If someone has osteoporosis and is put on calcium by a medical doctor…well then yeah…I recommend a calcium supplement. Or if someone has low serum calcium in their blood, then yeah I also recommend calcium supplements. I know adequate levels in the blood are essential for muscle contraction and biochemical reactions such as blood clotting.
In the hospital, we infuse a lot of life-saving calcium intravenously for people who have low serum levels. I know that these patients can develop fatal heart arrhythmia and other life-threatening complications if the blood calcium levels are not restored to normal. We even keep IV calcium in our crash carts to bring people back to life.
But for my patients who are healthy, have healthy bones, and want to keep their bones healthy, then no, I do not recommend calcium supplements, and here’s why:
The more calcium we consume, the less our bodies absorb, and the more it will excrete calcium into the urine. (1) Yup, we cannot force our bodies to do what to do. Our bodies are smarter than us. Let me explain.
Growing kids absorb about 60% of the calcium in their stomachs that are from food sources. Pregnant and nursing women can also absorb up to 60% (1,2). A full-grown adult can absorb about 30% but it decreases with age to about 15-20%. (1) An elderly person sitting on the couch, watching tv, popping calcium pills absorbs about 5 to 10%. (No reference, this is just my silly opinion.)
Our calcium absorption, retention, and deposition into the bones is controlled by hormones such as growth hormone, estrogen, testosterone, and of course the master calcium regulator the parathyroid hormone.
The reason our bodies do this is that we would turn into a stone calcium statue if our bodies absorb all the calcium we ingested.
So if someone wants to keep their healthy bones strong I recommend eating foods high in calcium and doing weight-bearing exercises. Weight-bearing exercises are our safest hope to stimulate the hormones to absorb more calcium and incorporate it into our bones.
However, taking a moderate amount of vitamin D will also increase the amount of calcium our bodies absorb. Instead of 30% maybe we can absorb 35 or 40%. (1)
The US Task Force also recommends against using calcium and vitamin d supplement to prevent bone fractures. This is a quote from the MedlinePlus website. “The Taskforce recommends against daily supplementation with 400 IU or less of vitamin D3 and 1,000 mg or less of calcium for the primary prevention of fractures in noninstitutionalized postmenopausal women.” It’s in a PDF download on this website: https://medlineplus.gov/calcium.html
Click on the tab for the pdf download for preventing fractures.
The task force is a group of volunteer medical experts who review the medical literature and come to a consensus of recommendations for the American Public. I follow their recommendations closely because I value that consensus. I value that there was a lengthy discussion on the subject by several highly educated, experienced, and altruistic individuals. The last thing I want is a one-person opinion from someone who attended a weekend herbal workshop and has motives to sell me something. Or even worse is an article was written by a journalist without formal medical education and experience who is looking for a unique angle on a story to spin out of control in a desperate attempt to get ratings.
If my patients suspect they have osteoporosis or poor bones then I recommend a bone density test. If they do in fact have osteopenia or osteoporosis then their doctor will prescribe the appropriate medication to reverse and restore the condition. The powerful drug options are biphosphate, via calcium and proline (Denosumab) to stop bone break down; estrogen, and evista for menopausal women to stimulate calcium absorption and storage through estrogen activity; Forteo (Teriparatide) a powerful anabolic hormone that builds bone like the energizer bunny. It has a two-year use limit so that bone overgrowth does not occur. It is the parathyroid hormone.
If a patient tells me a doctor has put them on calcium, then I highly recommend they keep taking it. It is medically necessary. But for people wanting to put themselves on calcium for the sake of keeping their bones strong, I offer a more natural approach such as foods high in calcium and weight-bearing exercises. I also recommend they have their vitamin D levels checked to make sure they are in the normal range. We do not want to inundate our bodies with calcium unless we have the hormones in place to incorporate the calcium into our bones.
1.) Committee to Review Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin D and Calcium, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2010.
2.) National Institutes of Health. Optimal calcium intake. NIH Consensus Statement: 1994;12:1-31.