Calcium: Not just for bones!
When most people hear calcium they usually think, “Calcium! I need that for my bones… better drink my milk.” Most of us have been told all of our lives that we need to drink our milk to grow strong and be healthy, now this post isn’t about whether dairy is good or bad (that’s a story for another day) but I will tell you that I believe there are better ways to get calcium. Calcium IS important for bone health but it actually does a lot more than give you strong bones. In fact, almost every cell in your body utilizes calcium in some way. It is also important for your nervous system, cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, and your reproductive system.
Calcium for the young and the old
As mentioned calcium is important for the bones in our skeletal system. Our bones store calcium, this helps provide strength and stabilization to the structure. In growing children calcium is especially important, if there is a calcium and vitamin D deficiency it could lead to stunted growth (Van Stuijvenberg, et al 2015) and a condition called rickets. When we don’t have enough calcium in our system (either due to low intake or low absorption) our body pulls it from the stored calcium in our bones. As we age we absorb less and less calcium so more calcium is pulled from our bones causing them to become weak and brittle, this contributes to conditions like osteopenia and osteoporosis.
Calcium for muscles
Calcium is also necessary for our muscles. I won’t bore you with the complex physiology behind this, but basically it would be impossible for our muscles to contact and relax without calcium. Think about how many times a day our muscles are voluntarily and involuntarily contracting and relaxing—it is more than you realize! Our muscles keep us upright and allow for movement, we need to be taking care of them by ensuring we have enough calcium in our system!
Our nervous system also needs calcium for nerve impulses. Low calcium can cause numbness, tingling, and muscle spasms.
Women’s health is complex and so there are many different factors to consider when a women’s health issue present.
Calcium for post-menopausal women
We have already discussed why calcium is essential for bones but haven’t really touched on why older women (post-menopausal women) need more calcium. Postmenopausal women have a decline in estrogen—one of the major female hormones. Estrogen helps with absorption of calcium so as women age and estrogen declines there is less calcium available in the body which triggers more calcium to be pulled from the bones.
Calcium for premenstrual syndrome
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects millions of women (Shobeiri et al, 2017) and symptoms can be severe. What is most concerning is that often these symptoms are ignored or dismissed as being “normal.” I always encourage women to advocate for themselves if they have severe PMS, heavy bleeding, or painful cramping because some discomfort can be expected with having a period but it should not be debilitating or affect activities of daily living. Menstrual health can be a predictor of overall health as well so it is important not to ignore symptoms. There are many different ways both natural and allopathic to help combat period pain and PMS symptoms. A randomized clinical trial in 2017 evaluated the effects of low dose calcium on severity of PMS. What they found is that calcium supplements (500 mg/day for two months) significantly improved “anxiety, depression, emotional changes, water retention, and somatic changes” (Shobeiri, et al 2017) when compared to placebo. Although this study had a few limitations (for example it was a small study with only 66 participants) the results are promising. Another similar study in 2016 looked at the combined use of calcium and vitamin B6 for PMS. The study found that those who were treated with 500 mg of Calcium and 40 mg of Vitamin B6 twice a day for two months had a decrease in PMS symptom severity. (Masoumi, et al 2016). This again suggests that Calcium may be helpful for those with PMS, especially when PMS symptoms are related to mood. Sometimes PMS can be so debilitating that it is PMDD (premenstrual dystrophic disorder) which is where PMS mood symptoms are severe and warrant further intervention. According to a review on treatment options for PMDD, calcium has demonstrated a consistent therapeutic benefit.
More on calcium
Calcium definitely has therapeutic benefits for those of all ages; however, calcium may not be right for everyone. Calcium has been known to improve blood pressure (Shiraki et al 2015) but has also been linked to an increase in cardiac disease so talk to your doctor on whether calcium is right for you. It is also important to keep in mind that vitamin D and magnesium work very closely with calcium in the body and it may be necessary to supplement with those products as well.
Finally, it is important to remember that there isn’t one magic pill out there that is a cure-all. Why? Because many things affect health, you must consider diet, exercise, stress, and other health behaviors. For example, regular consumption of soda can lead to break down of bone due to the phosphoric acid used in these beverages. According to Dr. Christine Northrup, depression can also be a contributor to osteoporosis due to constantly elevated levels of epinephrine and cortisol which increases calcium loss in the urine. This leads us back to what we’ve known for a long time but often ignore: health is multifactorial. There are factors within our control such as diet and supplementation, getting ample rest and adequate exercise, and managing our stress and emotions; and then there are factors beyond our control such as genetics, age, and so on. My advice? Look for ways to improve your overall health, sometimes this can be as simple as adding a couple supplements, other times bigger changes may need to occur. As for me I take a calcium supplement as part of my supplement regime but more importantly I try to get calcium in natural ways through diet. Hint calcium containing foods are leafy greens!
As always this is not medical advice and one should always talk to their doctor about adding a supplement to their routine.
Comprehensive Review of Treatment Options for Premenstrual Syndrome and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder Shalini Maharaj-Kenneth Trevino – Journal of Psychiatric Practice – 2015
Health benefits and demerits of calcium nutrition or supplementation in older people. Shiraki M. ABSTRACT. Nihon Rinsho. 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26536675
Low intake of calcium and vitamin D, but not zinc, iron or vitamin A, is associated with stunting in 2- to 5-year-old children
Martha Stuijvenberg-Jana Nel-Serina Schoeman-Carl Lombard-Lisanne Plessis-Muhammad Dhansay – Nutrition – 2015
Women’s bodies, women’s wisdom: the complete guide to women’s health and wellbeing. Christine Northrup – Piatkus – 2009