Millions of Americans take calcium supplements in an effort to prevent thinning of the bones, but recent research is showing that extra calcium is not all that helpful in preventing fractures and may increase the risk of heart disease. It seems that the extra calcium is not ending up in bone but rather settling in the arteries.
Despite being advised to take calcium for strong bones, there is scant evidence that it does any good unless one is markedly deficient in the first place. In February 2013, the U.S. Preventative Task Force stated "the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of the benefits and harms of combined vitamin D and calcium supplementation for the primary prevention of fractures in pre-menopausal women or in men."A 1997 study in women over the age of 65 showed no relationship between dietary calcium intake and fracture rate, while taking extra calcium actually led to more fractures! (Cumming, 1997) On the other hand, some studies that examine elderly patients, such as those in nursing homes, have found that calcium supplements with vitamin D help increase bone density.
Three recent studies have caused alarm over the issue of calcium and heart disease. First, from the 2013 Journal of the American Medical Association (Xiao, 2013) comes the conclusion that "suggests that high intake of supplemental calcium is associated with an excess risk of cardiovascular disease death in men but not in women."Second, from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study (Li, 2012), "increasing calcium intake from diet might not confer significant cardiovascular benefits, while calcium supplements, which might raise heart attack risk, should be taken with caution."And from the British Medical Journal (Bolland, 2010), results show "calcium supplements are associated with an increased risk of myocardial infarction. As calcium supplements are widely used, these modest increases in risk of cardiovascular disease might translate into a large burden of disease in the population. A reassessment of the role of calcium supplements in the management of osteoporosis is warranted."A re-analysis of data from the 2002 Women's Health Initiative showed "the increased risk of cardiovascular events appeared largely due to calcium supplements" (Bolland, 2011).
Thought of only as the rigid framework that supports the body, bones actually do much more and are a big player in many metabolic and hormonal systems. Bone is a complex, and constantly remodeling organ, that requires far more than just calcium for good health. Strong bones require a combination of both building strong bones, especially in our youth, and preserving bone while aging.Think of bone as being similar to a concrete wall - with concrete and the internal metal scaffolding called rebar. Concrete is very hard, but brittle. The rebar gives a concrete wall its tensile strength to prevent cracking under pressure.Similarly, calcium is like the concrete, while a delicate internal structure similar to rebar is what gives bone its real strength to prevent breaking. This internal bone scaffolding is called the "matrix."Mature bone is made up from proteins and minerals. About 60% of bone, by weight, is mineral, namely calcium and phosphorus. The remaining 40% is the bone matrix and water. The matrix is made up of proteins called collagen, which forms strong tissues throughout the body, including bone, tendons, cartilage and even skin. In the bone matrix, collagen serves as the "rebar" scaffolding upon which minerals are laid down in an orderly fashion. The precise patterns of bone matrix are oriented to reflect the external forces placed upon it, thus creating bones with elegant and logical patterns of matrix that provide the strength and flexibility to resist breakage.Hormones play the largest role in turning on the machinery to either build or break down bone. Estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and growth hormone play the major role in stimulating the growth of new bone and/or slowing bone breakdown. Other hormones such as parathyroid, thyroid, or the stress hormone cortisol, can cause bone to breakdown when present in excess.Many nutrients play a role in the creation of a strong bone matrix and the proper deposition of calcium onto the matrix. The process of bone formation requires an adequate and constant supply of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.Vitamin D is necessary for the body to absorb dietary calcium from the intestine. Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is essential for the formation of the collagen matrix. Studies show that vitamin C contributes to increased bone mineral density by improving markers of bone turnover. A bone-specific protein called "osteocalcin" is responsible for binding calcium into a strong matrix that helps give strength and Vitamin K is necessary for the osteocalcin to function properly.Vitamin K also protects against the build up of calcium in arteries by activating a protein in the artery wall that helps prevent calcium build up. The Rotterdam Heart Study showed that adequate vitamin K, particularly the K2 subtype, lowered the risk of heart disease and calcification in the major arteries.Other vitamins and minerals needed for metabolic processes related to bone include manganese, copper, boron, iron, zinc, Vitamin A and Vitamin B.
For strong bones, first start with good gut health and nutrition. Get plenty of high quality protein, and fruits and vegetables that are rich in nutrients and anti-oxidants. If you don't get at least 800 mg/day of calcium in your diet, then taking a low dose calcium supplement makes sense, but don't take more than necessary. Of note, healthy bacteria that inhabit the gut make most of the beneficial Vitamin K2. Taking a probiotic is an easy way to replenish beneficial gut bacteria.Studies show that most Americans are deficient in Vitamin D and K2, and that supplementing helps build stronger bones and prevent fractures. The only way to ensure you have adequate Vitamin D is to get a blood test - then take enough to get ideal blood levels. Recent reports consider a healthy Vitamin D level to be >50 nmol/L but many experts consider 70-100 nmol/L to be ideal. Vitamin D3 is the type normally made in the skin and is recognized as the best form to supplement. Vitamin K2 intake of at least 45 mcg/day appears adequate for bone and artery health. A good quality multi-vitamin will ensure adequate amounts of the other vitamin and mineral co-factors.One of the most powerful tools to help keep strong bone is hormone replacement therapy or HRT, for both men and women. This is a contentious area of practice but the evidence just keeps growing that shows HRT prevents disease, including osteoporosis, and that bioidentical HRT is the most safe and effective treatment. Similarly, treating hormone imbalances, such as high cortisol or low thyroid is critical for bone health.Last, remember exercise builds strong bones. Not so much the aerobic type such as walking, but more so the strength-building exercises that build strong muscles. Core exercises and activities such as yoga are particularly helpful. Scott Rollins, M.D., is board certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call 970-245-6911 for appointments or more information.