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.
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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.
When you have mild hypocalcemia, numbness or tingling around the mouth and fingertips may occur. People with acute calcium deficiency may also have no immediate symptoms but — if left untreated — are at increased risk for osteoporosis, which can lead to weak bones and fractures.
Severe calcium deficiency symptoms include:
- Finger numbness
- Muscle cramps
- Poor appetite
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Brittle and weak nails
- Dry skin, psoriasis, eczema
Calcium's responsibility in nerve transmission makes it very important for neurological health. A January 2015 study published in Clinical Nutrition Research indicates that hypocalcemia can put you at a higher risk for seizures. Irritability, changes in personality, and even Parkinson's disease have also been linked to chronic hypocalcemia. Watch out for mental changes that can occur with hypocalcemia such as fatigue, confusion, anxiety and reduced concentration.
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.
A lifelong calcium deficiency puts kids and adolescents at risk for developing weak bones and unhealthy teeth. 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.
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.
The Institute of Medicine recommends getting 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day for healthy adults ages 19 to 70. The recommended amounts can increase or decrease depending on age 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, female athlete triad syndrome or physical hyperactivity are at high risk.
- People with lactose intolerance or dairy allergy: Avoiding dairy products, which is a major dietary source of calcium, can put you at high risk.
- 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 kidney and heart disease as well as prostate cancer.
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"
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.