by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
We hear a lot about the importance of getting enough calcium in order to build and maintain strong bones. But in fact, calcium’s importance extends way beyond your skeleton.
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If you were to think of your body and all its functions as an economy, calcium is the currency that facilitates all the transactions--everything from contracting your muscles, to dilating and constricting your blood vessels, to transmitting nerve impulses, to secreting hormones.
Are You Getting Enough Calcium?
Aside from keeping you from being a shapeless blob, your bones function primarily as the bank where your body’s currency (or calcium) reserves are stored. If blood calcium levels get low, your body will withdraw funds from its bone bank to keep the economy humming. If you’re constantly withdrawing more than you deposit, the bank will eventually get low on funds. But the way your body sees it, the need to keep your muscles contracting and your nerves transmitting is more way important than keeping your bones from crumbling. If you want your bones to continue to hold you up through your old age, you need to be sure to keep your calcium balance sheet in the black.
What Are the Signs That You’re Not Getting Enough Calcium?
You sometimes hear that muscle cramps are a common sign of calcium deficiency but this is a misunderstanding. Muscle twitching and cramping are signs of dangerously low blood calcium levels. (Remember, calcium is involved in muscle function.) But short of kidney failure or some other extreme medical crisis, your body isn’t going to let your blood calcium levels get that low—it’s going to borrow more calcium from the bone bank to regulate that currency supply.
And that’s exactly the problem: Inadequate calcium intake isn’t likely to cause any obvious symptoms—until 40 or 50 years later when you step off a curb and break your hip. Even if you’re skimping on calcium, your blood vessels will continue to dilate and your muscles will continue to contract—thanks to the calcium you have stored in the bank.
Are You Getting Enough Calcium?
Contrary to the impression you get from the popular press, most people are getting the recommended amount of calcium. Women over 50 are often getting well over the maximum recommended amount. That’s the time of life when women start to get really nervous about their bone density, so they start taking high-dose calcium supplements.
This news may be as hard to swallow as one of those calcium horse-pills, but once you're in your 30s, your bone-building years are largely behind you.
Ladies, this news may be as hard to swallow as one of those calcium horse-pills, but once you're in your 30s, your bone-building years are largely behind you. If you’re trying to make up for the calcium you didn’t get in teens and early adult years, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work that way. Not only does it not do any good to take more than the recommended amount of calcium—it can potentially do some harm. Excessive calcium intake can lead to kidney stone formation in people who are susceptible. And last year, there was a disturbing finding that high doses of calcium may increase the risk of heart attack for older women. Although you definitely want to be sure to get enough calcium, more is not better.
Who Isn’t Getting Enough Calcium?
Although the relentless emphasis on calcium seems to have scared older women into taking more calcium than is actually good for them, the message doesn’t seem to be getting through those who need to hear it most. Just like saving for retirement, the miracle of compounding applies to calcium investing as well: The more you put away early in your career, the richer you’re going to be at the other end. According to the most recent dietary surveys, the one group that’s still not getting enough calcium is the group that has the most to gain from it: adolescent girls.
If you have a teenage or young adult daughter, grand-daughter, niece, or friend, do what you can to get through to them with this simple message: Getting enough calcium when you’re young is really important. Your future self will thank you!
Need more ammunition? Let your young friends know that women with adequate calcium intake are less likely to suffer from PMS. There have also been some studies suggesting that a diet high in calcium may enhance weight or fat loss, although, in truth, the effect is probably fairly small. But, hey, all’s fair in love and bone density.
Getting Enough Calcium is Easier Than You Think
Fortunately, getting enough calcium is easier than you may have been led to believe. Most people eating a reasonably healthy diet won’t even need to take a calcium supplement. Next week, in the second part of this two-part show, I’m going to tell you the best sources of calcium—and some of them may surprise you. I’ll also tell you how to make sure you’re getting enough to keep your bone bank solvent long into the future.
Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!