While many people take calcium supplements to strengthen their bones, they may be harming their hearts in the process, according to alarming new research that raises questions about supplements that most doctors had long-considered safe.
You might be thinking, Isn’t there anything that’s safe? Now calcium is supposed to be hurting me?!
So here’s what’s going on. In a recent study that was performed in Germany, researchers asked participants to report how often they ate certain foods and took certain supplements. Then they collected information about these people’s health over the following 11 years, on average.
Result: Researchers discovered that people who took calcium supplements along with other supplements had an 86% increased risk for heart attack compared with those who did not take any type of supplements. And those who took calcium supplements only—and no other types of supplements—fared even worse. They had a 139% increased risk, compared with those who did not take any type of supplements.
So, on the surface, it appears that calcium supplements caused heart attacks.
But wait a minute. Is it possible, instead, that participants in the study who were already at higher risk for heart attack—and knew it—were the ones most likely to take supplements, including calcium, to try to improve their health? When I put that question to the study’s lead researcher Sabine Rohrmann, PhD, MPH, she said that she and her colleagues controlled for cardiovascular risk factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, so that’s not likely the case.
Then researchers also examined the heart attack risk among participants who got calcium solely from food. (This included foods that contain calcium naturally and foods that are fortified with calcium, though fortified foods aren’t common in Germany.) And these results only added another layer of mystery. Participants who got moderately high amounts of calcium specifically from dairy products had about a 30% lower heart attack risk than those who got very little calcium from food. But this risk reduction was not seen—in fact, no association was seen, positive or negative—among participants who got their calcium only from nondairy foods.
What explains that? The researchers think that there might be helpful (but as yet unknown) nutrients in dairy foods that explain their association with fewer heart attacks.
HARDENING ARTERIES ALONG WITH BONES
Dr. Rohrmann theorized that when taken as a supplement—especially if it’s not taken along with food—calcium enters the bloodstream too quickly for our bodies to deal with all of it healthfully. Instead, some of this calcium may calcify the blood vessels, which hardens them and makes them more prone to blockage.
In other words, too much of a good thing becomes a very bad thing.
Therefore, taking supplemental calcium with meals, or perhaps even with other supplements, may be safer than taking calcium alone, according to Dr. Rohrmann’s study, but her findings suggest that getting calcium from your food is the safest of all options.
TOSS THE SUPPLEMENTS?
We all need calcium for good bone health (among other reasons), of course. But Dr. Rohrmann argues that calcium supplements are—based on our current knowledge—just too risky to be worth taking for most people, especially when it isn’t very hard to get lots of calcium from foods that are rich in the nutrient, particularly dairy products such as yogurt, milk, and cheese.
It’s important to note, though, that there are different kinds of dairy products—there are those that are made with cow’s milk and there are those that come from other sources, such as goat’s and sheep’s milk. Regular Daily Health News contributor Andy Rubman, ND, founder of the Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines in Southbury, Connecticut, has found that many of his patients are particularly sensitive to cow’s milk products. If that’s the case for you, you may be better able to tolerate dairy products made from sheep’s or goat’s milk.
And people who are sensitive to or allergic to all dairy can get lots of calcium from many green vegetables, including spinach, collard greens, broccoli, turnip greens, kale and celery. Men ages 19 to 70 should consume 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day…men ages 71 and older should consume 1,200 mg…for women ages 19 to 50, 1,000 mg…and for women ages 51 and older, 1,200 mg, according to the US National Institutes of Health.
This research on calcium supplements and heart disease is brand new, and follow-up needs to be done to confirm and deepen the results. So talk to your doctor(s)—ideally an MD as well as a naturopathic doctor or ND—before doing anything drastic, especially if you have a calcium deficiency…if you can’t consume dairy…or if you are at high risk for osteoporosis.
And as more research comes out on this controversial topic, you can bet that I’ll keep you posted.