By Dr. Scott Olson
October 28, 2008
Calcium pushers? Are there really calcium pushers?
Doesn’t everyone know that calcium is good for you and that you need it to have strong bones? Walk up to any woman in the United States and ask her what one supplement she is taking and she will almost invariably say that she is taking calcium.
The American Dairy Association tells us calcium is a great reason for you to drink your milk. Calcium is the fourth most common supplement taken in the United States. It certainly seems that Americans are getting enough calcium. Think about how many times a day you are getting calcium. Your morning routine could include a supplement, cereal with milk, calcium-infused orange juice. The rest of the day may find you eating calcium-fortified snack bars, more milk and milk products, calcium infused bread, and maybe a chocolate calcium treat. And, oops, if you take a Tums or other similar antacid, you are getting even more calcium.
Paranoid people might begin to think that there is a Calcium Cartel of some kind pushing calcium on us. Americans are calcium-crazy, but there is an unanswered question lingering whenever people suggest that you need to be concerned about getting enough calcium.
The Big Question
The question that no one is answering has to do with calcium and osteoporosis.
If Americans are supplementing calcium at such a high rate, then you would expect all that calcium to have an effect. But here is the kicker: it doesn’t. Not only do Americans consume more calcium than almost any other group of people on the planet, but they also have the highest rate of osteoporosis .
How can that be?
It's as if there was a secret society at the US Dairy Council with dim lights, dark coats, and shady characters who would stop at nothing to conceal the truth about calcium. Dairy pushers spend over 300 million dollars a year to ensure that you are getting the message about calcium and milk. This message from the dairy council has a lot of bleed-over and can account for the popularity of all calcium-infused products.
Don’t misunderstand the point of this article. Calcium is an important nutrient. It is the most abundant mineral in the body and is essential for the clotting of blood, stimulating many hormones, conducting nerve impulses, regulating heartbeats, building bones, and many other functions.
But even too much of a good thing can be dangerous. Taking large amounts of calcium can lead to many serious conditions and even life-threatening conditions; it also increases the risk of kidney stones.
But if calcium is so important, why do people who have no access to dairy products or supplements continue their lives mostly free from the destructiveness of osteoporosis?
Many traditional cultures in the world do not consume milk or milk products, nor can they go to the corner store and pick up a chocolate-fudge calcium bar. And, yet, in this isolation from the supposed tools of good bone-building, osteoporosis is almost unheard of. What do they know that we don’t?
The Calcium Paradox
We have all seen bones and know how hard they are; the common assumption is to think that bones are made up of only calcium. The truth is that our bones are built on a foundation of collagen and other proteins along with calcium, magnesium, boron, and other minerals. This combination of proteins and minerals is called the bone matrix.
Taking enough calcium is certainly important for people who are growing bones (like children and young adults), but calcium supplementation alone has not done well in studies of adults that measure bone density before and after supplementation . Studies of postmenopausal women who were taking between 1 and 1.5 grams (1000 to 1500 milligrams) of calcium a day were actually associated with an increase in fractures, not a decrease .
Preventing osteoporosis does not depend on calcium alone, but rather on preserving the bone matrix. The bone matrix is a living tissue whose strength, structure and integrity depend on many factors -- including other minerals besides calcium -- and absorption of these nutrients from the gut.
The Rest of the Puzzle
The reason why the people in indigenous cultures do not have any osteoporosis to speak of is because of two factors. The first is that most people in these cultures use their bodies much more than we do. They walk, they lift heavy things, they move around. All these activities stimulate bone growth and help keep these bones strong throughout life.
The second is that even though they are getting a low amount of calcium by our standards, the amount of calcium they do get is balanced with magnesium.
Magnesium is the forgotten mineral in the bone matrix. Not only is magnesium needed to build strong, flexible bones, but it is also needed to help absorb calcium from the gut. Many natural practitioners believe that for every milligram of calcium, you should take ½ milligram of magnesium (so 1000 milligrams of calcium should be balanced with 500 milligrams of magnesium). Other practitioners suggest a 1:1 ratio, where calcium and magnesium are consumed at equal quantities.
It is difficult to get enough magnesium if you are not taking a form that is easily absorbable. The best forms are time-released because they prevent the diarrhea side effect that is sometimes associated with taking large amounts of magnesium.
Do Your Bones a Favor
Consider how you spend your day and watch out for too many calcium-infused products. Remember that too much calcium can actually make your bones more brittle. And find a good-quality, time-released form of magnesium to ensure that your bones continue to be strong and flexible.
- Hegsted DM. Calcium and osteoporosis? Adv Nutr Res. 1994;9:119-28.
- Kreiger N, Gross A, Hunter G. Dietary factors and fracture in postmenopausal women: a case-control study. Int J Epidemiol. 1992 Oct;21(5):953-8.
- Wilkin TJ. Changing perceptions in osteoporosis. BMJ. 1999 Mar 27;318(7187):862-4.