Being diagnosed with high blood calcium, or hypercalcemia, might mean making some changes to your normal diet. You may be advised to have a low-calcium diet or to avoid specific calcium-rich foods in the short-term. But everyone with hypercalcemia is different, so follow your doctor's advice.
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What Causes High Blood Calcium?
The most common cause of hypercalcemia is excess parathyroid hormone (PTH) being released by the parathyroid glands, according to the Endocrine Society. The excess PTH makes the bones release calcium into the bloodstream, which can cause symptoms such as weak muscles, nausea, constipation and confusion.
Other illnesses, including cancer, tuberculosis and autoimmune conditions, can raise blood calcium to dangerous levels, too. Diet — such as unusually high intakes of vitamin D, vitamin A or calcium in conjunction with antacids — is only very occasionally the cause.
"Hypercalcemia is not caused by a diet high in calcium, nor is a low-calcium diet the primary way of treating it," says Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, RD, assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University in Missouri. "Instead, the primary treatments are medications and sometimes surgery."
That said, a low-calcium diet may be recommended for a short period of time until the hypercalcemia is under control, Linsenmeyer says.
Low-Calcium Diet for Hypercalcemia
Typically you'll be advised to follow a low-calcium diet for hypercalcemia if you've received hospital treatment to bring your high blood calcium levels down and are now going home, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
This will generally involve:
- Going easy on, or temporarily cutting out, calcium-rich dairy foods, including cheese, milk, ice cream and yogurt.
- Choosing magnesium-based antacids if you require these medications (not those with a high calcium content).
If you have been diagnosed with hypercalcemia, you should also not be cutting back on salt and must make an effort to stay well hydrated. It can be helpful to keep water by your side at night so you can drink some when you get up to use the bathroom, according to the NLM.
Linsenmeyer says it's also important to inform your health care team about any supplements you may be taking, especially those that may contain higher levels of calcium and/or vitamin D. "Also, pay attention to any foods fortified with calcium (i.e., breakfast cereals, orange juice)," she adds.
Another tip from Linsenmeyer: Ignore any self-help advice you may see to drink lemon juice for the condition. "There is no evidence to support that lemon juice is an effective or appropriate treatment for hypercalcemia," she warns.
Hypercalcemia Longer Term
"Ultimately, calcium is an important nutrient for bone health and should not be restricted indefinitely," Linsenmeyer says. She adds that while it can be somewhat counterintuitive, hypercalcemia actually increases the risk for osteoporosis (brittle bones) because calcium is being leached from the bones.
However, you should not change your diet to be higher in calcium (e.g., by starting to incorporate more dairy foods) without a health professional's advice — this may need a specialist dietitian, Linsenmeyer says.
Similarly, check with your doctor as to the appropriate amount of exercise for you, per the NLM. Walking and being generally active will help to offset the breakdown of bones, but you should follow any guidelines that are specific to your own medical needs.
Other important pointers from the NLM: If your doctor prescribes medicines to help keep your calcium level from getting too high, take them the way that is explained to you and call your doctor should you have any side effects.
Also, keep any follow-up appointments you have with your doctor and/or dietitian, particularly for blood tests, which people with hypercalcemia will usually have to have regularly.