Updated: Nov 14, 2019
Did you know we have 206 bones in our bodies? Actually, it’s more at birth but the number decreases as bones fuse together and our skeleton hardens. One of the most important ingredients in our bones is calcium. You will have heard about calcium, right? It’s one of the most abundant minerals found in our body with many different functions including maintaining bone strength but it’s also needed for muscle contraction, nerve conduction as well as being vitally important for the balance of your blood pH. In other words, without calcium we would not be alive.
So where do we get calcium from? Our bodies don’t make it, so we have to get it from the food we eat. That sounds easy doesn’t it? There’s lots of foods that contain calcium and many of these are vigorously promoted for their calcium benefits such as dairy products. It’s true that dairy foods are good sources of calcium but what we know is that there are some other nutrients that need to be present in order to maximise calcium absorption and metabolism for bone health and dairy may not be the best source of them. These nutrients are vitamin D, vitamin K and magnesium. In fact, studies now indicate that low vitamin D status has a negative effect on bone health, and calcium supplementation is of little benefit until this deficiency has been corrected.
The absorption and metabolism of magnesium is closely related to that of calcium and it appears that low levels of magnesium have a negative effect on bone health, especially their strength, and that supplementing calcium without magnesium can lead to calcium deposits in soft tissue, increased risk of kidney stone development as well as potentially contributing to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Magnesium is involved in around 80% of all chemical reactions in the body, one of them being the conversion of vitamin D into its active form that is necessary for the formation of calcium crystals in bone.
So, what happens to our bones when there’s not enough calcium? Bone density or hardness depends on the quantity and quality of bone with peak bone mass, or the amount of bone present at the end of skeletal maturation occurring in early adulthood and bone losses beginning in middle age, especially after menopause for women. There are other factors that impact peak bone mass and can increase the loss of bone, such as body weight, nutrition and physical activity. Hormones play a big role in bone health, and as mentioned earlier, bone loss increases dramatically after menopause because oestrogen levels have declined. Other causes of reduced oestrogen in younger females, such as reduced body weight, poor nutrition can also cause significant bone loss that may not be recovered even after levels have been normalised.
Physical activity is important for bone health with regular exercise being attributed to increased bone density. Weight bearing exercises such as walking and running as well as lifting weights are especially important as they help to increase the strength of bones and trigger the activity of bone cells. Poor lifestyle choices such as smoking, excessive alcohol intake and a diet high in refined sugar can also have an adverse effect on bone density and can increase the risk of fractures and osteoporosis later in life.
So, what are the best sources of calcium to support our bone health? There are many and varied sources of foods that contain calcium alongside the other cofactors mentioned earlier in this article. These include:
· Dark leafy greens such as kale, spinach, dandelion greens
· Brassica vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and bok choy
· Canned fish such as sardines, pink salmon and anchovies
· Bean and legumes
· Soy products including tempeh and tofu
· Sesame seeds
· Whole wheat
If your dietary intake doesn’t meet your demands, as is common in women after menopause, it is important to consider the type of calcium that you take. Supplements come in several different forms with calcium carbonate and calcium citrate being popular among many commercial brands. Calcium citrate is more absorbable and is better for people who have low stomach acid, and this is often the case with older people anyway. Whichever form you choose, it is most important that you take a supplement that also contains those cofactors we talked about earlier, vitamin D, Vitamin K and magnesium so that your body can utilise the calcium.
This information is general, and your health is unique to you. If you would like more information about how calcium might be involved in your current health concern or would like to learn more about how you can improve your bone health, please make an appointment to come and see me in clinic.
Larissa Jane Naturopathy