Nutritional Supplements, Part 3: Calcium

Since calcium currently is the most commonly purchased supplement in the U.S., I decided it would make a wonderful addition to our discussions on the nutritional supplement topic.

Did you know that calcium is the most abundant mineral in our bodies, and that more than 99 percent of it is found in our bones? There are many things, however, that calcium does besides maintaining and building bone. It is essential for the contraction of our muscles, clotting our blood, regulating our heart beats, releasing neurotransmitters (to help our nerves carry messages), along with many other enzymatic reactions. The foods containing the highest content of this wonderful mineral are dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheeses (just be leery of the added hormones and antibiotics–go organic!), along with dark green leafy veggies, dried beans and some canned fishes (salmon or sardines with the bones). You can also find items fortified with calcium such as rice, almonds, oats and soy milk, some orange juices, and fitness waters.

Even if you ate these items faithfully, with the depletion of our minerals in our soil and food today, a supplement is still necessary. As you may have guessed, there are a few tricks to finding the perfect supplement. Let’s begin with quality. Since calcium is the most commonly purchased supplement, it is only fair to realize that it is the second most contaminated supplement on the market today (with fish oils being the first). Heavy metals and other "fillers" are the most prominent contaminants. So, as stated before, please be sure your product is GMP-certified and "Physician or Pharmaceutical Grade" in order to ensure your body is truly reaping the benefits and not getting any added toxicities.

There are many different types of calcium. Calcium carbonate is the cheapest form and also the least absorbable. It is found in items like Tums or Rolaids, as well as the "soft chews," and some other inexpensive forms. The problem with calcium carbonate is that many people under 50 years of age have a hard time properly pulling it into their bloodstream, and anyone over 50 does not have enough HCL (hydrochloric acid) in their stomach to break it down at all. So, just be safe, completely avoid the carbonate form.

Calcium citrate and/or malate are much more readily absorbed by our system, and this form of calcium is much easier for our bodies to use once it is absorbed. One thing to remember is these calcium forms don’t actually BUILD back any bone that is lost, but they do help maintain what is left.

The type of calcium now found to actually help build back lost bone is MCHC (microcrystalline hydroxyapatite calcium). MCHC is a complex biological calcium salt derived from young bovine (cow) bone. This is the calcium form that has been proven to perform best with any age group.

With that out of the way, let’s talk a little bit about how calcium is absorbed. The most important thing to remember is to be sure you are getting some vitamin D along with your calcium. Whether through your diet, the sun (we only get about two months per year of vitamin D-producing sun in the Northwoods), or right along with your supplement, vitamin D must be available in your system in order for the calcium to be absorbed at all. Magnesium is also helpful in helping with calcium absorption because it works to regulate the metabolism of calcium. So, once you find the right supplement, just know that the best times to take it are right before bed (your body builds the most bone at night), and/or first thing in the morning.

Because many of us living in North America are concerned about osteopenia (bone softening) and osteoporosis (weak and brittle bones), many may be taking one of the newer pharmaceutical medications to prevent osteoporosis. Without naming the actual drugs, I do think it is important for people to know their mechanism of action. There are two types of bone cells. Osteoblasts (which build new bone) and osteoclasts (which break down old bone). The problem with the medication is that while it stops the osteoclasts from working, it is unable to stimulate the osteoblasts. The result is more bone, because it is not being broken down, but the bone is old bone that really should have been broken down and made into new bone. If this is a concern to you, talk to your doctor about possible alternatives.

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