Pratt: Understanding the role of calcium
Calcium has become the latest double-edged swords in the supplement world.
People want to take calcium for its osteoporosis prevention benefit, but then learn about possible associated cardiovascular disease risks.
This usually leaves the consumer confused as to whether the risk is worth the benefit.
To answer the question about whether or not to take calcium, it is first it important to understand the role calcium in our body.
Calcium is essential in a variety of physiological functions in our body, in addition to the structural function in our bones.
Calcium is a signal molecule for a variety of cellular processes including nerve conduction, muscle contraction, glycogen metabolism and cardiac function.
Without calcium, we would not be able to relay signals in our heart or muscles, we wouldn’t be able to contract our muscles and our skeleton would not keep us upright.
What is the connection with calcium and heart disease?
Some recent research had correlated an increased risk of heart disease with people who had been using calcium supplements.
It was thought that excessive calcium that is consumed, and not used by the bones, could lead to plaque deposits in the arteries, which can lead to heart disease.
The increased risk was found to be minimal and has not led to a definitive answer as to whether or not calcium supplementation is a significant risk factor for heart disease.
However, the study did highlight that getting calcium from food sources lessens any associated risk because it is in smaller amounts spread out throughout the day, as opposed to larger doses in a pill, as well as, in a form that our body readily absorbs.
So what are the best food sources of calcium?
Dairy is the most commonly known source of calcium, with one glass of milk giving you a quarter of your recommended daily allowance.
However, if you are lactose intolerant or do not eat dairy products, other significant sources are almonds, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and fortified soy products (e.g. tofu).
If your diet does not supply adequate amounts of the above foods, or you have a condition that prevents you from absorbing all your nutrients, that is when you should consider calcium supplementation.
Calcium is best absorbed with vitamin D and is best paired with magnesium. Since magnesium has positive cardiovascular benefits and helps balance out your calcium, look for a calcium supplement that has a 2:1 or 1:1 (calcium:magnesium) ratio.
There are many choices of calcium supplements. Try to find one that is specific to your health concern, is easily digested and food-based if possible. Since there are health concerns surrounding calcium, do consult with your physician before starting any supplementation.
Emily Pratt is a naturopathic physician in Kelowna