Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. It is essential for the
development and maintenance of strong bones and teeth; roughly 99% of calcium in
the body is deposited in these two places. Calcium also helps the heart, nerves,
muscles, and other body systems work properly. To function correctly, calcium
must be accompanied by several other nutrients including magnesium, phosphorous,
and vitamins A, C, D, and K.
The best sources of calcium are foods (see
Dietary Sources), but supplements may be
necessary for those who cannot meet their calcium needs through diet alone. In
fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, many Americans consume
less than half the amount of calcium recommended to build and maintain healthy
bones. Heavy use of caffeine can diminish calcium levels; therefore, higher
amounts of calcium may be needed if you drink a lot of coffee. Also, a diet high
in protein can increase loss of calcium through the urine. Excessive intake of
sodium, phosphates (from carbonated beverages) and alcohol, as well as the use
of aluminum-containing antacids also contribute to increased excretion of
Calcium deficiency can be found in people with malabsorption problems, such
as Crohn's disease, celiac disease, and surgical intestinal resection. Prolonged
bed rest causes loss of calcium from the bones and the elderly are less able to
Symptoms of calcium deficiency include muscle spasm or cramping, typically in
hands or feet; hair loss (alopecia); dry skin and nails which may also become
misshapen; numbness, tingling, or burning sensation around the mouth and
fingers; nausea and vomiting; headaches; yeast infections (candidiasis);
anxiety; convulsions/seizures; and poor tooth and bone
Obtaining adequate calcium can help prevent and/or treat the following
An inadequate supply of calcium over the lifetime is thought to play a
significant role in contributing to the development of osteoporosis. Calcium is
necessary to help build and maintain healthy bones and strong teeth. Studies
have shown that calcium, particularly in combination with vitamin D, can help
prevent bone loss associated with menopause, as well as the bone loss
experienced by elderly men. If adequate amounts of calcium are not being
obtained through the diet, calcium supplements are necessary.
This condition, which represents under active parathyroid glands, requires
lifelong treatment with calcium along with vitamin D. The parathyroids are four
small glands that sit on the four corners of the thyroid in the neck and produce
a hormone that regulates calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D levels in the body.
People with this condition should follow a high calcium, low phosphorous diet.
Therefore, milk and cheese should not be the sources of calcium used since dairy
foods contain phosphorous as well. Most often, supplementation is needed in
addition to dietary sources of calcium for this condition.
Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
Calcium levels often measure lower the week prior to one's menstrual period
compared to the week after. Studies suggest that calcium supplementation helps
relieve mood swings, food cravings, pain or tenderness, and bloating associated
with premenstrual syndrome.
High Blood Pressure
Studies of people with hypertension have found that the addition of low-fat
dairy products to a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may lead to a greater
improvement in reducing blood pressure than the typical American diet or a diet
rich in fruits and vegetables alone. Some experts believe that the calcium in
these low-fat dairy products is responsible for the improvement; however, given
that dairy products also contain other nutrients (such as magnesium and
potassium), that conclusion is not entirely clear. In addition, studies that
have investigated calcium as a supplemental treatment for high blood pressure
have not been conclusive; in other words, it remains to be seen whether taking
supplements of calcium will have the same effect on blood pressure as low-fat
dairy products in the diet.
Given the safety and possible benefits of calcium supplementation in the
treatment of high blood pressure, however, many integrative medicine
practitioners feel that it is worth a try. At least 6 to 8 weeks of calcium
supplementation may be needed before noting an improvement in blood pressure. Do
not stop blood pressure medication when taking calcium; work with your physician
who will guide the adjustment of medications if necessary.
Some studies suggest that calcium supplementation may play a role in the
prevention of pregnancy-induced high blood pressure and preeclampsia.
(Preeclampsia is a worrisome combination of high blood pressure, fluid
retention, and high levels of protein in the urine that some women develop in
the last trimester of pregnancy.) A prenatal vitamin, which provides magnesium,
folic acid, and many other nutrients, together with adequate calcium intake may
significantly lower the risk of developing high blood pressure during pregnancy.
Preliminary studies in animals and people suggest that calcium supplements,
in the range of 1,500 to 2,000 mg per day, may help to lower cholesterol. The
information available thus far suggests that keeping cholesterol levels normal
or even low by using calcium supplements (along with many other measures such as
changing your diet and exercising) is likely to be more beneficial than trying
to treat it by adding calcium once you already have elevated cholesterol. More
research in this area is needed.
In a population based study (one in which large groups of people are followed
over time), women who take in more calcium, both through the diet and with added
supplements, were less likely to have a stroke over a 14 year time course. More
research is needed to fully assess the strength of the connection between
calcium and risk of stroke.
Although some studies are conflicting, mounting evidence suggests that people
who consume high amounts of calcium, vitamin D, and milk in their diets are
significantly less likely to develop colorectal cancer than those who consume
low amounts of the same substances. Although it is best to obtain calcium from
the diet, the suggested amounts for the prevention and treatment of colorectal
cancer (namely, 800 IU/day of vitamin D and 1,800 mg/day of calcium) will most
likely require supplementation.
Both animal and human studies have found that dietary calcium intake (from
low-fat dairy products) may be associated with a decrease in body weight. These
effects cannot necessarily be attributed to calcium alone since dairy sources of
calcium contain other nutrients (including magnesium and potassium) that may be
involved in the weight loss. A review of all studies up to the year 2000 did
conclude, however, that supplementation of 1,000 mg of calcium can facilitate as
much as 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) of weight loss and 5 kilogram (11 pound) loss
Tooth and Gum Disease
Calcium and vitamin D supplementation may slow the rate of tooth loss in the
elderly. Studies have also suggested that adolescent girls who consume more
calcium in their diets are less likely to develop gingivitis (gum disease) than
those who do not consume as much calcium.
Rickets This condition, which leads to softening and weakening
of the bone in children, is due to vitamin D deficiency. Although virtually
eliminated in North America and Western Europe because milk is fortified with
vitamin D, it still occurs in many parts of the world. The mainstay of treatment
has been supplementation with vitamin D. A recent study, however, suggests that
the addition of calcium may be at least as important as vitamin D for treating
rickets, if not more so.
Although not studied scientifically, some people report that calcium helps
them sleep better.
The richest dietary sources of calcium include cheeses (such as parmesan,
romano, gruyere, cheddar, American, mozzarella, and feta), wheat-soy flour, and
blackstrap molasses. Some other good sources of calcium include almonds,
brewer's yeast, bok choy, Brazil nuts, broccoli, cabbage, dried figs, kelp, dark
leafy greens (dandelion, turnip, collard, mustard, kale, Swiss chard),
hazelnuts, ice cream, milk, oysters, sardines, canned salmon soybean flour,
tahini, and yogurt.
Foods that are fortified with calcium, such as juices, soy milk, rice milk,
tofu and cereals, are also good sources of this mineral.
Calcium may also be obtained from a variety of herbs, spices, and seaweeds.
Examples include basil, chervil, cinnamon, dill weed, fennel, fenugreek,
ginseng, kelp, marjoram, oregano, parsley, poppy seed, sage, and
There are a number of forms of calcium available as dietary supplements. They
differ in the amount of calcium they contain, how well they are absorbed by the
body, and cost. Following is a list of commonly used calcium
Calcium citrate: Many have found that this supplement is absorbed and
digested by the body more effectively than calcium carbonate, particularly in
the elderly, and appears to be more effective than calcium carbonate in
preventing osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. It is more costly than calcium
carbonate, however. Also, calcium citrate should not be used with
aluminum-containing antacids (see
Calcium carbonate: This supplement may not be as effective as calcium
citrate, but is less expensive. Sufficient stomach acid is required to absorb
calcium carbonate, but many older people (particularly postmenopausal women)
have low stomach acidity. For such individuals, calcium citrate is more
appropriate. Many antacids contain calcium carbonate.
Calcium chloride: This form is not recommended as it has been shown to
irritate the gastrointestinal tract.
Calcium supplements that are derived from oyster shells, dolomite, and bone
meal are best avoided as they may contain lead. Rarely, traces of lead are found
in other types of calcium supplements as well. Lead is a toxic metal
(particularly worrisome in children and those with kidney disease) that can harm
the brain and kidneys, cause anemia, and raise blood pressure. On a positive
note, however, calcium seems to block the absorption of lead. Nonetheless, it
makes sense to look for labels on all types of calcium supplements that indicate
they have been tested for lead content.
How to Take It
Calcium supplements should be taken in small doses (no more than 500 mg at a
time) throughout the day with 6 to 8 cups of water to avoid constipation.
The following are daily dietary recommendations for general health and
prevention of disease.
Infants birth to 6 months: 210 mg
Infants 7 months to 1 year: 270 mg
Children 1 to 3 years: 500 mg
Children 4 to 8 years: 800 mg
Adolescents 9 to 18 years: 1,300 mg
19 to 50 years: 1,000 mg
51 years and older: 1,200 mg
Pregnant and breastfeeding females under 19 years: 1,300 mg
Pregnant and breastfeeding females 19 years and older: 1,000 mg
For prevention of colon cancer, 1,800 mg per day may be required.
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications,
dietary supplements should be taken only under the supervision of a
knowledgeable healthcare provider. Total calcium intake, from combined dietary
and supplemental sources, should not exceed 2,500 mg per day.
Common complaints when taking calcium supplements include constipation and
stomach upset. Symptoms that may occur from excessive amounts of calcium in the
blood include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, increased urination, kidney
toxicity, confusion, and irregular heart rhythm. These symptoms resolve when
elevated calcium levels are treated and brought back to normal.
Such high levels of calcium in the body may develop from either ingesting
very large amounts (5,000 mg per day, or more than 2,000 mg per day over a long
period) or, more likely, from the body producing too much calcium. The latter
may occur with certain types of cancer or from hyperparathyroidism (an over
active parathyroid gland which produces a hormone to regulate levels of calcium,
phosphorous, and vitamin D). Kidney failure, breakdown of bone, and excessive
levels of vitamin D may all lead to elevated calcium as well. Calcium
supplements must not be taken in any of these situations.
Interestingly, people with a history of kidney stones (which contain calcium)
had often been advised to consume a diet low in calcium in order to avoid
recurrent stones. However, a new study indicates that a diet containing normal
amounts of calcium and reduced amounts of animal protein and salt may provide an
even greater protective effect against recurrent kidney stones. In other words,
it is quite likely that calcium intake does not need to be restricted in those
with a history of kidney stones, especially if animal protein and salt intake
are restricted. Additional research will be helpful in better understanding the
relationship between kidney stones and calcium.
High calcium intake from dairy products may actually increase a man's risk of
prostate cancer. In one important population based study, following a large
group of men over an 11 year time course, men who consumed more than 600 mg/day
of calcium from dairy products had an increased risk of prostate cancer compared
to men who ate less than 150 mg/day from dairy. (The reason that calcium is
suspected is because it prevents the conversion from one form of vitamin D to
another, more protective form known as 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3. The latter form
of vitamin D inhibits prostate cancer cells in test tubes.) However, more
research is need in this area since it may be some other component in dairy
products that is responsible for the increased risk of prostate cancer. In the
meantime, men should try to obtain their calcium from non-dairy sources.
If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you
should not use calcium supplements without first talking to your healthcare
Alendronate Calcium may interfere with the absorption of
alendronate, a medication used to treat osteoporosis. Calcium containing
products, therefore, should be taken at least two hours before or after
Antacids, Aluminum-containing When calcium citrate is taken
with aluminum containing antacids, the amount of aluminum absorbed into the
blood stream may be increased significantly. This is a particular problem for
people with kidney disease in whom the aluminum levels may become toxic. In
addition, aluminum-containing antacids may increase the loss of calcium in the
Blood Pressure Medications Taking calcium with a beta-blocker
(such as atenolol), a group of medications used for the treatment of high blood
pressure or heart disorders, may interfere with blood levels of both the calcium
and the beta-blocker. Study results are conflicting, however. Until more is
known, individuals taking atenolol, or another beta blocker, should have their
blood pressure checked before and after adding calcium supplements or calcium
containing antacids to their medication regimen.
Similarly, it has been reported that calcium may reverse the therapeutic
effects as well as the side effects of calcium channel blockers (such as
verapamil) often prescribed for the treatment of high blood pressure. These
study results are also controversial. People taking verapamil or another calcium
channel blocker along with calcium supplements should likely have their blood
pressure checked regularly.
Cholesterol-lowering Medications A class of medications known
as bile acid sequestrants (including cholestyramine, colestipol, and
colesevelam), used to treat high cholesterol, may interfere with normal calcium
absorption and increase the loss of calcium in the urine. Supplementation,
therefore, with calcium and vitamin D may be recommended by your healthcare
Corticosteroids Corticosteroid medications reduce the
absorption of calcium, thereby increasing the risk for bone loss and
osteoporosis over time. This is of particular concern for anyone who is
maintained on long-term steroids.
Digoxin High levels of calcium may increase the likelihood of
a toxic reaction to digoxin, a medication used to treat irregular heart rhythms.
On the other hand, low levels of calcium cause this medication to be
ineffective. People who are taking digoxin should have calcium levels monitored
in the blood closely.
Diuretics Two different classes of diuretics interact with
calcium in opposite ways—thiazide diuretics such as
hydrochlorothiazide can raise calcium levels in the blood, while loop diuretics,
such as furosemide and bumetanide, can decrease calcium levels. In addition,
amiloride, a potassium-sparing diuretic, may decrease the amount of calcium
excreted in the urine (and subsequently increase calcium levels in the blood),
especially in people with kidney stones.
Estrogens Estrogens may contribute to an overall increase in
calcium blood levels. Taking calcium supplements together with estrogens
improves gain in bone density significantly.
Gentamicin Taking calcium during treatment with the antibiotic
gentamicin may increase the potential for toxic effects on the kidneys.
Metformin Metformin, a medication used to treat type 2
diabetes, can deplete levels of vitamin B12. Some early evidence suggests that
calcium supplements may prevent or eliminate this negative effect of metformin.
More research is needed.
Antibiotics, Quinolones Calcium can interfere with the body's
ability to absorb quinolone antibiotics (such as ciprofloxacin, levofloxacin,
norfloxacin, and ofloxacin). If taking calcium containing supplements or
antacids, therefore, you should take them two to four hours before or after
taking quinolone antibiotics.
Seizure Medications Low levels of calcium have been reported
with high doses of seizure medications, such as phenytoin, which may decrease
calcium absorption. Some physicians recommend vitamin D along with anti-seizure
drugs to try to prevent the development of low calcium levels.
Tetracyclines Calcium can interfere with the body's ability to
absorb tetracycline medications (including doxycycline, minocycline, and
tetracycline) and, therefore, diminish their effectiveness. Calcium containing
supplements and antacids should be taken at least two hours before or after
taking these drugs.
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Review Date: April 2002
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Jacqueline A. Hart, MD,
Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Harvard University
and Senior Medical Editor Integrative Medicine, Boston, MA; Gary Kracoff, RPh
(Pediatric Dosing section February 2001), Johnson Drugs, Natick, Ma; Steven
Ottariono, RPh (Pediatric Dosing section February 2001), Veteran's
Administrative Hospital, Londonderry, NH; Margie Ullmann-Weil, MS, RD,
specializing in combination of complementary and traditional nutritional
therapy, Boston, MA. All interaction sections have also been reviewed by a team
of experts including Joseph Lamb, MD (July 2000), The Integrative Medicine
Works, Alexandria, VA;Enrico Liva, ND, RPh (August 2000), Vital Nutrients,
Middletown, CT; Brian T Sanderoff, PD, BS in Pharmacy (March 2000), Clinical
Assistant Professor, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy; President, Your
Prescription for Health, Owings Mills, MD; Ira Zunin, MD, MPH, MBA (July 2000),
President and Chairman, Hawaii State Consortium for Integrative Medicine,
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