Just about everyone has heard about the importance of calcium in maintaining strong bones and teeth. In fact, 99 percent of the calcium in our body is stored in our bones. However, the remaining one percent that is located in our blood and cells is just as important. It is necessary to maintain many of the body’s vital functions, and if you do not get adequate calcium from your diet to keep the required amount in your blood, the mineral will be taken from your bones to meet the need.
Heart rhythm, muscle contraction, wound healing, blood clotting and transmission of messages between nerves and between cells are some of the important things that calcium facilitates. In addition to helping prevent osteoporosis, calcium may also reduce the risk of colon cancer, lower high blood pressure, reduce symptoms of PMS (bloating, food cravings, pain and mood swings) by 50 percent, and protect against breast cancer.
The recommended daily intake of calcium for different groups is as follows:
Infants 0-6 months: 210 mg/day
Infants 7-12 months: 270 mg/day
Children 1-3 years: 700 mg/day
Children 4-8 years: 1,000 mg/day
Adolescents 9-18 years: 1,300 mg/day
Adults 19-50 years: 1,000 mg/day
Adults 51+ years : 1,200 mg/day
Most signs of calcium deficiency do not appear until it has become a serious problem. Increased bone fractures are the most common sign. Severe calcium deficiency can cause tingling or numbness of the fingers, an abnormal heart rhythm and convulsions. However, these cases are rare. Most people are able to meet their daily calcium requirement through their diet, but supplementation may be recommended for some people. Those who drink large amounts of caffeinated beverages, soda or alcohol, and postmenopausal women may benefit from calcium supplements.
Taking too much calcium can also cause problems, so don’t take any more than is appropriate for your age group. Excess calcium intake (most often by taking too many supplements) has been implicated in a higher risk of kidney stones, heart attack, stroke and hardening of the arteries.
Calcium is best absorbed when taken with a meal, along with vitamin D. Magnesium is also necessary for the proper integration of calcium into the bones, but it should be taken separately from when you take your calcium, as it (and iron) can interfere with calcium absorption. So take any magnesium and iron supplements at the opposite end of the day from when you take your calcium.
Foods highest in calcium include dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt, and dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, Swiss chard, mustard greens and bok choy. Other good sources of calcium are sardines, oysters, broccoli, almonds, Brussels sprouts and seaweed.