How to Keep Calcium Supplements From Causing Constipation

Calcium supplements are the second most commonly consumed supplements in the United States. Although calcium has many roles in the body, they're typically taken to support bone health. Calcium tablets certainly have benefits, but be aware that certain calcium supplements may cause gut problems.

Some calcium supplements can cause constipation. (Image: Noraishah Mohd Tahir / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages)

Calcium Supplements and Your Diet

Calcium is one of several essential minerals that you need to consume on a daily basis. This nutrient is best known for being important to bone health, because 99 percent of the body's calcium is stored in the bones. However, calcium plays a variety of other roles in human health, supporting vascular health, muscle function, nerve conduction, the release of hormones and cellular communication throughout the body.

Given the array of different roles calcium plays in keeping your body healthy, getting enough calcium each day is essential. According to the National Institute of Health, most adults need 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. Older adults, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers need a bit more calcium: 1,200 to 1,300 milligrams on a daily basis.

Calcium consumption typically comes from milk products, like milk, yogurt and cheese. However, other foods also contain this important nutrient, like seafood and certain vegetables, including kale, broccoli and turnip greens.

If you aren't consuming enough calcium-rich foods, you may need to obtain this calcium in other ways. People who may need to consider taking supplements include:

  • Women who don't get their periods, but are of an age where they should be
  • Postmenopausal women
  • Vegans
  • Vegetarians
  • People with lactose intolerance
  • People who consume large amounts of potassium
  • People who consume large amounts of sodium
  • People who have issues with their bone health, like osteoporosis
  • People who regularly take corticosteroids
  • People with gastrointestinal conditions and nutrient absorption disorders

According to a March 2013 study in JAMA Internal Medicine, calcium is the second most widely taken dietary supplement. The first are mineral-based multivitamins, which tend to contain calcium, particularly when they are designed as products for older adults. Other multivitamins, like prenatal vitamins, also contain calcium.

Types of Calcium Supplements

Calcium supplements come in two main types: calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Calcium carbonate tends to be more affordable and more commonly produced, but has to be taken with food for the body to absorb it. Calcium citrate can be taken with or without food, but is more frequently given to people with gastrointestinal issues or absorption disorders.

There are also other, less common forms of calcium that you might find in supplements and fortified food products. These include:

  • Calcium gluconate
  • Calcium lactate
  • Calcium phosphate
  • Calcium citrate malate

Certain types of calcium may even be present in weight loss supplements, because calcium is thought to help prevent the body from absorbing fat.

Calcium and Constipation

Constipation is defined as having less than three bowel movements per week. In contrast, most healthy adults typically have bowel movements that range in frequency between three times per day and three times per week. Typically, constipation causes people to have hard, lumpy stools that are difficult to pass. You may also feel like you're unable to completely empty your bowels or as if your intestines have a blockage.

Constipation typically is based on your diet: The foods you ingest have a major effect on your gastrointestinal health. And even small items you ingest, like vitamins and supplements, can affect digestion. Certain supplements are more likely to cause such side effects compared to others.

Calcium supplements are known for causing a variety of gastrointestinal side effects, including bloating, constipation, and gas. These side effects are typically associated with products made from the most common type of calcium supplement, calcium carbonate.

Counteracting Constipation From Calcium Supplements

Because calcium carbonate is the type of calcium most likely to cause gastrointestinal issues, you should try to avoid this type of calcium tablet if you're experiencing constipation. Instead, choose supplements made with calcium citrate, when possible. You may also want to try splitting up your daily dose of calcium to alleviate your symptoms.

If both types of calcium commonly found in supplements cause you to experience constipation, you can also try to consume more foods rich in calcium as an alternative to supplements. However, be aware that adults only tend to absorb about 15 to 20 percent of the calcium found in food. If you have a gastrointestinal condition or absorption disorder, it's unlikely that calcium-rich foods alone will provide you with the amount of this nutrient that you need.

Lifestyle Changes to Counteract Constipation

There are a variety of lifestyle changes that are known to help with constipation. For example, the Mayo Clinic recommends regular exercise, as well as dietary changes.

According to a December 2014 study in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, changing your diet can help counteract and prevent constipation. In particular, increasing your fluid intake can help prevent constipation, while apple, prune and pear juices can counteract this gastrointestinal issue.

Incorporating foods that are rich in fiber can also support your gastrointestinal health, as dietary fiber is known to support digestion. Insoluble fiber, in particular, is known to help prevent constipation.

Other healthy foods can also promote regular bowel movements. For example, certain fermented foods, like yogurt, contain probiotics. Vegan and lactose-free fermented products, like coconut yogurt and kimchi, can be equally beneficial.

The healthy probiotic bacteria in these foods can improve your gut health and support regular gastric motility. In particular, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus species have been shown to counteract constipation.

People with severe constipation may need assistance emptying their bowels, which can be facilitated manually or by using stool softeners or a laxative. If you remain regularly constipated over several months, you may need to consult your doctor. Constipation can be a sign of other serious health problems, and is considered to be chronic if it goes on for three months or more.

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