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Calcium is an essential nutrient that is needed for different bodily functions, most people are aware of its important role in maintaining bone health, but it also plays an important role in digestive health too!
But what is calcium, what does it do in the body and more importantly, how can you make sure you are getting the right amount?
Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will have a much better understanding of this super important essential mineral.
Calcium is an essential nutrient which means it is considered vital for your body to function optimally. Its most well-known role is in maintaining healthy bones and teeth1 with about 99% of the body’s calcium stored in our bones. Calcium also has a role to play in digestive health which we’ll look at in the next section.
Calcium deficiency is very hard to spot because if calcium levels in the blood drop too low, our bones release calcium to help make up for this; meaning deficiency symptoms are masked. However, hypocalcaemia is a serious deficiency resulting from certain situations or diseases. Symptoms2 present as muscle cramps or weakness, pins and needles, confusion and memory loss, an abnormal heart rate and a drop in appetite.
Calcium comes in different forms, such as citrate, carbonate and phosphate which have different amounts of elemental calcium; meaning the amount absorbed by the body. Different forms have varying amounts of elemental calcium, calcium carbonate and tricalcium phosphate contain the highest amount of absorbable calcium at around 40%3.
Calcium is found in dairy products like milk and a lot of us associate a glass of milk with building strong bones and teeth. Supporting bone health is the most well-known benefit of calcium and is especially important for children as calcium contributes to the growth and development of their skeleton4. This is perhaps why some parents encourage children to drink milk as it helps them to ‘grow big and strong!’. However, we’ll look later at other foods that may be even better at providing calcium aside from dairy.
Aside from contributing to the maintenance of bones and teeth, calcium has lesser-known but equally important functions5 like aiding muscle and nerve function, contributing to the maintenance of blood, blood clotting, and maintaining normal blood pressure.
You may or may not know, that calcium also contributes to the normal function of digestive enzymes6!
As calcium is an essential mineral, we must get enough in our diet. So what foods are good sources of calcium? You may be shocked to learn that many other foods contain calcium aside from dairy products!
Milk and dairy do have the most concentrated amounts of calcium, but all vegetables contain calcium. Although the calcium in vegetables may not be as concentrated, it is often more readily absorbed by the body and are vegan calcium sources.
Good sources of calcium are found in dark green leafy veg, cruciferous veg including broccoli, Brussel sprouts, kale, cauliflower, and cabbage. Other calcium rich foods are almonds, sesame seeds, tofu, dried figs, and sardines. You can also find fortified foods and drinks containing calcium too, like orange juice.
Taking a supplement can be an easy way to get your daily dose of calcium, Optibac offer two products that contain added calcium, these are Adult Gummies and Kids Gummies, especially helpful for fussy eaters! Both products are vegan and the ‘Kids Gummies’ is suitable for children over 3 years of age.
As we have seen, calcium is contained within many food sources including fruits and veggies so if you eat a varied diet, getting enough of this essential mineral is very achievable – unless you’re a fussy eater of course!
During different life stages7 including periods of growth, pregnancy, nursing, menopause or during periods of intense resistance exercise we have an increased demand for calcium and may be at risk of deficiency. Having an eating disorder can also put you at higher risk of being deficient, or as mentioned above, if you’re a fussy eater.
For those not getting enough sunlight exposure or vitamin D, this can reduce calcium absorption so it’s sometimes wise to provide those in care homes with supplementation for example. Fractures and osteoporosis are sadly more common amongst the older generation so the elderly may benefit from calcium and vitamin D supplements.
If you are looking at supporting digestive enzyme function, calcium supplementation may be a useful addition to your regime. Digestive enzymes break down our food and aid digestion; if we don’t produce enough, we can experience symptoms of digestive discomfort8.
If you’re suffering from a condition called hypercalcaemia, you would not want to take calcium supplements. This condition indicates high calcium levels in your blood and can be caused by a variety of diseases or medications.
If you do choose to supplement, then more does not always mean merrier. Some studies have indicated that excessive continual calcium intake may increase the risks of cardiovascular diseases, but the evidence is inconclusive9. Stick to supplements that contain no more than the recommended daily amount as outlined by the NHS guidelines; we’ll look at these amounts below.
If you’re not sure taking a calcium supplement is right for you, have a chat with your doctor first.
As mentioned earlier, calcium deficiency is easily masked because when the body detects a drop in blood calcium levels, it releases stored calcium from our bones to compensate. If this happens long term, our bone mineral density drops, and bones become brittle and weak from the lack of calcium. If bone mineral density drops below a normal range, this is referred to as osteopenia and if left untreated it can develop into osteoporosis10. Those who have osteoporosis are at a much higher risk of sustaining a break or fracture when taking a fall or, in extreme cases, even just bending over or coughing. In children, a lack of calcium or vitamin D can cause a similar condition called rickets11, although this is uncommon in developed countries. As calcium protects our teeth, gum disease and tooth decay can result from calcium deficiency12.
More serious calcium deficiency is known as hypocalcaemia and as seen earlier, presents with symptoms such as muscle cramps and fatigue but can also result in more serious symptoms like seizures and memory loss13.
To avoid deficiency and support your health, how much calcium should you be aiming for each day?
The NHS advises14 that all adults over 19 years old get 700 mg of calcium daily. For infants and children, the following daily amounts are recommended:
0-12 months: 525 mg
1-3 years: 350 mg
4-6 years: 450 mg
7-10 years: 550 mg
Boys aged 11- 18: 1000 mg
Girls aged 11-18: 800 mg
Breastfeeding mothers need 1,250 mg and postmenopausal women require 1,200 mg per day. Adults with coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, osteoporosis, or men over 55 have higher daily calcium requirements.
If you are taking other vitamin and mineral supplements you may wish to keep an eye on your daily intake if you are combining products with added calcium. Baby formula and kids’ foods can also come fortified with vitamins and minerals. The recommended upper limit for calcium is 2,500 mg a day for adults aged 19 to 50. For those aged 51 and older the limit is 2,000 mg a day. For infants aged 0-6 months the upper limit is 1,000 mg, for infants 7–12 months it's 1,500 mg, for children aged 1–8 years it's 2,500 mg and for children aged 9–18 years it's 3,000 mg.
As calcium has a crucial role to play in keeping us healthy, you may wish to supplement with calcium and may be wondering if it’s okay to take calcium every day.
Nutritional supplements in general can be a helpful way to bridge the gap from what you fail to get in your daily diet. It’s a good idea to check your daily intake of dietary calcium combined with your chosen supplement does not exceed the daily recommended intake as advised by the government.
If you’re taking medication or have a serious or chronic medical condition, then you should speak to your doctor or health professional before taking any nutritional supplement.
This FAQ was answered by Camilla Gray DipCNM Nutritional Therapist
Hopefully, this article has answered some of your questions about the essential mineral calcium. Check out the other articles in this series: Added Nutrients
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Author: Camilla Gray DipCNM Nutritional Therapist
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