese and other fermented foods which, for most folks, should be enough. But, when trying to build bone, consider vitamin K2 as a supplement. Learn more about K2 here.
Remember, the benefits of calcium are greatly enhanced with optimized vitamin D3 levels.
A Guide to Calcium Rich Foods
|Produce||Serving Size||Estimated Calcium*|
|Collard greens, frozen||8 oz||360 mg|
|Broccoli rabe||8 oz||200 mg|
|Kale, frozen||8 oz||180 mg|
|Soy Beans, green, boiled||8 oz||175 mg|
|Bok Choy, cooked, boiled||8 oz||160 mg|
|Figs, dried||2 figs||65 mg|
|Broccoli, fresh, cooked||8 oz||60 mg|
|Oranges||1 whole||55 mg|
|Seafood||Serving Size||Estimated Calcium*|
|Sardines, canned with bones||3 oz||325 mg|
|Salmon, canned with bones||3 oz||180 mg|
|Shrimp, canned||3 oz||125 mg|
|Dairy||Serving Size||Estimated Calcium*|
|Ricotta, part-skim||4 oz||335 mg|
|Yogurt, plain, low-fat||6 oz||310 mg|
|Milk, skim, low-fat, whole||8 oz||300 mg|
|Yogurt with fruit, low-fat||6 oz||260 mg|
|Mozzarella, part-skim||1 oz||210 mg|
|Cheddar||1 oz||205 mg|
|Yogurt, Greek||6 oz||200 mg|
|American Cheese||1 oz||195 mg|
|Feta Cheese||4 oz||140 mg|
|Cottage Cheese, 2%||4 oz||105 mg|
|Frozen yogurt, vanilla||8 oz||105 mg|
|Ice Cream, vanilla||8 oz||85 mg|
|Parmesan||1 tbsp||55 mg|
|Fortified Food||Serving Size||Estimated Calcium*|
|Almond milk, rice milk or soy milk, fortified||8 oz||300 mg|
|Orange juice and other fruit juices, fortified||8 oz||300 mg|
|Tofu, prepared with calcium||4 oz||205 mg|
|Waffle, frozen, fortified||2 pieces||200 mg|
|Oatmeal, fortified||1 packet||140 mg|
|English muffin, fortified||1 muffin||100 mg|
|Cereal, fortified||8 oz||100-1,000 mg|
|Other||Serving Size||Estimated Calcium*|
|Mac & cheese, frozen||1 package||325 mg|
|Pizza, cheese, frozen||1 serving||115 mg|
|Pudding, chocolate, prepared with 2% milk||4 oz||160 mg|
|Beans, baked, canned||4 oz||160 mg|
Source: National Osteoporosis Foundation; http://nof.org/articles/886.