Throughout life, our physical health relies on strong bones and vertebrae. However, bone health can be impacted by a variety of factors. Since bones are living, dynamic organs that are constantly remodeling old bone tissue into new, they need a steady supply of nutrients — and one of the most important of these nutrients is calcium. Calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body, plays a major factor in bone strength, which means that a calcium deficiency can significantly impact bone health, which in turn affects overall physical health.
Identifying and Treating a Calcium Deficiency
Our bones work to maintain the right levels of calcium throughout the body in the blood, muscles and intercellular fluids. If a calcium deficiency exists, you have a condition called hypocalcemia, which can range from mild with no symptoms to severe and life-threatening. Common symptoms include numbness and tingling in the fingers, convulsions, muscle cramps, lack of appetite, tiredness and an abnormal heartbeat.
Calcium levels are regulated in a tight range by three hormones — parathyroid hormone, vitamin D and calcitonin. If these are thrown off for any reason, such as by absorption issues, surgery or illness, then treatment is critical. Typically, if this is a chronic condition, calcium and/or vitamin D supplements are the first treatment option. However, intravenous calcium is necessary in cases of acute, life-threatening hypocalcemia.
Eating a Calcium-Rich Diet
While severe hypocalcemia is relatively rare, even a slight calcium deficiency can harm bone health. One way to ensure you have the right amount of calcium in your body is with a healthy, calcium-rich diet.
The amount of calcium you need to eat daily varies with age. Teens should aim for 1,300 milligrams of calcium a day, adults need 1,000 milligrams and women over 50 need 1,200 milligrams. What does that look like on your plate? According to the United States Department of Agriculture's food guidance system, MyPlate, people nine years old and older should get three cups from the dairy food group every day. One cup could equal:
- One cup of milk
- One cup of yogurt
- 1.5 oz. of natural cheese, like cheddar, or 2 oz. of processed cheese, like American cheese
If you cannot tolerate dairy products, aim to get calcium from a combination of food sources. Other calcium-rich foods include:
- Fish with bones, like sardines and canned salmon
- Soy milk
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale and broccoli
- Fortified cereal grains
- Tofu (look for calcium sulfate on the ingredient panel)
- Fruit juice
Factors that Affect Calcium Levels
Calcium absorption rates decrease with age. If you are low in vitamin D, this can also affect absorption. Some components in foods, such as oxalic acid — found in spinach, collard greens, beans, and sweet potatoes — and phytic acid — found in wheat bran, seeds, and nuts — can bind with calcium and decrease absorption.
The good news is, if you are eating a wide variety of foods, the absorption rates of calcium have little nutritional significance. However, vegetarians, especially vegans who consume only plant foods, which can contain oxalic and phytic acid, may absorb less calcium than omnivores, according to the NIH.
Take note that not all of the calcium we eat is absorbed; we only absorb 30 percent of the calcium eaten in foods. Calcium absorption also decreases when you have a lot of calcium at one time. So, if you take a calcium supplement, do not take more than 500 milligrams at once.
Maintaining Bone Density
If your calcium levels are low, your body will regulate it by taking calcium from your bones. Over time, this will adversely affect physical health and can lead to osteopenia, or low bone mass, and eventually osteoporosis, a disorder characterized by porous and fragile bones.
Osteoporosis affects more than 10 million American adults — mostly women — and 1.5 million bone fractures related to this condition occur each year. How do you prevent osteoporosis? Give your body enough calcium and vitamin D to develop peak bone mass early in life and to preserve it throughout your life.
If you're not eating enough calcium, supplementary calcium and vitamin D are necessary. Exercise can help as well. Regular exercise, like resistance training and high-impact activities, is key to maintaining bone mass throughout life. If you want to increase bone mass and strength and reduce your risk of falling and fracturing your bones or spine, exercise is the only proven intervention.
A calcium deficiency can have a major impact on your physical health and bone strength. However, with some smart nutrition and a little exercise, you can boost your bone health and keep it strong throughout your life.