Calcium: why You Need It


It is the most abundant mineral in the body, is essential for muscle contractions, a healthy nervous system, blood clotting, hormone secretion, and, of course, strong bones. Research also has shown that getting enough calcium can prevent osteoporosis (when combined with regular exercise and adequate levels of vitamin D); lower blood pressure; and reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

Symptoms Of Calcium Deficiency

Recognizing the deficiency in the body is quite easy. It occurs when your muscles ache and twitch, or if you get sudden cramps and spasms. Also, if you suffer from palpitations, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, loose teeth and gum diseases, insomnia, premenstrual cramps, tetany, hypertension and arthritis, that may also indicate a deficiency.

Often, many children suffer from rickets, where the bones become weak and flexible, they have bowed legs, sunken chests, and beaded ribs. These children have not been nourished with enough since birth.  Thus, a regular supply is very important in growing children and teenagers as it can substantially reduce the risks of osteoporosis in old age. This bone ailment is common in one out of every three women and in one man in every 12, above 50 years of age.

How Much You Need  

Age (Years)Men & Women
1 to 3500 mg
4 to 8800 mg
9 to 181,300 mg
19 to 501,000 mg
50+1,200 mg

Note: Don’t exceed 2,500 mg daily as excessive levels can hamper absorption of other minerals and, in rare cases, impair kidney function.

Good Food Sources

Dairy (yogurt, milk, cheese), sardines, canned salmon with bones (the canning process makes the bones soft and edible; just mash them with a fork), broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, fortified beverages like orange juice and soy milk, and tofu processed with calcium salt (look for calcium sulfate on the list of ingredients).

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For Best Absorption…

  • Take your it in divided doses, with each dose containing no more than 500 mg.
  • You need vitamin D to absorb and use calcium. Get 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily, either through sun exposure (20 minutes of midday sun) or through supplements (vital in the low-light winter).
  • Don’t take your supplements at the same time as foods containing high levels of calcium-blocking phytic acid (like wheat bran or oat bran) or oxalic acid (like spinach, rhubarb collard greens).
  • Don’t take it with iron supplements, since they compete for absorption.

Best Forms

There are two main forms of the supplements:

  • Carbonate—Inexpensive and ubiquitous in supplements, this form needs to be taken with food for best absorption. Also, opt for “refined calcium carbonate,” since unrefined calcium can contain lead.
  • Chelated: Like citrate, gluconate, or malate, though these cost extra, you absorb them better (especially citrate) and can take them on an empty stomach.

Ask the Expert
Robert P. Heaney, MD, mineral expert at Creighton University answers common questions about calcium.

Q: Do I get enough calcium from my multivitamin?
A: No. Calcium is too bulky—a useful quantity of calcium would make the multi as big as a horse pill.

Q: Are chewable calcium supplements just as good as tablets?
A: Yes, but remember: supplements should be just that—supplements to an otherwise good diet.  For them to be helpful, your diet must be rich in protein, and your vitamin-D status must be optimal.

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