You were told to drink your milk as a kid, but do you know why? Milk and dairy foods are some of the most abundant sources of calcium in the American diet — and the mineral is more important than you think.
What Is Calcium?
Calcium is a mineral, and you have more calcium in your body than any other mineral. That's because 99 percent of calcium is found in bones and teeth. The remaining one percent is just as important as it supports muscle and nerve function, vascular contraction and dilation as well as hormone secretion, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
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Your body is usually very efficient at regulating calcium levels through three main hormones: the parathyroid hormone (PTH), calcitonin and calcitriol, according to American Bone Health. If you are low, your body will absorb more calcium from your diet and release calcium from the bones, mainly to support those functions of the one percent.
Calcium Deficiency Symptoms
Calcium deficiency, also known as hypocalcemia, usually results from medical issues or certain treatments rather than not getting enough calcium in your diet. Three common reasons for hypocalcemia are vitamin D deficiency, hypoparathyroidism and kidney failure, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Thyroid removal surgery is another risk factor, per the Cleveland Clinic.
If you have mild hypocalcemia, you may not have any symptoms at all. Or, you may experience the following symptoms, according to the Cleveland Clinic:
- Muscle cramps
- Changes to your hair and nails
- Scaly skin
According to the Cleveland Clinic, some of the symptoms of severe calcium deficiency include:
- Muscle aches
- Tingles in your fingers, feet, lips or tongue
- Muscle spasms, including in your throat
If it's not treated, chronic hypocalcemia can cause neurological or psychological issues, such as memory problems, depression, confusion and irritability, according to the Cleveland Clinic. One of the more serious complications from long-term, untreated hypocalcemia includes subcapsular cataracts, which are formed on the back of the eye lens, clouding vision and causing vision loss, according to Hypocalcemia: Diagnosis and Treatment.
For children and adolescents, not getting enough calcium leads to weakened bones, per the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). This deficiency has a lifelong effect. It's only in childhood that people can store calcium in their bones — during your youth, you establish a calcium stockpile to use throughout your life, according to the AAP. A calcium deficiency in the younger years and into the older years can manifest itself into osteoporosis and put you at an increased risk for fractures. A chronic deficiency of calcium can also wreak havoc on the skin, causing dry skin, psoriasis, eczema, impetigo and dermatitis.
Read more: What Causes Calcium Deposits and Calcification?
Are You at Risk for Calcium Deficiency?
How do you know if you are at risk for a calcium deficiency? First, have a conversation with your doctor if you notice any of the signs or symptoms mentioned above. Particularly take note of how much dietary calcium you get every day. Of course, you'll find calcium in dairy products, but there are plenty of other dairy-free foods that are high in calcium, such as fortified orange juice, sardines and cooked soybeans, according to the NIH.
Healthy adults between ages 19 and 50 should aim to get 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, per the NIH. The recommended amounts can increase or decrease depending on age, sex and other factors such as pregnancy.
There are four major groups at high risk for developing hypocalcemia, according to the Clinical Nutrition Research report:
- Women, particularly female athletes and postmenopausal women: Women with diagnosed eating disorders or physical hyperactivity are at high risk. People with female athlete triad syndrome — the simultaneous occurrence of menstrual problems, weak bones and insufficient energy to fuel the body that can occur in competitive athletes, according the American Academy of Pediatrics — are also at high risk.
- People with lactose intolerance or dairy allergy: Avoiding dairy products, whether due to allergies or because you're following a vegan diet, can put you at high risk since these foods are a major dietary source of calcium.
- Adolescents: Eating disorders and not getting enough calcium-rich foods may cause hypocalcemia.
- The elderly: Low calcium intake over time, medication interactions that may decrease dietary calcium absorption and osteoporosis put the elderly at risk.
Should I Take a Calcium Supplement?
If you have any of the above signs or symptoms, ask your doctor for a blood test to evaluate your calcium levels. Avoid taking a calcium supplement if you have not been specifically advised to do so by your doctor.
In fact, taking calcium supplements when your body doesn't need the extra calcium can lead to hypercalcemia, which can cause constipation, nausea, vomiting and confusion, according to Harvard Medical School. What's more, excessive calcium supplementation may put you at increased risk for heart disease as well as prostate cancer, per the Mayo Clinic.
In addition, your doctor can cross-check your current list of medications to ensure a calcium supplement does not cause any interactions.
- Clinical Nutrition Research: "The Role of Calcium in Human Aging"
- National Institutes of Health: "Calcium"
- NCBI: "Hypocalcemia: Diagnosis and Treatment"
- Harvard Medical School: "What You Need to Know About Calcium"
- Institute of Medicine: "Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D"
- American Bone Health: "How the Body Maintains Calcium Levels"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Hypocalcemia"
- American Academy of Pediatrics: "Calcium: The Bone Builder Kids & Teens Need"
- American Academy of Pediatrics: "Female Athlete Triad"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.