What is calcium and what does it do?
You may remember being told as a child to drink your milk to keep your bones and teeth strong and healthy. And for good reason! Milk is a good source of calcium, an essential nutrient responsible for a wide range of key daily functions.
So what exactly is it? Calcium is a mineral that plays an extremely important role in maintaining healthy bones and teeth. In fact, around 99% of the calcium in our bodies is stored in our bones. The rest is found in our muscles, blood, and other tissues.
What are the benefits of calcium?
Calcium helps build strong and healthy bones and teeth. It also helps with maintaining healthy bone density, something that is particularly important as people age. During our youth, the mineral is used by the body to build up bone density, or bone mass. However, later in life, we experience more bone breakdown than bone formation.
In order to help prevent or delay bone loss when older, it's important to build up enough calcium during the first 25-30 years of life. If there isn't a sufficient intake of calcium this can lead to bone loss and put us at risk of weakened bones, bone-related injuries, or osteoporosis. Women after menopause are at higher risk of developing osteoporosis. It is especially important to pay attention to calcium intake during this time.
The reason calcium can have such a significant impact on bone health is because the body does not produce it on its own. Therefore, it must get calcium either through calcium-rich foods or supplements. An insufficient intake of calcium forces the body to tap into the calcium stores in the body which means it draws it from the bones. It's no wonder this vital mineral is so crucial for bone health.
However, the benefits of calcium don't stop there. This vital mineral is also essential for a huge range of other necessary functions in the body.
Calcium is also critical for:
Cellular function: It helps keep your cells working the way they should. For example, by sending the correct signals to the rest of your body.
Supporting muscle function and muscle contraction: It helps your heart muscles pump so that your nerves can send signals that make your muscles contract. Your body needs calcium for normal muscle movement and to help keep muscles strong.
Supporting nerve function: For example, by sending signals to the nerve endings in your muscles, calcium helps prevent twitching or spasms.
Regulating blood pressure: It does this by helping the blood vessels contract and relax. This aids healthy blood flow. Calcium is also needed for normal blood clotting.
Maintaining heart rhythm: Normal calcium levels are needed for muscle contraction, this therefore makes it important for regulating heart muscle contraction.
Hormone regulation: Calcium helps your body release hormones and enzymes that are needed for various body functions.
Am I low in calcium?
Many adults in the US may be at risk of having a calcium deficiency. In fact, it's estimated that approximately 70% of US adults get less than the daily intake recommended.
Being calcium deficient can lead to a range of symptoms that may impact different body organ systems. The signs of calcium deficiency depend on how low the blood calcium levels are. A calcium deficiency can be difficult to detect as there are no obvious early symptoms that a person may lack calcium. The signs tend to develop over time as calcium levels continue to drop. Severe deficiency can have a more serious impact on health and definitely requires a visit to the doctor.
5 signs of calcium deficiency
Muscle cramps or weakness
Having frequent muscle cramps is one possible sign that your body lacks calcium. People with a calcium deficiency might also experience muscle aches and spasms that don't usually disappear with activity.
Weak or brittle nails
If left untreated, a calcium deficiency can result in symptoms that affect the skin, nails, and hair. Nails may become dry and brittle, hair can turn courser and people may experience more hair fall. Significantly low levels of calcium can also cause the skin to become dry and fragile.
Brain fog or other cognitive symptoms
Severe calcium deficiency can have cognitive effects including memory loss, confusion, and has also been linked to depression. However, it's important to note that these only typically occur when calcium levels have dropped significantly.
Because it maintains healthy bones, low levels of calcium can result in bone loss leading to brittle bones and an increased risk of fractures. After time, and later in life, it can also cause osteoporosis, a bone disease that leads to thin, fragile bones.
Changes in heart health
The body needs calcium to maintain a normal heart rhythm. If a person has a calcium deficiency they might experience an abnormal heart rhythm.
What foods are good sources of calcium?
Some food sources of calcium include:
Leafy greens like kale and spinach
Nuts and seeds
What helps with the absorption of calcium?
Vitamin D is important to maintain many aspects of our health. It is also needed by the body to absorb calcium, this is why it is often included in calcium-fortified drinks and foods and calcium supplements.
Should I take calcium supplements?
Calcium is so important for many aspects of our health. While many people can generally get all the calcium they need from diet, this might be difficult for some groups of people. Those who find it difficult to meet the daily recommended amounts of calcium might benefit from taking a supplement.
These groups may include:
Older adults (especially women after menopause)
People following a plant-based diet
People who follow a poor diet
People with a dairy allergy or who are lactose intolerant
Those with digestive problems that may decrease the absorption of nutrients
People who consume a lot of protein or sodium (this can cause more calcium excretion)
If you are considering taking a calcium supplement, it's a good idea to seek advice from a healthcare professional before starting supplementation.
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