Several big studies have been published in the past year about nutritional supplements, calcium in particular. And some say they help us live longer lives and prevent disease, and some say the opposite. While it is confusing, we can sort it all out. And hopefully not put you to sleep in the process.
Problems with Supplements
- Calcium without Vitamin D
- Taking too much
- Taking too much at one time
The studies that showed a negative effect of calcium supplements identified these three as the most likely problems. Studies that began a long time ago used the supplements that were popular then, which almost never had vitamin D included, and were often in very large doses or advised two doses to be taken together.
Almost all calcium supplements now come with vitamin D. They usually range from 100IU to 400IU per dose; I’ll show you how to figure out what is best for you. Note: if you are currently being treated for osteoporosis, your physician’s treatment recommendations trump anything written here.
Taking too much – calcium is not one of those nutrients that is harmless in really large amounts. Basically three servings of calcium rich foods a day are enough. If you usually have a piece of cheese or a yogurt each day, that counts as one. Dark leafy greens count as one, and so does fortified juice. Then check your multivitamin and any other supplements you take, along with fortified foods (like cereal) that you eat fairly regularly. If your breakfast is fortified juice plus cereal and milk, then cheese or yogurt at lunch, you are at two servings. If your multi has around 1/3 of your daily calcium, then you are at your goal and do not need an additional calcium supplement.
If you don’t get that much in your diet, say one serving on average a day plus a multivitamin, then have one calcium supplement a day, with a different meal than your multi. Each supplement should have around 400-600mg of calcium, and take only one at a time. If you are getting three good sources a day, then the small amounts in other foods usually make up the rest.
Then check the vitamin D in your multivitamin, and find a calcium supplement with enough vitamin D to get you to 800 IU a day total – unless your physician is testing the level of vitamin D in your blood and wants you to get more. Many of us need at least 1,000 IU of vitamin D per day. If your calcium supplement plus your multi don’t get you there, vitamin D supplements are easy to find and you can figure out the dose with your physician. IU stands for International Units, by the way, and is just another form of measurement.
You can take your calcium and vitamin D in separate pills, if you can’t find the right levels for you in a combined supplement. It all mixes together in the stomach, anyway.
There is no blood test to see if we are low in calcium. Calcium is essential to maintain our body’s proper pH balance, and it will rob our bones to keep enough in our bloodstream.
Taking too much at once – this is a big problem. When we take supplements, the large “dump” of nutrients into our system sometimes overwhelms the regulatory process that goes on in the cells that line our small intestine and absorb nutrients. This leads to absorption by passive diffusion, which is not regulated. Nutrients can enter the bloodstream without their proper molecular attachments. So they do not go where they are supposed to go and end up accumulating in places they don’t belong.
This is especially true of calcium. The absorption of calcium into our bloodstream is highly regulated, with vitamin D playing a major role. Too much or too little can make the kidneys work very hard to maintain the proper pH of our blood, and often excess calcium gets stored in soft tissue, to be dealt with later. These pods of calcium can cause problems if left too long, or if they get too big.
So, taking too much calcium on a daily basis never allows our bodies to clear out the excess. This is what causes problems. Not the occasional day of dairy (you know, a venti latte, grilled cheese, plus a pint of Ben & Jerry’s), but the daily overdose.
Finally, there are also calcium supplements that have magnesium and zinc added, they are often to help with sleep and usually have smaller doses of calcium, often around 100mg. These are a good way to help fall asleep naturally, just total your daily dose and make sure you are not getting over 1,200 mg of calcium a day from supplements and fortified foods.
Getting enough calcium has been shown to reduce the risk of both colon cancer and melanoma, along with supplying the necessary building blocks for healthy, strong bones and teeth. Talk with your physician the next time you are in the office to see if you are getting the right amount for you. Take in your bottles, make a note of any fortified foods you eat and the amounts of calcium and vitamin D in each serving, to help. No one will think you are crazy, I promise.
So, the bottom line is to supplement smart with calcium, and reap the benefits.