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Nearly all (99%) of the calcium in your body is in your bones and your teeth. It is also the most abundant mineral in your whole body. Calcium is more than just bones: every cell in your body uses calcium to maintain a normal balance in your all-important cell membranes. This is particularly important for cells that are activated frequently, such as your muscles and nerves. Of course, the largest muscle in your body is your heart, so calcium is crucial to proper functioning of your heart muscle. Calcium is also essential to blood clotting, which is happening all the time but is especially important if you cut yourself or are injured.
Your body knows it needs precise amounts of calcium to keep your nerves, muscles, heart, blood clotting, and every cell functioning normally. Does this mean that if you don’t get enough calcium all these systems will malfunction? Absolutely not: your body will borrow calcium from your bones to make sure the calcium level in your blood stream is maintained within that very narrow but physiologically essential range. Calcium is so important to keeping you alive that your body has no qualms about weakening your bones, even if, in the long run this isn’t good for you.
How can you keep your body from robbing calcium from your bones, so that your skeleton stays strong throughout your entire lifetime?
Current Calcium Controversies
Calcium is one of the most commonly consumed dietary supplements in the US. There are calcium supplements in tablets, capsules, gelcaps, liquids, powders—you name it. There are calcium supplements that claim to be from coral; calcium mixed with vitamin D, or magnesium and zinc. You can pay an arm and a leg, or you can get it for relatively little at your local drugstore.
However, supplements are not drugs. The wide availability of calcium doesn’t necessarily mean it does what marketers claim it does. For instance, because of its role in regulating muscle contractions, calcium is one supplement that could help with cramps and stiff muscles. However, due to the complexity of our chemistry, calcium could also make cramps and stiff muscles worse. However, researchers have recently set out to understand if taking calcium supplements really does help build bone—the most common claim for this mineral—and if it is as harmless as is often believed.
Lately, much of the widely reported news on calcium research hasn’t been good. Researchers haven’t been able to confirm that taking calcium later in life helps build bone; and it appears that it may slightly increase the risk of a heart attack and/or kidney stones.
Based on the calcium research we’ve seen, we’re not convinced that taking calcium by itself, or calcium plus vitamin D, will build your bones. The best way to build your bones is to start early, when you’re about ten years old, with a varied diet and calcium supplements, if necessary. We believe that science and nutrition show that vitamins and minerals work best together, the way you get them in food. No food is just calcium or calcium and vitamin D unless you happen to have a taste for chalk! It’s best to take calcium combined with a complete multivitamin, and most importantly, that you take it with its inseparable sister nutrient, magnesium.
Calcium and Magnesium: An Inseparable Pair
Calcium and magnesium exist in a delicate balance in the body, like two sides of a seesaw or yin and yang. Although calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, magnesium is number two. Magnesium is also the second most abundant mineral in bone health, though you rarely hear anyone talking about how important.
And yet, if you don’t take magnesium supplements, or have a high magnesium diet, you’re missing out. Magnesium is essential for healthy bones, but that is really a very small part of its role in keeping you healthy. It’s also probably an even more essential nutrient than calcium: over 300 essential chemical reactions in the body require magnesium, and yet it doesn’t appear as easy for the body to pull magnesium from bone to make up for deficiencies. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get enough magnesium from diet alone.
Good Food Sources of Calcium
Magnesium functions like a calcium-channel blocker—one of the most common classes of drugs for high blood pressure. In fact, magnesium is an effective treatment for high blood pressure, in many cases. So the research that suggests there is an increased risk of heart attack with calcium supplements probably means that the calcium was acting as a magnesium-channel blocker. Magnesium is probably the most essential nutrient for the heart, and calcium is capable of blocking magnesium, just as magnesium does to calcium.
It’s a mistake to take calcium by itself, without magnesium. Take your nutrients together, like they would be in food, meaning a multivitamin is the best way to get any individual nutrient. And if your diet doesn’t deliver enough, take a calcium-magnesium combination supplement, not just calcium alone.
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