Calcium is found abundantly in foods and is needed by the body for several crucial functions. Calcium is needed to build strong
bones, teeth and muscles, to release enzymes and hormones that affect many bodily functions and to help blood vessels move blood efficiently throughout the body.
Causes and dangers of calcium deficiency
Hypocalcemia refers to calcium deficiency and occurs mainly due to medical problems and the treatments taken for them. Although it is uncommon to find extreme cases of calcium deficiency, it is possible for certain vulnerable groups to suffer if they do not take the recommended daily dosage of calcium. The following groups of people can suffer from a deficiency of calcium.
Menopausal women: Once a woman reaches menopause, bone loss occurs since estrogen production is reduced. This has a two-fold problem – a decrease in the amount of calcium that can be absorbed by the body and increase in bone resorption. Bone resorption takes place when osteoclasts break down bone and transfer calcium to the blood from bone fluid.
Post-menopause, there is a gradual decrease in bone mass. It was recommended that apart from increased calcium intake, hormone replacement therapy also be used to prevent osteoporosis fractures in post-menopausal women. However, due to the serious side effects associated with HRT, post-menopausal women are usually advised to increase their calcium intake through foods and supplements and take medications like bisphosphonates.
Amenorrhea : This refers to irregular or stoppage of menstrual periods in childbearing women due to reduction in circulating estrogen levels. This results in calcium deficiency. If amenorrheic women also suffer from anorexia nervosa it leads to loss of calcium through the urine, decreased ability to absorb required quantities of calcium and reduced rate of bone formation.
Women athletes or women in active service suffer from menstrual irregularities, low bone density, different dietary patterns and history of stress fractures. These women are advised to take adequate quantities of calcium and vitamin D supplements.
Recommended Calcium Dosage
Lactose intolerance : People who suffer from lactose intolerance cannot digest natural sugars in milk. When they do drink milk, they feel bloated and have diarrhea. These people can experience calcium deficiency unless they are able to tolerate other dairy products like yoghurt, cheese or lactose-free milk. They can spread out the consumption of these foods over the day to prevent any side effects. Apart from calcium supplements, these people can try non-dairy foods rich in calcium like kale, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, fortified foods, broccoli and collards.
Vegetarians : Vegans who eat no animal products or ovo-vegetarians who eat no dairy products but consume eggs can all suffer from calcium deficiency. Dairy products are the main source of calcium and avoiding this can lead to health problems. Find out foods rich in calcium here
Calcium deficiency due to Age : Calcium absorption in older people (>70 years) is less efficient and they need to increase their intake.
Lack of Vitamin D : Those who do not take sufficient quantities of vitamin D also suffer from calcium deficiency. Vitamin D helps in calcium absorption and those whose skin is not exposed to the sun can develop a deficiency.
Particular Foods : Beans and vegetables rich in oxalic acid, whole grains rich in phytic acid all reduce the levels of calcium absorbed by the body.
Excessive excretion of calcium : There are several reasons why calcium is excessively excreted through urine, sweat or feces. Excess consumption of beverages high in caffeine or alcohol can cause excess loss. Proteins, sodium, phosphorous and potassium rich foods and supplements also lead to excess excretion of calcium and ultimately a deficiency.
Other causes of calcium deficiency
- Those on long term corticosteroids
- Those with inflammatory bowel diseases or celiac disease
Symptoms of calcium deficiency
- Tingling and numb fingers
- Muscle cramps
- Poor appetite
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Muscle cramps
- Gum diseases
- Loose teeth
- Rickets in children
Calcium Supplements – Benefits and Precautions
The recommended daily dosage of calcium for women over 50 and men over 71 is 1200mg. For other adults, it is 1000mg. The two popular forms of calcium supplements are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. The former is less expensive, contains more levels of elemental calcium and needs to be taken with orange juice or snacks to prevent acidity. The latter is easily digested and absorbed and has lower levels of elemental calcium. It is more expensive.
Other types of calcium supplements are – calcium gluconate and calcium lactate. Usually calcium supplements are combined with magnesium or vitamin D to aid in absorption. Liquid and chewable forms of calcium are quickly absorbed by the body.
Take only 500-600mg of calcium at a time for smaller doses are absorbed more efficiently. If you need to take 1000mg then split it into two doses in a day. Do not take calcium supplements along with an iron supplement but take them at different times. Those on prescription medication must take calcium a few hours before or after their other medications.
Precautions while taking calcium supplements
Follow the dietary recommendations when taking calcium supplements. It must not exceed 2500mg / day. Do not take supplements derived from bone meal, dolomite or oyster shells (called ‘coral calcium’) for they contain lead and harm the kidneys, brain, lead to anemia and increased blood pressure.
Side effects of excess calcium are – diarrhea or constipation. Very high doses result in loss of appetite, nausea, dry mouth, increased urination, confusion, kidney damage, irregular heart beat, abdominal pain or in extreme cases it can prove fatal too.
High levels of calcium supplements are not recommended for those who suffer from cancer, bone tumors, kidney failure, sarcoidosis, hyperparathyroidism or kidney stones. Studies have also suggested that increased levels of calcium can lead to heart problems, strokes and prostate cancer.
Calcium supplements can interact with drugs taken for epilepsy, heart disease or diabetes. Those on such medication must consult their doctor. Excess of calcium can affect how zinc and iron are absorbed by the body.
Inadequacy of calcium can lead to short and long term problems. If left untreated, this can lead to serious health risks. So, check your daily requirement of calcium and make sure you take sufficient quantities of this essential mineral through either food or supplements.