Calcium 101: Why You’re Probably Deficient in This Key Mineral
January 27th, 2020
A question I get asked all the time by my patients is, “Should I be supplementing with calcium?” Let me tell you, the answer is almost always a resounding “yes”. Calcium is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies around the world today. In fact, many people who aren’t already taking a high quality calcium supplement are highly likely to be low in this critical mineral.
In America, calcium insufficiency is rampant, with large portions of the population not consuming enough. Government data from 2003-2006 tells us that almost every single female in the country over 4 years of age is not consuming enough, and boys aged 9-18, as well as men over 51 are all generally consuming suboptimal amounts. These stats even take into account nationwide calcium supplement use!1
While calcium’s most famous role in the body is helping to build strong bones, it’s actually crucial for many different areas of health you may not be aware of. Optimal calcium levels are important for normal blood pressure, strong teeth, an even heart rate, the ability of your muscles to properly contract (including you heart!), nervous system health, cellular immunity, and even pancreatic health and blood sugar balance.
Why Is Calcium Insufficiency So Common?
People all around the world are getting less and less dietary calcium every year. We have a plethora of environmental practices to point the finger at for this, as well as a host of dietary and lifestyle decisions that negatively affect our calcium intake. Aging and many health conditions can have a deleterious effect on our calcium absorption too, including Celiac disease, low stomach acid, Vitamin D and K2 deficiency, and more. Let’s look at some of the most impactful causes of dietary calcium deficiency, along with a few factors that impact absorption and utilization.
Modern Industrial Farming Practices
Our current chemical intensive farming practices vary wildly from the way we grew our produce throughout history and even just 100 years ago before the ‘Green Revolution’. Massive amounts of nitrogen-based fertilizers, glyphosate (RoundUp®) dependent genetically modified crops, and liberal application of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, have all done their share in depleting our soil of its precious and health promoting minerals.
Conventional farming’s failure to properly rotate crops and replenish soil with natural fertilizers, such as manure or the compost from last year’s harvest, means that food crops today are much lower in calcium than they were when your grandparents ate them.2
Diets Lacking In Calcium
The typical western diet is sorely lacking in nutrient-dense foods such as whole sardines, long-simmered bone broths, leafy greens, and other calcium-rich foods, because, let’s face it… most of us could stand to eat a lot healthier. To compound this issue, our modern western diet is filled with foods such as gluten, soy, yeast, and conventional dairy that irritate and inflame the digestive tract. Inflammation in the digestive tract results in reduced calcium absorption from the foods we do eat and, arguably, a greater need for calcium due to the increased levels of inflammation those foods can cause.
Dairy foods have long been thought of as the most abundant source of dietary calcium in the standard western diet. Recently however, many people with health challenges who are gravitating toward a more paleolithic style diet, people with sensitivities or allergies to dairy, and vegans and vegetarians who may not consume dairy products for other reasons, often find that the largest source of dietary calcium in the western diet is effectively off the menu.
Low Stomach Acid
Here’s a shocking fact: Most middle-aged and older adults absorb only 15% or less of the calcium they consume.3 Calcium absorption is highest when we are young. This is when the demand for this mineral is at its pinnacle in order to help us reach peak bone growth at around age 30. After 30, calcium absorption rapidly declines. While many factors other than aging can negatively influence calcium absorption–such as not adequately chewing your food, eating while standing up, eating too fast, and consuming too much fluid with meals–low stomach acid, also known as hydrochloric acid or HCL is most often times the culprit. This condition is referred to as hypochloridia. Calcium in the food you eat is always bound to another molecule, and in order to actually be absorbed and utilized by your body, it must first be ionized by stomach acid.
The issue here lies with the fact that many of us actually have low, or even no stomach acid. When stomach acid is low due to stress, H. Pylori or other bacterial infections, antacid use, inflammation of the stomach lining due to food intolerances or certain medications, or a number of other reasons, dietary calcium simply cannot be ionized and absorbed, and passes through your body wasted and unutilized. If you have low stomach acid or poor digestion, consider a high-quality HCL supplement to support a normal stomach PH and healthy digestion.
Vitamin D3 Insufficiency
While low stomach acid is often to blame, the next largest barrier to absorbing and utilizing the calcium you consume is having adequate Vitamin D3 levels. This is especially impactful as so many people worldwide are deficient in Vitamin D. Over a billion people around the globe are clinically deficient, with billions more having suboptimal levels. Millions of American adults and children are counted among these numbers.
The Endocrine Society has higher standards than the United States Government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the World Health Organization (WHO) with regard to what constitutes sufficient Vitamin D levels in a healthy person. The FDA and WHO classify deficiency as being below 20ng/ml. The Endocrine Society has set the bar higher by setting their standard for deficiency as being below 30ng/ml. According to that standard, 55% of the US population was deficient between 1988 and 1994, and 77% were deficient for the period between 2001 and 2004!4 I actually consider even 30 ng/ml to be too low, and prefer to see my patients with levels above 60 ng/dl. According to my standard, the Functional Medicine standard, more than 90% of the US population likely has suboptimal levels of Vitamin D3.
Proper levels of Vitamin D3 are essential for intestinal calcium absorption, as vitamin D, activated by your parathyroid hormone, can increase calcium absorption in the intestinal tract by up to four times the normal rate when your body needs it the most.5
Calcium’s Important Role in Your Health
Calcium Supports Bone and Dental Health
Your bones and teeth are most likely the first thing you think of when they think about calcium, and that would stand to reason! Calcium is the most abundant mineral in your body. In fact, your bones and teeth are quite literally made of calcium and a collagen protein and mineral matrix called hydroxyapatite.
When we do not consume enough dietary calcium, or we are not absorbing the calcium we do consume, our bodies are forced to leach calcium from our bones and teeth to keep calcium levels in the blood stable. This is because calcium levels in the blood are essential to keep your heart beating properly, and are therefore tightly regulated by your brain. This leaching of calcium from your bones can lead to shrinking and more disease prone teeth, thinning and weakening bones, higher rates of fractures and even osteopenia and osteoporosis. We’ll talk more about why keeping blood calcium levels stable is so important in the next section.
In my clinic, I often recommend my patients take 1100 mg of Calcium as calcium microcrystalinehydroxyapatate (MCHC) per day in order to support and maintain bone health and growth, as well as support and maintain dental health. This is especially important for women who are approaching menopause as women over 51 are the highest at risk population in the world for calcium deficiency.
Calcium Supports Cardiovascular Health & Normal Blood Pressure
Optimal calcium levels are crucial if you’re looking to improve the picture of your cardiovascular health. While you probably most often think of dental and bone health when you hear the word “calcium,” this amazing mineral also helps regulate blood pressure and supports an even heart rate. This is because calcium is essential in helping your heart muscle properly contract to pump your blood through your vascular system. Calcium’s impact in modulating blood pressure is also related to its role in helping your blood vessels dilate to allow blood to flow freely and unimpeded by constriction.
I encourage my patients to use a bioavailable form of calcium that has been clinically shown to be absorbable in order to support heart health. This is crucial as lower quality calcium supplements are often not well absorbed. These forms often simply pass through the digestive tract, unutilized, and leave your body through your bowels.
Calcium Cofactors: Vitamin D3 & Vitamin K2
I always have my patients take a high quality Vitamin D3 and Vitamin K2 supplement with their calcium. As we discussed above, D3 is critical to ensuring that your intestines can effectively absorb the dietary calcium you consume. However, once it is absorbed, Vitamin K2 helps it actually find its way into your bones. I can’t stress how important this is as calcium that is absorbed yet not properly utilized, or that cannot find its way “home,” may be deposited into soft tissue, causing cysts. Excess calcium in the bloodstream can also be deposited in your kidneys, where it may cause kidney stone formation. Finally, improperly utilized calcium in your arteries may even bind to waxy and oxidized LDL cholesterol, creating plaques that have a detrimental effect on cardiovascular health.
Calcium Supports Whole Body Health
Optimal calcium levels go a very long way when it comes to whole body health. It’s not just your bones, teeth, and cardiovascular system that reap the benefits. Calcium is directly involved in supporting a host of other areas of health such as:
- Nervous system and muscle function
- Cellular immunity
- Fat loss and weight goals
- Blood sugar balance and pancreatic health
- Healthy digestion
- And much more!
How To Optimize Your Calcium Levels
As you can see, optimal calcium levels benefit far more than you might have imagined. In fact, calcium has a positive impact on many more conditions that we simply don’t have time to cover here. From mood and neural impulses, to DNA synthesis and resilient adrenal glands, to healthy hair, skin, and fingernails, sufficient calcium intake benefits your body entire body, head to toe.
Recommended Daily Intake
Calcium is an interesting mineral in that the government’s RDI is the same for every single person over the age of four years old. The recommended daily intake (RDI) of calcium for children over four and adults is 1000mg of elemental calcium per day. For various reasons, many of us only absorb 15-20% (or less!) of the calcium we consume, so your optimal daily intake may be even higher than the RDI.
Many doctors recommend up to 2000mg per day based on age, weight, and digestive status. Certain disease states, pregnancy and breastfeeding, and prescription medications may also increase your daily need. Achieving the optimal daily intake of calcium every day can be a challenge, and that is why I recommend choosing foods that are good sources of this healthful mineral, as well as selective supplementation to ensure that you are always consuming an adequate amount on a daily basis.
Best Calcium-Rich Foods
My favorite calcium-rich foods include:
- Whole sardines (look for wild caught sardines in olive oil or spring water in BPA-free tins)
- Fresh and dried organic figs
- Bone in canned salmon (again, look for wild caught salmon in BPA-free cans)
- High quality bone broth
- Leafy greens (collard greens and mustard greens are my favorite!)
You should aim for organic varieties of the fruits and vegetables as conventional farming methods often leave the soil depleted of minerals such as calcium.
If you do not have any food sensitivities, or you have completed one of The Myers Way® programs in the past and have successfully reintroduced nuts, seeds, and legumes, there are a few other foods you may enjoy that will help you reach your optimal daily intake. You may include the following to the list of foods high in calcium:
- White beans
- Kidney beans
- Unhulled sesame seeds
Legumes should be soaked overnight in pure filtered water, and then thoroughly rinsed before cooking.
Which Form Of Calcium Supplement Is Right For You?
A high quality form of supplemental calcium helps support the entire body and all of its systems and processes. If you’re looking to supplement with calcium, the supplement you choose should be of the highest quality, and in a form that is highly absorbable and well suited to you. For this, I prefer a special form of calcium called microcrystalinehydroxyapatate calcium (MCHC), and yes, that certainly is a mouthful.
Most calcium supplements on the market come from limestone deposits… You read that correctly. Most calcium supplements on the market today are literally inorganic calcium chloride, calcium oxide, and calcium carbonate from limestone deposits. These forms of calcium are famously difficult for your body to absorb and utilize, and may even be dangerous to your health.
My Calcium 1100mg comes from grass-fed New Zealand cows. Forget about calcium from limestone. My Calcium 1100mg is derived from whole bone extract from healthy cows that graze on pristine grasslands in New Zealand.
MCHC may be the most bioavailable calcium in the world. Clinically shown to be more absorbable than calcium gluconate supplements, microcrystalline hydroxyapatite complex sourced from bovine bones may be the most bioavailable calcium available. It is backed by decades of positive research into its safety, effectiveness, and tolerability.
Even equipped with a list of healthy, calcium-rich foods, and making it a point to include a few of them every day, it’s still terribly easy to fall short of your optimal daily intake. If you’ve made it this far, then you likely understand that calcium is just too crucial to not get the recommended amount. I hope this article has taught you the importance of optimal daily calcium intake, and has helped you decide which form of supplemental calcium may be the right choice for you.