Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our bodies, which is just as well seeing as it’s one of the most important. Without calcium we would quite literally fall apart – our bones would become brittle and break easily, our muscles would spasm, hair and nails would become fragile, and our nervous system would go haywire.
So what is Calcium?
Calcium is a mineral found in the earth. It is the fifth most abundant element in the earth’s crust, which interestingly corresponds with it being the fifth most abundant element in the human body – coming after oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. In its purest form (i.e. at source) it is a soft, silvery metal, but as soon as it is exposed to air it takes on the white, chalky appearance that most of us associate with it.
Where is Calcium Found?
Although calcium is originally found in the earth, we don’t eat it in that form. It is absorbed through plants, having been drawn up in water through the roots and then distributed throughout the stem, leaves, and flowers/fruits. When animals graze on these plants they ingest the calcium – so much so that they are able to grow and sustain healthy, strong skeletons, and we then drink the milk or eat the cheese made from these animals. When you think that large animals such as elephants, giraffes, and rhinos are herbivores, it goes to show just how much calcium they are getting from plants.
Most people think of calcium as being most prevalent in dairy products such as milk and cheese, and it is, but it is also abundant in green leafy vegetables such as kale, broccoli, and bok choi, and sardines (canned with bones.)
99% of the body’s calcium is stored in the bones, where it supports their development and maintenance. The other 1% is used by the body’s other systems to aid nerve transmission, muscle function, and hormonal production. However, when there is not enough calcium in the body to support these functions, it is ‘borrowed’ from the bones, and unless it is replaced the bone health will be compromised.
How Much Calcium Do I Need?
The recommended level of calcium varies with the age of the person. According to the British Dietetics Association (BDA) the RDA is as follows:
- Under 1……………………………..525mg per day
- 1 to 3…………………………………350mg per day
- 4 to 6…………………………………450mg per day
- 7 to 10……………………………….550mg per day
- 11 to 18 girls……………………..800mg per day
- 11 to 18 boys…………………….1000mg per day
- Adults 19+ - ……………………..700mg per day
- Breastfeeding mothers……..1250mg per day
- Post-menopausal women… 1200mg per day
The needs of a pregnant woman remain the same as above. It is only if and when a mother is breastfeeding that her intake should increase.
As we mentioned above, the symptoms of calcium deficiency, or hypocalcemia, can affect most systems in the body.
In the early stages of hypocalcemia, there might not be any symptoms at all. However, the effects will still be making their presence known under the surface. As the disease progresses these symptoms may begin to manifest:
- Bones may break or fracture more easily
- Nails become weak and brittle
- Hair growth may slow down
- Skin may become thinner and more fragile
- Cramping muscles
- Memory loss
- Peripheral neuropathy (tingling and/or numbness in hands, feet, or face)
But in severe cases, it can get even worse. Cancer, heart failure, cataracts, miscarriages and infertility can all be caused by calcium deficiency.
Health Benefits of Calcium
Bone Health. 90% of the body’s calcium is stored in the bones, and it’s not just there as a safe holding place – bones need calcium, it’s as simple as that. Making sure we have enough calcium ensures strong bones, which in turn keeps our skeleton in shape, preventing back pain, arthritis, and osteoporosis.
Healthy Teeth and Gums. As the jaw is what holds teeth in place, making sure it is strong and healthy by taking enough calcium is the best way to prevent gum disease. When the jaw is strong the teeth fit much more securely, leaving no gaps for bacteria to get in and cause havoc.
High Blood Pressure. The one percent of calcium which isn’t stored in the bones circulates throughout the body via the bloodstream, working its magic on the various cells it moves in and out of. Calcium enables blood vessels to expand and contract, allowing the blood to flow freely. A lower calcium level can cause the arteries to tighten, which can result in abnormal blood pressure. It is also worth noting that calcium enables the body to regulate sodium levels, another important factor in blood pressure.
Muscles. It’s not just bones which need calcium, the muscles do too. Muscle contraction and relaxation relies on a process called the ‘Calcium Cycle’ – when the brain sends a signal to the muscle to move, the fibres are flooded with calcium, and conversely when the muscle rests the calcium leaves the muscle fibres and returns to its ‘store’, ready to be released again with the next signal. A calcium deficiency can cause the muscles to become irritated, resulting in leg and back cramps, and facial twitching.
Indigestion. The go-to remedy for indigestion and heartburn is usually an antacid. But long term use of these preparations can cause serious health problems, as the body needs acid to digest foods and absorb minerals. The acid also works towards gut health, because it kills bacteria in the stomach. Taking a calcium supplement works by tightening the lower oesophagal sphincter, thus preventing the acid from regurgitating and causing indigestion and heartburn, while leaving the body to produce the required amount of acid.
Matches Made in Heaven
There are two supplements which, when taken in conjunction with calcium, can greatly enhance its power. Vitamin D is needed by the body to absorb calcium. If there is not enough Vitamin D present, the body can’t produce a hormone called Calcitriol. And without calcitriol, not enough calcium will be garnered from the diet. When this happens, as we’ve already seen, calcium is then taken from the bones, which if not replenished can lead to osteoporosis.
Vitamin K is one of those supplements which doesn’t get enough exposure, and yet it serves a vital role in the body. If you can imagine calcium as a big ship, then vitamin k is the tug boat which brings it into shore – it literally attaches itself to calcium and directs it to the bone. Another hugely important role is that by sending the calcium to the bone, the vitamin k is preventing it from attaching to soft tissues, such as the arteries. When calcium deposits form in the arteries, it can lead to hardening (atherosclerosis), preventing both blood and oxygen from reaching the heart or other organs.
Without a doubt, calcium is essential to our health. Without it our bones would become weak, our muscles wouldn’t work, and we would eventually just fall apart. By topping up our supplies we can ensure that there is enough calcium in the bloodstream so that it doesn’t have to be ‘borrowed’ from our bones.
As the old saying goes ‘neither a lender nor a borrower be’ – it could have been written especially for calcium!
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