Of all the supplements that my patients take, calcium supplementation for osteoporosis prevention is one of the most popular. Many have been told to take calcium by their doctors.
In all my years of practice, I have not routinely recommended calcium supplementation. When I do, it is only for those who, either in our office or at a bone density testing center, have been diagnosed with severe osteoporosis. I would not recommend calcium to someone with osteopenia, and certainly not to anyone else who was worried about bone health.
I have however, been a strong advocate of vitamin D. Among the many functions of vitamin D and the one that was known long before others were discovered, is to aid the absorption of calcium from the gastrointestinal tract.
Here’s the kicker. The active form of vitamin D is the form that does all the important stuff like cancer prevention and balancing the immune system. This is not the supplement form of vitamin D. One of the strongest triggers for the body to convert the supplement / sunshine form of vitamin D into the active form is a dip in calcium levels in the bloodstream.
To put this in reverse, if you have plenty of dietary calcium (such as taking calcium supplements) your body has no need to produce the active, more potent form of vitamin D. This means you may not get the best benefits from vitamin D.
Which includes the ability to protect the heart. Which brings us to this particular study. In it, researchers looked at 190 premenopausal and 182 postmenopausal women with cholesterol issues and gave them either 800 mg of calcium per day or a placebo for 2 years and checked them for a variety of heart disease risk factors. Here’s what they found:
- Total cholesterol levels increased in the calcium supplementation group.
- Carotid intima media thickness, a measurement of how much plaque you have in the blood vessels of the neck, increased (not a good thing).
The research is very solid that, in someone who has a good dietary intake of calcium (not from dairy–sources like green leafy vegetables and nuts), calcium supplementation has no benefit on bone density and risk of osteoporosis. This information is now years old, so if your doctor continues to recommend calcium supplementation and you don’t have osteoporosis, it’s time to find a new one that actually reads medical literature.
The results of this study just reaffirms that you should NOT be supplementing with calcium. Save your money and spend it on vitamin D and broccoli instead.