Calcium

Calcium is an important structural mineral in the body. We each contain around 1.2kg calcium - more than any other mineral. The majority is found in the skeleton where it is present as calcium phosphate, also known as hydroxyapatite. Calcium is absorbed in the small intestine, a process that is dependent upon the presence of vitamin D.

Why you need it

Ninety-nine per cent of calcium absorbed from the gut goes straight into the bones and teeth. The other one per cent (around 10g) plays a crucial role in blood clotting, muscle contraction, nerve conduction, the smooth functioning of the immune system and the production of energy. A dietary deficiency of calcium at any stage in life means that bone stores are raided which significantly increases the risk of future osteoporosis. Good intakes of calcium are therefore vital throughout life - during childhood and adolescence when bones are still developing, as well as in later years when bones are naturally starting to thin down.

Research

Low intakes of calcium have also been linked with high blood pressure and strokes. In fact, drugs that affect calcium channels in the body are highly successful in treating hypertension, angina, some irregular heart rhythms and poor circulation.

Calcium supplements seem to protect against the development of high blood pressure in pregnancy (pre-eclampsia) in those at risk, especially where calcium intakes are generally low. When calcium supplements are combined with linoleic acid (e.g. from evening primrose oil) the beneficial effect is even greater.

Taking calcium supplements of 1000mg daily helps to prevent bone loss in older women during winter months when vitamin D levels are naturally lower.

Adding calcium supplements to the diet of elderly people reduces their risk of a vertebral fracture by 20 per cent, while giving them both calcium and vitamin D supplements may reduce their risk of non-vertebral and hip fracture by 30-40 per cent.

How much you need

The EC RDA for calcium is 800mg.

Usually, only 30-40 per cent of the calcium present in food and drinks is absorbed - the rest is lost in the bowel motions. Some types of fiber (phytates from wheat in unleavened bread e.g. chapatti) bind calcium in the bowel to form an insoluble, non-absorbable salt. High fiber diets, which speed the passage of food through the bowels, also reduce the amount of calcium absorbed.

The calcium salts that are best absorbed are calcium lactate (the form found in milk), calcium gluconate and calcium citrate.

Calcium tablets are best taking with meals. Some evidence suggests they are better taken with your evening meal rather than breakfast as calcium flux is greatest in the body at night, when
growth hormone is secreted.

Taking calcium supplements together with essential fatty acid supplements (e.g. evening primrose or fish oils) also helps to boost absorption, increases calcium deposition in bones and reduces the amount of calcium flushed out in the urine. People with a tendency to kidney stones should ideally take calcium supplements together with essential fatty acids but seek medical advice first.

Symptoms that may be due to lack of calcium include Symptoms that may be due to lack of calcium include

  • muscle aches and pains
  • muscle twitching and spasm
  • muscle cramps
  • tetany (sustained cramps)
  • palpitations
  • receding gums
  • infected gums (periodontal disease)
  • loose teeth
  • convulsions
  • dementia

Foods containing calcium include

  • milk
  • dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, fromage frais
  • green leafy vegetables e.g. broccoli
  • salmon
  • nuts and seeds
  • pulses
  • white and brown bread
  • eggs

It is relatively easy to increase your intake of calcium. The simplest way is to drink an extra pint of skimmed or semi-skimmed milk per day. This provides as much calcium as whole milk but without the additional fat. The calcium found in milk is also in a highly absorbable form (calcium lactate).


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